General Norman Schwarzkopf summarised everything he had learned about leadership in his thirty-plus years in the US Army in two rules, one of which he called (for reasons unknown and unexplained) rule number thirteen.
Rule Thirteen was “When in charge, take charge.” In his remarks that evening he emphasised the second phrase – take charge – encouraging his young cadets to think of themselves as leaders, with all that implies about their responsibilities to step up. Schwarzkopf urged them to be courageous and reminded them that they were being trained and educated, at great expense to the taxpayer, to lead others. Using stories from his own experiences, especially as a junior officer, he pointed out that some of their opportunities to lead would be mundane, even boring. Some of them, he promised, would face more dramatic circumstances. This was pre-September 11, 2001, and both of those predictions came true; many of the young men and women who sat before him that night have served multiple tours in combat.
I share Schwarzkopf’s rules for the insights into leading in business. The president of one of our client firms wrote Rule Thirteen in her notes; the next morning, as part of our continuing discussion on leadership, she mentioned that she’d been thinking about both phrases. She saw Schwarzkopf’s point, and she saw something else that resonated with her. The first phrase, “When in charge” is an important qualifier, she’d decided, good advice on its own. “We don’t always have to be in charge,” she said. In fact, when it comes to developing junior leaders in the organisation, there is a real art to determining when you can and should back off and let others make decisions – and even mistakes – as part of their learning process.
Another client included something similar in a draft of his leadership philosophy. I’m paraphrasing, but what I took away was this: Don’t be too quick to impose your way of doing things. There usually are other approaches, and if you don’t encourage people to come up with solutions, they won’t learn how to solve problems.
General Schwarzkopf was clearly on to something in the remarks he made that evening. All of us are attracted by simple pieces of advice, memorable phrases that speak worlds and can help keep us on track. My client was on to something when she mined the general’s zen-like advice for more.