Lessons in Leadership From Warlord 6: A Chat With Lieutenant General John Vines

I recently had the privilege of hosting a fireside chat with Lieutenant General John Vines, who is regarded as one of the most influential U.S. military leaders of the past twenty years. You can see the talk here:

At the time, he was the only military general to lead combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the post 9-11 era, overseeing an organization of more than 160,000 troops.

For a man of his stature, he’s refreshingly humble. He jokes that he was the only guy to cause Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to lose his voice from screaming at him in two separate wars. The General is one of those people with whom you want to hang out after spending only a few minutes with him. No wonder he is such an extraordinary leader.

During our conversation there were many leadership lessons from his experience that are highly relevant to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Leadership is different from management.

“In the end those who follow you willingly do it because they trust you and are inspired by you. They are counting on you to have their backs and to be right.” Great leaders rely on relationships and intuition. In a challenging situation, a good leader knows what their reports will do and what the outcome will be.

Vines underscored that management and leadership, while related, have very different characteristics. Management is the science that undergirds leadership. Leadership is the art. “Where leaders earn their pay is applying their judgment, skill and wisdom to all the data. Because if we were purely a data driven organization, then we could plug it all into some algorithm and it could tell us what the answer is.”

It follows then that not all great managers become great leaders. This concept has always resonated with me and I have seen this first-hand. A great leader gets the team to follow her into battle and does it with purpose and conviction. Great leaders also understand how to instinctively use resources to the best possible outcome.

2. Leadership awareness

“It is almost impossible to really see yourself as an organization and as an individual.”

Vines relayed the story of a complex combat operation that required the deployment of several infantry units. Vines ordered a large quantity of heavy equipment to support the mission, which his reporting system indicated was available. Problem was, it had already been provided to another unit and Iraqi counterparts.

Instead, Vines devised something he dubbed a “Delta Report”, which reconciled for a 30-day period all the things that were supposed to be available but weren’t; the equipment that was supposed to be repaired but was still in the shop; the gear that had arrived that no one even knew about.

In his words: “That 30-day Delta came out to be $11 billion of end-items, things like tanks and trucks, that we had been ordering from the States because we thought we needed them, but they were already there. We couldn’t see ourselves.”

Vines admitted his team spent a lot of time understanding their threat (you might call it the competition), but couldn’t see his operations in real-time. As a result, he made some large, painful changes, but ultimately made sure the right processes were in place for he and his team to see themselves in real-time.

I’ve always believed that self-awareness and company awareness are key attributes to being a great leader. I’ve seen all too many examples of companies and CEOs who are breathing their own exhaust. Leaders need self-awareness in order to have a complete and accurate picture of themselves and their company.

3. Identifying catastrophic risk helps to prepare for the unknown, but you can’t see all the “Black Swans” that lie in wait.

Vines relayed an example of a massive air operation he was preparing that required the use of hundreds of helicopters in Afghanistan. “It was massive, the number of planes used in the operation would have made it one of the largest air forces in the world. And that was just helicopters.”

At the moment of execution of the military mission, the key guy on the ground responsible for checking the purity of the helicopter became ill. There was nobody who could fulfill his job. Mission aborted.

“We spent hundreds, even thousands of hours assessing risk, but what we didn’t understand is that there were points of failure in this enterprise that we hadn’t even considered. We certainly hadn’t looked around corners.”

This story was particularly interesting to me in that, even with all the planning, something caused the mission to go sideways. I’ve seen this in companies. They plan and plan, yet something always comes up forcing a real-time change. In my experience, planning is a great tool but leaders always need to be prepared for solving the unknown as issues arise. You can never plan for all contingencies all the time.

4. The higher up the organization, the more time leaders should be spending with people in the organization as opposed to doing “tasks”.

As his organization got larger, Vines could no longer spend time with every person. However, he spent most of his time away from headquarters talking with his lieutenants, making sure everyone developed a “shared consciousness”, a shared vision.

“I believe leadership should be eyes on, hands off.” So Vines deployed wide-scale use of video conferencing to discuss high-level thinking and strategy with the troops. “Once an organization understands the objectives, a mid-level person can figure out the strategy.” Once they knew the thinking and the strategy behind what they were about to do ”the orders almost follow themselves.”

As an entrepreneur, your natural instinct as your company grows may be to spend more time doing tasks you are good at. If you are an engineer by training, this may mean spending time with the engineering group. My advice as your company grows is to spend time with all groups and help to create a deep bench of executives who each do a better job than you in their given areas. Spend lots of time with them; spend lots of time with your employees. The organization will see you as a great leader as opposed to a micro-manager.

Veteran talent

My time with General Vines gave me a much deeper appreciation for the similarities between military leadership and leadership in companies. Over 120 folks working in high-tech attended our fireside chat from the Bay Area. The vast majority were veterans.

One of my other takeaways: Veterans can bring really important leadership qualities to your organization. These folks are truly amazing.

As Vines put it, “Sometimes the scale is different. Sometimes the cost is different in blood and treasure. But there are more similarities than differences in business and warfare.

“Every person that we asked to go forth to do something at extreme risk—at risk of their life—we owed it to them to do everything we could to create conditions that would allow them to do that, and come back alive and intact to their families.

“If you could look in the mirror and say, ‘I have done everything humanly possible to create an environment of mitigated risk,’ I think you can live with yourself. If something goes wrong because you are lazy, or because you didn’t devote the proper rigor to it, then you have to live with those consequences too.”

The views expressed by LTG (ret.) Vines in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Military or Government. “Warlord 6” was LTG Vines’ call sign in Iraq.

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