It might not surprise anyone that I found some challenging leadership experiences inside the Pentagon. It might also not surprise anyone that some of my greatest leadership challenges - were the leaders themselves. Here is one such example, in which I "led up" to gain the trust of my information-hungry leader.
When I worked for the Navy, I served as a liaison in one of its international affairs offices. We routinely conducted something called "counterpart visits". Presidents meet Presidents; Ministers of Defense meet Secretaries of Defense. In the US Navy, admirals met admirals from navies across the globe. They are "counterparts".
In my office, we worked with naval allies such as Sweden, the UK, Australia, Singapore and many more. It was a really fun job. I traveled extensively, and the work was inherently interesting.
Our leader was a Navy admiral, who moved into and out of the job about every two years. Also, his primary focus was the Navy's budget - not international relationships. He had the rank to conduct the visits; we were there as the experts. Admirals cannot often be experts, as their responsibilities include too much. We used to say, "a mile wide and an inch deep".
It was our job to prepare him, by ensuring they understood the most recent (naval, and political, if appropriate) agreements, technology sharing, weapons platforms, military exercises, issues and common goals.
My colleague and I needed to discern items of real importance and boil them down to essentials. The admiral should be able to have a substantive, knowledgeable and intelligent conversation with his counterparts.
But this new admiral was not cooperating. He wanted to know everything.
My colleague stormed into the office one day. Frustrated by his recent meeting, he exclaimed, "Why doesn't the admiral trust me to tell him what he needs to know? He doesn't need to know everything. That's my job! Why can't he just trust me?"
We know who wins this contest. The admiral wins. Principle #1 - Don't fight the leader. I knew this, and in an effort to calm my colleague and relieve his stress, I offered to help. "Let me try," I said.
Instead of fighting my leader, with what I thought was best, I decided to give him more information than he could ever need. I understood that he was new in the position, and might genuinely want access to all information. He might want to build a relationship with the Japanese Navy delegation by discussing some topics in depth. Principle #2 - Always be professional. Your leader has a vision, even if you don't see it.
Principle #3 - Pay attention to the questions your leader asks. The admiral was asking some in depth questions about our relations with the Japanese Navy. I understood he wanted to know he could trust the information, and so wanted experts to advise him on each issue. I also understood that as an admiral, he was used to getting what he wanted - which meant immediate answers. So I did two things.
First, I pulled all the information we had on US-Japanese Navy relations. We usually provided a small "read ahead" binder to our leaders prior to any visit. This contained key documents, perhaps an issue paper. I decided it was time to pull out all the stops. I built a 3" binder full of agreements, shared technology, shared weapons systems, military exercises, whatever I could dig up that was remotely applicable from the past few years. The admiral received this a few days in advance of my next step.
Second, I created a panel of experts. I called in favors from across the Navy staff offices in the DC area. International affairs experts, surface ship experts, submarine experts, anyone that had something to do with the Japanese Navy. I used quite a bit of political capital. None of these folks worked for me (uh, no one worked for me). So they didn't have to show up. I was asking a favor, and promised help at some future moment in exchange for them leaving their desks. In a few instances, they traveled across the District to attend this meeting.
The admiral received the binder a few days ahead of the meeting. When he arrived, 3" binder in tow, he smiled (but tried not to show it). A conference table full of international affairs experts across the US Navy staff waited for him, ready to answer any and every question.
Did he have a lot of questions? No. Did it matter? No. Principle #4 - Don't take it personally. The entire purpose of my plan was to gain the admiral's trust and confidence. Just because he didn't use all the resources I provided does not mean that I failed. To the contrary, the smile on his face was all the success I needed. When the next counterpart visit came up, he trusted our counsel - and didn't ask nearly so many quesitons.
What are the key principles to working with the Information-Hungry Leader?
Don't fight the leader. You will always lose. Regardless of whether you agree or not, don't fight the leader. Find a way to give your leader exactly what they want.
Always be professional. Understand that your leader has a perspective, of which you may not be aware. Act professionally and respectfully, and odds are you will be treated professionally and respectfully.
Pay attention to the questions your leader asks. These offer the biggest clues to your leader's priorities. Focus on the priorities. You will gain trust and confidence.
Don't take it personally. A leader asking detailed questions (in almost all cases) is not questioning your abilities or intelligence. Your leader really just wants to know the answer to the question. Don't believe me? Let's take the opposite perspective. Even if your leader does question your abilities or intelligence, how does it serve either one of you to take it personally? It does not. You would be better served, in either circumstance, to not take anything personally, to act professionally and to give your leader what they want.
If you found this article helpful, or have further thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment. Thank you for reading!