Many leaders view change as an enemy. General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff, sees the on-going process of change as the new normal. He has overseen a major transformation in the two years since he took command of the Canadian Forces. The Forces have a new sense of pride in what they do, an attitude that is shared more and more by Canadians.
General Hillier takes a “systems view” of leadership. Rather than separate pieces, he sees a unified whole, with various segments interacting within a culture that determines how well everything gets done. And he operates as if the whole nation is part of his system.
He is as comfortable giving difficult orders as standing in the background while two soldiers receive a standing ovation from a grateful audience of 600 government leaders. He has come to grips with one of leadership’s toughest challenges: managing the polarity between humility (necessary for trust) and assertiveness (necessary for focused action).
We’ve come to a new paradigm here. In the mid-1990s, we had a revolution in military affairs. Along with our allies, we did some good work, especially on the three-week rush from Kuwait to Baghdad. We didn’t plan on what to do after that, how success could be realized and maintained, how to build a nation, how to turn military power into domestic power. But after September 11, we’ve had to change our tune, big time.
Because of our tendency to want to get back to September 10, we had a bit of head-in-the-sand approach. But we soon realized that it’s an extremely different world now, one that demands a different approach from us, building on our strengths but differently. It’s proving to be an exciting trip for everyone engaged – and those are not my words, they’re the words from the people in the organization.
How do you lead change?
The first thing and the main thing is communication – face-to-face.
But how do you do that in an organization as large as yours?
You have to make it your priority. You cannot be an unknown, faceless entity, an “Ottawa Bureaucrat,” who only talks with peers or “the important people.” You have to get out there and look your people in the eye.
That’s a real commitment of your time and focus.
Yes, but it’s hugely important. I consider communicating with my organization to be so fundamental that it takes about 40% of my time. I have personally spoken with – and listened to – about 70% of the people I serve, from the troops on the ground in Kandahar, to sailors on a ship in the Persian Gulf, to the men and women here in Canada who support them. They need to see and know and trust who I am in order to be willing to follow where we need to go.
You can’t communicate with your people unless you have something to bring that they value and can hold dear. For me, that means a vision of a possibility, something truly important and necessary that we could accomplish together, one goal for all of us. Not one goal for me and another one for them. We’re all on the same team.
Then you have to “put a face on that vision,” portray it in terms that everyone is going to be able to understand and take as their vision, their objective, their possibility. Only when you have that powerful, compelling vision simply stated can you communicate with your people. Only face-to-face contact and personal communication of the vision creates the kind of trust you need to move everyone forward together. You can’t lead with memos and e-mails.
Your people have to really get the what and the why of that vision. The logic has got to be sound. Both you and the vision both have to “ring true” to them. If you and the vision don’t show pragmatism and common sense, you will be seen as the emperor wearing no clothes and you will either never gain peoples’ confidence or you will lose it quickly.
We are one
You have over 100,000 civilian and uniformed staff. How have you gone about communicating the vision to so many people?
Relative to other nation’s armed forces, we’re comparatively small, and we have thought about how to take advantage of that. I’ve communicated in a variety of ways: face-to-face, with CDs, web-based pieces, TV, print media, speeches to organizations. It has been good to have people, like Rick Mercer, take up our cause and help with getting the vision out there to people.
Most important to me personally are things like sitting on the ground with soldiers, riding ships with our sailors and aircraft with our aircrews. Last December I held town hall meetings, with about 7,000 people. I did the same thing in each of the first two years after I took this job. I spent Christmas Eve on the HMCS Ottawa, a frigate in the Persian Gulf, then with the 2,500 folks we have deployed in Afghanistan. I’ve given up to ten talks in one day. Sure, it takes time, but what else is there that’s more important. That’s what leaders have to do.
What do you say when you are with them?
Mostly I listen. I state the vision and then I listen. I am feeling the pulse of my organization, just as they are feeling my pulse, to see if I am being true to that vision. Then I shake their hands – every one – and tell them how much I appreciate their work, why what they are doing is so important to their nation, why their nation is so grateful to them, and why it is a privilege for me to be working for them to help them do what they are there to do.
I explain the global context we work in, the threats we face, and why we need to do what we do in this particular way – that I will be asking their commanders to give them a handful of important tasks and objectives – nothing fancy, just real basic stuff – and make sure we all do them well.
I tell them that working together as a single entity, under one commander, we will build an effective organization – air, land and sea – that can do those things effectively. We need to be a single force pursuing a single goal for our country. Our young people pile on to that.
As an example, I spent an evening out in a forward position in Afghanistan that was truly Taliban country, with a platoon (about 40) of our soldiers in a mud-walled fort – a kind of “Beau Geste” place. I was just listening and talking with whoever was available.
Three different times, young soldiers, 20-21 years old, said, “Sir, what are you going to do to make sure all these great things that we’ve been doing to change our Canadian Forces will continue past you?” I realized then that we’ve had an impact. The most junior members of the Forces, in the middle of the most far-flung operation in our history, are thinking through what we are trying to do long-term. I was astounded, and delighted. Another NCO with 17 years in told me, “Sir, I was looking forward to retirement in three years, but now I don’t ever want to leave.”
I visited HMCS Ottawa in the Gulf, with CDR Darin Hawco and his people, spending time with the sailors on and off watch, having a cigar with one group, participating in a couple of boarding exercises. I got a chance to see everyone of those men and women. They were happy, focused, professional, doing a great job for their country and for the world. It all comes back to great people, which we have lots of, but even great people can’t come together as an effe