Leading Remotely — Lessons from the Army
‘Leadership is a contact sport’ observed Marshall goldsmith, one of the world’s leading coaches. But how does one lead under circumstances when physical contact is not possible. Remote leadership is an occupational reality for military leaders. Especially during border deployments when a battalion of 800 troops is stretched over tens of kilometers, and commanding officers are unable to meet their forces for months on end.
While none of the leadership behaviours mentioned below are applicable only for a lockdown scenario; they are a good framework in the current context.
Firstly, get to know your troops intimately. In the armed forces this happens by default. Soldiers don’t have working and non-working hours. Officers live with the soldiers in a goldfish bowl where it is impossible to maintain a façade without being called out. And their reputation carries. The troops know each idiosyncrasy, fad, preference and habit of their leaders. As they say in the army, your buddy (a soldier assigned to help with your daily duties) knows the colour of your undergarments, and if you were hungover from a binge the previous night, your entire command knows it by the next morning. This intimate knowledge builds the foundation of leadership — trust.
Most corporate leaders think that they know their team members well, but even if they have worked together for long, they probably know each other’s ‘CV stories’ not the real ones. CV stories are what we write on our resumes, about our education, previous roles, achievements etc. They are our official description. But this embellished version is not who we are. If teammates have to trust each other, they must know each other’s real backstories. Fears, unfulfilled dreams, failures, flaws and vulnerabilities. The version that only our close friends and family know. Leaders must leverage this opportunity to know each team member intimately.
To do that, use their resume as a rough guide but go deep into it with intimate one on one conversations. The objective is not to ‘interview’ the colleague. Instead, it is to discern how they ‘felt’ during each stage of their life, what experiences shaped them, how they were let down, betrayed, and what drives their behaviour and fears.
But if this process has to be meaningful, then the leader must begin by sharing her vulnerabilities, flaws and failures first. She has to let her guard down honestly, and that requires courage. The good news is that your troops already know who you are. You are the one they discuss most of the time anyway. Being vulnerable endears you to the troops, because ironically they prefer a flawed but genuine leader rather than a hypocrite. Use this opportunity to forge a team of friends.
Second, understand the nuances of a ‘contactless sitrep’. Sitreps or situation reports are scheduled reports that have to be sent by leaders at every level, up the chain of command for review. This is equivalent of the concall or video call in corporates. However, certain nuances must be kept in mind when remote calls are the only method of communication. Leaders must appreciate that concalls or even video calls convey only a fraction of communication. Body language, the ability to have side conversations, glances and expressions that participants exchange during physical meetings, the ability of multiple people interjecting etc. are stripped away entirely during remote communication. Additionally, there are more chances of misunderstanding, inability to clarify, and if the lines are bad, there could be downright irritation bordering on rage.
Developing a ‘common operational vocabulary’ is essential. Phrases like ‘as soon as possible’ mean different timelines to different people, which is why calls should be followed up immediately with detailed written minutes. Also, negative feelings like anger, rebuke, chastisement are amplified in virtual communications. Unlike physical meetings, there is no opportunity to console or ‘make up’ for harsh criticism in a virtual call. Though in any case, it is a good idea to praise in public and chastise in private, when communication is remote, this is extremely important.
Thirdly, communicate more even if it seems redundant. When a routine patrol returns from a mission, the Adjutant receives four calls. First, the sentry at the garrison gate informs him that the patrol has returned. Next, the motor pool NCO tells him that the vehicles have come back to the garage. The third call is from the armoury to confirm that weapons and ammunition have been deposited and finally, the patrol leader debriefs the Adjutant. Officers are trained to receive every call with the same degree of sanctity. They cannot sound irritated or reply ‘I know’ to the subsequent calls because each call has a purpose.
