Imagine being part of a fleeing army of 6,000 -- exhausted, sick, miserably armed, and suddenly cut off by a fortified and fresh enemy numbering 25,000. England's King Henry V found himself in exactly that position during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Now imagine winning such a battle. The English did just that, losing only about 100 men while taking out more than 6,000 French troops.
Scholars today still find it amazing that Henry impelled his men to charge into what must have felt like certain death. Historians (and Shakespeare, in Henry V) credit his leadership. For the entire battle, Henry fought shoulder to shoulder with his men. At one point, he was struck so hard in the head that it dented his helmet. (The damaged helmet still hangs above his tomb at Westminster Abby.)
INVERT THE MODEL. It's easy to forget the power of a true leader, one willing to risk serious injury. Like some of today's CEOs, medieval kings often went near battlefields but avoided 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. They, in turn, held their soldiers accountable. Sound familiar? Henry elevated himself to a respected military leader by turning this model upside down -- making himself accountable to his men -- and charging on foot into the fray.
Even after the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, too many big companies today are run by 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 (HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina's desperate terminations of key managers as the company's board began to close in on her.
GET YOUR HELMET DENTED. By their very nature, small businesses tend to initially operate via Henry-type leaders -- people who instinctively lead from the front. In the early stages of business, outfits suffer from extreme vulnerability 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).
When a company begins to succeed, the non-accountability danger creeps in, often imperceptibly. Battle weary and suddenly financially secure, leaders may start to feel that they have earned their place in 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 signal the beginning of the end.
So, how can a leader keep the fighting spirit alive in his organization? Simple. Put yourself in a position to get your helmet dented -- regularly.
INVITE CHALLENGES. 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 Milquetoast input. Bring on the toughest, most driven people you can find -- preferably those running firms at least five times your size -- who can tell you what's in store over the next horizon.
Give them meaningful incentives, and tell them to challenge you and your company to work to full potential -- no matter how much it hurts. Invite your direct reports to board meetings so they can watch you get booted 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 -- CEOs rarely assign their own names to any of them. Whether they realize it or not, this qualifies as rear-guard leadership.
AID YOUR ARMY. 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 to which he personally commits in the coming quarter. Then he gives everyone in the company 48 hours to do the same. By picking tough goals for himself, he calls upon all workers in the organization to stretch themselves and commit -- reasoning that if the CEO can risk failing, so can they.
Roll up your sleeves. Let people know you want them to take on the toughest challenges -- but that you will get down in the dirt with them to solve problems and remove obstacles. Make it clear that you're not going to take responsibility for their goals but that if they get into trouble, you'll be right there next to them, fighting to win.