Adapt or Die: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield

February 1, 2015
Rick Lynch

Rick Lynch is author of Adapt or Die: Leadership Principles from an American General. He can be reached at ricky.lynch55@gmail.com.

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-02-01-2015, Issue 14

The Army General who led the Iraqi 'surge’ campaign cites nine lessons that pharma leaders can apply in today’s come-from-behind struggle for market share.

I have been privileged over the past several years to be associated with senior executives from the pharmaceutical industry. I have been impressed by their passion and commitment. They have an intense desire to do well and to make a significant contribution to our society.


Rick Lynch

The pharmaceutical industry is essential to the innovation that leads to new cures and treatments for patients worldwide. I find myself amazed when I research your organizations and discover the sheer number and scope of medicines that you are bringing forward at great risk and significant up-front cost. You make a difference everyday, and I am sure that alone is very rewarding. It is important to our nation that the pharmaceutical industry continues to thrive. I am convinced that a key element of this is effective, adaptive leadership.

I have been blessed to be a leader at many levels. I graduated from West Point in 1977 and embarked on a 35-year military career, culminating in command of all the US Army installations, representing a annual budget of $12.3 billion and with responsibility for the welfare of some 120,000 staff. I commanded a division in combat in Iraq as part of the Bush Administration's troop surge initiative, as well as the largest operational force in the US Army when I commanded III Corps and Fort Hood Texas. I went to West Point because I couldn't afford to go to school anywhere else. When I left the Academy, I was convinced that I was only going to be in the Army for five years. That five years changed to 35 years, because it went from being a job, to a profession, to a passion. I loved the opportunity to lead folks in the accomplishment of important work. In the military, that work was our national security. It was protecting our freedoms and our way of life. In your business-pharmaceuticals-it is guaranteeing our future by focusing on our health and well being.

When I retired from the military, I decided to write a book that would capture my leadership experiences and lessons learned. I took 35 years in the Army and four years at West Point and condensed it to nine leadership principles, with a focus on faith and family. The book is entitled Adapt or Die: Leadership Principles from an American General.

Adaptive leadership is relevant to all segments of society, but it is especially critical to the pharmaceutical industry. It is imperative to build adaptive leaders and adaptive organizations. In today's environment, circumstances change almost continuously. Resources that were counted on are no longer available. Weather, war, natural disasters all impact what we are doing day to day.

I tell folks in my public presentations that if you slept well last night, you're not paying attention. We are a nation at risk. Just look at today's newspaper. The terrorist organization ISIS is growing. They are well resourced and well equipped, and they reject our freedoms and our way of life. Russia is threatening Eastern Europe. We have domestic terrorists amongst us who are trying to destroy our society.

A world of change

The pharmaceutical industry is highly volatile. When I was at the US Army War College, we talked about a world that is VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). That defines what your business is about. Today, yours is close to a trillion-dollar industry worldwide, which rivals energy. There is a steady shift to technological advances. Delivery of care methods are changing. Electronic medical records are evolving, and the data in such records may eventually be accessible to the patient directly through wearable devices or skin implants. Availability of healthcare is changing, with recent policy changes leading to greater demands. Global markets are changing, driven in large part by an aging population. There is greater competition. Evolving business models are leading to strange bedfellows. It takes 10-12 years to bring a drug to market, at high cost: $2.3 billion on average. And there is always the looming "patent cliff," when branded drugs come off patent and open up the door for generics. Taken together, what this means is the pharmaceutical industry needs adaptive organizations and adaptive leaders to run them.

The title of my book was carefully chosen. In the military, if leaders and organizations didn't adapt, folks literally died. In corporate America, if leaders don't adapt, organizations will self destruct-the analogous experience of "death in life."

Nine ways to lead

I don't want that to happen to our nation's pharmaceutical industry. What you do is too important. In that vein, I offer up some observations to enable you and your organizations to be more adaptive.

