The Too Busy Leader (the One Who Started It All)

Many years ago, I was a little baby captain at the Headquarters, Marine Corps office inside the Pentagon. Captains were rare at the time. How rare? Well, the majors and lieutenant colonels made copies and put together briefing binders. What was left? (I refused to make coffee - but that's a different story) They weren't quite sure what to do with me.


For awhile, I languished. I waited for my leader to figure out what I should do. He was a good leader. Fair, firm, reasonable and looked out for his people. I had followed him to the Pentagon for that reason, and was looking forward to a challenge.


But he was busy. Really busy.


He had two years to retirement, and was determined to reshape how the Marine Corps prepositioned equipment around the world. "Prepositioned equipment" meant trucks, tanks, weapons, etc. stationed at different points around the world, either on land or in ships. This meant that if a conflict suddenly arose, we would not have to gather, prepare and ship equipment from the U.S. (which would take a long time) We could draw on the prepositioned equipment, and be ready for anything pretty quickly.


He wanted the Marine Corps to purchase a different kind of ship for its prepositioning, one the Army had been using. If you know anything about Pentagon bureaucracy (or can imagine), then you know that attempting this in two years was a monumental task. He simply had no time for me.


So, I started research. I knew he'd listen to ideas, if only I had them. I was determined to be value-added, to be seen and heard. I sought to gain trust and confidence, which in the Marine Corps, had always meant appreciation and freedom of action. That's what I wanted - just to feel like I mattered.


"Leading up" was the concept I discovered. Revolutionary. I learned that I had a lot more ability to influence and shape the relationship with my leader than I ever would have thought. I actually had a lot control, if only I could understand and use it.


Principle #5: Understand your leader - how do they prefer to communicate? What are their priorities? What are their pressures (what are they getting from their leader, that you may not be aware of?) How do they prefer you work? Independently, or checking in regularly? Knowing the answers to these questions (and acting on them) will put you far out in front of your peers, and quickly make you your leader's right hand person.


I learned that this leader preferred direct communication, but only wanted to be bothered if I really needed something from him. I already knew that his priority was prepositioning, and that any help I could provide in relieving him of other stressors would be greatly appreciated. Principle #6: Look for a project that no one else wants. In my case, this was the Strategic Ground Equipment Working Group (SGEWG).


The military likes to create acronyms for no reason whatsoever. The SGEWEG was one of those. Essentially, the group managed the flow of equipment (trucks, weapons, radios) to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a tough, relentless, unglamorous job if ever one existed. But it was my little slice of the pie, and I ran with it. My leader let me. He had taught me something very important upon arriving at the Pentagon. Principle #7: If you are the most senior person in the room from your department/directorate, then you are representing that leader. So act like it.


What does this mean? Well, I was the most senior person from the Operations Directorate for the SGEWG. That meant I was effectively representing a three star general. Wow.


Little secret - it made it more fun. It made me more confident and assertive. If I was acting on behalf of the three star, then I wanted to make sure I got things right. This nearly got me into trouble any number of times. As a baby captain, I often found myself "telling" majors and lieutenant colonels what to do (in the most professional manner possible). They did not necessarily appreciate this.


On one occasion, an officer (a lieutenant colonel) went around me to speak directly with my leader (also a lieutenant colonel), and told him what I was saying to the group. I'll never forget the pride I felt when my leader told me about it. He said, "Beth knows my intent, and she's doing exactly what I want her to do".


No one ever questioned me again. And that experience caused me to become a lifelong believer in "leading up". I have used these principles again and again, with a wide variety of leaders, to great success. I share them with you here in the hopes that they may benefit you as well.


Quick recap (and if you missed Principles #1-4, check out my blog post from Week 1):


Principle #5: Understand your leader

- How do they prefer to communicate? Email, face-to-face?

- What are their priorities?

- What are their pressures (what are they getting from their leader, that you may not be aware of?)

- How do they prefer you work? Independently, or checking in regularly?


Principle #6: Look for a project that no one else wants. Your leader will appreciate you taking on a dirty or unglamorous job, and you will have more freedom to show how amazing you are.


Principle #7: If you are the most senior person in the room from your department/directorate, then you are representing that leader. So act like it. This is incredibly powerful. You may find yourself acting more confidently, professionally and assertively. Key to this - keep in mind Principle #2: Always be professional. Act professionally and respectfully, and odds are you will be treated professionally and respectfully.


If you enjoyed this post, please check out Week 1 and Week 2. And let me know in the comments if there's a particular leader you'd like featured!




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