February 2017

Does Your Team Know What You Expect (or Do You Just Assume They Do)?

by Ed Ruggero

July 1, 1863. It is still dark when Major General John Reynolds (pictured) and the combat veterans of the US First Corps begin a forced march to the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Hours later Reynolds, riding ahead of the hurrying infantry, stops at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, where he meets Brigadier General John Buford. Buford has been sending Reynolds pleas for help through the preceding day and night. Just to the west, the sound of rifle and cannon fire roil through the smoke of a growing engagement, as Buford's outnumbered cavalrymen try to hold off thousands of advancing Confederates.

But now Reynolds is up, with his steady infantry, and after a short briefing by Buford he goes forward, toward the enemy and the fight in a place called Herbst Woods. He is there, in command at the critical moment and spot, when he is shot, knocked out of the saddle, already dead or certainly dying as he hits the ground.

When I bring teams to this woods as part of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, I point out that the expected behavior for senior officers in the Civil War was: stay in the saddle, up front where you can influence things. The leader could see better and move faster on horseback, and being visible served to inspire his soldiers and let them know he shared their risks. Of course, being on horseback and wearing the distinctive double-breasted coat of a senior officer also turned these commanders into tempting targets.

After a few moments reflecting on what that exposure must have felt like, I ask the group to speculate as to how Reynolds knew that he was supposed to stay in the saddle. He was no doubt trained that way, told explicitly to stay mounted. The senior leaders he admired and wanted to emulate probably stayed on horseback. He likely saw for himself the effect on soldiers of a leader's being visible in risky situations—or he saw the opposite and wanted to avoid setting a bad example. It may also be true that every story he ever heard or book he ever read about admirable military leaders pointed out that those people acted with courage and did their duty in spite of the risk.

Explicit and implied instructions like these create culture, which is (at least as I define it) the sum total of everything we've learned, from all inputs, that tells us how we're supposed to act. As leaders we can't control culture, can't change it by throwing a switch; but we can influence culture by considering all the ways we communicate with our team, from the stories we tell and the things we reward to the example we set.

Then I ask participants, ”What are the expected behaviors of the people on your team and how do they know?” It's that last question that gets people scratching their heads, because the honest answer is often, “I just assume they know what I expect.”

In our last session together, I walk people through the writing of a personal leadership philosophy, which touches upon both, “What I expect from you,” and “What you can expect from me.”

Taking the time to write and share a leadership philosophy pays a number of dividends:

It takes courage to be honest about what you want from the team and what the team can expect from you, but the alternative—not communicating those things—can be deadly.

Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.