Danger Close Leadership
"Leadership is the practical application of character”
Fortunately, very few people have the challenge of leading their people into harm’s way as a routine part of their daily business. Unless burns from spilled coffee during an all-night PowerPoint presentation building session count, of course.
It’s probably safe to say that most modern leadership theories and strategies have been developed by academics for utilization by a wide variety of professionals in the business world, and that’s not a bad thing. Most leaders, most of the time, must successfully lead their staff through the complexities presented by the modern organization coming into contact with a variety of challenges presented by the pressing needs of the day.
But what does good leadership look like when people could be killed or seriously injured as a routine part of the job? What can we learn from the human experience in these high risk, high consequence environments that could be shared in a way that informs the development of leaders in other workplaces?
What does good leadership look like in ‘Danger Close’ workplaces?
In addition to being a management consultant I have been an infantry officer, a Danger Close leader, for many years in both a full time and part time capacity. In that time, I have led many people into harm’s way as a routine part of my job during challenging combat preparation focused training events, as well as high intensity counter-insurgency warfare. In my spare time I'm a high attitude climber and adventure outdoorsman. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the most combat experienced, or Banff Mountain Film Festival worthy, guy around by any stretch of the imagination, but this is about as Danger Close as most management consultants like me get these days.
Here are six things I learned about leadership at the wrong side of the safety glass, and how I think these lessons are applicable to almost anyone, anywhere, especially when the right decision is not obvious:
1. Do your job, or die
In less intense leadership environments, some leaders have the opportunity to go the ‘buffet’ of possible daily activities and pick and choose what they would like to do. Bored of working on spreadsheets? Then call a meeting and do some strategic planning. Danger Close leaders work within a strong team environment where everyone knows, and can expertly do, their jobs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work outside of that job if required, but it does mean that your job is well defined within the context of that team and you must do it really, really well, or die. Or others can die.
2. It is never about you
Successful Danger Close leaders never think about themselves. The most apt leadership model in this environment is servant leadership. For example, Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst has trained many thousands of Army Officers to be Danger Close leaders since the 19th century. Its motto? Serve to Lead . In a Danger Close environment the definition of servant leadership is simple. You must make sure that you do some things last like sleep, eat, wash, shave, and phone home after you make sure that everyone else is OK. It also means that you have to do some things first, like jumping first into the most dangerous situations, or taking on your fair share of the dirty jobs even if you think it’s ‘beneath’ you.
3. Everyone needs to know a little about everyone else’s job
Danger Close leaders prepare others to take over from them in case they are killed or injured. This means that you need to train relatively junior people for big responsibilities. In addition, leaders need to be able to stand in if other important members of the team are incapacitated in some way, and this means learning the ropes from the bottom up. Ever see ‘Undercover Boss’? I mean, seriously, how can you run a pizza company of you’ve never made or delivered a pizza before?
4. Character is critical
You need to be known for something. Anything. In high stress environments, people need to connect with each other in ways unknown to those in physically safer occupations in order to survive. Stressed people will connect most meaningfully with each other based on well-known character traits. How you show up as a character will determine whether or not your people will connect with you. Cello players, fitness fanatics, car nuts, all these things are insights into who you really are that people who are literally ‘under the gun’ will connect most meaningfully with. A good sense of humour, and the ability to have fun in some weird situations, is also extremely important because when things get really scary, no one cares how many letters you have after your name on your business card.
5. Be flexible, not indecisive
Sometimes it pays to gather input before you make a decision. Like a herd of Bison harried by a wolf pack, danger wins when group members start to do their own thing. The main job of the Danger Close leader is to make sure that everyone goes in the same direction at the same time. To do that, your job is to make decisions. This can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, especially if lives are at stake, and you will make some bad ones along the way, but the most important thing is to decide.
6. Embrace your inner Radar O’Reilly
I love Radar O'Reilly. On the hit TV series MASH, Radar was the humble clerk that could navigate any amount of red tape to get the right thing done. Usually, he did this through cultivating superior relationships with key, usual humbly positioned, people dotted throughout an otherwise faceless, bureaucratic organization. Danger Close leaders establish and maintain authentic, high quality relationships based on mutual trust and understanding with a wide variety of people, both great and small, in times of calm so that, when the war drums beat, they are able to lean on these supports to get the job done safely and fast.
So what are some of the things that Danger Close leadership styles have to offer the today’s business leaders?
Quite a lot, actually.
When we look at Danger Close leadership, it is clearly a stripped down version of many of the basic traits that define a good leader anywhere such as character, excellence, authenticity, courage, communications, service before self, teamwork, decisiveness and self-knowledge. My advice to you is, when you are in the thick of the maelstrom that is today’s world of work, and you are not sure what path to take, ask yourself the question: “what would a Danger Close leader do in this situation?”.
When a leader’s decisions can cost life and limb, the obvious path always tends to shine out like a beacon through the chaos.