What is it about you that makes you the leader among your team? Why do the people that work with and for you do what they do with you? Why will some people work with you or choose to put in 100% versus do just enough to not get fired? What is it that enables you to get the best out of those on whom you depend to grow your company – the people?
I learned something about the answers to these questions during my first career – as an Army Officer.
I joined the Army in 1990, about six months before the start of the civil war. I am often asked by people who know that both my parents were Christian missionaries, teachers and university professors with no history of military experience in their careers, why I joined the Army. Sometimes I playfully tell them my army aspirations were created by my experience as a 12-year old boy when I was held up at gun-point by a drunk and high Ghanaian soldier at Kotoka International Airport in the early days of the PNDC military junta rule in the early 1980’s. I was guilty of the gross legal infraction of taking an illegal short-cut: running up the grass to get from the car parking lot to the arrivals area of the airport instead of walking an extra 90 yards to get to the concrete stairway to get to the same area. My mother was apoplectic as she saw her son being held at gunpoint by a soldier whose breath alone was a weapon of mass destruction, struggling to maintain his balance, pointing the working end of a military assault weapon on her adolescent son and ordering him to pump and run up and down the stairs. Thankfully, the soldier’s inebriation did not affect his motor skills and he did not inadvertently fire off a bullet.
To set the stage for the story, I need to let you in on the state of the Sierra Leone Army around the time of the story. In 1990, when the Sierra Leone civil war started as little more than a cross-border skirmish initiated by Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh in a bid for control of valuable diamonds to fund Taylor’s battle for Liberia, the Sierra Leone Army was composed of 3000 personnel; a largely ceremonial army that had been defanged by a long term President (Siaka Stevens) whose distrust of the army stemmed from his early days as a President in 1967 when he had been deposed by the army. By 1994, due to a military coup that vaulted the army back in political power and the demands of fighting a civil war, the army had ballooned in size from 3,000 people to over 10,000 personnel. This was due to large intakes of new personnel that were authorized by the military government (NPRC), to support the battle against the rebels (RUF). The RUF or Revolutionary United Front, started as a group of Sierra Leoneans which led National Patriotic Front of Liberia elements across the border in an attempt to replicate Charles Taylor’s earlier success in toppling the Liberian government. The RUF was created by Foday Sankoh, a former corporal in the Sierra Leone Army who had been previously jailed for his suspected involvement in a previous coup attempt in 1969. Unfortunately recruiting people into the army in wartime is hard to do, and the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Force (RSLMF), in their bid to find sufficient soldiers to fight, started to recruit ex-convicts and prisoners to join the Army, and to provide alcohol, cannabis, and cigarettes as “morale-boosting” rations to the soldiers. This had a negative impact on unit, individual, and organizational discipline in the Army, and the problem was not helped by the fact that rifles and ammunition were made freely available to military personnel. Additionally, the practice of adding soldiers to units mid-stream, changing and moving officers from one unit to another conspired to ensure that there was very little unit integrity which, when combined with the indiscipline and the lack of training, left the RSLMF, despite its overwhelming numerical and firepower advantage over the RUF, incapable of defeating the RUF. The indiscipline in the Army was not limited to the enlisted soldiers’ ranks. Army officers were equally guilty and culpable. Theft of army equipment, theft of soldiers’ rations, insubordination, rape, alcoholism, and looting was rife among officers in the war front and permeated down the ranks. One of the unfortunate practices of the Sierra Leone Army that propagated this indiscipline was the practice of paying soldiers in cash. Officers would leave their duty station and travel to the Army Headquarters in Freetown to collect their salaries and the salaries of the soldiers in their unit. They would then proceed to mis-appropriate the salaries of some of the soldiers in their unit, and then claim that the money was never paid to them, or that the money may have been mistakenly appropriated to another officer in another unit. The non-use of electronic tracking, combined with poor record-keeping, made tracking these monies a near-impossibility. Soldiers would go months without pay, and this negatively impacted discipline and encouraged unit desertion. Eventually, the soldiers started to suspect that their officers were misappropriating their money and occasionally exacted their revenge on their officers in the fog of war through fratricide. Officers discovered that while it was relatively easy to get soldiers to do their bidding during peace-time because of their rank, it was more difficult to achieve this in war time, and during a battle, with bullets flying about, it was near impossible.
In 1994, after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point as an Army officer I returned to Sierra Leone which was in the middle of a civil war, and was immediately thrust into a civil war that was created by and exacerbated by a crisis of leadership. In 1994, Within a few weeks of my arrival, I was assigned to combat duty and recognized that I could not depend on the vast majority of the soldiers to be competent at handling themselves in battle. Many of them had not even fired a weapon in basic training and could not shoot straight even when they were sober! I needed to adapt to survive and thrive. At that time, it was common and accepted practice for officers to have one or two bat-men (lower ranked soldiers that acted as personal assistants – ironing clothes, running errands, shining shoes for their officer). I recruited five bat-men and told them that I did not want them shining my shoes: I trained them to be my elite fighting unit – we trained together, worked on offensive and defensive formations and drills together, taught them how to fire their weapons properly, and developed a trust in each other. We learned defensive tactics, including trench digging, trench warfare, night fighting, getting behind enemy lines, fields of fire, hand to hand combat, personal hygiene, weapon cleaning, weapon maintenance, weapon assembly and disassembly, and a host of other important skills. We practiced these skills before we got into combat and then later cemented our trust in each other in combat by successfully taking on larger forces, especially at night when numerical advantages are harder to ascertain. I got to know them personally, took an interest in their lives outside of the military work, took care of their personal, social, family, and professional needs in various ways and they developed a strong allegiance and trust in me and in each other. This happened quickly – within a few months – because I was intentional about making it happen.. Outside of the elite five, I also developed a reputation as an army officer who did not steal or misappropriate his soldiers’ rations, so even my company of 120 men started to grow in size as soldiers from other units asked to join my unit or simply took their own command decision to join my unit. (this was possible in the mess that was our personnel structure, which could hardly keep track of the movement of soldiers in and out of units, and also those who died on the battlefield).
