The Memo: Leadership and Followership in
Completed Staff Work

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The Memo: How the Classified Military Document that Helped the U.S. Win World War II Can Teach You How to Succeed in Business

The Memo original undated The MacArthur Memorial Norfolk, Virginia

The Memo
original undated
The MacArthur Memorial
Norfolk, Virginia

Did a memo help the U.S. win World War II?

We were losing. By 1941, Germany had conquered significant parts of the Soviet Union. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Italy assaulted Greece.

The Axis Powers were thought to be unstoppable. Great Britain was about to be invaded. Moscow was about to be overrun. China was disintegrating.

But over the next four years, the Axis Powers were crushed and surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.

How did the Free World reverse its losses and go on to win?

Peter Drucker once said that WWII was determined, not by superior arms as we often imagine, but by getting things done. “The Allies won,” said Drucker, “their victory achieved by management.”

The covert doctrine that led to our victory was outlined in a rather mundane sounding memorandum titled: Completed Staff Work.

This message was so vital to the war effort that the USA’s leadership was concerned about its falling into enemy hands. During WWII, the military restricted its distribution because it was concerned with security. However, the closely-held secret was not only about troop movements, armament capabilities or the atom bomb. The Allied generals wanted to ensure that the enemy would not know that the Free World knew how to execute. The Allies had refined the practice of management and wartime discipline.

Today, on the business battlefield, clichés abound: Do the work. Plan your work and work your plan. But the reality is that organizations still struggle to get projects completed on time and within budget. Everyone from newly hired employees up to the CEO is still searching for the “secret sauce.” What is the magic formula that will help employees get work done on time and help people be more effective managers?

In fact, the secret ingredient is spelled out in this military memo and remarkably, The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work has withstood testing–literally–under fire. The Memo is based on original research.  The doctrine was published in the 24 January 1942 edition of the Army Navy Journal and probably classified later.

This book uncovers the origins, history and application of decision-making and execution using vignettes from armed conflicts. The lessons are also recounted in case studies of (somewhat) less violent business situations. The management practice of getting work done through the thinking support of others will be revealed in an entertaining and enlightening style.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of books on leadership development are available. However, there are far fewer tomes about how to be a good subordinate. In addition, there is virtually no literature on that magical intersection of leader and follower. This book provides a fresh examination of the relationship between the manager and staff.

Leadership and management books often focus on the self, the person of the Great Man—but organizations actually succeed through the motivation of others. Look at most job descriptions in every industry and you’ll see something along the lines of “Able to work independently and as part of a team.” Particularly with today’s virtual and remote work patterns, understanding how to get work done in a visible enough way to earn a promotion is a priority for many employees.

This book will serve as a reference guide for both leaders, and those who report to them. I will examine the disparate duties of the manager and his direct reports, situated within the environment around them – and offer strategies that will help the team, and its manager as coach, get work done.

The Memo sits at the juncture of Leadership and Followership.

Leadership and Management and Organizational Behavior courses are common offerings in higher education and most are, well, academic (and I’ve taught more than my share).

The literature is thin, however, on Followership perhaps because hierarchy is not popular. But this book will show that subordinates on the organizational chart can be leaders in their positions, and in “managing the manager.” This is the most logical path to recognition, independence and promotion.

In order to accomplish organizational goals, real leaders teach their teams to both lead and to follow. This book may well be the first to combine the actual practice of how:

1) Managers lead their teams, and

2) Teams can manage their managers

This real-world guide teaches the manager how to make decisions that get the most from his direct reports and his support system. This is — The Practice of Leadership.

This book also explains how team members can make recommendations to work most effectively with their managers and other parts of the organization. This is — The Practice of Followership.

The Memo recognizes that the work of the manager is to make decisions. And the research, options and recommendations are best done by the manager’s team. The team recommends and then the boss decides.

The one word that describes this Completed Staff Work is “anticipation.”

The Memo will teach the manager and his team how to get it.

***

From the back cover:

The Memo page 2

The Memo
page 2

Much is known about how the Atom bomb helped the United States achieve the final victory in World War II.

However, little is known about a weapon perhaps even more powerful: a Memo. Classified “Restricted” by the U.S. War Department, the Memo contained a management doctrine under the subject of “Completed Staff Work.”

This memo turned military command structure on its head and re-focused on the power of staff instead of their commanders.

Simply put, instead of relying on Generals and senior leaders to think up solutions and then order Staff Officers to implement, Staff Officers would be charged with presenting fully developed solutions on which command could sign-off.

