Junior Leadership Principles and Practices
An Opinion Article by Marshall Officer
It’s 2021, and I’ve switched gears. Last year, I wrote a collection of articles called the ‘Training Series’. These articles covered a variety of training concepts and lifts, written for anyone - from the complete beginner through to the expert coach. These articles weren’t meant as the be-all and end-all of physical training - they were a general overview of some key areas of physical training, with hopefully enough information for someone to read and develop even a basic level of understanding about any one particular topic. I wrote them, as not only am I a coach who works closely with injured veterans and competitive powerlifters - but I have been lifting for years and I love it. It is something about which I am passionate, and I want to share that passion with anyone willing to listen. This year - I am writing about something else I am equally passionate about - leadership. My time in the military, as well as working in leadership positions ever since I left, exposed me to a huge range of leadership styles, techniques, and philosophies. I have seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the dangerous. I want to share this with whoever is willing to listen, too.
In this article, I will go through the principles and practices that have guided me as I have navigated the treacherous road of leadership - both in the military and out. As an infantry soldier, I received some of the best leadership training in the world - designed to give me the tools I needed no matter how dire the situation. Working as a bar manager in one of the most popular and busy bars on the Sunshine Coast taught me that even military leadership training can’t prepare you for every situation. My exposure to junior and senior leaders in small businesses has continued to shape my perspective surrounding communication, facilitation, and growth mindsets. My time as a powerlifting coach and working with some of my closest friends as the director of my own small business has solidified my understanding of the principles required for success - and how to best implement these principles in practice. At the end of the day, leadership is an ongoing journey, and even senior leaders should have a set of principles that guide them. A CEO could be a junior leader, if their leadership experience has never involved any kind of growth. So start early, set yourself up for success, and never stop learning along the way.
Who is “the junior leader”?
The reason I use the term “junior” leader is that nobody is born an inherently better leader than anyone else. By the time you find yourself in a leadership position, you will have been exposed to a great variety of leadership styles, principles, techniques and practices - something I covered in my first leadership article of the year, Junior Leadership in the 21st Century. Whether you are the store’s latest manager, a school captain, captain of your footy team, or just the guiding light on your below-average Call of Duty squad - leadership starts somewhere. What I have seen since leaving the military is that junior leaderships rarely receive formal training - and are more often than not promoted due to time in an organisation rather than any particular merit. Even during my time in the military, people were put on promotion courses because spots needed to be filled, and promotions were given out when promotions were needed - rather than an acknowledgment of any particular leadership abilities being displayed on a day-to-day basis. This is not to detract from those leaders out there who have earned their positions - it is purely to highlight that leadership is most often thrust upon people, whether they want it or not. A junior leader is a leader who hasn’t been leading for any significant period of time - or someone only one or two rungs up the ladder. They are the leaders in most need of training, guiding principles, practices, and good examples - because if they continue on their path and hold leadership roles in the future, it will be their time as junior leaders that shape them, set them up for success, or cause them to crash and burn.
The Guiding Principle - Don’t Direct, Facilitate
Of all my leadership principles, there is one that I will continue to revert back to no matter what situation I find myself in - no matter how experienced my team or what goals we are trying to achieve. This principle is my most important mantra, and I believe that as a leader, it should be your number one focus whenever you interact with anyone who has a part in your team achieving its goal. The principle put simply is “Don’t Direct, Facilitate”. This means that it is not your job to tell people what to do. As a leader, your number one job is to ensure the team is all working towards the same goal, as effectively as possible. Once you have defined the goal, it is your responsibility to facilitate the success of every single team member - in whatever way that looks like. In reality, this is anything but simple to achieve. It is a matter of following the rest of the principles below. Your number one priority is giving your team members the opportunity to succeed while minimising a loss of focus, discipline, motivation, and energy. In short, it means being open to new ideas, actively listening to your team, having the courage to disagree with those in more senior leadership positions, knowing how and when to compromise, being capable of communicating “the why”, consistently pursuing your own subject matter expertise, having humility in success, and taking ownership of any failure. If I ever find myself in a challenging leadership position where I just don’t know what to do, I think - how can I facilitate the people around me in a way that would help us achieve success as a team? Who can I ask for help, what haven’t we tried, and why do we need to achieve these goals? Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s about helping others achieve success, with a common goal in mind.
