Success in leadership

“Crochet…You’re team lead!” I can remember it like it was yesterday. We had just transitioned into our personnel recovery phase of pre-deployment readiness training. I was not the most experienced, not the oldest, not the highest ranked, but I was up. Our first exercise was fairly simple: infill to the objective via zodiac hit the target, recover hostage personnel, eliminate any enemy threat, and exfil out. Truth be told, it was a disaster! Our team missed timelines, our contingency plan fell through and when we encountered ‘enemy forces’ our tactics were questionable at best. As I barked orders trying to get us on track throughout the evolution it was met with resistance and apprehension. We had planned meticulously and as we drove back to debrief I couldn’t help but wonder what went wrong. 

When you are a part of a special ops team you quickly realize that they don’t beat to the same drum of normal operations. Young personnel are thrown into positions much above their pay grade in order to solicit a reaction. Not only to see how young team members lead but also to see how experienced team members follow. Training evolutions are made to feel much worse than what you could encounter in real-world ops in order to test resolve. Many team members are so close they are on a first-name basis or addressed by operator call signs regardless of rank. All these things are designed to help people understand leadership through performance and not through position. This training evolution was my leadership trial by fire.

Quickly after our botched rescue attempt (we did eventually “succeed”) one of our instructors pulled me aside and asked where did I think we went wrong. In my head I quickly began to pass the blame on any element of the evolution that I could; the intel was bad, the weather had changed, the equipment was faulty, but I was trained better and knew the answer. I failed as a team leader to prepare my team. I looked at him and said, “I didn’t perform.” He said, “You tried to manage them when you needed to lead them.” That response still has an impact on me today.  

'An effective leader always takes the time to tell team members what their specific path to success is and help align them to the right path.'

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” In today’s business world most jobs are looking for leaders at all levels. However, when you take a closer look at their titles they all have manager in them. One fault I’ve seen since I left service is that these organizations do not definitively delineate the difference between a manager and a leader. 

So, I ask you what is the difference between a manager and a leader? Some people will argue they are the same and you can’t have one without the other. Great leaders are effective managers and effective leaders are great managers. I don’t think that anyone would deny the fact that the best supervisors have traits of both. However, I would then ask you what do the manager and leader oversee going a bit deeper than just people? While this is open for great debate many people will have a wide varying opinion, I think it boils down to two very simple things: Managers oversee processes while leaders influence people.  Can a person do both? Of course, they can. But is it the same? Hardly! A manager’s duties typically fall into the category of strategy, goals, and task while a leader often focuses on overseeing people, relationships, and culture. Let me explain.

I oversee an emergency response team of approximately 45 team members. I can easily take a process and tell my team to execute a response in a certain way because our procedure says so. But would that have enough influence to ensure it is done effectively and safely when no one is around? If a well-written policy was all it took to equal success we would never have to worry about injury or an emergency because every organization has those procedures written out for us in black and white. But that is not the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world of change encircled by a wide array of options. People have choices and are often asked to think outside the box. So, when an event doesn’t take the shape of how our processes are designed how can we be successful? The answer is leadership.

We can sit here and fill a book on what a leader is and fill pages with effective leadership stories. Many books out today try to do just that. This is not an easy question to answer and varying positions, organizations, and cultural groups will have vastly different answers. Lead by example, expertly know your craft, always listen to your team and train meticulously are all great one-line quotes, but in my experience’s leadership success can be summed up in three broad categories: Clearly define what success looks like, outline your team’s operation parameters, and fully support to overcome obstacles.  

Clearly define success: When teams do not know what the goal is, it is that much more difficult to achieve it. As a team member, you cannot achieve personal success and eventually team success, if you do not know what you are striving for. An effective leader always takes the time to tell team members what their specific path to success is and help align them to the right path. This also makes it easier to tell when a team member is straying off track, giving us an opportunity to readjust back in the direction of the big picture goal. When you are leading a team there needs to be clear communication as to what the end game is.

Outline operating parameters: When given the green light, some people take off full speed ahead. The racehorse knows that when the gate is opened, it needs to run as fast as it can. The jockey is there to keep the thoroughbred on the most optimal path to maximize effectiveness without wasting energy. Managers often give tasks without outlining the operating parameters which often sends team members through wasteful and unnecessary troubleshooting processes. The most effective leaders will open the gates and send team members out with clear operating parameters in order to streamline the direction to maximize their efforts. 

Support to overcome: The most effective leaders are always the ones that are lifting their team up from the bottom. When you fully support your team, it can be a launching platform that gives them the ability to easily overcome obstacles on their way to the goal. So many leadership traits fall into this category: motivation, encouragement, development, inspiration, coaching, and challenging them are ways we show support as leaders. Our team needs to have a dog in the fight and if they feel as though their efforts fall on deaf ears they will often lose the drive it takes to perform effectively. A leader is only as good as their team and if their team is supported properly the entire group will overcome barriers much easier than if it were every person for themselves.  

These are not the end all be all traits that a leader should possess in order to be effective. However, defining goals, outlining parameters, and supporting team members is a great blueprint to give your team. Updating these on a regular basis also helps maintain organization direction as we all know things often change. Ask yourself this, “Am I pointing my team in the right direction, and am I giving them the tools they need to succeed?” You will find that by adding in these 3 simple processes you will see a more effective team and increase their ability to meet your goals.   

Brett Crochet is an industrial emergency response coordinator at a major chemical facility in Louisiana. With over 15 years’ experience, Brett brings a long history of Emergency Response experience to the table. Some of Brett’s training certifications include Rope Rescue Technician, HAZWOPER Technician, Industrial Fire Brigade, National Registered EMT Basic, Army Advanced Tactical Practitioner (ATP), Pre-hospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS), US Coast Guard Advanced Rescue Swimmer School, US Marine Corps Combat Dive School, US Air Force Combat Survival School, US Army Airborne and US Army Free-Fall Parachutist. Brett recently completed his Business Administration Master’s Degree and the BCSP CSP certification. Brett is an Iraq war veteran serving as a Special Operations Search and Rescue Specialist while deployed in 2008 & 2009.