Now unclassified, this Memo holds valuable lessons that will help any employee advance in his or her career. Unlike books on leadership, The Memo emphasizes followership and shows aspiring employees how to advance by employing the power of teamwork to make their leaders successful.

Publication: 15 May 2017, Post Hill Press, distributed by Simon and Schuster,

The Memo Yoest pubshotBy John Wesley Yoest, Jr.

Clinical Assistant Professor of Management,

The Busch School of Business and Economics

The Catholic University of America

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28 Responses

  1. Gregory Holodak says:

    The idea of not relying fully on the general or commanding officer to make all decisions makes a lot of sense. Lower ranking soldiers are the ones on the front lines whereas generals tend to work behind the scenes. This gives soldiers insight and opinions that the generals do not get from their point of view. By listening to the soldiers and combing all points of view the whole army can be given a clear understanding as to what is happening. The same practice can be applied to business; CEO rather than general and lower level employees instead of soldiers.

  2. Adrienne Thompson says:

    One element that struck me the most while reading this article was the concept of “anticipation.” Whether is required within the military or business, anticipation is a key characteristic for leaders and followers. In order to work independently and as part of a team, leaders and followers use the concept of anticipation to plan ahead and manage tasks that can be done in the most efficient and effective manner. The leader anticipates what is best needed for the business or system as a whole, and the team anticipates what the leader needs based on the goal that is needed to be met. Through anticipation one can plan ahead, use time management to prioritize, and most importantly- get things done.

  3. Jack Egizi says:

    I do believe that a memo could be the real weapon to help the United States army win the war. Because actions are powerful, but they are always backed up by words and ideas that mean so much more. The United States was not the power house that it currently is, and needed direction in order to be more successful in the war. Without direction, atomic bombs can misfire and go to the wrong place. An army is nothing without direction and a leader, its just a group of followers. The memo being the secret weapon makes perfect sense. America needed direction to be more successful in the war and that memo gave them just that.

  4. Hans Wartenberg says:

    The military, as exemplified by the restricted memo, relies on manager and staff relationships similar to business. If the commanding officer, similar to the manager, were to give an order and the subordinate staff chose not to listen or do not have respect for the commanding officer due to some disparate treatment, the entire operation could be in jeopardy. Business and big projects are the same way and rely on a cohesiveness between the commanding officer/manager and the staff. It is precisely this cohesiveness or ability to listen and be listened to that makes efficient completed staff work possible. The commanding officer/manager needs to listen to his staff and the staff needs to listen to the commanding officer/manager. The respect and mutual understanding goes both ways and can be the difference between something as critical as winning or losing a war.

  5. Elizabeth Gittings says:

    “Anticipation”. I believe that no one can ever be too prepared and I think that this specific word represents a characteristic that makes up a good leader. With this in mind, a leader should never plan for the best, and cannot achieve the best without trusted workers. The relationship between a worker and his boss is one that should be reciprocal and open so as to ensure a flow of ideas to execute the optimal plan. Especially during WWII there was no time to send approvals back and forth. Each second mattered in the race against Germany and the military made an executive decision to, in essence, take out a lot of the executive power. This promoted a positive work environment which also proved successful and a new stepping way for every business today.

  6. Aws Alkhashrami says:

    I like how the Memo focuses on two important aspects about the relationship between managers and employees: the teamwork and the decisions made by the manager. When the team does the research, options, and recommendations, the manager has to examine their work and make a decision. These two aspects are consequential and they are intertwined because when the team completes the work, it has to be approved by the boss in order to make a final decision. I believe that it is necessary for the team members to make sure that they are as efficient as possible, so that the manager could make the best decision.

  7. Kathleen Roszyk says:

    All good work systems comprise of employees that perform together in unity, to “get things done,” both on time and efficiently. Although one typically thinks that the most important role in the hierarchy is the top/boss’s leadership, the followership of the staff merits great importance as well. In today’s workforce, a supported, motivated team that works both independently and as a team creates a productive, thriving environment. In many of today’s retail companies, the sales support employees have the authority to accept returns, honor special sales, and make other decisions. This formerly “management only” decision-making authority now allows for quick decisions that aid in retaining happy customers and happy empowered employees.

  8. Brenden Amanto says:

    Two things jumped out at me when reading this article. First, the idea that staffers would come to the generals with solutions, not problems, second, that there is such thing as a “magic secret sauce” to running a good business. The idea that staffers can come to any boss or manager with a solution to a problem is key in the mid of a boss or leader. No manager, general, or boss wants to be presented with a problem and have no solution to it. The subordinate or the staffer will have much better success if he or she is presenting a solution along with that problem. Second, there is no such thing as a “secret sauce”, every company is different and with that different employees. Meaning that there is not going to be an exact formula that will make the company grow it will vary from company to company. However, if everyone in the company is on the same page and has the same ethical, moral and goal in mind the company will grow and prosper from the top down.

