Going on Operations

U.S. military leaders have a long tradition of showcasing themselves as both capable decision makers at the strategic level and capable soldiers at the tactical level. One famous example is a widely published photograph of General Douglas MacArthur charging through the ocean surf during a World War II beach landing in the Philippines. This scene depicts him as a leader who leads from the front.

Equally famous from World War II involved General Dwight Eisenhower, later U.S. President. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower went to meet with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division who would be leading the airborne assault.

In his book My Three Years with Eisenhower Captain Harry C. Butcher writes, “We saw hundreds of paratroopers with blackened and grotesque faces, packing up for the big hop and jump. Ike wandered through them, stepping over, packs, guns, and a variety of equipment such as only paratroop people can devise, chinning with this and that one. All were put at ease.“

A contemporary example of a strategic-level leader is General Stanley McChrystal. In June 2006 McChrystal’s team successfully hunted down Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, one of the most wanted men in Iraq. McChrystal reportedly accompanied his men on the mission to retrieve al-Zarqawi’s body. He frequently accompanied soldiers under his leadership on operations.

Four Areas

Buzzword: an important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen; a voguish word or phrase.

Leadership. A buzzword. Not only management books, seminars and trainings profess their teaching of leadership skills. Universities, high schools and even some elementary schools have gotten into the act. Grouped under the heading of leadership is an array of topics, from communication to decision making to conflict resolution to business ethics. Leadership has become an umbrella-term for almost any skill considered to be critical to success.

But, we’re interested in the core meaning of leadership. In the specific, daily interaction between leader and led, between team lead and members. Even more specific, we want to understand how team lead and member together manage the line between strategy (the what) and tactics (the how).

To get a sense for the shared inner logic of that fundamental interaction in a given society, one needs to understand it in at least four areas essential to any functioning society: How a society defends itself (military); How a society organizes itself (government); How a society feeds itself (business); and how a society teaches and practices interactions analogous to each of those three areas (sports).

If a given society is stable, if it is flourishing, there will be a common leadership logic in each of those four areas. How could it be any other way? Can a well-functioning, stable, successful society have one leadership logic in the military sphere and another in the political or commercial sphere? Isn’t what a society teaches its young men and women in sports representative with how that society functions (or should function)?

We compare. The relationship between officer and soldier. Offizier und Soldat. Between president and cabinet. Kanzlerin und Kabinett. Between CEO and CFO, COO, CIO, etc. Vorstandsvorsitzender und Vorstandskollegen. Coach and player. Trainer und Spieler.


Face-time is an informal term Americans use to describe direct communication between team member team lead. Some team members focus on their work and are less concerned with their level of personal interaction with management.

Others believe – and some evidence supports – that the more often they are seen by their management, the more favorable the perception is of their work.

Because Americans continue to link success with „hard work“, defining it in terms of hours spent in the office – starting early, ending late, coming in on the weekends, instead of work results and their impact on the bottom line –  getting face-time remains common.

Email Overload

Recent advances in technology have shortened the already very short lines of communication maintained in American business. According to a study done by American University in Washington, D.C. “a typical manager receives hundreds of emails a day, and that consumes a substantial amount of work hours.”

In response to this trend, companies such as PriceWaterhouseCooper have created internal rules restricting email on holidays and non-business hours. A survey by the Society for Human Resources Management states that one in four companies have created similar rules.

In the U.S. business environment, managers expect to be kept informed of even small developments in projects under their supervision. In practice this means that managers are often cc’ed on routine emails relating to the „nuts and bolts“ of a project, even if the content of the email does not require input from the manager. This practice is done to ensure that the manager has situational awareness of his team members’ work.

Communications Technology

Twenty years ago American football coaches would communicate the plays they wanted executed by sending it in with a player substitute. After that they tried using hand signals. For several years now they simply speak via communications technology directly with their key players.

Basketball coaches have no need for any communications technology. They stand directly on the side of the court within speaking distance from the action. Baseball managers continue to use hand signals.

The American military places extraordinarily high value on the development and usage of any and all technology which shorten, improves, quickens the communication between commanders and commanded. Combat helmets are outfitted with cameras and radio communication allowing for direct, one-to-one communication with each and every soldier.

It is said that the President of the United States can speak at any time, from any location, with any armed forces pilot in the sky. The 2012 raid on Osama bin Laden‘s compound was watched by the president and his national security team from the White House situation room.

All-Employee Meeting

The All-Employee Meeting – also called All-Hands or Town Hall Meeting – is an effective and important forum American management uses to communicate directly with their entire organization. Its goal is not so much to go into the details of the organization‘s strategy, but instead to lay out its broad lines.

The AEM also allows for a question and answer period which gives both management and employees a forum to spontaneously address topics of particular concern. In addition, the AEM serves the purpose of motivating the team to work harder, faster, smarter.

Working independently

Many job advertisements will promise their employees the opportunity to work independently. An independent work environment, without constant oversight or having someone ‘looking over your shoulder’, is viewed very positively.

This is also an indicator of trust. Constant check-ins with one’s boss about the status of a project are neither necessary nor desired. In the German workplace, too many check-ins suggests an over-dependence on guidance on the part of the employee. Such ‘needy’ employees require a lot of ‘hand-holding’ – something which no German employer feels like doing.

Do it yourself! (DIY)

Geh’ nicht zu Deinem Fürst, wenn Du nicht gerufen wirst – Do not go to your ruler, if you have not been summoned – this is nothing more than an order not to ride your boss’s coat-tails.

Selbst ist der Mann – Do it yourself! Only those who think for themselves can act for themselves, too. And he who is capable of thinking and acting independently is also ‘master of the situation’ – and has ‘everything under control’.

To be one’s own master – which Germans value very highly. The how? Please, no spoon-feeding!

Independent. Self-managing.

In many job postings German employers promise eigenständiges Arbeiten – literally independent work, meaning the freedom to do the work with little influence from next-level management. Selbständiges Arbeiten – self-managing work without constant status checks, without anyone “looking over your shoulder”, is highly attractive to German employees and job-seekers.

It is a sign of trust in the person’s ability. Constant feedback to the boss on the progress of work is neither necessary nor desired. Too much communication between levels of hierarchy is in the German context a sign of Unselbständigkeit – inability to work independently, self-managing. They need to be “taken by the hand” (hand-holding). And noone in Germany, neither team lead nor member, wants to waste time doing that.