Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Commanding Excellence" by Gary Morton - Studies In Leadership That Matters In The Military and In The Business World

"Commanding Excellence" by Gary Morton is a brilliant parallel analysis of excellence in leadership in the military and in the business world. Over the course of his career as a tank officer in the Army, and as a medical device executive with Stryker, Morton had the privilege of serving under two extraordinary leaders. In the case of Task Force 4-68, the leader was Lt. Colonel Alfred L. Dibella. At Stryker, it was CEO John W. Brown. Mr. Morton, a distinguished graduate of West Point, does a very effective job of painting a clear picture of the leadership traits and techniques that allowed both Dibella and Brown to extract extraordinary levels of performance and achievement from the troops that they led.

In the case of Task Force 4-68, Dibella took a group that had been rated as one of the poorest tank units in the U.S. Army, and transformed them into a fighting machine that set records in defeating Opposition Forces 9 out of 9 times in the grueling National Training Center battle simulations in the Mojave Desert. The achievement of that unprecedented perfect record was no accident. The commander had set 9/9 as a goal from the beginning of his time in leadership with the 4-68. Over the course of several months, he worked with each member of the unit to achieve this extraordinary level of perfection. Elements of his leadership style included Absolute Clarity of Purpose, Empowered Obsession, and Unleashing Creativity. He understood that in order to achieve the unit's goal of 9/9 against the OpFor, they would have to break some tried and true rules of how tanks prepare for battle and engage in battle. He and his team developed a playbook that essentially boiled complex tactics and maneuvers down into six basic plays, and they drilled every possible permutation of those plays until each man understood his role under every circumstance. Lt. Colonel Dibella gave explicit permission to his soldiers to be creative, and to risk making mistakes. He backed them up when it came time to write the evaluations, giving the highest marks to those who innovated, and taught those innovations to others.

In like manner, Stryker CEO John W. Brown set a goal for the company to achieve at least 20% growth each year. Every employee was taught that mantra upon being hired, and it was drilled into them every day in a multitude of ways. The result was a stunning track record of 28 straight years of growth for each quarter. Although Brown's leadership style and personality were distinctly different from Dibella, in his pwn way, he used the same building blocks to set his team and his company up for unusual levels of success. He made it abundantly clear that failure to achieve 20% growth was not an option, he and his teams obsessed over how to overcome obstacles, and he freed individuals up to be creative in solving problems in R&D, manufacturing and sales.

In both cases, the pressure to succeed was relentless, as was the commitment to assess all weakness and find ways to overcome them. The book's subtitle is an excellent summary of the ethos of both Task Force 4-68 and of Stryker: "Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters."

The author shares a very personal vignette that highlights the brilliance of Brown's leadership at Stryker. Morton was being asked to consider taking on an assignment that he was reluctant to accept.. There was an urgent need to solve a critical problem within the Patient Care Division, and Morton was asked by his direct boss, and by Mr. Brown, to undertake the daunting assignment. Here is how Morton recalls the pivotal exchange with Brown:

"Brown met with me in his corner office at the building by the airport. The conversation was short, cordial, and focused. Wrapping it up, Brown said something along the lines of 'I would like you to go into that office next door and think about it, then call Harry and let him know whether you will be joining Patient Care.'

. . . As I sat down in the adjoining office, next to the phone was one of those multi photo wooden frames. At the bottom was an engraving that read 'Stryker's Champions of Innovation.' In the frame were pictures of Dr. Stryker, William Chang (VP of R&D for Endoscopy), Jim Evans (VP of R&D for Instruments), and two of the ingenious R&D and science leaders from Osteonics.

In the last frame was my picture.

Being grouped with these incredible engineers and scientists was both humbling and inspiring. I was hooked and made the call to Carmitchel immediately. John Brown knew that truly engaging people is not about commanding them to do something; it is about getting them to command themselves to do it." (pp. 160-1)

The book is full of examples like this of how both Brown and Dibella engaged individuals and teams to command themselves to achieve unimagined levels of excellence and perfection. I look forward to sharing this powerful book with leaders in business and the military. The lessons that Morton has shared are equally applicable in both worlds.



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