I was immersed in a nine-day field training exercise in Georgia. The weather rotated between hot/humid and violent thunderstorms. I still do not quite understand why the weather got even more humid after it rained cats and dogs, but in Georgia, in mid-summer, that is the way it was.
I was commanding a battalion of approximately 800 Soldiers and was task-organized with a variety of capabilities. I had mechanized infantry, armor, engineers, and indirect fire assets. I even had attack aviation that I could call into action.
For an infantry battalion commander, I was in hog heaven. My time was spent circulating from one unit to another, coaching and mentoring company commanders and platoon leaders, and checking in with the Soldiers. I wanted to make sure our outfit was maximizing this valuable training opportunity the Army provided to us.
My Brigade Commander came upon me as I was making comments to about 100 Soldiers from one of my infantry companies who had just performed an attack on an objective. A trainer had just conducted a lessons-learned session with them, and I was providing a few observations.
After the session, the brigade commander came up to me and complimented me on my muddy boots. He said my muddy boots made it evident I was doing what a good leader needed to do by getting out with the troops.
This conversation has stayed with me. I now call this “muddy boots” leadership. I use that term both literally and figuratively. It is the equivalent of management by walking around. It is about getting out to see one’s followers and looking into their eyes and hearing their voices to understand not only what they were saying but what they were feeling. It means communicating vision and purpose face to face, so followers not only read about your intent but hear what you are thinking.
It is also about demonstrating to followers that you care enough to visit their workplace and listen to what they say their challenges are. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that you are willing to remove obstacles that stand in your follower’s way of getting a job done effectively. It provides the boss with an opportunity to display empathy and provides an opportunity to pat a teammate on the back or shake their hand for a job well done.
It also speaks to allowing oneself to show vulnerability as a leader by getting out where the action is. It is about answering questions and addressing issues. Muddy boots leadership is about having the courage to make decisions and to empower others to make decisions within their authority.
As a leader in the Army, I learned that circulating throughout the unit I led was critical to find out what was really going on. As a leader gains promotions in any organization, whether it be military or civilian, one gets further removed from the grassroots of an organization.
The higher up an organizational ladder goes, usually the staff surrounding that leader grows. There are many artificial walls that get constructed which prevent a leader from gaining ground truth. Some staffs think it is their job to keep problems away from a leader. The leader’s ability to circulate through an organization is in direct proportion to a leader gaining an understanding of what is really going on at the line worker level.
I felt it was essential that I get out on the ground to see things with my own eyes. However, I counseled my staff to do the same thing. Since I received recommendations from my staff, I wanted them to gain ground truth information too.
The same applies to business. Business leaders should insist that the staff personnel who surround a business leader such as Human Resource Directors, Operations directors, logisticians, and the like get out to subordinate business units and factories to get a view of what is going on at the grassroots level too.
I was at a factory and noticed many of the executives in the adjacent office building rarely stepped out on the factory floor. I made a recommendation to the plant manager that his leadership team spend some time out with the employees and it made a huge impact in terms of improving communication, improving an understanding of front-line worker issues, and growing trust.
I also learned through observing senior leaders and through having good mentors that it was important not only to circulate but to talk the walk. While engaging followers it is important to communicate your intentions clearly and to communicate it every chance you get. Communicating intent is about telling your followers what is important to you. It involves talking about the values you expect all members of the organization to live by. You must explain what the greater purpose of the organization is and let your teammates know what your imperatives are.
Bottom line is that leaders are extremely busy. If leaders oversee large distributed organizations, they must make the most of their engagements as they circulate through the company. Leaders must prepare the message they want to get out to their followers as they visit work sites. Be prepared for what you want to talk to your employees about to make the most of your visits.
There are many military historical examples where the lack of battlefield circulation on the part of a leader led to disaster. Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall led from the rear at the battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa during WWII and this led to an embarrassing American defeat to German Forces there. Fredendall maintained his headquarters in a bunker well to the rear during the battle and did not have the situational awareness to make critical decisions when required and this led to failure.
Maj. Gen. Cota, the commanding general of the 28th Infantry Division during WWII was guilty of the same type of leading from the rear during the 28th’s fighting in the Huertgen Forest in November 1944. Cota did not venture forward from his Division command post, and the 28th Infantry Division sustained over 6,000 casualties in just several days fighting in the Huertgen.
This was unusual for Cota who displayed great courage on D-Day during the Normandy invasion as he led from the front during the horrific fighting on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. That goes to show the impact of a leader’s presence.
A mentor of mine told me that the personal presence of a leader is probably the greatest key to influencing the action once a plan has been put into motion. A leader’s presence demonstrates to one’s followers the importance of the work at hand. When the leader is where the action is, they are then positioned to motivate others and make timely adjustments when necessary.
