Leadership math.
Authors: Callahan, Chuck
Callahan, Timothy
Pub Date: 10/01/2009
Publication: Name: U.S. Army Medical Department Journal Publisher: U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School ISSN: 1524-0436
Issue: Date: Oct-Dec, 2009
Accession Number: 242963600
Full Text: Leadership is a lot like grade school. The basics are very similar. A good leader devotes him or herself to the 3 Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic, plus one--rhetoric. The first two are obvious. Leaders do not advance if they do not learn. And they do not learn if they do not read and communicate in writing. A leader must also be able to articulate his or her thoughts to others--the capacity for rhetoric.

Leadership arithmetic is a little tougher to grasp at first. But, in many ways becoming the new leader to an organization is like encountering a complex mathematical equation. It conjures up memories of calculus as we attempt to influence the change of attitude, behavior and culture over change in time (da/dt). Or we grapple with trigonometry as we attempt to identify and solve for the group's angles. There are some basic mathematical rules that can help us to be more effective leaders.

1. Read the instructions first.

Know what you are trying to solve before you launch into the problem. There are a lot of variables for you to consider and you could work on any number of them. But you need to understand the keys to the equation and the desired results before you set to work on it.

2. Consider the whole equation.

Take the time to look at both sides of the equation and all of the variables before you attempt to solve any aspect of it. The first weeks and months in any new organization should be devoted to understanding as much about it as possible. Only then can you begin to identify which aspects of the problem should be taken on first.

3. Account for existing values and variables.

It is too tempting, especially early in a new leadership position, to jump into the equation without thinking through what has already been worked on and solved. Understanding the work of your predecessor is crucial to keep you from fruitlessly hammering at the same variables, or undoing something that has already been solved.

4. Do not do addition without subtraction.

A new leader has lots of new ideas. They will be added to the equation early on in an effort to effect change and solve what appear to be the key variables. If you find yourself baffled as to why the things you are adding are not being factored into the equation, remember that you cannot really add without also subtracting. Time, energy, and focus are all finite factors for your subordinates. Anything you add must have an equal and opposite investment in time, energy, and focus subtracted from the equation. Balance must be maintained if there is to be any productive result at the end of the day.

5. Do not miss the exponents.

The organizational chart should serve the needs of the organization and should change to match the mission and the individuals available to help meet the mission. There are talented individuals scattered across any organization whose attitudes and influence are exponential. They are the power factors in the equation. Remember that you cannot change the equation without taking their influence into consideration. Challenge them with meaningful opportunities for leadership. They will surprise you, and themselves.

6. Factor out the negatives.

There are folks in any equation whose bent will be negative, no matter the subject under discussion. These are difficult individuals, regardless of your approach to the problem. You must engage them early, get them on your side, or remove them from the equation if you have any hope of solving it. It only takes a single negative individual to change a positive organization for the worse.

7. Find the common denominators.

Solving conflict is often a matter of reducing a discussion to what both sides have in common. In practice, we remind ourselves what drew us into the equation in the first place, the care of Warriors and their Families, for example. It puts the differences into context and provides a common framework to solve the problem.

8. Simplify both sides of the equation.

Active listening allows the leader to identify and recount the key factors on both sides of a problem. When people on either side hear their leader identify and articulate the essence of their disagreement, they know that someone has listened to them.

9. Do not forget to account for units.

Everyone in the organization brings their background and experience to the equation. It is too easy to lose visibility of these aspects of each variable when you are attempting to work through things. But, if you keep the units in mind, it will help you to understand the differences and you can use shared units and experiences to help solve problems.

10. Check your work frequently.

Devoting regular time to step back from the problems and take stock of the progress is a key aspect of leadership. There is no one else in the organization who can be counted on to make sure that crucial aspects of the equation are being addressed. Stop at regular intervals, review the initiatives and projects, and make sure that they make sense in light of the organization's overall strategy.

Leaders are not born, they are made. They make themselves by attending to basics as leader-learners, just as they did in school: reading, writing, arithmetic and rhetoric. Retired General Tom Hill asked me at a cocktail party once what I was reading. It was in that conversation that he challenged me to read Manchester's books on Winston Churchill (1,2) and Ambrose's book on Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage. (3) He told me that sometimes he asked young officers what they were reading, and he got the answer "Sir, I can't afford the time to read." He would bellow, "Son, you can't afford the time not to read." Reading is a leadership fundamental.

So much of fundamental communication is writing modern leaders and commanders must use writing to communicate their message to their troops. There are simply too many of them to depend on one-on-one conversation. The battlefield is so fluid that a conversation held last week is out of date and devoid of importance a week later. I have developed the habit of re-reading emails before I send them out, and having my public affairs officer check every email I intend to send out to "all users" before I punch "send." I also keep a file of written "missives" and other articles on the shared drive which includes my leadership philosophy, philosophy on OER rating, and others. Effective leaders have to be effective communicators. And in the 21st century of electronic mail, "Facebook," and blogging, we must be able to write things that others will want to read.

I am constantly amazed at how often I am called on as a leader to speak in public, whether at morning report as a department chief, to residents as a program director, medical staff as deputy command of clinical services, or any number of forums as commander. Recently, as I was standing outside the hospital's conference room, my Sergeant Major asked me to come in and address his meeting of 60 or so Soldiers who were up for reenlistment. Before I had time to protest (or think) he called the room to attention and I was on the stage. It happens frequently. Public speaking is something that can be learned through practice and coaching. Rhetoric (the use of language to persuade) is a skill taught to preachers and salesmen. It is something that a leader can always sharpen. Record (video and audio) your next speech and have someone whose public speaking skills you respect watch it with you.

Like arithmetic, leadership is a skill set that can be learned. I am embarrassed to admit that my approach to algebra one in 8th grade was to copy Jane's homework each morning, and then wonder why my performance was so poor on the tests. Leadership can be imitated, but not copied. Like math, it takes practice, patience, and persistence. Patience may be the most difficult part of the puzzle, because it means that results of your labor may not become apparent in the commander's or leader's brief tenure.

I recently received an email from a civilian employee in my organization which included: "I believe that you will be able to plant the seed for change. The change will not happen today or tomorrow and may not happen in the next two years, but it will change ..." That kind of command "delayed gratification" will require patience and will provide lots of opportunity for practice. What is true in math is true in leadership. Remember the 3 Rs plus one--keys to being and becoming an effective leader.



(1.) Manchester W. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company; 1983.

(2.) Manchester W. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company; 1988.

(3.) Ambrose SE. Undaunted Courage. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc; 1977.

COL Chuck Callahan, MC, USA

1st Lt Timothy Callahan, USAF

COL Callahan is the Commander, Dewitt Army Hospital and Health Care Network, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

1st Lt Callahan is a Project Engineer with the 355th Civil Engineer Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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