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April 28, 2021

Three Observations on Leading through Writing

By Gene Kim


I had mentioned in part one of my interview with Admiral John Richardson, how much I admired the two documents that Admiral Richardson had shared with me.

One had the title A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. And the other was the Navy Leader Development Framework. I loved both documents because they were both so clearly written. And it was such a treat listening to Admiral Richardson and Dr. Steve Spear talk about some of the early meetings as they were establishing some of these important concepts that went into those documents.

In version 1.0 of A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, that attribute of toughness (described in part two of my interview) is one of four attributes described. The document starts off with the mission, the strategic environment or problem statements. The next session is core attributes. Then he describes the four lines of effort. And the document ends with desired outcomes and conclusion.

Toughness is one of those four core attributes. The first is integrity, “our behaviors as individuals, and as an organization, align with our values as a profession. We actively strengthen each other’s resolve to act consistently with our values as individuals, as teams, and as a Navy, our conduct must always be upright and honorable both in public and when nobody’s looking.”

The second is accountability. “We are a mission-oriented force. We achieve and maintain high standards. Our actions support our strategy. We clearly define the problem we’re trying to solve and the proposed outcomes. In execution, we honestly assess our progress and adjust as required. We are our own toughest critic. On their own everybody strives to be the best they can be. We give 100% when on the job. Our leaders take ownership and act to the limit of their authorities. I love that. We foster a questioning attitude and look at new ideas with an open mind. Our most junior teammate may have the best idea. We must be open to capturing that idea.”

And fourth is toughness. “We can take a hit and keep going. Tapping all sources of strength and resilience, rigorous training for operations and combat the fighting spirit of our people and the steadfast support of our families. We don’t give up the ship.”

I want to share three observations.

1) After thinking about this document for weeks, I find it super interesting to look at its structure. The way most strategic documents seem to be written is you have high-level vision and mission, and then the objectives and key results. But contrast that to this document.

First is its mission and the strategic environment or the problem, and then they zoom down to core attributes, and then back up to the four lines of efforts or objectives. Isn’t it interesting that the core attributes is between the problem and the solution?

I think it’s because this further underscores the need for radical delegation. In fact, they clearly state they want “leaders to take ownership and act to the limits of their authorities.”

Until this document, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done like this before.

2) I was curious about how much effort obviously went into this document, so I asked Admiral Richardson over an email whether he used writing as a means to clarify his own thinking. And he did indeed confirm that is the case.

He wrote about how important it is to write words down, as opposed to just writing PowerPoint slides.

3) And his next step in the writing process is to keep reducing the size of the document to reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation. He would start the first 10 to 15 minutes of his senior leadership meetings by having everyone read a six-page document that was prepared by the person presenting a problem, an idea, or a proposal.

Bezos observed that in a traditional meeting where someone presents a slide deck, executives would interrupt with questions. However, with a written document, on page two you pose a question and on page six you present your answer. In a 2012 Fortune Magazine interview, he said that writing memos is an important skill to master. “Full sentences are hard to write. They have verbs, the paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Many have remarked that this is the clarity of thinking you need in order to reason about complex business decisions.

This was all very fun to read about because it demonstrates why writing is so valuable of a skill for senior leaders. 

To listen to the full episode or read the full transcript, visit The Idealcast episode page here.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Award winning CTO, researcher, and author.

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