Lessons in Strategy and Leadership from an IDF General

tl;dr: Warfare is changing and leadership requires a compassionate focus on the needs of every individual. A 30 year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces gives us a powerful perspective on how to be more effective in both.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear from a Brigadier General in the Israeli Defense Forces about the concepts of asymmetrical warfare and leadership.

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General Gruber leads a 20,000 soldier division and has been in the military for over 30 years.

While I am unabashedly pro-Israel in my outlook (though not blindly so), I think an objective observer would agree that the challenges which many Western countries face in terms of lone wolf terrorism, for example, are “piloted” in Israel.

So, an Israeli general is going to have an advanced perspective on the unique challenges and necessary responses to emerging situations.

Asymmetrical Warfare

General Gruber’s made a number of astute comments, but there were a few that I took away.

The first is that “there are no boundaries anymore.”

Warfare, as we have sadly seen, now takes place in civilian areas. In synagogues, mosques, and churches.

As a result, and this is the second one, “every soldier is a general.” Given the decentralization of warfare, there is no time for a traditional “command and control” model where soldiers await orders and just execute them.

They need to understand doctrine and act, rapidly, and accordingly. While the situation of a soldier on the front lines and a marketer are, clearly, very different, this struck a chord with the concept of “everyone is a marketer” which was the thesis behind the Decentralized Marketing Organization.

The third thing that I heard was the limits on the value of “intelligence.” It’s helpful to know what you can about your enemy (or competitor), but because situations are so dynamic, often times, your enemy doesn’t even know what he is going to do tomorrow. So, playing “war games” and game theoretical analysis has its limits.

The more important concept is “readiness” and “responsiveness.” These were my words, not his, but I think they are fairly representative of the point he was trying to make.

Leadership

His second presentation was on leadership.

He said there are three things a leader must do effectively

  1. Understand his troops
  2. “Reach” his troops
  3. Motivate his troops

Understanding troops comes from not assuming that the situation a soldier (or employee) faces today is exactly the same as it was when the leader was in that position many years earlier. The world has changed immeasurably and assuming that the life of a soldier (or intern, junior employee, etc.) can be understood based on personal experience is a huge blindspot.

He also made a point of saying that it is critical to be extra patient before “labeling” a person as a certain type. It takes a while to really understand a person and rushing to judgement hurts both parties tremendously. As a leader, if you label someone too quickly, you have failed the individual, yourself, and your unit.

Reaching” was a really interesting one.

He observed that the best time to ‘reach,” where he meant ‘connect emotionally’ is at the extreme moments of stress and joy. That is when people really value and remember that you were there for them. He sends cakes/cookies to people on both joyous and sad occasions and people remember it for a long time.

Motivation was kind of surprising in his perspective and highlighted by two ideas.

The first was that, as a leader, you need to keep in mind that you are affecting the lives of 5–10x more people than you realize. With an 18 year old soldier, your conduct will be relayed (both positively and negatively) to parents, siblings, friends, relatives, and much more. As a result, if you belittle a soldier, 100 people will know about it. If you praise a soldier, the same.

Interestingly enough, one of his preferred methods is to call the mother of a soldier (even ones that are 50 years old) to offer a genuine (and he emphasized this as critical) compliment. Once someone’s mother hears something nice, that is a ‘motivation on steroids’ type moment.

With the soldier him/herself, the key is

  • positive feedback
  • positive feedback
  • positive feedback

It’s simple to think about, but difficult to always do. Highlight the behaviors you like and admire and you’ll get more of it.

I know I really struggle with this with my own kids, for example, and it’s something I need to be much, much better about.

Much of what he said wasn’t necessarily “new,” but he has obviously distilled his insights very well over the years and, given the context in which he operates, it served an important reminder of some of the things we all can do to be leaders, even if we aren’t responsible for 20,000 troops during a war.

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