Be Aware of 3 Challenges

Be Aware of 3 Challenges

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

I’d like to share the three kinds of leadership problems I identified as I moved through my Army career. They are technical, systemic and adaptive. My learning about each roughly corresponded to company grade, field grade and then senior officer levels.

If you’re interested in reading about these problems in leader development literature, there are a number of resources, but two good ones to start with are Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald Heifetz, which covers technical and adaptive, and The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge, which covers systemic leadership.

Technical Problems

These are roughly company grade kinds of problems. I was like every other new lieutenant, often feeling overwhelmed and never quite sure of myself. The problems I was expected to solve came at me relentlessly. I did solve many, often with the help of my platoon sergeant and squad leaders, my company executive officer or commander, or my first sergeant. These were the experts. They had many times faced the kinds of problems I was dealing with, and their advice was generally on target. That my leadership challenges had proven solutions and experts to whom I could appeal were two sure marks that I was dealing with technical problems.

They are technical because “the necessary knowledge about them already has been digested and put in the form of a legitimized set of known organizational procedures guiding what to do and role authorizations guiding who should do it,” Heifetz states. In my lieutenant world, Heifetz was referring to myriad checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs) available to me: The Army’s troop leading procedures; five-paragraph field order; pre-combat and post-combat checklists; air assault operations checklists; jumpmaster checklists and procedures; Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures; movement and deployment SOPs; tactical SOPs; training meeting checklists; and preventive maintenance checks—to name just a few of the tools my fellow lieutenants and I used regularly.

We learned how to use many of them in our pre-commissioning course, basic courses or specialty training courses. And the team of experts was always available to help us use them correctly. I may have felt overwhelmed, but I learned over time that the problems I faced had solutions and, ultimately, I became adept at solving them.

But there were other kinds of problems that were different, even if I didn’t recognize the difference at the time. Some of my lieutenant problems had to do with pay and promotion issues concerning soldiers. Others had to do with supplies or maintenance. At the time, I viewed these problems like I did most others: “Figure out how to fix it and move on to the next one.” In reality, these problems were my introduction to the next level of leadership challenges: systemic.

Systemic Problems

These are roughly field grade kinds of problems. Systemic leadership problems require a leader to see not just individual problems, but the whole—the system that is supposed to work well enough to prevent problems from arising. Systemic leadership requires not just an expert, but a set of experts who, together, are responsible for running a system.

For example, my soldier’s pay problem was usually the result of some kind of personnel system failure, and at battalion level, the personnel officer runs that system. So, while finding a solution for my soldier was a technical problem for me, it was a systemic problem for the battalion personnel officer and the battalion executive officer. For the executive officer is responsible for the smooth running of all the systems a battalion needs to function.  The same goes for a brigade executive officer or division chief of staff. The personnel, physical security, transportation, maintenance, supply and logistics, communication and the Military Decision Making Process—all (and others) are battalion-level systems the executive officer is responsible for monitoring to create maximum efficiency and effectiveness in support of the battalion’s mission. Systemic leadership is shared leadership.

The battalion executive officer may have overall responsibility for the health of the unit’s systems, but they generally have captains who run individual systems. Those battalion systems exist within larger contexts of brigades and divisions. One or more systems may work well within the battalion, but they will not work well if the brigade or division system is broken. Field grade officers, therefore, not only do their best to repair the part of the system they control, but they also must develop a broader perspective and a broader network of leaders with whom they must work. Further, field grade officers rely both on directive leadership and collaborative leadership skills, because larger and complex systems demand more collaborative leadership than directive leadership.

I found all this out first as an air operations officer of an airborne brigade; then as the personnel officer, intelligence officer and civil military operations officer of a Ranger battalion; and as a Ranger battalion executive officer and infantry division inspector general. In fact, in my inspector general job, our office was responsible for inspecting the functionality of the division’s systems. Such inspections often required us to follow a system from division through brigade and battalion levels to the company to see where the weak spots might be, then recommend corrective action to the division commander.

The recommendation portion of systemic leadership is important. Systemic leadership requires a learning environment and leaders who, once they find out what is working and what is not, must make whatever adjustments necessary to either return the system to its proper functioning or change parts of the system that no longer function. These aspects of systemic leadership point to the third kind of leadership problem: adaptive.

Adaptive Problems

These are roughly senior leader-level problems. Adaptive leadership lies in the realm of senior leadership. There are some aspects of it at the battalion level and a major part at the brigade level, but adaptive problems dominate general officer leadership.

The first major adaptive leadership problem I faced was during Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti in 1994. I was the commander of a combined, joint, interagency brigade combat team. We had the responsibility of creating a safe and secure environment in Cap-Haitien and its larger environs of the northern provinces to facilitate the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government.

This leadership challenge included many technical and systemic problems, especially considering the combined, joint and interagency aspects of the tasks—but it was more than either of these. The situation was dynamic and required constant assessment and learning, and it was one with no solution. Rather, it admitted to only resolutions that worked for a time which, in turn, required us to constantly implement actions intended to achieve a particular effect, monitor the actual effects of our actions, and adapt our decisions and actions if we sensed a gap between what we wanted to achieve and what was happening on the ground. These are the very characteristics of an adaptive leadership problem.

I had a couple of other adaptive leadership challenges after this. Three stand out: help the Army stand up the first Stryker brigade combat team; help move defense experimentation with future concepts from service-focused to joint-focused; and accelerate the growth (in size, capability and confidence) of the Iraqi security forces during the fighting of the Surge in 2007–08 and while the Iraqi government was still forming.

In these adaptive leadership cases, the same characteristics emerged: a problem that no single person could understand alone; no final solutions because the problem itself was dynamic; and an organization and management scheme that could make decisions, take action, sense where that action departed from desired results, and adapt. Adaptive problems don’t have a solution or an answer; they can only be managed.

Unique Skill Set

These three kinds of leadership problems coexist, but adaptive leadership problems demand a skill set all their own. Technical and systemic leadership skills are insufficient to succeed at adaptive problems. It is up to the primary adaptive leader to create an environment in which a set of diverse leaders can first identify and form an initial understanding of the problem, gather information by listening to one another, make decisions and take actions as if they were hypotheses rather than set-in-stone solutions, identify the gaps between aspirations and reality, then adapt decision and action to increase the probability of achieving the objectives set.

This is demanding and complex leadership work. It’s difficult to keep an organization focused on doing the “right things” when both the situation and the right things keep changing. In my experience, adaptive leadership is so hard that the tendency of an organization is to focus on technical and systemic problems just because they’re easier and admit to solutions. The primary adaptive leader, therefore, must delegate technical and systemic leadership problems to others, else their energy will dissipate, the focus on the adaptive problem will erode, and the problem itself will spin out of control.

As I rose in rank and responsibility, I found I had to divest myself from most of the technical and systemic problems in the organizations I led so I could focus on the adaptive problems that only I could help lead. I also found that a good number of subordinates expected me to solve their technical and systemic problems. While I may have had the ability to do so, I tried not to. For in doing so, I robbed them of leadership development opportunities and robbed myself of the energy I needed to help the organization face the more difficult, adaptive problems.

The examples I used from my career are unique only in that they were mine. Any other senior leader can tell a similar story using their experiences. That’s why I think it is important to raise awareness of today’s Army leaders, who face increasingly more complex challenges at an ever-accelerating pace, to these three kinds of leadership problems and the skills and behaviors associated with each.

Every Army leader goes through the same set of leadership challenges. The only difference is that some will be aware of the changing leadership problems—and the associated changing leader behaviors—that their role and responsibility demand, and others will not.


Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.

This article was originally published in Army Magazine.