When's the Last Time you got your Helmet Dented?

Get Your Helmet Dented

Imagine being a part of a fleeing army of 6,000—exhausted, sick, miserably armed—and suddenly being cut off by a fortified and fresh enemy numbering 25,000.  That happened to Henry V of England in what is now called the Battle for Agincourt.  Now imagine winning such a battle! The English did—losing only about 100 men while taking out more than 6,000 French troops.

There are many things remarkable about the Battle for Agincourt—the most amazing being that Henry actually got his men to charge into what must have felt like certain death.  Historians (and Shakespeare in his play Henry V) give a lot of credit to his leadership.  Henry fought shoulder-to-shoulder with his men the entire battle—at one point being struck so hard in the head as to dent his helmet (The dented helmet still hangs above his tomb at Westminster Abby).  

It’s easy to forget the power of the true leader—one who’s willing to risk getting his helmet dented. Like some of today’s CEOs, medieval kings were often near battlefields, but they were too rarely in any real danger—always fiercely guarded by a host of Royal Knights (medieval vice presidents).  Kings generally stood at the rear ranks and held their generals accountable for winning—and they, in turn, held their soldiers accountable. Sound familiar?  Henry became one of the most famous military leaders in history by turning this model upside down—making himself accountable to his men—and charging on foot with his men into fray.

Even after the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, too many big companies today are run by mercenaries—people skilled at positioning themselves at the rear flank with their grand plans and looking for someone to shoot the instant a battalion fails to break through the line.  Think of former HP CEO Carly Fiorina’s desperate terminations of key managers as the HP board began to close in on her.   

By their very nature, growth companies tend to be run by Henry-type leaders—people who instinctively lead from the front.  That’s because in the early stages of business, firms are extremely vulnerable to better positioned rivals.  Those few that do establish a foothold and survive, do so only through Herculean effort (and often a not inconsequential amount of luck).  It’s when a company begins to succeed that the danger creeps in, often imperceptibly.   Battle-weary and suddenly financially secure, leaders may start to feel that they have earned their place on the rear flank.  Or like the French generals at Agincourt, they may get a little arrogant and too sure of their views—gradually losing touch with the people in the trenches.  That can be the beginning of the end.  

So how can a leader be sure to keep the fighting spirit alive in his organization?  Simple. Continually put yourself in a position to get your helmet dented.  

Build a strong board of directors or advisory board that will kick you around a bit. 
Forget stocking your board with friends who will give merely cursory attention and milk-toast input—find the toughest, most driven, people you can find—preferably people running firms at least five times your size—who can tell you what’s in store for you over the next horizon.  Meaningfully incentivize them, and tell them that their job is to challenge you and your company to be the best you can be—no matter how much it hurts.  Invite your direct reports in to the board meeting regularly to watch you get kicked around.  

Drive Accountability by Example. 
Companies are usually pretty good at outlining precisely who is responsible for the major strategic imperatives.  But I have noticed a trend—the CEO typically doesn’t have his own name next to any of them.  Whether they realize it or not, this is rear-guard leadership.  Conversely, I know of a leading technology CEO who, at the beginning of each quarter, posts on the company’s intranet a list of five specific, measurable, and time-bound goals that he personally commits to accomplish in the coming quarter. Then he gives everyone in the company 48 hours to do the same.  By picking goals for himself that are really tough, he calls everyone in the organization to stretch themselves and commit—reasoning that if the CEO is going to risk failing, so can they.

Roll Up Your Sleeves.
Let people know you want them to take on the toughest challenges—but that you also are willing to get down in the dirt with them to solve problems and remove obstacles.  Be clear that you are not going to take responsibility for their goals, but that if they get into trouble, you are going to be right there next to them fighting to win.