Good leaders and competent, values-based leadership have always been the centerpiece of the Army’s formations, and essential components to effectiveness across organizational levels, from squad to corps. Good leadership, not just good management—and there is a significant difference—has always mattered. Good leadership is hard, inconvenient and uncomfortable. Good leadership is a 24/7 requirement that extracts the full measure of selfless service from those who have chosen to lead.
And, yes, leadership is a choice. Equally important is that the type of leadership required and the manner in which leaders lead really matters, based on the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) nature of the Army’s operational context. This VUCA context requires leaders who choose empowering others and creating an operational condition that is characterized by empowered execution.
Bob Johansen, a futurist who regularly consults with the Army’s leadership, in his books The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything and Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future, concludes that the rapidly changing nature of the emerging operating environment will require a more sophisticated way of thinking and leading. The complexity and disruptiveness of this environment, with decisive opportunities and events occurring all over the battlespace, create conditions that appear to require rigid command and control—but this is an illusion. Commanders and leaders must learn to let go and trust others to do what is right with minimal guidance. This is empowered execution, similar to the notion of Mission Command.
Unfortunately, the robust nature of modern communications technology and ever-increasing information availability can foster an illusion of control and micromanagement. But the velocity and volume of decisions required at all organizational levels exceed any leader’s cognitive capacity; micromanagement is simply not an option. Clarity of purpose and intent (and much has already been written about commander’s intent) becomes more important than certainty as an enabler for soldiers and leaders to operate with freedom, but with clear guidelines of what mission accomplishment looks like.
In 2017, Johansen wrote in The New Leadership Literacies: “I believe that the world will be increasingly turbulent over the next decade due to disruptions that will create breaks in the patterns of change, on a twisting path toward distributed everything. Distributed everything will mean disrupted everything.” And, in 2020, the world experienced the mother of all disruptions—COVID-19, which will echo in the operational environment for years to come.
What other disruptions await, and how should leadership respond? Clearly, cyber disruptions are part of this new environment.
Johansen suggests that the VUCA world demands a new notion of leadership focus, one characterized by a different form of VUCA, one that stands for vision, understanding, clarity and agility.
New Way of Thinking
This new VUCA suggests the need for leaders to practice a new way of thinking and a specific set of behaviors that empower others while also sustaining a culture of empowerment that enables leader impact without constant leader presence.
Remember, empowerment is different than delegating. To delegate implies a specific and confined set of tasks. Delegating also implies a transactional relationship between the leader and the led, as opposed to a transformational relationship. Empowerment is fundamentally intent-based and outcome-focused within relatively broad operational limits that enable individual initiative and freedom of action. It is descriptive and not proscriptive in nature.
Empowered execution is realized as a leader’s vision emerges foundationally through a leader’s identity grounded in a deep, authentic self-awareness that is projected to others through a thoughtfully constructed leadership philosophy. Leadership cannot be accidental; it must be intentional. Leaders need to have a clear vision of how they intend to lead, and must be able to describe their values-based, principle-centered leadership point of view to all those with whom they will exert influence, with and without authority. This philosophy becomes the solemn promise that leaders make to all the soldiers in their formations.
Leaders must then do two things: build trust and cooperation, and high-performing teams; both are the conduits through which shared purpose and collective understanding emerge, both critical elements for empowerment. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his 2015 book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, discusses how leaders need to be hands off in their leadership by creating conditions that foster a shared understanding of the mission at hand, and work hard to build the trust that enables cooperation and collaboration. These are the essential elements of cohesive, high-performing teams and teams of teams.
Clarity, Not Control
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the nature of this new VUCA operational environment makes command and control impossible and micromanagement untenable. Leaders must provide clarity for others, not control, by leveraging the use of the commander’s intent, reinforced by a culture of trust and cooperation. Leveraging intent demonstrates great respect (a leader behavior that builds trust) for the knowledge, skills, abilities and capabilities of others, and frees up individual high aspiration and initiative to demonstrate the required adaptability and agility to get things done.
This new leadership VUCA is then sustained through the leaders’ intentional leadership development programming for all soldiers and building a unit culture that creates a sense of deep cohesion, vision and community. At the end of the day, this might be the ultimate contribution for a leader: developing better and more independent soldiers and leaving units better than when they found them.
Developing future leaders for the profession is an essential requirement for all Army leaders, and ought to be an intentional focus. This requires that leaders embrace a transformational view (leadership-focused) and not just transactional view (management-focused) in their interactions with soldiers.
A transformational view requires that leaders continuously see work through a developmental lens and regularly create the conditions for soldiers to develop the knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies (KSACs) required to adapt and agilely respond to the emerging VUCA operational context.
Putting It in Context
There are two kinds of development leaders must focus on: leader development and leadership development. Leader development requires squad and platoon leaders to ensure that each individual soldier is developing to their best possible selves. This means developing all the required knowledge and skills that soldiers will need to adequately respond in their VUCA operational context. Leader development focuses on enhancing soldier self-awareness and adaptability, and creating the conditions for continuous learning.
Leadership development, on the other hand, is the development that occurs in a collective context, e.g., on cohesive, high-performing teams. It is in a team context that the Army primarily accomplishes its missions. It is the leader’s responsibility to create the conditions of trust and respect that enable effective collaboration and collective responsibility that build community and create a level of interdependence essential for mission accomplishment.
Finally, the leader is responsible for the culture of the organization and the culture of empowerment. The characteristics of a culture of empowerment include:
- A sense of clarity, coherence and shared purpose that binds soldiers in a high level of interdependence.
- A shared identity of what it means to be a soldier and a member of any given Army unit.
- Frequent demonstrations of appreciation and gratitude.
- An increased tolerance for risk-taking, consistent with the commander’s intent and mission outcomes.
- Collective ownership and responsibility, a “we” not “I” point of view, standards that are collectively set and unit members holding each other accountable.
As mentioned, this is not easy stuff for leaders. Giving up control involves an element of risk. Empowering a lieutenant with the freedom of movement at a remote outpost is difficult, yet necessary. Empowering an NCO with planning and executing a dangerous resupply convoy is difficult, yet necessary. Empowering a captain to lead a discussion with village elders is difficult, yet necessary. Empowering a corporal to find the needle in a haystack via some complex cyber/information technology operation is difficult, yet necessary. Leaders who empower others are able to skillfully manage this tension between difficult and necessary.
What is clear is that the VUCA operational context requires a different form of Army leadership the belies the traditions of command and control in a rigid, bureaucratic hierarchy. It will have to rely more on trust and cooperation, built on a strong platform of effective individual and collective development, and reinforced by a culture of empowerment.
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Col. Joe LeBoeuf, U.S. Army retired, is an executive coach and the chief learning officer for the Bee Downtown Leadership Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He began his nearly 34-year Army career as an enlisted soldier, then commissioned as a combat arms officer from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1974. He serves as a leadership coach at Duke University, North Carolina, and a teacher at West Point. He has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Lt. Col. Joe Doty, U.S. Army retired, is executive director of the Feagin Leadership Program at the Duke University School of Medicine and previously served as deputy director for the then-Center for the Army Professional Ethic. He has commanded at the battalion level. He holds a doctorate in character education from the University of Northern Colorado.