Leadership By Wandering Around

I was pondering what to write for this new column and simultaneously trying to come up with a name for it, which was intentionally launched without a proper title until I saw how the column developed. Then, as I started dozing from all that thinking, it came to me: LBWA. That’s one of many acronyms I learned in the Marine Corps. It means “Leadership By Wandering Around,” and I think it might fit as both the subject of this month’s column and its title forevermore.

A History Lesson

I learned about LBWA from one of the Corps’ 20th-century heroes who retired in 1991 as its top dog, the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray. This highly-decorated fireplug of a man started as an enlisted man and worked his way to the top of the officer pyramid through bulldog tenacity and down-to-earth leadership values.

I’m not sure when Gray adopted the LBWA philosophy, but he had it perfected by the time I came under his command in the early 1980s. As a commanding general, he would, seemingly on the spur of the moment, decide to visit unannounced one of his subordinate units in the field. He would leave his headquarters, get in a car or an aircraft, and just show up.

The Element Of Surprise

In the civilian world of local government, this would be the equivalent of the state governor or the President of the United States walking into your office one day, unannounced, to sit down and chat.

In the military world, the effect is magnified. The troops love it, the senior staff maybe not so much. An unannounced visit from the Commandant of the Marine Corps elevated what we called the “pucker factor” exponentially for senior leadership.

But Gray wasn’t doing this to harass his officers or intimidate anyone. He did it because he knew that, in order for leaders to find out how things really are going, they have to leave their office and get out where things are happening. He knew he would find out more if he asked a young enlisted Marine or a junior officer questions than if he went up the chain of command. And it was true.

Most of the time, Gray bypassed the base commander’s office and headed straight to the field-training areas, live-fire zones or air fields. He wanted to talk to his Marines.

Gray had this habit of swaggering up to you and thumping you on the arm with the force of a pile driver and saying, “How’s it going, Marine?” But he didn’t just say that as a casual greeting, for he really wanted to know how it was going. He would ask Marines questions about what their job was, how they were doing the job, what problems they faced, what needed to happen to improve it.

He would travel all over the base, popping into work spaces, joking with Marines, asking questions. He normally was accompanied by an aide who was furiously taking notes. By the time the base commanding officer received word that the Commanding General was on base and caught up with him, Gray had already achieved what he came for, a ground-view of the war. He went back to his headquarters and actually used that information to lead his command.

Maintain Focus

There is a lesson to be learned here for parks and recreation leaders, myself included. We all get caught in the trap of too much administrative work. Budget preparations, reports, elected officials’ “special requests,” answering endless e-mails and other distractions can keep posteriors planted in office chairs. Over time, it is easy to lose sight that the parks and recreation services are delivered by people, in the field, for the public.

Leaders won’t be able to provide their staffs the resources they need if they don’t stay connected with the people actually delivering services. And they won’t be able to gauge whether the services are being delivered effectively unless they talk with service recipients.

When I first started as the Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) here more than 10 years ago, I was new to the field, so I spent much of my first two or three years out of my office. I’d spend time with program coordinators, facility staffs and maintenance crews finding out what it took to keep things running correctly. I asked many questions and received many answers that I used to formulate plans and policies. I was operating under the LBWA philosophy.

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