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From the Desk of the Director

Looking to military for leadership strategies

by Kim Patton

November 23, 2010


November is the month where the United States honors all men and women who have and are currently serving in our armed forces.  Not only have these veterans and military personnel served to protect our country and our freedom, but there is much we can learn from their leadership skills.  This month Harvard Business Review focused their spotlight on “Leadership Lessons from the Military” and how current business leaders can use the same skills to prevail in a climate of economic uncertainty. 

Military leaders need to learn to master the art of negotiating high-risk, high stakes situations for survival and to gain insight on rapidly changing intelligence.  While we know business leaders are not in a life-or-death daily struggle, the pressure put on these business leaders to successfully negotiate a billion-dollar deal can be extremely intense.  However the perception of uncertainty can cause the same types of behavior in both the military and business leaders.

The HBR article Extreme Negotiations shares how military leaders use five strategies to effectively negotiate, whether in Afghanistan or in a board room.  First is Get the Big Picture.  Leaders need to solicit the other’s point of view and use the information to shape the objectives of the negotiation and to determine how they will achieve them.  Leaders should never assume that they have all the facts; they, themselves, are not biased; and they know the other side’s motivation.  Assuming these things will only result in failure the majority of the time.  Instead, leaders should ask the other side to understand their point of view, find out what the leaders are doing wrong, and be open-minded to the other side’s perspectives.

The second strategy is Uncover and Collaborate.  Leaders should learn the other side’s motivations and concerns and propose more than one solution.  Leaders should not make open-ended or unilateral offers or just simply agree with the other side’s demands.  This can show a sign of weakness and result in empty promises which can damage the leader’s reputation.  What leaders need to do is find out what is important to the other party and propose other possibilities which engage the party and bring more buy-in to the solution.

Third is Elicit Genuine Buy-In which means to use facts and fairness rather than using coercion to persuade others.  Leaders who play hardball may harm future negotiations by creating resentment from the other side.  Leaders need to avoid making threats, being arbitrary in their motives, and being close-minded.  This “my way or the high way attitude” only breaks down the line of communication and results are not achieved.

Build Trust First is the fourth strategy.  In order to deal with relationship issues, leaders need to make the commitment to encourage trust and cooperation.  Effective leaders never try to “buy” a relationship or offer some concession to repair the broken trust especially if there is no intention of making good on that offer.  Leaders do need to explore how the trust was broken and try and fix it; offer only legitimate concessions for losses caused by the leaders, themselves; and treat the other party with respect which will then command theirs.

Lastly, leaders need to Focus on Process by not just reacting to the other side, but taking steps to shape the negotiation process and the outcome.  Acting without gauging how your actions will be perceived and what the response will be, plus ignoring the consequences of a given action, will be detrimental to leaders in future negotiations.  Leaders should talk not just about the issues but the negotiation process, slow down the pace of the negotiation, and issue warning without making threats.

Clearly these five strategies can help business leaders effectively strategize their side in any negotiation.  Being strategic, not reactive and hasty will help the leader think several moves ahead about how their actions will be perceived.  Making tactical decisions that bring out productive responses and advance the leader’s true objective will bring success to leaders.

On a personal note, I want to thank all of our veterans and military personnel for their service and dedication to our country.  It is because of you that we are able to live in a democracy and enjoy the freedom to share our views openly.  God bless you all!