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Adjusting My Military Leadership Style

Leadership
Internal Communication

10 June, 2021

Jason Mawdsley
Jason Mawdsley

Director, System Software at nVidia

Jason Mawdsley, Director System Software at NVIDIA, speaks of his efforts to adjust his military leadership style to a more empathic approach prevalent in the civilian knowledge-based workforce.

Problem

I always knew I wanted to pursue the management path. However, most of my management experience was influenced by the time I spent in the military. The style of leadership people are taught in the military is in stark contrast to the style of leadership in a civilian knowledge-based workforce.

The first thing people are taught in the military is to follow. Only once they become followers are they taught the attributes and qualities of a leader and the fundamental leadership principles. Because of that, when later in my civilian career, I was transitioning from an IC to a team leader, some of my default behavior -- learned in the military -- didn’t resonate well with people in the knowledge-based workforce.

Actions taken

One of the first pieces of feedback I got from my manager on my leadership style was that I was too blunt. I was advised to be more empathetic and less harsh to people if I wanted to build rapport. That came up as a surprise. I was not blunt because I was mean; I was blunt because I wanted to be transparent with my expectations, whether those are expectations about a customer or product we were delivering. I believed that if I stated my expectations plain and simple, then there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding.

Some people were fine with that approach, but others were put off by that bluntness and became a bit defensive. After talking with some of them, I learned that they felt intimidated and that my approach was quite counterproductive. It took me a while to understand that. I got so used to being yelled at in the military that I never thought of it as extraordinarily rude, intimidating, or even personal.

I had to understand how to change my approach and become more cognizant of how people felt and what was their preferred style of leadership and communication. To do that, I relied on some other aspects of my military training. For example, an important attribute of being a leader is to know who your followers are, or team members, in civilian jargon. I had to learn what motivated them and what their past life experiences and aspirations were. Learning how they liked to be talked to and what was their preferred style of leadership and communication allowed me to tailor my style to match their expectations and preferences.

This was not something I applied only in my communication with my team members. At different levels across the organization, people had different preferences. I tailored my approach when I was managing up and across, influencing sponsors and peers alike. As the saying goes, “Different strokes for different folks.” Learning to be more thoughtful and acknowledge differences helped me grow and become the leader I am today.

Lessons learned

  • The participatory leadership approach is the one that gets the most support in a knowledge-based workforce. That means talking to all people affected, collecting their feedback, arranging for a group discussion, etc. Of course, guiding people toward consensus is an ideal scenario that doesn’t always come true, but at least you should ensure that everyone is listened to.
  • There are many techniques to bring people on the same page, from directed discussion to internal convincing. But, whenever you can apply a participatory approach, people will feel they have a stake in it and be more invested.
  • The military has its own safety or time constraints that made it possible for another leadership style to emerge. In dangerous, crisis-ridden situations, there is no time for convincing, for endless debates, and getting everyone on board. Civilian context is rarely a life-or-death situation, and an extra hour spent for discussion would not make the difference.

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