The Special Operations community, like history itself, is filled with stories of leadership associated with crisis. Special Forces Operational Detachment, Alpha (ODA) 595, made famous in the film 12 Strong, is a fitting example. We tend to associate historical figures with leadership, General George Washington, President Roosevelt, the Generals of WWII, Queen Elizabeth, Steve Jobs, and on and on. There’s no argument that these are potent examples of strategic leadership. As influential as senior leaders are, they’re removed from where most leadership is practiced daily, in the trenches. Senior leaders provide vision, clarify priorities, and set the culture of their organizations. Junior leaders influence the company to achieve the goals established by senior commanders. It’s essential to know that setting and achieving goals require two vastly different approaches to leadership.
Who are your front-line leaders, and what are they doing for your company?
Look at where you work; there’s only one CEO, but potentially hundreds of team leaders, supervisors, and managers. Harvard Business Publishing estimates frontline leaders comprise 50 to 60 percent of an organization’s leadership. All your initial entry employees have a front-line leader. Collectively, these leaders, by proximity and engagement, have more influence on a company than the CEO ever will. Outside of your organization, the CEO or president is the face of the organization. Inside, the front-line leader represents who the company is to your workforce. They’re responsible for:
- Initial training and cultural indoctrination
- Employee engagement and development
- Team building and cohesion
- Career management
These responsibilities are cited as “important” to employee satisfaction and retention. For the organization, they are personally responsible for productivity which means profits.
What does leadership look like at this level?
To the employee, front-line leadership is everything. These leaders are the embodiment of the organizational culture. They alone create a sense of inclusion, importance, and value for their teams. They set the example of what right looks like and hold their teams accountable. Front-line leaders set the company’s tone, exemplify the values, and find alignment between individual and organizational priorities.
One of the essential things a front-line leader will do is to advocate for their people. Employees know when their supervisor has their back and when they’re being thrown under the bus. Front-line leaders must balance productivity with development, often without all the resources more senior leaders have at their disposal; this highlights the importance of advocacy. These tactile leaders use their relationships to motivate their teams inwardly and their relationship with their supervisor to market their team’s worth. Most leaders at this level do not have the authority to reward and, therefore, must be the spokesperson on behalf of their teams. They have every opportunity to teach, coach, and mentor. Employees want to be valued by their company, and most want to be value added. Front-line leaders are best positioned to create this.
If front-line leaders have so much impact, how can we best support them?
The most challenging transition a leader will ever make tends to be the one they’re least prepared for. Typically, an organization identifies a high performer and rewards their efforts with a promotion, as they should. What is not as common is preparing these performers to be leaders. All branches of the U.S. Military recognize the importance of this first transition from worker to the leader and have resident courses that range from four to six weeks to prepare their emerging leaders. That type of investment is not feasible in almost any organization outside the military, but companies should take note of the Armed Forces’ priority. Aside from the managerial responsibilities, leadership training is crucial at this level and should be treated as such. The best form of leadership development is in person with first- and second-level leaders. These leaders have the experience and know operations at this level far better than anyone else, assuming they have been trained. Coaching and mentorship from here are vital and will have the most impact. Formalized corporate training validates that people’s individual development is a priority at every level. Capitalize on the foundational skills being developed and follow up with one-to-one mentorship.
Empower your front-line leaders as much as you can. Push as much authority as possible so they will be viewed as true leaders, not just as a relay of information. Time is everyone’s most valuable asset, and time wasted going up the chain to get an answer is felt by the employee and detracts from the leadership of front-line leaders. When these leaders have authority, they’re free to do what you pay them to do: lead.
Let them lead!
It’s hard to push authority down because you’re still responsible. I know this; it’s a lesson I’ve learned many times. We often confuse being seen and leading with leading. Authentic leadership is influencing others to accomplish the mission, not doing it for them. Train your front-line leaders, then let them do their jobs.
SGM (Ret) Joshua Johnson is a 32-year Veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and now serves as the Sr. VP of Leadership Development for Talent War Group.
This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.
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