  9. Brian Rogers says:

    This section gives us great insight on how important the followers or employees are to the success of a business or in this case a military. Many times bosses or generals are working behind the scenes on the bigger issues that will affect the outcome of the entire business. It is important that the employees in the “frontline” are able to tackle the everyday minor problems that may come up in the course of business. Because they are able to deal with these problems themselves it allows the managers to only deal with bigger issues and have confidence that the everyday office will be efficient even in their absences.

  10. Phil Pastrone says:

    I think a key point from this article is how this book is intended for both leaders and followers. Leading and Following are often looked at as two jobs that are complete opposites. In reality a good follower should be practicing a certain level of leadership, and a good leader should certainly know how to follow. He must know how to follow because he must be open to ideas from his subordinates who have greater expertise in certain areas than he does. The Memo is so perfect for enhancing productivity of the team because it promotes teamwork and active following in the right way.

  11. Grant Cz. says:

    This is all very interesting, the concept of followers having some decision making power. I like this concept because in the long run it does provide a more efficient and new way to get shit done and a radically different business model where followers have power and are not bossed around and commanded. I don”t like the idea however that people believe there is a “secret formula” like there is with a Krabby Patty. Businesses are different, they each run certain ways, they each run efficiently using different methods and sometimes changing how a business runs can be a very good thing.

  12. Cai Li Pleshe says:

    The way to get work done is through the help of others. Even if your title isn’t a leader title, you can still be one in your job. Real leaders teach their teams how to lead and follow. Managers are leaders for their teams helping them dig into their potential. The manager’s team can also manage the manager. The team researches and comes up with the ideas and he manager makes the final decision. In the case of the military, the US won because of the leadership of subordinates. Without the help of the subordinates, the result may have been different.

  13. Megan Reilly says:

    I think the concept of “Completed Staff Work” can be best summed up in two relationships: the relationship between anticipation and execution, and the relationship between a manager and his staff. Work can best be accomplished in an environment that allows staff members to anticipate the needs of the boss. In a decentralized work environment, decision-making occurs where the information is- at staff level. Work gets executed by those best informed and best qualified, thus generating the best results for a manager. The best way for a manager to “work” is by directing staff work down a productive and beneficial path for future company growth.

  14. Bernardo Guillamon says:

    What struck out to me the most was the quote, “organizations actually succeed through the motivation of others”. Motivating others and giving them the power to come up with ideas for themselves is a very powerful tool for managing and important for promoting teamwork. When the Staff Officers had to present fully developed solutions and present them to their superiors to sign-off on outlines a very important point. Making your team members come up with solutions and ideas causes them to think and having everyone think of solutions on their own improves the team’s productivity and efficiency. Having 100 people thinking of ideas is better than having 10. Therefore, it would cause the leaders to lead better and the team members to learn, grow, and influence each other.

  15. Gabriel Daviu Molinari says:

    Giving lower ranking soldiers the decision making ability is extremely important for a team to work efficiently. These higher ranking officers such as generals should be focused on the big picture of the war. The lower ranking officers, however, are in the front lines and they are where the action happens. they are the first to know what happens when it happens. As said in class the decision making should be passed to who has the information. The subordinates are who are there can work on the smaller problems and situations. Not everything should be passed by the General’s desk. If the decision making is also passed down the feeling of importance to the subordinates, where morale and efficiency increase.

  16. Jake Heisler says:

    “The Allies won, said Drucker, their victory achieved by management.” This quote is a testament to the American way of perfecting and excelling. Further on in the article, it is mentioned that there is much less literature on how to be a good follower than there is on how to be a good leader. I believe this is partly from everyone’s inner drive to be a “more important” person in the world; however, people without the understanding of what a good follower should do most likely can’t be a good leader. Understanding the minds of the follower is just as important as understanding how to be a leader. Once both attributes are attained, then real leadership can ensue.

  17. Liam Darcy says:

    The key idea brought forth that was striking to me was that is the role of the manager to foster local knowledge. It is the role of the manager to delegate responsibilities and set forth a plan in place but it is the role of the staff to accomplish these goals using their own tacit knowledge. When workers are more empowered they are able to fulfill organizational goals without being asked. When workers can act successfully on their own accord the production time decreases exponentially for they do not have to wait for direction or instruction.

