Leadership 101: Procrastination and Presence

by W. THOMAS SMITH, JR. April 28, 2012

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest leaders in recorded history, valued time more than any other resource available to him. Churchill embraced time, never wasting an hour - often to the detriment of his health - and he refused to tolerate procrastination in any form, at any level, from any of his subordinates. He knew full-well procrastination meant failure and death; particularly in the time in history in which he was operating.

At some point in 1941, during the second year of Britain's direct-involvement in World War II, Churchill began forwarding documents, dispatches, and memoranda affixed with a red sticker (similar to our modern day sticky notes) on which he had written three simple words, "ACTION THIS DAY." This he did for the remainder of the war.

Time in war - just as time is in all high-stakes endeavors - is frequently that which decides the fate of nations. Sounds a bit dramatic, but it's true. All truly great commanders and other leaders factor in the variable of time with the related variables of space, terrain, economy, chance, opportunity, risk, surprise, destiny and others. And time is always the most important variable.

When we look at the principles of war (which we will examine in greater detail in a forthcoming lesson) - depending on what nation's principles - we see that time is either a principle, a sub-principle, or it is an unwritten absolute always factoring into a principle.  

TIME IS the phantom cost

Napoleon, at the height of a battle in 1803, purportedly said to a courier (just before sending that courier off with a message for one of his subordinate commanders), "Go, sir, gallop, and don't forget the world was made in six days. You may ask me for anything you like except time."

Napoleon knew - just as Churchill knew 138-142 years later - that a minute lost is a precious minute of living, of breathing, of thinking, of activity, and of direct action against the enemy that can never be regained.

"Time is the phantom cost," says S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom; commander of the S.C. State Guard, a former state treasurer, and retired Naval Intelligence officer.

Eckstrom is right. Though followers - and those destined for either loss or a life of always-following - have the luxury of ignoring time; we leaders must never deny the so-called "phantom cost." We have to acknowledge the criticality of time. We have to place the highest premium on time's infinite value.

PROCRASTINATION

Procrastination, defined simply as "putting off intentionally the doing of something that should be done," is the great and irresponsible violation of time.

Procrastination for a leader is nothing less than the disregarding of opportunity, the irresponsible mismanagement of assets and the negligence of people. It is no less ruinous to a leader as are cowardice, abandonment, and theft.

As leaders we don't need a military academy or business school background to teach us how to embrace time and avoid procrastination. We may however need a reminder and a renewed vow to ourselves - and those for whom we are responsible - that we will never violate the adage we learned as children - "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

An appreciation of time is both simple and essential.

PRESENCE

Just as time is simple and essential, so is the presence of the leader.

Presence is simply we - as leaders - being there always, out in front and at our best.

As I mentioned in Crisis Leadership, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, Medal of Honor recipient, tells us that in a crisis the combat commander must be seen by his men.

"The physical presence of the commander is important, particularly when it gets tough," says Livingston.

But the men cannot simply see their leader; they have to see IN their leader, strength of character - courage, ability, and cheeriness - and, yes, physical strength and good looks.

This doesn't mean all leaders are - or must be - Olympic-class athletes or Hollywood handsome. But it does mean followers do not want to be led by Sad Sack or Gen. Halftrack.

APPEARANCE IS IMPORTANT

The leader - no matter what age or gender (or profession or volunteer activity in which he or she is leading) - needs to be as fit as possible (as fit the individual leader can reasonably expect to be given his or her physical circumstances).

The leader needs to be clean and well-groomed, even when conditions are not conducive to cleanliness. It's amazing how the presence and encouraging words of a smiling officer - just after shaving in cold water and changing into a fresh shirt, even in a remote jungle environment where malaria, enemy snipers and shelling were a constant threat - often changed the dynamics of a battle-weary infantry unit during World War II.

The leader needs to demonstrate mastery in his (or her) skillsets and confidence in his abilities (skills and abilities, like physical fitness, are accomplished by ongoing training and conditioning).

And the leader needs to be out-front with his shoulder to-the-wheel just like everyone else; never asking - much less demanding - that anyone do that which the leader himself would not do.

We all remember the story of Gen. George Washington who - when he rode along his lines and saw his exhausted men digging trenches - dismounted, removed his coat, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a pick and began digging with the men. The pure inspiration this act engendered among the rank-and-file was immeasurable, which is why the anecdote has survived to this day.

Presence is vital, but, again, the present-and-visible leader has to be prepared to set the example. He or she must not delay in that all-important preparation. After all, time is of the essence - "Action this day!"

Stay with us. There's so much more, including a great deal more on procrastination and presence. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here. If you have questions or suggestions, I'm at marine1@uswriter.com.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is director of the Counterterrorism Research Center of the Family Security Foundation. He is is an author, New York Times bestselling editor, columnist, war correspondent, military analyst, field-grade officer in the S.C. Military Dept., former SWAT team officer in the nuclear industry, and former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, Smith writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of six books, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, Townhall.com, The Washington Times, and others.



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