Stories from the frontline: Walter Kers, former navy and leadership trainer
If you want to learn what leadership in an operational, complex and challenging environment is about, Walter Kers is your go-to person. Walter served for more than 36 years in the Dutch Royal Navy of which 30 years in a leadership position. For his leadership in the navy, he received an order of chivalry. He pursued his professional career as a trainer and consultant at LiDRS, teaching pilots, lawyers and other professionals on how to lead 'horizontally' and 'vertically'. I talked with him over the course of a pizza to learn from his best practices.
Leadership is not only top-down management
Walter: "If people think about leadership, they usually have the classical vertical, top-down approach in mind. But leadership is not only vertical, it also about how you deal with peers and even your boss. For me leadership is the ability to influence others and get things done, either subordinates or colleagues or even friends and family."
Walter observed that this horizontal way of leadership is often overlooked by people. "A trainee said once that he did not need to lead because he had no managerial position. So I aksed him: do you want your reports to be acted upon? He said yes. You need to be able to influence your manager and colleagues to get done what you want. You need leadership skills to accomplish that."
Everybody can be a leader
Walter has a pragmatic view on leadership, which implies that everybody could learn it even without much talent. "Sometimes people say I can't do that because that's how I am and I can't change. That is nonsense. I have seen so many brilliant leaders in the navy who started from scratch. All you need is the right mindset, attitude and a 'toolbox' with a few elementary leadership models and tools."
Leading as a DJ
At LiDRS, Walter helped professionals to develop and expand their toolbox. He likes to use the analogy of 'the leader as DJ'. "Every leader has a controller with bars and knots which he or she can adjust dependent on what is needed. In my view, if you lack a certain skill, you can often compensate with another skill. If you are not a brilliant presenter, you can compensate by preparing well and making sure that you are dressed up appropriately. If you are not very diplomatic and you expect that you need that skill for a meeting, you could ask somebody else with diplomatic skills to join you."
Balancing people and task
What is crucial according to Walter is to stay human centered while focusing on the task that needs to be accomplished. "It sounds trivial but your work force is your most important asset. At marine vessel, you need each other to accomplish the mission. If you treat people right, they will walk the extra mile. I always tried to empower my crew on board. To put them in a position they can excel. Because I strongly believe that if you treat people well, they will never disappoint you."
That is not to say that leadership is about doing everything your crew wants. On the contrary, as a leader you set the rules of the game. And you need to make difficult decisions because of conflicting interests. Your people will understand that you cannot satisfy all their needs, as long as you are open and honest about it."
Vulnerability as strength
Key according to Walter is showing your vulnerability to others. "When I was young, I pretended to be somebody else when my boss was around. My crew noticed that of course and at one day a member gave me that feedback. It was so valuable. From that moment on I tried to be who I really was, regardless the situation."
Radically being yourself and being vulnerable. Essential and powerful leadership tools, according to Walter. "What I liked most about the leaders I worked with, is that they were human. One of my subordinates allowed me to go to the hospital with my daughter without having me to take days off. Such a small but for me important recognition of the situation I was in at that moment of time. He said: days off are meant for fishing or motor cycling, not for going to hospital."
"You need to earn it"
Walter concludes with a firm statement: "Contrary to popular believe, the navy is not very hierarchical. You need each other on board. Your ability to influence somebody else on board is determined by your rank only for a limited extend. There are so many other factors in play like behavior, trust, attitude, experience, task, etc. You need to earn it. That's why I strongly believe that, either in or outside the navy, you need to invest in your leadership!"