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Don Vandergriff
Military leadership consultant

Don Vandergriff

A retired U.S. Army Major, Don Vandergriff is a teacher, writer and lecturer who specializes in leadership education and training, and the future of warfare.

Leaving the world of standard operating procedures

Question: Through the effective use of online social media, a small group of political amateurs were able to organize and instigate street demonstrations across Egypt that now threaten to topple the Mubarak regime. How does their success change our notions of what leadership in the Internet age is all about?

The current events in Egypt, as well as warfare today and other events, are spurred by decentralization and empowerment of talented individuals at the lowest levels. This runs in contrast to the hierarchical, resume-intense and self-serving leadership that dominates the U.S. across all spectrums. In a complex system, everything has side effects. History teaches us that centralized planning and control can't be made to work (think Politburo). Things in isolation don't work the way they do in context. Yet this is how the majority of our personnel management and leader development are conducted.

Today's approach to leader development in business, the military and government is a descendant of the Industrial Revolution (a descendant of the Cartesian worldview), and the corresponding machine metaphor is still the prevailing mindset. In today's approach, the vast majority of people are not craftsmen who master their art but are instead considered mere technicians who perform rote tasks. The objective is not to invest them with any real abstract knowledge or skills that make them too valuable, that way they can be easily replaced. Yet we are a country at war with both terrorism and global competition.

As such many companies--and the military--are craft organizations. While at peace,
our country has thrived on standard operating procedures, checklists and compliance. Upon the onset of conflict, it becomes one where outcomes matter more than procedures; where initiative and creativity trump doctrine, rules, procedures and Beltway etiquette; and where the ability to apply abstract knowledge to unforeseen circumstances trumps checklists and processes.

In the slower moving yesteryear, the U.S. could afford to treat machine parts and drones (or conscripts) shabbily, but not craftsmen who possess the ability to apply their art. If you treat them badly, they are likely to leave and take their talents elsewhere. In a machine, the parts are interchangeable but the craftsmen are not. It is in the interest of current culture to have its members be as interchangeable as possible--it makes the job easier for those who manage the process. How many times have you heard, "Any person will do, and the preferences of the talented individual are not important. Don't like it? Retire or quit." The notion of tailoring a career path to the talents, much less the interests, of the craftsman is terrifying to today's culture. That looks like a load of nonstandard work. Machines don't like that.

In fact, as the immediate and unforeseen potential in Egypt testifies, the U.S. will remain in an era of persistent conflict both on the military and business side. This is why there is a need for change at all many levels. Leaders at all levels recognize that while the U.S. is very good at process, recipes, format and application of skills, it must improve at adaptability. We have discovered over the last nine years of war--and two decades of globalization--that the emphasis on skills is for naught if the leaders lack the power of decision. To do this, they need to focus on three aspects of a new emerging learning doctrine--the cult of decisiveness, the coup d'oeil and the habit of leading from the front--in order for our nation to succeed in many domains.

Resolute action is consequently of first importance in addressing the complex problems we all face today. Every individual (from the highest CEO or commander to the lowest employee or soldier) in successful, dynamic and flat organizations always remembers that supine inaction and missed opportunities will entail severer censure than the error of choosing the wrong course of action. All leaders must be recognize that absence or delay in making a decision is worse than decisive action, even one erroneous in the choice of means. Organizations that will be successful both today and in the future have as a basis the emerging belief that imperfect action at the right moment is far better than more deliberate activity after the opportunity has been lost.

Making bold decisions, however, is not the same as making good decisions. The outcome of the decisions made by future leaders operating such a culture of trust will be partially ascribed to their relentless development, as well as to their ability to identify the opportunities given to them by opponents. Leaders must be prepared to respond to local opportunities. Leaders who have grown up under such trust in an organization will show a degree of judgment that is not present in leadership developed under industrial or linear learning models that dominate business, government and the military today. Credit for this will be placed squarely at the feet of the emerging learning doctrine of today's leaders (the same ones that used new technology to cry for democracy in Egypt). In particular, the soundness of future decisions made by leaders will result from a concept called the applicatory method.

Generally associated with the late 19th century Prussian general Julius von Verdy du Vernois, the applicatory method sought to teach tactics by means of problems. Some of the problems were simple: the tactical decision game (Planspiel or Planübung) was based on a sketch map and a one- or two-page scenario. Others were more complicated: the rigid war game contained enough charts and tables to gladden the heart of any present-day board war gamer, and the staff ride could last for days. Whatever particular techniques were used (in most cases there was a mixture of many), the applicatory method was based on a solid consensus about the teaching of tactics or the art of decision making. Tactics was not a science to be taught by means of theory, or a simple task to be explained by lists of rule or acronyms. Rather, it was an art to be learned by doing. Learning takes place in the critique of one's decision by their peers and teachers.

Taught through the applicatory method was what Frederick the Great called the coup d'oeil--the ability to size up a tactical situation at a glance and, within seconds,
begin to give the necessary orders. Coup d'oeil is, in the blinking of an eye, being able to determine the general tactical situation. As a result, innovation cannot be a step or series of steps that leads to a static outcome, but rather it must be a continuous, ceaseless process of change and adaptation impelled not merely by technology but also by the nature of the business competition or the battlefield of the enemy. Whether it's the crisis in Egypt or a smaller-scale event, most conflicts consist of fleeting opportunities that disappear quickly if leaders--from top to bottom--fail to grasp them.

Successful organizations will demand that individuals in an entire organization should coordinate and act together, even in the absence of direction from above. The result will be an evolving leadership style that forces leaders to focus their attention downward and outward onto the operating environment. The limited flow of information up the chain of command will compel them to see for themselves, and to lead from the front.

An organization's adaptation of such a leadership culture will increase the demands for responsibility and innovation at the junior leader levels. These demands place a greater premium on adaptability to emergent situations; operating with and within joint, interagency and multinational organizations; rapid responsiveness; and the mental and physical agility to capitalize on opportunities in the field. Key to the U.S.'s adjustment is the ability of organizations to help develop and empower individuals' operational adaptability in the future complex environment.

We must then ask ourselves this question: Are our education systems--particularly those that start with "Leave No Child Behind," where we train to the test, with the result that our next generations of leaders are learning what to think but not how to think--preparing them to deal rapidly with situations like what is occurring in Egypt?

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By Don Vandergriff

 |  February 10, 2011; 9:54 AM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Using social media to enhance authenticity and collaboration | Next: The difference between compromise and negotiation


Please report offensive comments below.

Dear Mr. Vandergriff, this is a very insightful article. I believe the most telling comment you make that sums up a large portion of your stance is "Most conflicts consist of fleeting opportunities that disappear quickly if leaders -- from the top to bottom -- fail to grasp them." While minor organizational forces may occur (individuals without formal authority, connection of influences, or otherwise), the instance in which such organization/ attempt to impose doctrine/action presents an opportunity for the present leadership.

If that leader is unprepared to address the issue, a state of conflict will arise, in which initiative and creativity of the organization of power (collective, collaborative, centralized) is tested, and the durability of that organization as well. The lack of action of the leader can allow his/her direct address of such a problem to become a conflict.

Collaboration/communication/ and division of authority & specialization within the centralized authority; however, can work to actively prevent such occurrences from arising.

I believe this argument still removes the fact that there is still a significant amount of power within the hands of the population. And that, while leadership has an incredibly large margin of control over a large population of (unorganized, uncoordinated, talented) individuals, the extent of that power can still be pressed over a period of time. In this case a precipice will be reached in which potentially even the creativity of the organization will be insufficient.

Posted by: M_Lindsay_10 | February 11, 2011 3:03 PM
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