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Joint Force Quarterly 74 (3rd Quarterly, July 2014)

Book Review: Leadership in the New Normal

By Gerald L. Mitchell Joint Force Quarterly 74

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Leadership in the New Normal

Leadership in the New Normal is a short course in leadership in which the author traces good to great leadership attributes in such forefathers as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and by doing so he really describes the nature of leadership itself. Lieutenant General Honoré, USA (Ret.), postulates that we won our freedom because of leadership during the critical times in our history, such as Valley Forge and the Civil War, and leadership will continue to help us as we transition to the next “new normal” period.

From history and from his own vast experiences in tough command and staff assignments, Honoré shares his thoughts about the first three lessons of leadership:

  • good leaders learn to do the routine things well
  • good leaders are not afraid to act even when criticized
  • good leaders are not afraid to take on the impossible.

The author backs up his assertions with historical examples and with his own highly publicized experiences as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. He provides a framework for success through leadership, whether it is at the national security level, in the military, in the business world, or inside a family. His motto of “See first, Understand first, Act first” is described in terms of understanding the environment, understanding what is important, and understanding how to determine the best course of action, solution, or option as fast as possible. He also describes how to get subordinates to buy in to the mission. The leadership he portrays is applicable to any and all types of organizations—even at home (and maybe most importantly there).

The story is told of a prize pig that has a leadership lesson for us as we wrestle with the dilemma of resource constraints—near-term, instant gratification versus long-term growth and development. Every organization from the government, military, businesses, and education system faces this dilemma.

What is unique about Honoré’s instruction is that he tackles the difficult issues with an old-fashioned common sense approach. What is the nature of leadership? What are the crucial lessons gleaned from the study of some of our nation’s greatest leaders? How do the important aspects of leadership change with the strategic and global environment? How do leaders instill a philosophy and culture of “mission command” in their subordinates and organizations? How do they know and recognize the right problems to solve? How do they motivate their people? What does education have to do with leadership in government, the military, or business?

The author takes on these questions in sequence. Chapter 1 describes his take on the “nature of leadership.” He goes back to our nation’s beginning and uses George Washington’s ability to lead “a rag-tag army” to victory over a far superior British force. In chapter 2, he extrapolates critical leadership lessons from decisive points in our history that are just as vital today. He writes, “No great change comes without leadership and sacrifice.”

Chapter 3 explores the notion that our nation transitioned through change constantly, always adapting to the new normal, and that leaders must recognize change to be successful. The general describes the key variables he sees in America’s latest new normal and expands this discussion to the global environment in chapter 4. How have “extreme population density, the incredibly fast transmission of information, the rise of terrorism, the interconnectedness of business, and the growth of the ranks of the poor” created the new normal and shaped the global environment of today and the near future? The author offers his keen insights on causes and effects and correlations.

Honoré’s 37 years of service in demanding command and staff assignments under tremendously adverse conditions (think of South Korea and Germany in the dead of winter and the desert heat of the Middle East—or perhaps worse, the political firestorm in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) shaped his understanding of leadership in changing environments. What leaders learn about leadership itself and mission command when trying to inspire subordinates to accomplish a mission when they are cold, wet, hungry, and tired is invaluable. Honoré shares his lessons learned and answers questions in chapters 5 through 8, which concern how leaders instill a culture of mission command in their subordinates and organizations, how leaders know and recognize the right problems to solve, and how leaders motivate their organizations.

One of the author’s most passionate themes throughout the book is the importance of education in leader development. He points his finger at the education system as the problem behind many of our nation’s social issues—but it is also the solution. He is adamant that a sound education will lead to success in life. He closes with sage advice about the importance of practicing good leadership (and followership) at home. Look around at the next retirement ceremony (or funeral) and determine if that individual followed the general’s counsel about leadership at work and at home.

This is an easy read with plain and simple language that is packed with lessons for any leader in any capacity. It is a great follow-up to his book Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters (Atria Books, 2009). JFQ