Yelling. Chaos. Barking orders. It’s how Hollywood portrays military life. This view of the professionals I served with for over 27 years is skewed. Flavored by the extremes of opinion. I think I have seen every war movie made since the 1940s, and they are nothing like what the Army is like in real life.
The reality is the Army is about professionals who practice their trade with passion and vigor. It’s about drilling. Drilling to the point where one no longer thinks and it becomes second nature. Don’t’ get me wrong – it’s not acting without thinking. It’s acting based on thousands of repetitions and hours of practice.
During my Army career, I spent far more time practicing for combat then I did in actual combat. In fact, by my calculations, I practiced 84% of my career. Most of that time was spent on drills, or what dictionary.com defines as “to impart by strict training, discipline, or repetition.”
At Solutions 21, many C-Suite leaders we talk with choose not to drill leadership development. Common reasons we hear range from “we don’t have time/we’re too busy” to “we can do it ourselves” or “my team learns best by doing.” Another response we hear is “most leadership development is intuitive” and “we can figure it out,” or “it’s common sense.” While all valid, these pushbacks are excuses. Excuses not to “impart by strict training, discipline, or repetition.”
Here’s the thing about drills: the moment you need the particular skill you are drilling is usually not a moment in time when you can prepare, or even think, about executing. There are no take-backs. It’s second nature. You don’t think – you just do. The desired outcome in these types of situations only comes with repetition, discipline, and strict training.
I think back to my time in combat. 99% of the time we were not getting shot at, but the times when we were, I didn’t have time to think, process the moment, evaluate options, and execute. I had to decide in an instant and execute, as did my teammates. Any other option could have been lethal for me or my brothers and sisters-in-arms.
How does that translate to leadership development? In my professional life as a leader, when called upon to lead, I often did not have time to think about options. I needed to execute. And I needed to get it right. My subordinates were watching. They knew that I had drilled for this moment and expected me to execute and guide the team in the right direction. They trusted that I was prepared
When leaders make excuses about sharpening their team’s leadership edge, they are making some huge assumptions that just do not match reality. They assume they will have time to prepare, to think leadership decisions through, that no one will be watching, or that they can put off a critical decision for later or for someone else. These assumptions are divorced from reality. Leadership in the presence of your team is full-time. You are always on stage and your followers are judging your every move.
The hard truth is leadership in real life is hard, and you can’t take back bad leadership habits.
Becoming a good leader, like anything you want to do well, requires practice. Practice that affords repetition, that is hard, and that provides feedback. Practice that has a coach who is an expert and can help us see ourselves through a constructive lens. Someone who can “impart by strict training, discipline, or repetition.” World-class performers practice their trade through thousands of repetitions and get constant feedback to refine their craft.
Leaders who practice their trade, utilize coaches, and receive feedback refine their skills to a point where they no longer have to think through tough leadership situations. They are able to rapidly compare and contrast what their minds are processing, fall back on their training, place it into context based on a previous drill, and make the right leadership decision.
If you want to get it right, you have to drill it.