Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hillier's Mountain to Climb: Every Leader's Dilemma

The shadow or light of leadership beckons with each act. General Rick Hillier is battling that zone: is he right or wrong in his bold view of Canada’s role in fighting terrorism? Can he convince all the right constituents that his vision is the right one? Can he successfully climb that huge mountain to reach a new plateau toward more safety and security for the planet? It’s quite the balancing act and one which all leaders face in complex environments.

I ask the question, not to debate the answer, but to examine how a leader leads so that we see in his determination for action leadership of the “light” variety not the “dark”.

There’s no doubt that Hillier believes with great passion and certainty that Canada’s efforts in a far flung corner of the world are necessary to make life better for us as well as others. Like the United States’ Lieutenant General Russel Honore who deftly led the National Guard to work kindly and effectively with the people of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, Hillier is a man of action on the ground shaped by years of experience. He’s been there seeing what it takes to change the world. Emboldened with that resume, his soldiers are willing to listen and learn. Add to that his visibility and accessibility. So far, Hillier has a winning formula for convincing the troops that their mission matters.

He’s also “over the store” minding operations. From what I read, Hillier has taken umbrage with spreading resources too thinly and approaching new realities with old methods. He stresses prioritizing so that the military can excel in the missions chosen at home and abroad. He’s constantly battling for the equipment and training to support the few goals not the many. He has encouraged soldiers to open up their minds to what works, to throw out what they learned if it doesn’t fit with the situation. That point was well made in Mitch Potter’s recent article for the Toronto Star. A recurrent message coming out of the heart wrenching description of his “embedded” experience this past month was that the rule book had to be thrown out with the tribal and guerilla warfare in Afghanistan. Learning on the run and crafting strategy accordingly is the nature of the new reality.

I am reminded that failed CEOs all have one thing in common: they did not get things done. Great visions, but rotten execution. We cannot accuse Hillier on poor execution. But, he’s far from reaching success. Hiller’s ultimate mountain to climb is Afghanistan’s success at resisting progress.

It is downright depressing to read of Afghanistan’s miserable history. It seems that no nation has succeeded to date in helping ordinary Afghan’s lead a peaceful co-existence within their country and with the world. It’s true with the help of the UN and NATO, much has been accomplished in 4 ½ years to suppress, investigate and incapacitate terrorists sourced out of Afghanistan. The UN and NATO are the necessary driving forces and the backbone for rebuilding the country—Hillier is a key operational leader who without them would have no hope in succeeding. Thus, collaborative leadership of all the right players is a must for successful large scale change.

But the real test is village by village change, just as change in an organization is one work group at a time. That’s where Hillier and his troops can make and perhaps are making the ultimate difference. We know from the horrific ax attack on an unsuspecting Captain Trevor Greene that the strategy is fraught with peril. However, there is no trust without nurturing relationships and for that we must give the Canadian troops under Rick Hillier an A for effort.

Finally, there is always the nagging question: how long is this going to take? In North America, we are programmed for short time horizons. We want results fast. In complex situations worthy of our attention, constant persistence does create change. But like James Collins’ use of the flywheel metaphor, it takes time. His research on good to great companies underlined the power of continued improvement and the delivery of results. Tangible accomplishments, often incremental in the early stages, help people “see and feel the build up of momentum.”

Well, Hillier has made it plain that a ten year time horizon is likely. Given the historical intractability of Afghanistan, he’s probably erred on the light side! Regardless of his accuracy on the time required, he’s still faced with a significant problem: he has not gotten the message out clearly on the tangible results accomplished to date.

Change of any sort is difficult even when it is so obviously necessary. None of us wants terrorism to grow and infect our well-being. Our confidence has been shaken by many events since 9/11 and it’s still shaky. No doubt, the intentions of the UN and NATO are noble. Our previous Liberal leadership at the federal level was convinced of the necessity for action in Afghanistan and so are the Conservatives, as Stephen Harper’s surprise visit to that country demonstrates. Such solidarity sends strong messages to us.

Now, to continue with the road ahead, we need something more to convince us that we can help in making a difference. For ordinary Canadians, the “help” might only be moral support. It’s time for Hillier to use his media savvy to communicate any and all tangible results. Hopefully, he’s already well into doing that with his troops otherwise they will be hard pressed to carry on. For the rest of us, we’d like to hear too so that we can see and feel the light not the darkness in such a monumental undertaking.

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