For the last year or so, IBM clients have been sharing insights about their smarter planet solutions in our Leadership Series. But within the company, we have an extraordinary expert on leadership in the person of Jack Beach, a senior consultant with IBM’s leadership development organization for the last 13 years. A former colonel in the United States Army, Jack helped create the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Military Academy. He has also consulted for diplomats, foreign military academies, the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments, and various senior leaders of the US Army and Department of Defense. Most recently, Jack published his memoir, Leadership in My Rearview Mirror: Reflections from Vietnam, West Point, and IBM. Here’s an interview with Jack:
Congratulations on publishing your new memoir. What is the single most important thought you’d like readers to take away about leadership?
People are the ends, not the means to an end. We often define leadership as some variation of “getting work done through others.” Too often work is the operative word. The emphasis should be on others. The good news is that when we focus on others, they, themselves, aspire to perform better. True leaders elevate people’s aspirations, lifting them above their parochial predispositions to pursue common, loftier goals. Leaders help others achieve a deeper sense of self-worth by enabling them to accomplish challenging and worthy objectives. Leaders must see people not as the means to an end but as the desired end. Leaders don’t just want people to do something; they want them to be something.
Among the military leaders you have watched in action, which one was the greatest leader and why?
Too often those we view as great leaders are those in senior positions whom we see only from afar. They become almost mythical characters–and, while their leadership may impact us, our experience with them is indirect and vicarious. I encountered a number of great leaders in the army; not all of them were senior officers.
When I arrived in Vietnam and reported to duty, the first words out of First Sergeant Rogers’ were, “I’m not only the first sergeant but a Baptist deacon. Let me tell you what I will and will not accept in this company!” He let us know that there was only one color in his unit, and that color was green; that if we used drugs, he would do all in his power, of which he assured us he had a great deal, to see we went to jail; and that we were soldiers in combat with a mission to win a war, but that we were also representatives of the United States, and therefore, we would treat civilians with respect. First Sergeant Rogers not only talked the talk, he walked the talk. He ran a very disciplined company. What I learned from that initial encounter with First Sergeant Rogers was to make values clear from the start, in your words and by your actions.
A more senior officer who exemplified the best in leadership was Brigadier General (ret) Howard T. Prince II. Howard was an authentic war hero–severely wounded and highly decorated during the Vietnam conflict. But his most enduring impact as a leader came off the battlefield. After Vietnam, Howard rose through the ranks and became the first Professor and Head of the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership at West Point. From there, he went on to become the founding Dean of the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond. Currently, he holds the Loyd Hackler Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Administration at the University of Texas. Howard had the insight that we do not “find” leaders–we develop leaders.
When Howard was put in charge of the Department of BS&L at West Point, he had a vision; he wanted to build a new culture and a new approach to developing leaders for the post-Vietnam era of all-volunteer military service. While he had a destination, he had no road map to get there, so he built a team and created an environment that brought his vision to fruition. The environment that Howard created allowed his leadership team to think together and act together—and although our discourse was not always dispassionate and our ideas were often at odds, we all trusted one another, had a shared goal, and passionately wanted to achieve our goal. Howard practiced what he came to call “armpit leadership.” We all got up real close and personal. No one waited to see which way the wind was blowing from on high. We were all required to participate.
Howard was willing to be vulnerable. When his ideas were not all that pretty or downright stunk, he expected us to challenge them. Modeling that kind of vulnerability enabled the rest of us to do the same. Ideas flowed in all directions. We listened to each other and rallied behind the most powerful idea–not the most powerful person. We all developed into confident leaders who helped develop a generation of capable officers for the army and have gone on to develop leaders at various academic and private sector organizations.
In business, we assume military leadership is different than civilian leadership because people associate military leadership with top-down command and control. Is that accurate? What can IBM and our clients learn about leadership development by better understanding the military model?
IBM and industry in general can learn a great deal about leadership and leadership development from the military—but not because there is a military model of leadership and an IBM model. At its core, good leadership in both the military and civilian organizations is about building trust, developing organizational capability, elevating aspirations, and empowering others to succeed. Furthermore, although the perception of “top-down command and control” may be accurate, peoples’ understanding of what that entails is not.