Terms of engagement. Engaged leadership is critical. It is really all about the people. Leaders should love their subordinates like they love their own children. The pharmaceutical workforce deserves leaders who care, who give colleagues the predictability that allows everyone to contribute their best and perform with confidence. But today's pharma CEO must ask intrusive questions to learn more about the workforce. It is critical to remember that leaders must be careful what they ask. There is no such thing as a casual conversation if you are a leader. If your employee tells you something based on your question, they expect that you will respond by doing something.

Strength in stability. Anyone who works for an employer five days, every week, deserve predictability. Constantly changing rules is a severe degradation to workforce morale. Leaders must protect their employees from changing circumstances, and give them as much freedom to thrive as possible. Before things are changed, leaders must analyze the impact of that change. I find much of the turbulence inside a company is self-inflicted.

Leaders must focus on opportunities, not obstacles. They must maintain a positive attitude even in times of crisis. They must search for the "silver lining" behind every unforeseen event. They must shield their workforce from any problem, and turn every event into an opportunity and not an obstacle.

Leaders must demonstrate work-life balance. They must show their employees that it is OK to focus on their families. It is possible to both work hard and play hard. It is all about time management, and focusing on important things. While on active duty, I was called the Family First General. I placed programs in place to force folks to take advantage of available time. I demanded that everyone be allowed to go home for dinner, by 6 p.m., and to leave at 3 p.m. on Thursdays to have more time with the family, and not to work on weekends except with my approval. It caused everyone to be more efficient with how they spend their time at work, and gave everyone much-needed time with their families.

Decision time-why rush? Leaders must decide when to decide. Too many times leaders make rash decisions, merely because they do not want to appear to be indecisive. The first decision a leader must make is when does the decision have to be made. Decide when to decide first. Then take advantage of all available time to research the decision, seek input from everyone involved, and talk to folks about the idea in advance to see how well it will be received. Don't rush it.

Downward mobility. I am convinced that leaders must look down, not up. Too many folks spend their work days trying to impress their boss. They ignore their employees. Your employees will take care of you if you take care of them. Focus on their needs, on their welfare. They will surprise you with what they can get accomplished.

Demand, don't demean. In order for an organization to be high performing, leaders must be demanding, but not demeaning. It is OK to demand adherence to high standards. When goals are accomplished, do the appropriate recognition and then "raise the high bar." Also, set goals that are just beyond reach to motivate increased performance. However, leaders don't need to be demeaning to do that. There is no need to belittle someone, to rant and rave, or use profanity. Be nice, but ensure the work gets done.

Open communication. Make it a point to have an effective counseling program in your organization. Require leaders to routinely sit down with their employees and discuss job performance. This has to be done at least quarterly. Tell folks how they are doing and what you expect of them. If they meet or exceed the standards, recognize them. If they fail, give them additional training or coaching to try and improve their performance. If they still fail, then let them go.

Seek a supportive mix. Leaders should always celebrate diversity. Not just social acceptance, but true celebration. Take a close look at who is in your "inner circle." If they look just like you, you are limiting yourself. True, it is easier to surround yourself with folks who act like you and think like you. However, all you get from such people is a reflection of yourself. Intentionally surround yourself with people from different age groups, genders, races-all have something distinctive to offer.

Mentee, mentor. Companies that have a vibrant mentor program do well. Everyone should have a mentor, and everyone should be a mentor. It is how companies grow and flourish. I believe the definition of a mentor is someone who has three characteristics. They are accessible, they listen well, and they truly care. Encourage your employees to seek out mentors. Have them determine what they would like to do as they progress in the company, and then pick a mentor who has already achieved those goals. Encourage your employees to be a mentor. Rarely have I seen formal mentor programs succeed.

Have a blast. Leaders should have fun. If the leader isn't having fun, no one is having fun. When people are having fun and enjoy what they do, they are more productive. They look forward to coming to work. If you look closely at the companies that people most like working at, they all have programs to encourage having fun.

Rick Lynch is author of Adapt or Die: Leadership Principles from an American General. He can be reached at ricky.lynch55@gmail.com.