I’ve written how the United States Navy shaped my leadership style in the communication world. Those lessons have been on my mind recently as we watch Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s operational failures recall valuable lessons learned as a young sailor, many of which are applicable for PR leaders.
The first, and maybe most important, lesson to share is empower your people. Beyond the bravery and motivation of the Ukrainian people, many of the Russian military’s structural and organizational failures are to blame for its struggles.
Chief among them is the Russian Army’s strongly centralized command structure; it’s very top-down. This means that senior enlisted personnel and junior officers aren’t empowered to make decisions.
Russian troops don’t know the complete objective for missions and they’re given only small-scale, tactical directions—move to this position, dig fortifications, wait for orders, etc.
Not knowing a mission's larger objective and goals means troops can’t pivot when circumstances change. If you’re told to drive down a road and hold a bridge, but the road is blocked, you can’t really make a decision about what to do if you’re unsure why you need to do it.
Know the mission
By comparison, the U.S. Navy briefs sailors on larger mission objectives. Sailors must understand the why and how of what their squadron is doing.
On top of that, as a lieutenant once told me, “In the absence of further orders, do what is right for the mission.” Those simple words pack a hell of a punch. Unlike the average Russian soldier, I felt empowered to think on my feet and make decisions.
That said, we're all guilty of top-down management. It's something we strive to address. In doing so, PR leaders need to ask:
- Am I providing my team—especially below the VP level—the entire picture of what a campaign is trying to accomplish?
- Am I letting my people make decisions based on campaign’s goals? Or am I just handing out orders for them to follow and expecting a perfect outcome?
Sometimes we feel it’s quicker to do something ourselves rather than delegating it. The justifications are clear: “We could lose this business; I need to be the one to handle it,” or “My team is too junior to make these kinds of decisions.”
It can seem like the stakes of PR work are life or death. Trust me, they’re nothing compared to the seriousness of war, and the US military still puts faith in a relatively young force to accomplish its goals.
Once again, the Russian invasion of Ukraine sets a valuable counter-example. Moscow's military has lost an “extraordinary” number of senior officers in Ukraine. One reason relates to delegating. Since junior personnel aren’t empowered to make decisions, generals must go to the front lines to get anything done.
Empowering your people by giving them the full picture and trusting they can make good decisions isn’t a guarantee for success–there’s no such thing. But what it will do is make your PR team more agile, adaptable, and responsive. All of this will result in better outcomes for those you represent.
Some tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t be a bottleneck. You’re one person. Not everything has to come through you. Any campaign work will have lots of tasks that don’t require your input. Don’t get involved if you don’t have to.
- Trust your team. You hired people to work. Doing it for them doesn’t help you, or your company, and it doesn’t help companies you represent. Let people do their jobs, and let them know you’re counting on them.
- People make mistakes. That includes PR leaders who head in-house communication and agencies. But mistakes are essential to learning and growing in any profession–including the military. Learning from mistakes will allow junior team members to become more experienced and insightful.
PR leaders can learn much from Russia’s catastrophic blundering in Ukraine, even if it’s just what NOT to do.
Anthony LaFauce is managing director at Clyde Group