What Is Your Leadership Focus?

I WAS LUCKY to spend 20 successful years in the United States Marine Corps where I began my career as private/recruit at Parris Island, South Carolina and ended my career as a Captain and leader of Marines at Meridian, Mississippi. I will be the first to tell you that the key to my success was not what I was able to accomplish on my own, but what I accomplished because outstanding leaders saw potential in me and forced me to grow in my technical skills and most importantly, as a leader.

So, when I entered the civilian job market, I expected that those in leadership positions would have the same high standards and love for leadership that I had experienced in the Corps. How could they not? Weren’t there more books expounding the importance of good leadership and explaining what it took to be a good leader in the civilian world than I had ever seen in the military environment? But, sadly, I quickly realized that talking about leadership and actually being a leader did not necessarily go hand in hand. Let me give you some examples.

In my first civilian job, I was hired because I knew nothing about the product or the civilian manufacturing process. That sounds funny until you realized that this small plant had been bought out by a large corporation and upper-level management wanted to close the plant at which I was hired. Their logic was that I would be the perfect person to take an organization operating slightly in the red and nose dive it into such a losing operation that closing it could be justified as “good business” and not just a way to reduce competition. But they hired the wrong person. I quickly learned the process, engaged the workforce to improve the process, encouraged the team to work together toward success and soon, we were a profitable operation. My reward – I was laid off because of “too many upper-level managers” and the plant went back in the red under the new operating model. Within a few months, the plant was closed.

My next job was in retail for a building supply store. I was hired in a management position to oversee the plumbing, electrical, and cabinets departments. I studied the approved department layouts and carefully checked to ensure we were following the model. While on the floor, I engaged customers to try and find out what we could do to enhance their shopping experience. I soon discovered that we catered to a lot of “do it yourself” folks who knew what they needed but had a hard time finding it in our store. So, starting with the plumbing department, I changed the end caps (where you normally find sale items) to educational tools. One was a sink with all the plumbing that went under the sink –each part labeled with a number and a bin with the parts matching that number available so the customer could grab and go. I did the same for toilet installation/repair and water heater installation/repair. Soon, the president of the company was coming to pay a visit to find out why we were selling more plumbing parts than any other store in the chain. I proudly showed him the changes I made and to my surprise, I was instructed to dismantle my end caps and return them to the approved layout. When I explained that the new end caps were the reason for my sales increases, he did not care. He let me know that “the home office spent a lot of time figuring out how to lay out a store for success and I had no right to change anything.” My sales fell back in line with the rest of the stores and today, the chain no longer exists.

I helped a software company land a half million dollar contract only to see it go under due to the mismanagement of those funds. I helped a manufacturer take a successful business that had grown to $800,000 in annual sales to $2 million in annual sales in only one year only to be told to look for another job because I was becoming too valuable to the operation. The owner then took his profits and closed the business because he no longer needed to work.

In every case, the downfall of the business came as a result of the leaders of the organization and not in the workforce. But the loser each time was the workforce who lost their jobs. So, I had to ask myself that one important question – why? Why would corporate leaders spend billions of dollars on leadership books and training and still end up ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’?

It took me a while to realize that the answer to my question was focus. The leaders in the civilian environment were focused on preserving the corporate environment. They talked about people as if they were the most important part of the company’s success. But clearly, their actions demonstrated that preserving their sense of self-importance was more important. They talked about “thinking outside the box” but hidden inside the box every time they came face to face with innovation or success not brought about at their direction. Change, although lauded as necessary for success, was discussed, however, it rarely succeeded. (If you don’t believe me, think about how many articles you have read about how to successfully implement change in your organization.) So, closing a plant was more important than appreciating the turn around that created a profit – keeping the uniformity of a retail layout was more important that increased profit driven by customer satisfaction – spending profits faster than creating more revenue streams gave the feeling of success – putting people out of work so you can enjoy your monetary success trumps rewarding your team for making you successful.

But in the military, our focus had to be the people. If we were going to succeed in any mission, the ability of the people to successfully function should the leader be killed was absolutely necessary. So, the preservation of the organizational structure was never important. The preservation of leadership – the ability of someone to immediately step into a void created due to the harsh realities of war – was our only guarantee to success. The eleven principles of leadership were not just nice ideas – they were the fundamental concepts by which we lived each day on active duty. I benefitted from people who invested time and energy into my leadership development and I ensured that when I turned the reigns of leadership over to the next generation of Marines, they were ready to be the leaders of tomorrow.

If our economy is ever going to become as strong as it was before the Great Recession, corporate America has to change and refocus on people. The most amazing thing is that it really is a lot easier than the corporate world believes. So, over the next couple of months, I will take those eleven principles of leadership I learned in the Marine Corps and share how I used them in the civilian environment to create success stories.

So, to set the tone for the upcoming articles, let me share one of the important rules by which I have operated for years – both in the Marine Corps and in my civilian employment opportunities. I call it my “Three Day Rule”. My Three Day Rule simply says that I will train my people so well that if I were to die at my desk while at work, it would be three days before anyone noticed and that the only reason they would notice would not be because the work was not getting done but because I would start to smell.

With each article, I invite your comments. We learn by listening to others. Thanks for allowing me this forum.

Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.
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Carol Anderson

Great article, Len! Love your examples. I’m particularly sensitive to this now that my son is an Instructor at The Basic School. It takes them six months just to provide the knowledge and simulated learning necessary for a young leader. In the corporate world, we send leaders out after a one week (if that) class. You might be interested in reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book “Leadership BS.” Just a warning – you’ll be very depressed when you finish but the call to action is loud and clear. If we don’t wake up and realize that we have allowed any kind of behavior, including bad behavior, without consequences, we are screwed. On the flip side – I’m forever hopeful that I can make a change – even a little one. Semper Fi

Chris Pehura

Great points. You’re article reminds me of how focus is best articulated in military theory, fire fighting strategies, and SWAT tactics. I often say to support the SWOT we need the SWAT.

Larry Tyler

Absolutely a great article. Thank you for your service and I truly enjoyed this great insight into leadership

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