Friday, April 14, 2006

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part VIII: “Flexibility” by Mark Dahl

As I began to think about those I would ask to join me in writing for this series on successful transition from military leadership to business leadership, I knew that I wanted Mark Dahl to be one of the ten leaders who would share his experiences. Mark and I met a couple of years ago through the kindness of our mutual friend, Tom Glass. Mark has been a Top Gun pilot, and in addition to his responsibilities in the realm of financial management, Mark travels widely on behalf of his training and consulting practice, “TopGun Communications." When I asked him which of the ten principles of leadership he would like to address, Mark jumped on “flexibility” as the one the he finds particularly important.

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10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part VIII: “Flexibility” by Mark Dahl

Take Command, by Kelly Perdew
Chapter Eight, “Flexibility: The Person with the Most Varied Responses Wins”

Twenty-four years ago, a newly minted Ltjg. walked into a fleet squadron ready room for the first time. On-board the venerable warship USS Midway, with a long list of questions and a far shorter list of answers, he had no idea what this experience would mean or how successful it would be. One thing was certain; he was now in the big leagues. Surrounded by veteran aviators of all shapes and sizes with varied backgrounds to match, there were questions from minute one as to whether he should even be there…whether he was good enough to be on this playing field.

As I look back on that day in 1982, Subic Bay, The Philippines, I reflect on what a life-changing event was put into motion that morning. I walked into that room a child and left nearly three years later having experienced things I could have only dreamt of. Kelly Perdew has done a great job of capturing that military experience and what it means to crafting success in life. All ten of his principles strike a chord with me, but the one I was most taken by is “Flexibility”. The US military model thrives on – nay, requires - that its members “live to adapt and adapt to live”. Different from the old Soviet bloc and its disciples, where actions “at the point” are controlled from a central command, we are taught to understand and adhere to a set of rules of engagement and be prepared to make the tough call, on the fly, when needed. In the aviation world we call it an envelope, the edges of which are written in blood. Inside this envelope, success is predictable, even likely. But as one pushes the edge, it becomes grayer and more unknown. MBA’s call it “thinking outside the box.” Whatever visual you use, it is at its most central core---Flexibility. As I launch off the pointy end of the carrier and point my nose at the bad guys at 700 knots, to a large degree I have no idea what I am about to encounter. Sure, I’ve briefed this evolution for three hours prior. I’ve thought about it in my quiet moments a thousand times, but in all reality, I am screaming toward my “date with destiny” carrying a big package of unknowns. Who will I face…how many…what weapon loads? What about the airborne conditions…weather, sun angle, my airplane itself? All of this will evolve as I press forward. And what of my opponent? How rested is he? How experienced…how motivated…how committed? I can prepare, and I have. I can be the best trained and most professional of my peers. In the end, how well I use that package, adapt and turn it into performance will determine whether I get to come home and do this again tomorrow. That is the ultimate goal.

Kelly talks about his experiences as both a military officer and a businessman with the same degree of passion and insight. This is the case because they are in so many ways the same. The concept of flexibility is so central to success in both. As officers in the service, we are ultimately problem solvers. Our ability to juggle our daily issues and consistently “get it done” is all that matters to those we follow and lead. Up and down the chain of command, the success of the mission clearly rests on the components of the process handling their tasks without question or hesitation. Lives depend on it. Business may not be quite as dramatic, but there is relative significance none-the-less. Flexibility also takes shape in that very chain of command itself. In the 3 years of my fleet squadron experience, I served under three CO/XO combinations. Each command had it’s own ideas and agenda for how the squadron should be run. In their eyes, they had waited upwards of 13-15 years to get this job. That is…. a job that was only going to last 18 months, so I can’t blame them for finally doing things their way. The resulting effect on all in the chain of command, however, was usually profound. Clearly the ability for all involved to adapt and produce was essential to the sanctity of the overall mission. No one cared about your personal view on the changes at hand…it was all about getting the job done.

Kelly writes of how he applied the concept of Standard Operating Procedures to his successful venture of the Layoff Lounge, that “…if followed by each city director, would guarantee that the event ran smoothly”. That was his standard…his envelope, and until someone had the experience to adjust it, to push it, it was to be followed implicitly. In a nutshell, that is the military experience and the concept of flexibility. It is, as Kelly writes, what the Army excelled at - providing a standardized model to complete missions. What it does not mean, however, is that the military creates robots or mindless followers of orders, as the outside world often perceives. On the contrary, they are focused, committed, highly trained and incredibly creative. The combination of those elements gives rise to the concept of flexibility…an ability to adjust and adapt to the evolving situation, yet never losing sight of the mission at hand. That is, in the end, the job we do and ultimately what makes the military leader such an asset in the non-military world.

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Thank you, Mark.

This series will continue next week with . . . .

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part IX: “Selfless Service” by Terry Schwalier


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