  18. William Lashar says:

    What stuck out most for me was the statement near the end of the article, “instead of relying on Generals and senior leaders to think up solutions and then order Staff Officers to implement, Staff Officers would be charged with presenting fully developed solutions on which command could sign-off.” This struck well with me because last summer I had a job in which I or other employees at my level would offer solutions to the manager or people higher up in the company and were immediately written off like we were worthless. Had the company implemented a system like the US military did, there may have been much more production throughout the summer and in the future as it would boost the employees’ morale and encourage teamwork.

  19. Jay Howard says:

    I believe this article did a great job in highlighting the people who are not in high positions of power, along with the people who are leaders. The people who are not in those positions of power should still obtain some type of leadership capabilities. The military is a great example; sometimes the non-commissioned officers will have to make decisions even without an officers insight. This makes work get completed more efficiently if your “followers” can lead. Similar to a business environment, the “commissioned officer” or manager that is leading should put trust into the workers below them. This makes a business friendly environment and puts more capabilities in the ones below the manager. Lastly, I agreed with the way this article describes a leader and the ideas about listening and cohesiveness between leaders and followers.

  20. Brian Curley says:

    You should always work like the boss even when your title says differently. It is important to have a CEO mindset because that is the only way you will work your way up to that position. If an entire company acts as if every person is a boss then it would run extremely efficiently. Your mindset should never change in business just as your work ethic should never, they should remain constant.

  21. Raymond A. Watson says:

    One word that is mentioned in this article is anticipation. This word has a greater meaning regarding the example of the US military and normal businesses. In a world full of difficult tasks and unnerving situations, anticipation must be a primary key for leaders and followers. Leaders and followers must be able to anticipate any type of task or situation so they can help the business itself. The Leader must be able to anticipate what is the best path to take in order to help the business, meanwhile the followers must anticipate how to help further the managers own needs so everyone can be on the same page and helping the business achieve its main objective. I found that anticipation is really necessary not only in a business environment, but in life. We must all be able to anticipate any type of plan or situation because nobody knows what might happen and how it can affect them.

  22. Katarina Percopo says:

    “Real leaders teach their teams to both lead and to follow” These words are so true and are quite powerful. A leader is supposed to give their team the knowledge and skills to follow them but to also stand up and help lead. It is important in business to make sure that managers teach their employees to follow them and to also be a leader and get work done and come up with ideas and solutions to any problems that may arise in the workplace. A boss need their team to step up and research and come up with solutions to bring to the boss instead of bringing problems, this helps a manager to be able to make decisions and not have to come up with all the ideas and solutions.

  23. Michael Cavanaugh says:

    Completed staff work in the United States military helped us win World War 2. This is because it allows for things to get done and a strong management system. This is because completed staff work calls for strong subordinates. Strong subordinates are able to work both independantly and as part of a team, and can often be a leader in their position. The article describes the most logical path to recognition, independence, and promotion as being able to manage the manager. This is because when a subordinate manages the manager it makes the life of the manager a whole lot easier. It allows for more stuff to get done as well as shows the employee in better light to the manager. If an employee can anticipate the needs of the manager or what it takes to get stuff done it allows for the advancement of employees.

  24. Abayomi Adebayo says:

    This article was interesting because it highlighted how a memo may have saved the United Stated of America in World War II. What I got from this article was how it is important for the boss and his or her employees to have a good relationship. This means there is mutual trust and respect. The boss must also know that he must listen to the employees. In the case of the article it was the soldiers I the front line. They know exactly what is going on and their opinions should have strong value. A boss who take their employees comments into consideration will likely have more success than if they only do it their way.

  25. Hasan Abuzinadah says:

    Memo is a very important thing in the business world. It’s also important in any serious matter like the one mentioned in the article. Also this articls emphasize on how the relationship between a boss and his employees should be. It also shows how the boss and his employees must have trust between them . The articles also gives a good explanation how a leader should be.

  26. Abdulmajeed Anwar says:

    The article describes how a memo can help both the manager and the staff. It gives an insight on what is expected of the manager and the staff of an organization. It also emphasizes the importance of individual effort in a team and the kind of relationship that should exist between a manager and his or her team.

  27. Adel Alqurashi says:

    It seems to me this article explains well how mangers should not only lead but also be lead. A good manager knows how to lead. But how does he know? He knows because a good manager will let his employees lead (to a certain extent) and manage their unity. A good manager does not dictate the path of a company rather, he keeps the employees together as they lead the company to success. A good manager knows how to lead others but does not become tyrannical.

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