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March 19, 2019

Command with Context

By Josh Fiorini

In analyzing any complex situation, a good approach is to analyze it both from the top down and the bottom up. Many business owners here may recognize these two approaches, as you likely employed them in developing your pricing: You must ask yourself what the market will bear and where the competition is setting prices (top-down), and then you must also perform a cost-plus analysis to ensure you can earn money in that market (bottom-up). When it comes to leadership, my last article tackled that topic from a high conceptual level, the top down if you will. Here I’m going to move the conversation back to the bottom.

At its most basic level, leadership is about getting someone or a group of people to do something. To do that, a leader or a manager must give directives, and those directives are initiated by goals to meet and backed by a team to assist in achieving them. But how are the details of all that accomplished?

That may seem like a silly question but think back through your own career experience. How many different styles of directing team members have you personally witnessed, be it in your own company, other companies or in the military or law enforcement? No doubt you can think of a number of approaches and styles and managers or leaders. Were they all effective? Can an approach that is effective in one environment translate to another?


The simplest way to get someone to follow a command is through leverage — “Do this or you’re fired.” Generally, the leader or manager who employs such a style holds some cards over the team members they are trying to “motivate,” whether those cards are the signature on their paycheck, greater influence with HR’s promotions list or some other benefit.

In the military, while much time is spent studying leadership concepts, and many amazing leaders are produced who are deft at employing many types of leadership techniques, at the rank-and-file levels, leverage can be very effective on its own. Orders can be barked with no explanation and must be followed because the follower is bound to do so by duty, honor, oath, law and his or her contract. However, this model has three inherent assumptions: 1.) The task being ordered is not complicated enough to require decision making or that some level of leader/manager will be present to handle needed decision making; 2.) that the penalties for disobedience are so great (and potentially life-threatening) that the expectation of disobedience occurring is negligible and, further, that the person cannot simply escape those penalties by walking off the job; and 3.) that most likely the soldier is deeply personally committed to the goal.

Now, a degree of leverage is built into every subordinate relationship in some way. But while many of us out there might endeavor to run their businesses with “military efficiency,” the reality is that those baseline assumptions inherent to military operations are not in effect in the business world.

There Is Always Something Beyond the Paycheck

Why does an employee come to work? To earn a paycheck of course. But there is often more to it, and while that paycheck may be sufficient short-term motivation (leverage), often it alone is not sufficient long-term motivation.

Most people have career goals. Some want to advance and run a business of their own someday, and some may be motivated by the opportunity to earn more in the future. For others it can be more esoteric; they find personal satisfaction in their job or are looking for a desirable work/family balance. Whatever shape those goals may take, they exist, and if an employee finds their employment situation incompatible with their personal goals, they will seek employment elsewhere over the long term — and possibly up and quit on the spot in extreme circumstances.

In a leverage-governed directive situation, employees do not learn, they are not made to feel valued and they are not developing a skill set. More importantly, it doesn’t take most people long to realize that those things do not line up with their goals. Additionally, the employee who is given a simple directive does not have the information necessary to deal with complicated tasks, and so, whether all those things combined or one becomes the camel’s last straw, issuing directives simply by leverage alone inevitably leads to the up-and-quit in the business world.

So, what’s the solution?

Context. The split-second, life-or-death circumstances that pervade in a military setting simply aren’t present in the business world. This means that leaders can take a moment to explain what they are trying to achieve. Instead of “Do this or you’re fired,” one can take the approach of “I’d appreciate it if you could do this because it will enable us as a team to do that, which is very important toward hitting our goal of X.” In the latter, the employee is still being given an order, but it’s framed in such a way that he or she understands why he or she is being given an order. This not only helps them be more effective, it educates them about the interdependencies in the organization, and it makes them feel valued and respected. The benefits in the short term are generally quickly realized, and in the long term, with context, you get an educated, effective and dedicated employee instead of one who is bitter and dissatisfied.

A personal challenge that I had with this in the manufacturing environment was getting our machinists to care — actually care — about the line parts inspection. They’d been given specifications and the means to check them, as well as an auditable log in which to record the findings, and yet there were still myriad errors.

The solution came with cross-training that emphasized a specification must be held because if it’s not, your friends a few feet away in the next section are going to have a really bad day. When our machinists understood the context — a certain spec needed to be maintained because it needed to fit here or avoid a tolerance stack there — all of a sudden, the errors dropped. Maintaining those standards was suddenly important to them too, not just management or the board or our customers, became it had become something they cared about and understood, rather than something they were simply paid to do under the threat of getting caught for slacking.

This dichotomy is perhaps never better illustrated than when managing a group of volunteers. There is little to no leverage at all in such an environment, and its leader must motivate their team on context, charisma and common goals alone. In that light, ask yourself if your leadership style would still work without leverage. If you wonder about the answer, employ the power of context.

Practical Application Exercises

To apply the lessons in this article, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Immediately after reading:

  1. Are there situations in which I exclusively rely on my leverage over employees to motivate them?
  2. Do my team members understand why their contributions are valuable and how they contribute to the success and functionality of the business?
  3. If unexpected circumstances arise, are my team members informationally equipped to make an intelligent decision?
  4. Am I taking steps to ensure that my team is developing and continuously gaining a greater understanding of the business and its goals?
  5. What can I do to improve? What specific steps can I take to provide context in the workplace?

Three months after reading:

  1. Do my employees understand the context of their jobs more today than they did 90 days ago? If you have mid- and/or line-level managers, they are the first people you need to train on this issue, as it is essential to have them working toward the same goal. Observe and evaluate them on these same criteria, and train and mentor where necessary to ensure the leadership style you want to utilize is being fostered at all levels of the organization.

About the Author
Josh Fiorini is the former CEO of PTR Industries, Inc. He spent the first decade of his career in finance, holding positions as an equity analyst and portfolio manager before starting his own hedge fund. This experience, along with a deep background in manufacturing, banking and private equity, has made him a sought-after contributor on numerous boards and discussion groups on political and economic issues for media outlets, corporations and community organizations. Fiorini currently invests his time and resources with non-profit initiatives and acts as a contributor and management consultant to various firms in the firearms industry as the founding and Managing Partner in the firm Narrow Gate Management.

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