On the surface leadership in the military and leadership in IBM look different. In the military, each service member wears a uniform with his or her rank clearly visible, and people give orders, exchange salutes, and execute orders in a very focused manner. The mission of the armed forces is unique—ultimately, it is the controlled application of violence, which it performs on a stage where the whole world can see its leadership successes and failures. Because of the world stage and the unique mission, the well-earned perception of good order and discipline is essential for the comfort of our nation, our allies—and for the discomfort of those who would do us harm. But discipline within the military is not a mindless execution of orders. The American soldier would not function effectively under those conditions nor would any military.
So, what can the private sector learn from the military? First, the military has a maniacal focus on leadership development. All members of the armed forces need to be technically and tactically proficient, and they need to be able to think and adapt. From the day men and women enter the service they are not only learning skills but they are also being put in leadership roles and getting a lot of feedback on their performance. Very young and junior people are fed responsibility, held accountable, and coached on their performance. There is regular talent movement. The military understands that follower and leader are flip sides of the same coin, and that a follower must be ready to lead at any given moment should the coin come up heads instead of tails. So, one thing the private sector can learn from the military is to have a maniacal focus on leadership that includes, giving responsibility early and often, providing feedback and coaching, and moving talent systematically and regularly. IBM has learned this lesson pretty well.
Second, the military instills a sense of purpose and builds bonds. Members of the military are inspired to serve the nation by being made to understand the worthiness of the cause. Being in the military is not just what they do; it is part of who they are. At IBM, we convert people “who work for IBM” into IBMers.
Third, the military employs principle-base leadership. What is most misunderstood about military leadership is the nature of the “top-down command and control.” The military leads by conceptual controls not rigid compliance to restrictive rules. Members must know senior command’s intent and the boundaries within which they can operate to achieve it. Service members, even in their late teens and early twenties, are given significant leadership responsibilities and operate in dispersed units. They are expected and required to use their judgment, make decisions, and adapt with agility to the circumstances they confront. IBM’s Leadership Framework and Competencies encourage our leaders to do the same, and we are working to push decision making deeper and wider in the organization.
According to IBM’s recent survey of more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, chief executives believe that — more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision — successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity. What’s your perspective on the relationship between leadership and creativity?
Leaders themselves don’t necessarily have to be creative. But one of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to build environments that encourage, empower, and reward creativity. Disciplined execution of best practices is requisite to any company. But what distinguishes leadership from good management is a concurrent focus on execution of best practices and innovation—next practices. Today more rapidly than ever, organizations are moving into an uncertain and unknowable future. To help their organization deal with the greater uncertainty and increased ambiguity, leaders must create environments in which ideas flow—in all directions. People must listen to and rally around the most powerful ideas, not necessarily the most powerful individual. Work environments rigidly structured by lines on the organizational chart destroy initiative and breed passivity. The best hope for vitality and creativity within large organizations is to let people voice their ideas and to have those ideas listened to and championed.
Creating a smarter planet in many cases requires leadership skills, for example, the ability to lead disparate groups to a common goal, one that in many cases requires a fundamental cultural change within the organization (for example, in healthcare, using analytics to help diagnose patients). For today’s leaders, is this a new type of skill because of all the complexity confronting leaders today? How can we identify and foster the necessary skills, whether new or old?
Good leadership involves understanding human behavior and the human spirit. In that respect good leadership has been the same for the past several millennia and will be fundamentally the same for the next several. Still, being a good leader today is more difficult and the consequences of being a bad one greater than ever before.
Given the global scope of business organizations such as IBM and the advances in technology, business leaders operate in environments that are more complex—more abstract, volatile, uncertain and diverse–than at any time in the past. They interact with increased organizational levels, vertically and horizontally. The need to lead virtually is much greater. And, the stakes are high. Leaders depend on a lot of folks to get things done—many of whom they don’t know well or don’t know at all. The people in the field are depending on their leaders in different ways too. People used to depend on “bosses” to tell them what to do and to see that they had the resources to do it, and the people in the field were accountable for execution. It’s not that easy anymore. It’s impossible for today’s business leader to know all that is going on, and to know it in time to respond quickly enough to achieve the organization’s goals.