The sentry is reporting what time the patrol returned to the garrison. The motor pool is informing that the vehicles have not been damaged. The armourer is reporting that all weapons and ammunition are accounted for and these three calls ensure an audit of the patrol leader’s final report. Experienced adjutants can sense something is wrong if any one of the calls does not come in within an expected timeframe. For instance, if the armourer does not call within a few minutes of the motor pool NCO, he discerns that the troops may have gone to the mess hall without depositing their weapons — which is a violation of the SOP.
Leaders must treat every incoming call with gravitas regardless of whether the information is already known to them or not. If they start responding with ‘I already know this’ then subordinates will stop relaying information assuming that the leader is already aware. It is always better to have overlap than to have information falling through the gaps.
Fourthly, follow an ‘open radio’ policy. Relying only on scheduled concalls is fine during normal times because concalls augment physical meetings. But when the command is being exercised remotely, juniors must be able to call seniors unhesitatingly. This is exactly like the ‘open door’ policy and not merely mouthing the words. Instead, the junior has to feel upbeat when he makes that unscheduled call. Any expression of irritation at being disturbed will shut off this conduit.
Similarly missed calls have to be followed up at the soonest instance but certainly within the same day. This is not just about operational efficiency but also subliminal messaging. If seniors don’t return calls promptly, then juniors feel undervalued and stop providing inputs beyond the minimum requirement. Leaders must replicate the ease with which they can be approached physically, on the phone as well.
Fifthly, share the strategic intent. During remote leadership, it is crucial to explain the underlying strategic purpose of the activity in addition to spelling out detailed instructions. The troops must know the why — not just the how. Let’s say a bank decides that their relationship managers must stay in touch with clients during the lockdown to sustain mindshare. Unless the strategic intent is explained, the managers will start broadcasting mass messages which will be counterproductive. Each situation has a different context and templated instructions are suboptimal if they miss the intent of those instructions. That is why many well-intended orders end up becoming mindless checklists. If troops know the strategic purpose of their superiors, they will be able to assume orders, in the absence of orders.
Sixthly, appreciate the subordinate’s circumstances. All military commanders have maps and models of their area of responsibility to ‘see’ the situation through their junior’s eyes and ensure they don’t pass unimplementable orders. Here is an example. Let us say a senior leader tasks her manager to complete a report within a specific time frame during the lockdown. The leader may have a room to herself at home to work undisturbed. Her manager, on the other hand, could be living in a small apartment with no privacy and small children who need attention. While in office, the manager may be able to complete the work in a certain time frame, she can’t do that at home. Unless the leader visualizes the circumstances of the subordinate, she will set unrealistic expectations. The leader could argue that her subordinate should inform her about the limitations, but the manager may not wish to do so because her constraints are none of her leader’s business. Leaders need to recalibrate expectations based on the reality of those they lead.
Seventh, maintain morale. Some years ago, when the internet was limited to offices, there was a belief that once connectivity improves, everyone will stop commuting and work from home. But as we can see, that did not happen. People don’t merely come to the office because they have to. They also come because they enjoy meeting with their colleagues and cherish the experience of being in the work environment. A lockdown takes a heavy toll on morale and working from home reduces efficiency.
There are several ways in which leaders can boost the morale of their teams. They could conduct informal skip-level conversations, sponsor life skill and motivational webinars, approve resources for online training or mentor their team members on specific competencies. The critical element is to care about them sincerely. Forwarding a bunch of online training links to subordinates is pointless. Instead, curating a particular training program for each individual, enabling that person to go through the course and hand-holding them through it shows that the leader genuinely cares. Sincerity is the essence of sustaining high morale.
As mentioned before, these leadership traits are not specific to leading remotely. Leaders cannot have an offline and online version of themselves. However, these aspects are more critical when leaders need to project their leadership quotient remotely.
And finally, to paraphrase Goldsmith once again — the challenge of most leaders; is not the understanding the practice of leadership; it is practising their understanding of leadership. So, if you are tempted to skim through this article and forward it to your team — well then you may have succeeded in the understanding, but failed in the practice. Show, don’t tell.