90 / 10
J. D. Pendry
Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and loses one
of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open
country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it. – Luke 15-4
Some leadership principles are timeless and unchanging. The parable of the lost lamb, quoted above, quite eloquently illustrates one of them. Ever since one human had the first opportunity to lead other humans, this leadership principle and others have existed. Over the years, I learned to apply what I hear, see and do to my own understanding of leadership and to take my leadership lessons wherever I can find them. As you might have figured, this one came from my Pastor during a Sunday sermon.
A parable is a short fictitious story that illustrates a principle. In this one, a Shepard with a hundred sheep leaves 99 alone while he searches for one that wandered away. The part I left out is the part about how happy he was when he was able to bring the one back. Focusing on the one who needs the attention and getting him back on track is what first line leadership is all about – that’s life in the three-meter zone.
How many times have you lamented, or heard another leader lament the fact that you spend 90 percent of your time focused on 10 percent of the people you lead? I know the thought often crossed my mind. But isn’t that were we are needed the most? Ponder it for a minute. If everyone we are charged to lead does everything right all the time, never wanders away so to speak, there wouldn’t be much need for leaders - especially the first line variety that are noncommissioned officers. Would there?
I was told once that if you take 10 of any group and line them up, a couple will be top notch achievers, most will be in the middle doing a good job, a couple will be mediocre doing what it takes to get by and one will be a problem – your proverbial lost lamb. That rule, my experiences taught me, applies to CSMs as well as it does to Privates – and Generals too in case you’re wondering. No matter where you work or whom you lead, you’ll have your 10 percent – your three-meter zone. That 10 percent is your most important leadership challenge.
The most professional environment I was ever in as a noncommissioned officer was as a Drill Sergeant. Even in that environment, a Drill Sergeant would occasionally need the intervention of leadership to get him or her back on track. My Senior Drill Sergeant and First Sergeant put their hand on my shoulder more than once to give to me the leadership needed to keep me focused. We’ve seen the ramifications of when that important aspect of leadership is missing.
If you have a squad of 10 soldiers and one is not measuring up, where does logic tell you that you need to devote your time? Mine tells me that I must bring that one up to standards so that I have an effective team that can succeed. If that means the one is going to get most of my attention for a period then that’s ok.
Good leaders know that when people are doing their jobs and the other things that go along with their jobs such as caring for their soldiers, they need very little actual leadership. The type of leadership they need is an acknowledgement of their contribution, encouragement and a leader who is a continuing good example and role model for them. Not the directing, hands on leadership that the 10 percent requires.
Anyone who has ever listened to me ramble about this topic, and others, knows that the biggest challenge for leaders as I see it is the soldier that’s in a leader’s three-meter zone. That is where the 10 percent, which requires 90 percent of time, exists. For that reason, it’s where the most important leadership occurs. Soldiers must succeed, because there is no other option. The only way this 10 percent, and their units, can succeed is if they’re led out of the three-meter zone and into that area where they do not need constant attention.
War Story: When I was a Drill Sergeant I received some soldiers early, actually a couple of days before the unit’s planned fill began. This meant that I had some soldiers finished with their reception station business a couple of days before the rest. As it happens in the Army, I sent these trainees out to fill some post detail requirements. Details in basic training units are the Army’s first attempt at daycare if you didn’t know. It occupies the time of the Privates so that Drill Sergeants can focus on other things. Two of these young men had a great deal of initiative. During a break while on detail, they sneaked off to the Shopette for a few beers. Drunken trainees are fun. When these two were brought back to me, I was, as expected, on them like ugly on an ape. I don’t take long before beers come back up, and from the looks of it corn chips and some other stuff too. I did not intend to destroy these Privates or their lives by exercising some of the options that were available to me at the time. So following some physical training, counseling and corrective trashcan polishing, I returned these wandering sheep back to the flock. It was only a couple of days into training before they were again in trouble. This time, I turned the flames up a bit higher. At the end of the first week, I counseled them again separately. One begged to get out, one begged to stay. During those days, a trainee discharge was quick and painless. As it turned out, the one who wanted out got out. The other turned it around and was one of the best soldiers in the platoon by graduation. The moral of this war story is that if you focus on your potential lost sheep, they will leave your three-meter zone one way or another.
Every first-line leader wants his or her charges to succeed. Most of them do succeed and with a minimum amount of direction, but what is important is that every soldier must succeed if the unit is to succeed. When one wanders outside of the parameters of what is acceptable behavior and performance you must bring him back. When you do, and you watch him and the team succeed you’ll experience a feeling and sense of success that only a first line leader can know.
Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. – Luke 15-6
All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. – The NCO Creed