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BirdsEye View

leadership leassons from the israeli army

This week's BirdsEye View has to do with lessons from the Israeli Army. I frequently get asked what's unique about that environment and what lessons can be learned from it. Below is my humble offering.

While on the subject, I also want to say a prayer for our good friend and "adopted son" Dave Volk, who realized his life's dream, became a marine and is now in Iraq, fighting for us all. Dave, our thoughts and prayers are with you. Cause as much damage as you can, and come back home safely!

Liat goes to University of Chicago, as some of you know. She pointed out to me the other day that 2F cannot be called the "high" of the day, even if it is. She is absolutely right. I therefore say again to all of you,

PS Apropos staying warm, check out the Minestrone soup recipe on www.anatbird.com; it should do the trick!

Leadership Lessons from the Israeli Army

Managing and motivating people is a core competency of successful organizations and leaders. Good managers know that if they cannot rally the troops around them, they won't achieve their goals. None of us can execute well on our bank's key strategies without the buy-in and active participation of most, if not all, team members.

During my life as a banker, it occurred to me that I've learned many lessons from the Israeli army regarding leadership and management. These lessons apply to any group of people that needs to function as a team to produce mission-critical results. As you examine your own management style, these lessons may be useful:

  • The commander is always out front. The leader should be the most vulnerable, the servant-leader, of the team. In the Israeli army, the commanders always go first. They lead by example and take the greatest risks in order to get their team to where it needs to go. That's why the slogan for tank commanders is "exposed in the turret", which is where they stand half-body out, helping the gunners identify targets, navigate the tank and coordinate with others in their platoons. The only casualty at the raid on Entebbe (remember that?) was the leader, Bibi Netanyahu's brother. The leader always goes first...
  • Troops have the right - leaders have the obligation. The leader's obligation is to care for and nurture the troops. On a 30 kilometer stretcher run, the troops get water first, the leader last. Commanders participate in every activity, just like the troops. Their job is to lead, participate, model behavior, motivate and care for their team. They know if they don't show genuine concern, their team won't follow.
  • Function as a team. Teamwork is critical in military context, as it is in business. In the Israeli military, the separation between the officers and the troops is very limited. They dress alike, get their fill of desert dust alike, and eat at the same place. While there is equality, there is also clarity of function, such that every team ember knows their role and becomes their best, and decision making isn't a democracy - the leader is in charge and their word is the law.
  • We're only as strong as our weakest soldier. In military situations, one weak soldier can cost not only his own life but the life of the whole team. Therefore, everyone has to pull together to make sure the team functions well and survives. Personal weakness is too dangerous and can drag down the whole team. It is, therefore, unacceptable. At the same time, weaker players get the team's support to bring them on par with the rest. The mutual commitment to success is strong.
  • Practice makes perfect. The Israeli army, much like other military organizations, spends an enormous amount of time training. It is no accident that complex military operations typically incur a minimal number of casualties. It is because all soldiers are in top shape and have worked together as teams and have practiced, practiced and practiced. In the business world, it is no different. The well-oiled sales force requires teamwork between front and back office, tellers and bankers, mortgage loan officers and their processors, and the clear understanding of their body language, sales techniques, processing requirements etc.
  • Soldiers like to have fun. The army is a tough place. So is business. Levity does not work to the detriment of functionality but rather enhances it. At Roosevelt bank, we used to go out dancing every couple of months. We'd name the spot and whoever wanted to come would join us. It was great! Having fun together is a good thing, and soldiers know it. They go out together, bond together, and see each other not only in very difficult "on the job" situations but also in fun social gatherings. Somehow, that improves their functionality as well.
  • No one is left behind. In the case of geese, if a goose is wounded, a team of geese is dispatched to take care of the wounded goose until it dies or is ready to rejoin the team. The Israeli military is similar. No one is left behind. Wounded and dead soldiers are carried on people's backs and inside crowded tanks to safety, or even to a proper burial. Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone's got your back. In the banking world, many people that are asked to become sales people feel very insecure in their new role. Knowing that they are a part of a team, whether it is a cross-disciplinary calling team or a part of a sales force, can provide a safety net of referrals and support, coaching and script writing to the less successful team members. Pulling each other together and watching for each other's success.
  • Coordinate ground troops with air support. One of the reasons for the success of the Israeli army is the effective coordination of its ground troops with air force umbrella support. In fact, air superiority has helped a much smaller number of soldiers on the ground against armies that were tenfold or more. Cross-function coordination, both in the military and in business, is an important organizational competency without which the full complement of the enterprise resources is not realized.
  • We fight to win. Israelis have always fought to win. They had no choice. It should be the same in business. We fight to win, get results, beat the enemy (remember Commerce bank's bounty when one of their branches successfully closed a competitor's branch?). Survival is not enough. Setting goals that propel an organization to world-class is part of the theme of the Israeli army which can and should be readily translated into the banking business. Aiming high and going beyond historical results and obstacles can be an inspirational tool, which we too often under-utilize.

Military analogies can be taken too far in the business context. We know one's life doesn't depend on team work in banking, and that the stakes are lower. Nonetheless, since Sun Tsu, we have learned from military theories how to win on the battlefield and in business. My Israeli roots have served me well in team-building in the banking business. You pick and choose your own themes among the ones offered above, all with the end goal in mind: being a nurturing and caring leader is what it takes to win and become uncatchably first, not just first!