“I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘Sir.’ Do you maggots understand that?” With that line from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket actor R. Lee Ermey introduced his new recruits – and a whole generation of Americans – to the fundamentals of basic training, where drill sergeants demand respect, order, and, most importantly, obedience. Ermey, who wrote much of his own dialogue, acted out the reality he experienced when he was a Parris Island drill sergeant.
In the 20th century, as I wrote in my book, HOW, the military “made blind obedience culture into a high art, and with great success. Unquestioning submission to central authority, they believed, built the floors of certainty, predictability, and unit cohesion necessary for soldiers to lay down their lives for one another.” Since, I’ve referenced the military as the conventionally understood stereotypical example of an organization run on blind obedience – organizations characterized by command and control, top-down leadership and coercion – and basic training as the locus of the indoctrination, where recruits learn to (again in the words of Sergeant Hartman) “obey my orders as they would the word of God.” Likewise, particularly during the industrial age as companies were being scaled up for mass production, many businesses also operated with a blind obedience model. Many corporations embraced the same top-down, hierarchical, because-I’m-the-boss-and-I-said-so, ‘just do it’ ethos.
In the 21st century, the world has been reshaped by communication technology’s transformation of the operating environment in which the military, businesses and we all operate. The US Army, like most forward thinking businesses, has recognized the limitations of blind obedience. The greatest fighting force in the history of the world has adapted to today’s asymmetric battlefield in countless ways both large and small. The Army has been phenomenally innovative in this critical leadership area, and admirably open about their work, and I have been inspired to study how they are adapting. One compelling illustration of this, and one of the most remarkable examples I’ve seen recently of inspirational leadership, has been in the US Army’s basic training.
Examples from the military are instructive for those of us in the business world because they demonstrate the broad-based applicability of values-based, inspirational leadership. One of the questions people often ask me is whether “principled performance” and “inspiration” will really work in whatever hard-nosed, high stakes, rough and tumble business they conduct. The implication is often that their industry is so macho and testosterone-fueled that values-based leadership will be perceived by their peers as too touchy-feely. I have long responded that principled performance is not about nice guys finishing first. Principles can be a source of incredible strength, formidability, and clarity. I also tell people that values-based leadership works in every type of business, no matter how high stakes.
The Fighting Falcons of Fort Jackson, SC
I witnessed the power of this firsthand when I was invited to travel last month to Fort Jackson, in Columbia, SC, the US Army’s largest locus of Basic Combat Training.
“I don’t want fear and obedience; I want confidence and discipline. Discipline is not about being on time. Discipline is about doing the right thing at the right time.”
These are the words of Lieutenant Colonel Jason Corbett Glick, the visionary leader who commands the Fighting Falcons of the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment who are stationed at Fort Jackson. LTC Glick and the Drill Sergeants under his command are responsible for annually turning 4,000 young men and women into soldiers during their ten-week basic training.
Rethinking Basic Training
While 2-39 used to give recruits the ‘Full Metal Jacket treatment’ when they got off the bus, they now bring them straight to the obstacle course. Not only is it more engaging and gets them moving right away, it also requires more analytical skill and begins the team-building process immediately. And, importantly, right from the start it forces recruits to think and obey orders, not just obey orders. Part of the introduction is about telling new recruits what outcome the Sergeant wants, not what to do. By leaving it up to the soldiers to figure out what to do and how to do it, they improve their critical thinking skills. Interestingly, forcing the soldiers to think analytically is actually more stressful for them than shouting at them and calling them names.
Likewise, if your new employee orientation involves your new colleagues sitting in a classroom while someone from HR lectures them, you need to think about the message you’re sending and the behavior you’re socializing them to expect from themselves and each other. Unless you want your new staff to be passive and non-collaborative, you need to reconsider how you’re instructing them.
LTC Glick and his team, like all good managers and leaders today, engaged in a fundamental rethink about what the people they lead should be able to do. While most basic training focuses on developing four skills – shoot, move, communicate, survive – 2-39 has added an emphasis on a fifth skill, adapt. Soldiers engaged in asymmetric warfare can’t be prepared to simply follow orders thoughtlessly no matter how the situation changes. They need to follow orders and think. The battlefield is just too complex, varied and dynamic for our armed forces to succeed if commanders alone are doing the thinking. The new world of warfare, like the new world of business, requires creativity, collaboration, and adaptive skills.
During a conversation with the team I asked the assembled drill sergeants what kind of behavior they want to see from their privates. I was pleasantly surprised by the list they came up with – determination, drive, loyalty, independence, adaptive, resiliency, proactive, willingness.
Shifting Behavior vs. Elevating Behavior
Note that none of the sergeants included Hartman’s one and only behavioral priority, obedience. What they did include are higher level, elevated behaviors, and they are not that different from the list produced when I ask business audiences the same question about their employees. Elevated behaviors build healthy, sustainable partnerships by calling forth our most human qualities and virtues of character.
Continued reading on Forbes.com.