An Openness to New Ideas
My second principle is rooted in the idea of a growth mindset. If you haven’t read my previous training articles where I wrote about mindset, failure, and ongoing learning - a growth mindset is the ability to see failure as an opportunity rather than a setback. It is about recognising intelligence as something that can be learned, rather than something with which you are born. Having a growth mindset is about consistently challenging your own thought process, rather than settling for the way things are always done. It is about listening when someone disagrees with you and being open to changing your point of view in the face of new evidence. It is about ongoing learning, with no end in sight. In a leadership context, this looks like the flexibility to try new things, as well as adaptability in the face of adversity, setback, or failure. One of the hardest things you will ever learn as a leader is that you probably don’t know the best way to do something in most situations. Just because you have always done something one way does not mean that is the best way to do something - and sometimes the best ideas come from the freshest perspectives. Not every idea is a great idea, but every idea can be heard.
In reality, time pressure can sometimes prevent every idea from being enacted as soon as it is raised - but discounting something because you don’t have time for it right now is not the right solution either. This principle can be the most difficult one to follow - because generally new ideas come from new people, and changing something because the newest team member suggested it can feel threatening. Trust me, it isn’t. Those fresh perspectives are invaluable because although experience is valuable, it also breeds difficulty when trying to approach a problem from a different angle. We know that a diverse team is a capable team - because a diverse team contains a diverse range of perspectives, experiences, and approaches to any new challenges. Promote these perspectives by facilitating your team members to solve problems their way, not your way - and your team will experience success faster and more consistently than ever.
A Willingness to Listen
Principle number three is a continuation of principle number two. While on the surface leadership may look like a lot of talking, good leadership involves more listening than speaking. A good leader consistently practices their ability to listen to what is being said - not only to them, but between their team members. Active listening is a skill - it requires hearing what is being said, processing the information as a complete package rather than in bits, and responding to the issue rather than the person. This is not an easy feat and requires constant work to get right. The human brain loves to grab hold of small pieces of information that feed its own confirmation bias or emotional reaction - we are emotional creatures after all, with a range of chemicals soaking into our brains at any given time. To actively listen, we must fight the urge to prepare our response before someone has finished speaking - and acknowledge not only the words being said, but the tone, the body language, and the context surrounding it. A frustrated person can sound insubordinate, an exhausted person can sound disinterested, and an upset person can sound irrational. A good leader can hear what is being said, control their own emotional response, and respond in a way that makes someone feel heard - even when the response may not be what they want to hear.
The Courage to Disagree
Every leader will inevitably find themselves in a situation where they will be told to do something with which they disagree. It is a leader’s responsibility to recognise where disagreeing with your superiors is the right thing to do - not just for you as a leader or because you don’t want to do something, but because you know your team is capable of more, deserves better, or would be more effective some other way. Here, the catch is to be capable of disagreeing in a way that still shows respect. Leadership isn’t about doing whatever you want. At the end of the day, someone else will probably set the goals, and it is your job to facilitate your team achieving them successfully. But, you may find yourself in a situation where your team needs to be defended, is being treated unfairly, would be more effective somewhere else because you know their skillset more intimately than higher leadership - or because what you are being asked to do is morally or ethically wrong. As a leader, you need to be able to recognise these extremely challenging situations, and communicate your disagreement in a way that will be heard, but will not create a more difficult situation. This is not easy to do, nobody will ever say it is. It’s easy enough to disagree with a subordinate - but disagreeing with a superior in a way that still shows respect and minimises conflict is an art form. Learn how to communicate in this way, and it will serve you well for your entire career.
An Eagerness to Compromise
I generally dislike the word ‘compromise’. It has negative connotations - as if to say both sides aren’t really getting what they want. But as a leader, you must have an eagerness to consistently find a middle ground. It is very rare that every situation will have a clear win, and sometimes the biggest win is being able to figure out a solution that works for everyone involved. Once again - communication is key. We know that as leaders, we can’t just let everyone do what they want. Most of the time, what needs to be done isn’t what anyone actually wants to do. The compromise here is facilitating your team so they can achieve what needs to be done, in a way that they want to do it. Having an eagerness to achieve this compromise will help you facilitate success within your team - you are relying on the guiding principle of facilitation while ensuring your team is continuously and effectively working towards achieving the goal set for them. It is your responsibility as a leader to see compromise in a positive light, as well as being able to communicate any compromises to your team in a way that they can understand, support, and contribute to.