Sam Palmisano has said we need to shift the control of decision-making to the IBMer, and he is right. There is just too much going on too fast for the people at the top to make all the decisions—or even to know what decisions to make. So, business leaders now need to concentrate on shaping the organizational climate to one that encourages and enables subordinate leaders to take initiative and that fosters high-performing and deeply engaged units and teams. Creating such a climate would have been good leadership in the past, but doing so today is essential.
IBM has already taken steps to identify and foster the leadership skills needed to confront the current and future complexity of creating a smarter planet. In 2009, IBM articulated a leadership framework, and in 2010, a new set of competencies was included in that framework. This framework and those competencies are what our best judgment and data indicate will equip all IBMers to move successfully into the future.
In your work developing IBM’s executive leaders for the last thirteen years, has there been a course that consistently has created a leadership ‘epiphany’ for developing leaders? Can you share what that course is and why it has that impact?
The goal of all of our leadership courses is to bring leaders at all stages of development to new understandings of the role they need to play and how to play it. We want them to experience an identity crisis each time they participate in a program. But I think BBIL for new IBM leaders and AccEL for new executives are the most important programs. They are the times when we help newly identified leaders to recognize the changed expectations that the company has for them and that they should have for themselves as they make the transition into the role of manager or executive.
The metaphor we use for the IBM Competencies is an iceberg. At or above the waterline are a person’s knowledge and skills. Deeper in the iceberg are things such as their motives, assumptions, self-image, and social role. These are all in play, but often they are not recognized. To be good leaders our motives have to be other-directed not self-directed. And our senses of identity and social role have to change—and that is not easy. For example, if you see yourself as an engineer, your expectations of yourself are different than if you see yourself as a manager. Similarly, if others see you as an engineer, their expectations of you are different than if they see you as a manager. New managers and executives have to understand that the company is no longer depending on them as engineers or as any other specific profession. IBM is no longer depending on their degrees and what they learned in school. Rather, the company is counting on what they have learned and how they have matured as people as they have taken on successively increased responsibilities.
The participants in these programs come to realize that IBM is now expecting them to be a manager or executive and a leader. Because of the pride they have in their former identity and the success it has brought them, too many new managers and executives continue to think of themselves as engineers, accountants, lawyers, or whatever their area of professional expertise was. They see their managerial responsibilities as secondary. In BBIL and AccEL programs, attendees come to appreciate that when IBM puts them in positions of leadership, it has placed a special trust and confidence in them and implicitly, if not explicitly, has charged them to develop the human resources entrusted to them—and by doing so, multiply their impact on IBM. Participants leave these programs taking their responsibility as leaders seriously.
From your three “tours of duty,” can you share one leadership anecdote that stands out for you?
The anecdote that my wife thinks most emblematic of me is the chapter entitled “Leader of Rebels,” in which I attempt to instill discipline and a sense of purpose in a platoon of unruly soldiers, but all of the experiences in the book have made lasting impressions on me. If I had to choose one or two, I would choose “Just Names” and “On Leadership and Kite Flying,” because of the depth of feelings they evoke. Some of the events in “Just Names” occurred over 40 years ago, yet I cried when I wrote it and still do when I read it. “On Leadership and Kite Flying,” is a sweet memory. I smiled when I wrote it, and it will forever bring a smile to my face when I think of the experience. These events show that we can draw leadership lessons from sad experiences with people we disdain and from fun experiences with people we love.
Who can benefit from reading Leadership in My Rearview Mirror?
Like many authors, I hope this book has mass appeal. I would like to think it is for people who aspire to be leaders, leaders who want to be better, and people who simply enjoy good stories. The book is not focused on any narrow field. It is relevant to business managers and executives and people in nonprofit organizations, government, and military service and parents and teachers and all the “ordinary people” who, by choice or happenstance, are in positions in which their ideas and character are likely to influence the thoughts and actions of other “ordinary people,” and bring about extraordinary results.