About a year into my war experience – in 1995, I was shot. With bullets. Twice (same day, same hour, same minute).
If you have not been shot before – never had the experience of a 7.62 mm piece of lead perforating your body, I assure you that it is not a fun or rewarding experience – the movies make it look so glamorous! It’s not. On the day when I was shot, we were trying to outflank the enemy who had engaged us while we were out on a reconnaissance mission with approximately 30 soldiers. We appeared to be outnumbered, and I decided to attempt a flanking movement. To complete the movement, I needed to move across a dangerous area of exposure in order to get adjacent to and slightly behind the enemy’s lines. While moving across a ‘dead zone’ (an area with little protection and great exposure) I was hit by two bullets. My location was compromised and because I was out front, getting to me was extremely risky for my troops. From their perspective, it would have made better sense, risk-wise, to leave me in my bloodied state on the battlefield to die of the blood loss that was already happening and obvious to a casual observer. Yet, three of my bat-men laid down covering fire while one of them ran through a hail of bullets to reach me, pick me up and carry me back to safety and eventually to a hospital. Later, when I asked him (and the others) why they risked their lives to get me out of there, their answer was simple and direct: “Sir, you are our leader. You have always been good to us. We could not leave you out there.“
In an Army where indiscipline was rife, where fratricide against officers was common, not only did my soldiers not abandon me in a crisis, but they risked their personal interest to ensure that my needs were met and the unit stayed intact. Why?
I had many weeks of surgeries, hospitalization, rehabilitation, and physical therapy to ponder on the answer to this question. As I reflected on this and listened to my unit talk about what happened, I realized that the answer was so simple that it was hiding in plain sight. The soldiers respected me – yes, for my rank; yes, for the fact that I knew military tactics; and yes, for my physical prowess – but none of that mattered when I was a bloody mess lying helpless and paralyzed on the battlefield in a condition that was arguably better left for dead. The reason why they risked their own lives for me was because of who I had become to them as a person, not as an army officer; they risked their lives because I had invested in building and securing theirs, and because they believed that I was willing to risk my life for them and for the mission that we were engaged in. I was not an armchair officer. I did not ask anything of my soldiers that I was not willing to personally give. I took the time to get to know them – their fears, their aspirations, their dreams, their strengths, their weaknesses. I built on their skills through training, and did not exploit their weaknesses against them. I constantly reminded them about what we were fighting for, and the larger mission that was bigger than any of us. I did not betray their trust by cheating them, putting my interests first, or showing an unwillingness to take the same level of risk that I was asking of them. I disciplined myself even as I demanded discipline from them.
After transitioning from military leadership to business leadership, I have come to realize that the same principles of success in leadership apply, especially in a crisis. Like rocks hidden by high water levels, our leadership failings during “peacetime” (ie, when business is good, the economy is okay, competition is steady and manageable and customers are reliable) can fool us into thinking that we are great leaders when people may be following us solely for our job position, description, official position, or because they receive a paycheck. However, when the crisis occurs – whether it be a bad economic crisis (business is bad, cash flow is tight) or whether it be a good economy crisis (your best staff have many more options of places to work and new investors are wooing them), the cracks in our leadership may start to show. It is at those times that we may realize that we need to have invested in the relationships that leadership feeds upon. People don’t quit companies. They quit their bosses. People don’t give 100% because they have to; it is because they want to. They give 30% – 60% because they have to, in order to not get sacked. In today’s competitive world, as Africa becomes more connected and competitive, we need our people to be their best and give their best, because it will impact our business. The determinant of whether or not they give their best or least, whether they stay or they go, lies with you, the leader, and the quality of the leadership relationship that you have chosen to create with your people.
All of Africa needs its leaders at every level to do better, be better, and groom better. If we are going to leave a better continent for our grandchildren than the one our grandparents left for us, we must aspire to and take concrete steps to becoming better leaders tomorrow than we are today. We have to invest in our own leadership capacity and performance, invest in the quality of the relationships we have with our direct reports and invest in developing them to be better leaders themselves. And time is not on our side. We are facing a continental crisis. By 2034, Africa will have a working age population of 1.1 billion people, larger than China’s or India’s working age population. This demographic change will either be a boon for us or a nightmare, depending on the kind of leaders we are and we develop, to create the jobs and skills development opportunities that these young people will demand.
So, let me circle back to my original question: What is it about you that makes you the leader among your team of direct reports? Why do the people that work directly with and for you do what they do with you?