I am often careful of the words I choose to use and one of the many words that I dislike hearing as much as saying is the word “Mandatory”. In fact, I just call it “The “M” Word”. In the military it is used daily and I must admit that I am appreciative of the fact that  I personally hear it less frequently than I used to. It seems to be the default word for those who are unable to help others see the benefit of executing a task or taking on a responsibility. The way I see it leaders have two choices, we can help others see meaning in what we are being asked to do or we can shirk our responsibility and attempt to simplify things by making them mandatory. Earlier this month, I spent an entire day doing mandatory training on two separate occasions (different training topics, thank goodness). Having been in the Navy and working in the intelligence field for 21 years, I have taken both sets of training more than a dozen times. That said, I spent an entire workday doing little more than watching, listening to, and clicking through computer based training I had seen more than I care to admit. I did my best to make it meaningful use of my time, but it wasn’t. I learned these things the first time the training was mandated and I am sure I relearned a little less the second, third, fourth, and fifth times I executed the same. I think of what other more meaningful things I could have done with that day that I will never get back and during which I contributed very little.

The second training was different. Yes, it was mandatory and no attempt to communicate the associated value was made. A simple justification of, “it is mandatory so be there.” The good thing was those who conducted the training saw things very differently. They knew we were there simply because we were told to be, so they took it upon themselves to make it a meaningful experience. They had been the ones sitting through this training in years past, so they cared enough to mix things up and ensure we didn’t leave the day thinking, “What a waste of time!” They succeeded. They took a mandatory evolution and made it meaningful despite the directive approach that made sure our butts were in the seats, without much care as to whether or not our minds accompanied.

Earlier in the month, the base conducted a 9/11 Resiliency Run as a way of remembering what happened on that horrific day in 2001, acknowledging the significant sacrifices many continue to make, and celebrating the successes we have enjoyed combatting terrorism since that day. Unlike the last mandatory run we had, this one was not. The invitation to participate in this experience did not include “The “M” Word”. Instead, it communicated the meaning and intent of the run. Unlike last time when it was stated to be mandatory, I chose to show up. Because I chose to be there and because it was meaningful, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I will attend the next one.

Just because we make things mandatory doesn’t mean we are absolved from making the experience meaningful. Personally, I like making things optional and doing my best to make the experience so meaningful that people want to be there. Attendance over time becomes a metric of the value we are creating. We shouldn’t have to make training mandatory and we shouldn’t have to mandate attendance. Instead, we should make learning meaningful, and we should make participation a meaningful experience. Though I understand the intent behind using it, I still cringe when I hear “The “M” Word”. I believe that weak leaders make things mandatory, weak leaders lead through directives, and weak leaders take away opportunities for others to demonstrate personal initiative.

If it is important enough to make it a requirement, it is vital that we make it meaningful. If we truly want it to be meaningful, let’s drop “The “M” Word”…instead, let’s lead.

  • How often do you use/hear the word “mandatory”?
  • How often do you make things meaningful?
  • How do we turn that which is considered into something meaningful?