The Ability to Communicate “the Why”
Whilst it may not be your responsibility as a junior leader to decide on the goals your team is required to achieve - it is 100% your responsibility to be able to communicate why these goals are important. A motivated team is a team that understands why they are doing the things they do. If a team understands this “why”, they will have motivation when the road is easy - and discipline when the road gets rougher. Knowing this ‘why’ is an ongoing process that requires the ability to ask the right questions of your superiors, acknowledge the bigger picture, and understand how the overall objective of your organisation applies to your team. Not only do you need to actively seek out this information for yourself, as it will rarely just be told to you - you need to be able to communicate it in a meaningful way to your team. Learning how to do this will help you keep a team focussed on the same goal, and most importantly - it will help you manage them in the face of adversity. Generally, when accomplishing any task, the beginning is easy as everyone is motivated and feeling fresh. Once a lack of immediate results and unplanned setbacks begin to arise, motivation can be difficult to maintain. A team that clearly understands their “why” is a team that can remain disciplined in the face of these setbacks, and as a leader - it is your responsibility to manage their exhaustion, communicate their why, and facilitate their success.
A Pursuit of Subject Matter Expertise
Just because you are in a leadership position, does not mean that you know everything you need to know about whatever it is that you do. The best leaders not only recognise this, but will consistently take steps to maintain or improve on their own subject matter expertise. A key part of having a growth mindset is continuous learning - always seeking out new information, education, or skills that can assist you in accomplishing your goals on a day to day basis. As an infantry section commander, it was more important than ever for me to pursue excellence as a soldier. Mastery of weapon systems, understanding of small-unit combat tactics, a high level of personal fitness, and comprehension of the increasingly updated technology and systems we used frequently was an essential part of my leadership capability. Whether you are an infantry soldier or you manage the local McDonald’s - knowing how to do your job does not stop when you become responsible for other people’s success. It becomes even more important - and the pursuit of excellence in your given field should be a priority. Not only does showing your team members it is never too late to learn new things or master the basics set a good example - it will give you a base level of confidence and allow you to help others when they are struggling. Your expertise only adds to the team, and gives your team one extra person who isn’t just there to tell other people what to do. Many hands make light work, and a leader’s hands should be just as dirty as everyone else’s if you want to achieve long term, consistent success.
Individual Humility in Success
As a leader, success does not belong to you. If your team achieves success - it belongs entirely to your team members. As a facilitator, it is your responsibility to create an environment for your team to achieve success. If this success is acknowledged from outside the team - it is also your responsibility to ensure your team gets the credit they deserve. This principle is simple. If your team achieves success, it is because of them - not you. Give them the recognition they deserve, and have humility if that recognition is ever directed at you. A leader can not achieve anything by themselves - and this should be especially evident when a leader accepts any awards for their team’s exceptional achievements.
Extreme Ownership of Failure
The final principle is the exact opposite of the principle above. A leader must have extreme ownership of any sort of failure, set back, or misstep. If a leader’s number one job is to facilitate the success of their team - any failure is subsequently the fault of the leader not taking responsibility for the actions of their team. All too often, leaders are happy to accept recognition themselves when their team succeeds - but will direct blame at team members when failure occurs. If a leader takes ownership of failure and treats a team failure as their own, they will work even harder to help their team members achieve success in every possible situation. A leader that is willing to blame those they are responsible for is not a leader at all. As a leader, you are responsible for your team. If they fail, it is simple. Accept the blame yourself, see it as an opportunity to do better next time - and revert back to principle one. Reflect on why your team has failed, and what can be done in future to more effectively facilitate their success.
I have no doubt these are not the only principles and practices for good leadership out there. This list is not exhaustive - however, it has served me extremely well so far, and I believe it to be an essential foundation for any junior leader who is looking for guidance in their newfound responsibilities. I will never stop learning, and if I am ever in the position where many people look to me for leadership, guidance, and direction - I will have these principles in the back of my mind for every situation of which I am a part. If you disagree with any of these principles, I would urge you to ask yourself why. I have been in situations where direction has been easier than facilitation, where agreeing was easier than disagreeing, where speaking was easier than listening, and where shifting the blame was easier than taking responsibility. In all of those situations, the easy option was never the right one. Learn to listen. Know your team’s why. Have humility in success, and take responsibility for failure. And above all - don’t direct, facilitate.
Train Smart. Train Hard.
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
VES Mental Health Resources: https://anviltd.com/pages/ves-australian-mental-health-resources
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