How to Assume a Leadership Role

In a previous article I discussed why people often struggle in new leadership roles so in this article I would like to focus on how to successfully assume a leadership role. The timing of this article is perfect in that I have a great example handy. Last week there was a change in command for the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and incoming General Neller wasted no time in giving clear guidance as to what the organizational focus would be under his command. He did so in a message to all Marines that contained six sections. This message, in my mind, is a great example of the universality of leadership fundamentals, and you will see several of them mentioned through the message.

Left to Right -Gen. Dunford (outgoing Commandant, new joint Chiefs Chairman), Gen. Neller (new Commandant)

Left to Right – Gen. Dunford (outgoing Commandant, new joint Chiefs Chairman), Gen. Neller (new Commandant)

Okay, first the jargon clean up before you read the original message. A “FragO” is simply a fragmented order. It is a piece of the larger order being developed that is released to keep the organization moving forward. And, CPG stands for the Commandant’s Planning Guidance which, like it sounds, is how the Commandant plans to lead. Now, for the rest of the message I will ask you to replace the military specific words with more civilian friendly words. Think of the Commandant as the leader. Think of war as competition. Think of the enemy as competitors. When he talks about cutting edge weapons technology think of cutting edge technology relevant to your business. There are many direct correlations from the military to civilian world.

Please read A Message from the Commandant and see my breakdown below.

 “All previous guidance remains in effect”

A change in leadership is usually a time of uncertainty for everyone involved. The team doesn’t know how the new leader will lead and the new leader doesn’t know how the new team will follow. Trust hasn’t been established and that takes time. So, a great course of action is to come in and change as little as possible.

This will allow for a smoother transition as you move from old plan to new plan. Also, remember we are dealing with people and their emotions. There may be some lingering loyalty to the old leader. By acknowledging and honoring  them you can tap into a little of that a boost your own loyalty and trust factors.

“Like war itself, our approach to war fighting must evolve”

Again, acknowledge past efforts but lay a clear path for future change. Don’t make people feel like everything they have done has been a waste because you know better. On the other hand you must acknowledge the need for change and progress in order to stay relevant under your leadership.

“For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack”

This section stresses the importance of the entire team. Leaders are only as good as their followers and followers only as good as their leaders. Both have their roles and stressing that from day one is an excellent approach. It may be a new concept to the team or, in the case of the Marines, a well established one. You cannot afford to make the wrong assumption so stress your thoughts on teamwork and its importance immediately.

“The senior is obligated to provide the guidance and the example that allows subordinates to exercise proper judgment and initiative. This includes providing a clear mission and intent… what to do, not how to do it.”

While it is true your leaders are in their positions because they have proven their worth it is still a good idea to set your expectations for them. Define what you see their success looking like. Give them criteria and guidance but don’t give them orders.

Now, when you read the message your first instinct may have been, “What? I thought Marines were all bout giving and following orders?” Well, that is only partially true. Very rarely are orders clear-cut, step by step. What Gen. Neller is talking about, and what you should learn from this is called “Commanders Intent.”

See, orders usually come in the form of telling a team to meet a certain objective and not the step by step process to get there. This leaves the team with latitude to employ their expertise to achieve the objective the most efficient and effective way possible. If you do that for your team then you will have a top-tier team. It may take them time to get used to that new-found freedom so give them time to adjust and grow.

“The subordinate agrees to act (with discipline, respect and loyalty) and not exceed the proper limits of authority.”

This section is very similar to the last. It sets the expectations and defines success. This one is just success from the angle of the follower.

 “Human will, instilled through leadership, is the driving force of all action in war.”

Okay, this section is full of wisdom for how few words there are. The essence of it is that too often we get focused at being the best in a certain area but ignore others. When the truth is we need to focus on several areas of excellence. Zig Ziglar referred to this as “The Wheel of Life.” Just like a real wheel, when one section is flatter than another you will get some turbulence in your ride. If you work on them all and keep them as close as possible then life will go much smoother and you will be capable of achieving more.


Powerful message, huh? Through the course of the message General Neller acknowledged his predecessor, set clear organizational guidance and defined what success looks like for the role of leader and subordinate. His approach and communication generates an expectation of continuity of operations along with the idea that change will also be happening out of necessity.

Those are all key factors you should strive to hit when you assume a leadership role. Change is rough to begin with so don’t make it worse by creating more uncertainty and needless animosity. Remember, the outgoing leader had a vision and a connection to your team. Don’t begin by bashing them and blowing up the vision just because you can. Let your tenures flow together as seamlessly as possible for a smooth transition.

Also, define your vision and why you are setting it along with why it is important to the team and organization. Connect to the organizational loyalty which will likely be stronger than any you have in the beginning. And, don’t forget to define success and how to achieve it. Give guidance to get there but don’t order them how to get there. Let them surprise you with their accomplishments instead of restricting them to your ideals.

This message is best delivered in person but any method will work. The key is you must have this conversation for your sake and the team’s. If you do, then you will be able to successfully and easily assume the new leadership role.

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