From Military Infantry Officer to Unsettled Experience Leader; Leadership is Service.
By: Patrick Elliott
A little more than a year ago I resigned from the U.S. Army, just short of my 15th anniversary. I left the service as a Company Commander, leading 130 soldiers charged to seek out, engage with, and destroy the enemy. It was one of the most rewarding and influential experiences of my life.
Now, as an Experience Leader with Unsettled, my role is characterized as the community curator, the provider of opportunities, the driver of inspiration, and the guardian of the experience. The differences in these positions are rather stark. However, I’d argue (as I did in my cover letter to Unsettled) that both careers use the same foundational skills, just in different ways and for different reasons.
After leading 8 retreats and over 150 Unsettlers, a few lessons have transcended the life of both infantry officer and experience leader alike. Here are just a couple that anyone can incorporate into nearly any position, role, or organization.
Leadership is Service
I think most people would be surprised at the amount of authority a military commander possesses — but authority only gets you so far. The key to success in almost any leadership position is not about your level of power or leverage. When framed as such, leaders can digress to self-serving behaviors. At its core, leadership is service — to the position, to the organization, and to its people. By serving their best interests one earns a moral leadership that is more effective and resilient than almost any level of authority.
This lesson was critical because as an Experience Leader I have close to zero authority. Participants can come or go as they please — ultimately, everything is optional.
A huge component of maintaining that moral leadership is to acknowledge when you are wrong or made a mistake. We surrender the privilege to lead when we fail to accept responsibility for our shortcomings (or those of our team) when we deflect blame, and when we attempt to hide our errors or misjudgments. Doing so tears away at the roots of a relationship——and therefore our ability to serve——by degrading trust, fostering resentment, and diminishing morale.
On more than one occasion that meant saying, ”I fucked up” to my bosses, my peers, or those I lead. Put it out there to sincerely hold yourself accountable and for the team to move forward. We all make mistakes, but how we choose to react in those times shows our true character. Leadership conundrums often go hand-in-hand with their magnitude. The harder it is to admit fault or error, the more important it is that we do. Do everyone a favor and take the hard road. Remember, as a leader you are there to serve, not be served.
Never Stop Learning
As a person, as a leader, and as an organization — never stop learning. The perpetual search for knowledge, periods of self-reflection, and an objective awareness of oneself is vital for growth and improvement. As a person, stay proactive learning about yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your defaults? What is your preferred leadership style?
As a leader, take a cue from the Army and set aside portions of your calendar for leadership training. With service still in mind, encourage those who you lead to do the same. Provide them the resources to be successful, offer them opportunities to expand their leadership skills through new and differing experiences, and reward positive progress. After all, leadership training is an investment — like an athlete, an artist, or nearly any profession — and it takes time, practice, and experience.
As an organization, make learning an integral part of your culture. Conducting an after action review (AAR) is ingrained in the Army. Following any event or training session, lessons learned are noted and improvements are made. The best units take AARs seriously and make upgrades to their policies and procedures. Fortunately for me, Unsettled makes this a part of every retreat, and self discovery is part of our DNA. How is your organization learning from its successes and missteps?
Apply a Solid Vision and Mission
Leaders must be clear about what they want and how to get there, so apply a solid vision and mission. A vision, equivalent in the military to the commander’s intent, outlines a future-oriented goal which serves to provide strategic direction to an organization. Having a clear end in mind offers subordinates room to manage the uncertainty caused by the fog of war. In other words, when shit hits the fan everyone knows what the boss wants to see when the smoke clears. If the original plan isn’t possible or is no longer applicable, everyone knows to work within their limitations and adapt based on current conditions to achieve that vision. In doing so, the commander’s intent and an organization’s vision allow for flexibility and innovation.
The vision and commander’s intent work alongside a mission statement, which outlines how the members of an organization go about achieving the desired end state. In the military, the mission statement details the who, what, when, where, and why of a specific assignment. Likewise, an organization’s mission statement is focused inward and acts as a roadmap to achieve its objectives. Getting these right is tough. So let’s practice with an unorthodox example: Unsettled.
Unsettled’s vision is for our co-created communities to push their boundaries and engage in meaningful human connections in order for people to break out of their routines and live more boldly. Take a moment and think — how can Experience Leaders provoke this vision when they aren’t (and can’t be) constantly engaged? When conditions “on the ground” are inherently fluid? Moreover, how do Unsettlers pursue that grand vision when they’re in doubt or in need of practical steps to get there?
Maybe this will sound familiar: 1) Contribute, 2) Embrace the Unknown, 3) Leave no trace, only a positive impression, 4) Be Present, and 5) Be true to yourself (or as I say, “you do you”). If I can get my crews to embrace these community principles as de facto missions and act towards them with conviction, I can pretty much guarantee we will reach that vision. Everyone might be going about it in different ways, and none of the paths might be direct, but we, together, will get there.
Visions and missions are essential to organizations, even Unsettled. What’s your organization’s vision? What is the mission of those you lead? If you can’t answer these two questions in the drop of a hat…well…there lies an opportunity to improve cohesion, effectiveness, efficiency, and resilience.
My experiences in the U.S. Army and with Unsettled have involved completely different assignments and leadership challenges. It might be too soft to call them polar opposite experiences. Yet the lasting impressions have all revolved around human connections, pushing my boundaries, and self discovery — especially as a leader. If you think you have what it takes to be an Experience Leader, we happen to be hiring. Or, if this made you want to join the Army, well, I still know some recruiters. You can reach me at Patrick@beunsettled.co.