Take Command: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: November 1st, 2014 by bobmorris

Take CommandTake Command: Lessons in Leadership: How to Be a First Responder in Business
Jake Wood
Crown Business (2014)

The power of high-stakes leadership when it is needed most

Long ago in The Art of War, Sun Tzu suggests that every battle is won or lost before it is fought and the greatest leaders somehow find a way to avoid the need for one. That is, combat should be the last resort only when there are no others. I was again reminded of these observations as I worked my way through Jake Wood’s book, one in which he explains how to be a first responder in business. He recalls a moment in Iraq while serving as a Marine officer when he experienced an epiphany:

“That moment – that brief flash of light in front of me – changed the course of my life forever. That night in Iraq simultaneously tested almost every component of my leadership mettle – initiative and judgment, fortitude and bearing, decisiveness and the courage to act, and every other quality necessary for high-stakes leadership – in a way that only combat can. This experience didn’t make a leader; nor did it show me that I already knew how to lead. Rather, it revealed to me the type of leader I needed to be.”

Wood shares that moment and countless others, and the lessons to be learned from them, to help as many people as possible not only to survive but thrive in high-stakes situations – business or otherwise. “It’s meant no so much as a step-by-step playbook, but rather as a tool kit to help you lead and succeed at those clutch moments when the pressure and the risks – as well as the opportunities – are at their highest.”

High-stakes leadership is not something to accept or agree to or be willing to consider. It must be taken, as the book’s title suggests. “At its core, high-stakes leadership can be summarized by four simple steps: prepare, analyze, decide, and then just do it. Find the best of yourself and your team in the worst circumstances. Hit top form when the pressure is highest. Feel calmest when the stress is most enormous.” Long ago, I concluded that a crisis does not develop character; it reveals it. I take issue with Wood’s use of the word “simple” when listing the action steps needed. Preparation is the most important of the four but none is simple except in the sense that Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when praising “simplicity on the other side of complexity,”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Wood’s coverage:

o The Marines’ Super School (Pages 17-21)
o Positive Thinking and Visualization (34-36)
o How to Build a Level of Trust You’d Go to Battle With (54-59)
o Why Passion Trumps Talent, But Culture Is Kind (59-62)
o The Power of Trust: External (77-85)
o The Eye of God — Demand Accountability (86-97)
o How to Establish a Baseline (107-111)
o How to Prioritize Your Targets (122-128)
o Information vs. Intelligence (132-145)
o How to Know Your Risks (157-167)
o What Is the 80% Solution? (180-182)
o Analysis Paralysis (182-185)
o How to Eliminate Variables (189-q193)
o Issue the Commander’s Intent (196-200)

Note: According to British Army Doctrine: “Intent is similar to purpose. A clear intent initiates a force’s purposeful activity. It represents what the commander wants to achieve and why; and binds the force together; it is the principal result of decision-making. It is normally expressed using effects, objectives and desired outcomes…The best intents are clear to subordinates with minimal amplifying detail.”

Readers will especially appreciate Wood’s provision of The First Responder’s The Tool Kit (Pages 207-228) whose contents focus on faith in the strategic corporal, manageable span of control, interoperatorability, short operational cycles, and a commitment to change when change is necessary. I was especially interested in sharing Wood’s thoughts about (a) relentless execution and (b) the differences between those who have that capability and those who don’t. (Please see p. 236-237.)

After I read and then re-read this book prior to setting to work on the review, I saw the latest Brad Pitt film, Fury. His character (“Wardaddy”) leads a five-man crew in a Sherman tank engaged in deadly combat with the superior German Panzers near the end of World War Two. How superior? It usually took 3-5 Shermans (with maneuvering but mostly luck) to knock out a Panzer. Jake Wood makes a point especially relevant to what Wardaddy and his crew achieve: “Yet even the best prepared leader can’t consistently succeed through relentless execution without a team; a team that has diligently been selected and prepared for the task at hand. A team that has come together and set their individual egos aside and aligned themselves toward a common goal.” Shermans and Panzers certainly have their counterparts in today’s business world. On a battlefield or in a marketplace, I agree that leadership is not enough. Success is achieved by leaders who develop teams that compete with relentless execution.

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