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The commander may determine 'the quality' of a unit, but the junior leaders create the strength of an organization.

To Develop Organizational Leadership, Build a Deep Bench

Sept. 8, 2018
The U.S. Army shows that commanders lead because of the skills developed and executed three levels below

During the first six years of my U.S. Army service I had been a member of four different battalions (i.e., about 700 soldiers organized into four sub units) and two combat-arms branches. I also evaluated leaders from six different battalions, and had moved around the world and the United States. Military training had taught me that the commander, the senior officer in charge of a military organization, determined "the quality" of a unit. However, even my limited experience had taught me that the real strength of an organization is found three to four levels down from the commander: Junior leaders in any organization make an organization great, or cause its eventual failure.

I learned early in my military career to look deep to evaluate the strength of an organization. Of course, being wrong about commanders several times also helped me appreciate that subordinate leaders are the real sources of strength in an organization.

During one early appraisal, of a military unit in Korea, I was sure that the organization was evaluating was a dud. The senior commander was bookish, not very fit, and not Ranger-qualified — a sin for a combat arms officer in the U.S. Army. Ranger School is the nine-week combat-leadership course focused on small-unit tactics, during which soldiers sleep less than two hours each night and frequently lose 20-25 pounds. Some veterans state that Ranger School was harder than combat.

As I evaluated that unit, I found that three levels below the commander the organization was far from awful. They were awesome.  They maintained their equipment, had good standard procedures, were excellent marksman, planned well, and took care of each other. Even though Army training stated that the commander was the most important person, the leaders three to four levels below this particular commander made the organization successful. This example, reinforced everywhere I went, convinced me that the only way to build a great organization was to build, to maintain, and to continuously develop junior leaders three to four levels from the top. Recognizing this is incredibly valuable for a business seeking to simultaneously improve product quality, reduce costs, grow, and offer a better customer experience. Here are four strategies to help put the strategy into action.

1. Scrap traditional leadership programs. Businesses love their leadership development programs because they are recruiting tools. But, you should cancel traditional leadership development programs because they do not create leaders that businesses need. Instead, use coaching, distance learning, and special projects to improve the potential for many more leaders at the same organizational level. Drop the "great leader" concept and embrace the great leaders concept. Developing a large pool of junior leaders is how organizations find and maintain success.

2. Rotate assignments to propagate knowledge. Too often, businesses find a great junior employee and keep him or her in the current position, presumably because it maintains performance. But, a great addition to a leadership program is to rotate lower-level leaders, to distribute experience and promote new skills development, leadership aptitude, and greater organizational knowledge. Six- to nine-month rotations are an excellent way to develop new leaders, distribute best practices, and retain proficient junior leaders by giving them the opportunity to develop new skills.  

3. Innovate from the bottom up. Some businesses maintain that innovation comes from the bottom, while organization comes from those closest to the “action” (customers, operations, problems, or competitors.) What is needed is a structured program, web- and mobile-enabled, to develop and disseminate new ideas, evaluate that development, and then to put these innovations into pilot programs. After all this, if the innovations are determined to be successful, the program will direct the full implementation across the organization. Making junior leaders responsible for innovating new ideas at their present level prepares them to be great leaders at higher levels of the organization.

4. Reward initiative and results. Giving junior leaders and junior teams the right, the attitude, and the confidence to act independently to identify and solve problems for the business and its customers will instill one of the most important skill sets for junior leaders. I can teach someone Excel, data analytics, and business statistics with relative ease. I cannot teach "initiative," nor can I teach someone to care about customers. Business skill sets can be learned later in a career. Believing in the organizational initiative, in the value of customers and others are habits that cannot be delayed for the future. The instinct for solving problems and delivering great customer experience is what businesses need in junior leaders.

Set about to build a great organization. At every level, look past the CEO, CMO, and CFO and evaluate the managers and team leaders that actually execute the business strategy, and build the organizational culture of that will achieve excellence.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is an adjunct lecturer of marketing at Creighton University, a mid-level marketing executive, and the author of author of “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Contact him at [email protected], or visit