You can learn a great deal by observing others. A few years ago, I was doing some consulting work for a large utility company. I noticed that some directors and vice-presidents spent their time either in their offices or conference rooms. I very seldom saw them circulated through their department talking to the people who worked for them. These were the leaders who usually had dysfunctional departments.
Conversely, the business leaders who made a point to walk and talk to their employees were more successful. You cannot get a good feel for how an organization is doing by reading a spreadsheet. You get that feel by interacting with those you lead.
When I commanded a brigade in Ramadi, I circulated through our area of operations frequently visited units and hearing directly from my subordinate commanders as well as the Soldiers who were at the tip of the spear. I found this to be important for two basic reasons.
First, it provided me a great deal of information and insight. I could learn and gain situational understanding more readily by seeing the ground our operations were occurring on and meeting Soldiers eyeball to eyeball.
Secondly, because Ramadi was a dangerous and unforgiving environment, being out there with the Soldiers and sharing the risk bolstered Soldier morale and cultivated trust. It provided me credibility. When I made decisions, the Soldiers knew I was doing that based on what I saw and experienced rather than what I read in a report. The Soldiers also knew I considered the feedback they were giving me prior to making a decision.
When I visit subordinate leaders, I sometimes use a framework when talking to them. That framework has two elements: risk to mission and risk to force. In the Army we say, mission first, people always and this framework focuses on both. Through my consulting, I found that this framework also works well in business.
Risk to Mission
When I ask about the risk to mission, I like to find out what obstacles might be in the way. I believe that one of the key responsibilities of a leader is to remove obstacles that make it harder for the people who work for me to do their job. To me, it is very fulfilling when I can remove an obstacle. Obstacles take many forms. It could be a policy or a rule that does not make sense.
Another risk to the mission can be constrained resources. This might involve equipment that is required that the unit does not have. I visited a U.S. Army battalion in Poland in 2018 and found that they required a forklift to offload parts and other material they periodically received. A few calls and a couple of weeks later the forklift was delivered to them and they were able to perform their mission more effectively. Many times, relatively simple things do not get fixed if a leader does not get out to visit their people at a work site.
Occasionally, a lack of required training could be the issue. This might involve specialty training someone in the unit is required to attend or it could require getting licensed on a piece of equipment. Again, when a leader is present, many of these problems get solved.
Sometimes the subordinate leader may need a little more guidance from me, or they may have questions for clarification regarding my intent. By conducting a face-to-face visit, a leader can learn a great deal when looking into someone’s eyes and seeing body language.
I have been in many factories. In one of the factories I visited I noticed a great deal of oil spillage around a large furnace used to process steel. It appeared to be very unsafe. I suggested to a supervisor that he make his way over to the area just to look around. I did not mention what I saw. The supervisor took my advice and the next day when I visited the area again the floor was clean, and the safety issue was involved. It is amazing what gets fixed when a leader pays attention and gets around to see the areas their employees are working in..
Risk to Force
The other topic I cover is the risk to the people who are doing the work. I call this risk to force. Usually, this will include safety issues. It might involve personal protective equipment or gear. When I visited units working around heavy equipment, I was always concerned with making sure workers had serviceable gear such as steel-toed boots, eye protection, and hearing protection. Ensure workers have the appropriate gear to help keep them safe is a very real way of showing people you care about them.
Life support items are also something to take a close look at. For units that are deployed this generally includes things such as sleeping arrangements, hygiene facilities, and dining facilities. Again, taking care of these items goes a long way to improve and sustain morale.
In a factory or office setting, ensuring the workers have appropriate restrooms, break areas, and refrigerators and microwaves for preparing meals, are basic life support needs that leaders should be concerned with. When a leader visits these areas and takes a personal interest that employees have some basic things that make the work environment better, it goes a long way in gaining the trust and respect of employees.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Messaging is important when a leader visits subordinate units and workers. Asking about risk to mission and risk to force is important. However, when a leader does detect issues, it is then incumbent on the leader to move heaven and earth to solve problems. A leader really gains credibility when they see an issue and then go about getting it fixed. Promises must be kept. When a leader tells employees, they will adjust a policy or find a piece of equipment they need, follow-through is essential. If a leader fails to keep a promise, they will break trust rather than grow trust.
- Be prepared to communicate key messages when visiting employees.
- Pay close attention to what the workers need to accomplish their tasks and have a better work environment.
Here are examples of questions I have asked when visiting work sites:
- Do you have what you need to achieve your objectives?
- Are there safety concerns?
- Are there any health and welfare concerns?
- Are there any life support concerns?
- How are they developing junior leaders?
- What are they are doing to ensure the workers receive the required training they need?
- What are workers doing to improve their health and their mental and emotional fitness?
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