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The Uncertainty of Chaos – The Business of War and the War of Business

There is much uncertainty in the business of war, this is to be expected to a degree and nowhere have I found more uncertainty than on the battlefield. There are too many variables and unknowns which can lead to that frozen state often known as ‘Analysis Paralysis’ if not managed correctly, and I have seen a number of operations be unsuccessful as a result of this, and equally, not go ahead when they were desperately needed because the senior leadership would not let an operation go ahead because the planning was not 100% in their opinion. Some of these operations were potentially make or break in some circumstances and I learnt some valuable lessons from these experiences.

Over the years since starting my military career and after working in Human Intelligence for a variety of organisations, I have been caught up in some extremely serious situations, that quite frankly leave me baffled as to how and why I am here today, and I will touch on a few of these throughout today. I will also mention lessons learned by Senior Military officers that I have worked for from a variety of countries and for whom I have the upmost respect for their brutal self assessment.

It’s about perception. Perception of risk, planning, opportunities, vision.

Here is the dictionary definition of a crisis:

1. A crucial or decisive point or situation, especially a difficult or unstable situation involving an impending change.

2. A sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.

3. An emotionally stressful event or traumatic change in a person’s life.

4. A point in a story or drama when a conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved.

How you Deal With A Crisis Can Lead To Either Success or failure.

Life and business are full of failures, some heroic and to be applauded, some are colossal cock ups as a result of poor thought and planning and some are on the list for Darwin Awards. 

What is essential in a crisis is good leadership that will steer the ship in the right direction no matter how ferocious the storm becomes. 

Great leadership can be a difficult thing to pin down and understand. You know a great leader when you’re working for one, but even they can have a hard time articulating what it is that makes their leadership so effective.

It was rumoured that Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz would run for president, but Schultz shut the idea down almost immediately. He wrote in an article:

“Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks.”

Schultz commitment to his company over the temptation of the limelight is interesting. What’s admirable is his desire to be a leader who serves.

Service isn’t just something Schulz gives lip service to in the press; his mission is to create a company where people are treated with respect and dignity, and he backs this rhetoric up with his money and time. Starbucks intends to spend $250 million over the next 10 years to put benefit-eligible employees through college, and Schultz wakes up every day at 4:00 a.m. to send motivational e-mails to his employees (the email he wrote yesterday asking employees to show empathy for customers who have been affected by the plummeting stock market is an interesting, recent example of this). Imagine the impact this level of commitment to your staff has during tough times?

It’s through a leader’s actions—what he or she does and says on a daily basis—that the essence of great leadership becomes apparent.

“Dream more than others think practical. Expect more than others think possible. Care more than others think wise.”   -Howard Schultz

Behaviour can change, and leaders who work to improve their skills get results.

In Schultz’s case, he’s been honing his leadership craft for three decades through, among other things, the direct coaching and mentoring of leadership expert Warren Bennis at USC. Not everyone can take on Warren Bennis as a mentor, of course, but when it comes down to it, improving your leadership skills is within your control. You just need to study what great leaders do and to incorporate these behaviours into your repertoire.

There are six critical things that great leaders do that really stand out. Any of us can do the same.

1. They’re kind without being weak

One of the toughest things for leaders to master is kindness. Kindness shares credit and offers enthusiastic praise for others’ work. It’s a balancing act, between being genuinely kind and not looking weak. The key to finding that balance is to recognise that true kindness is inherently strong—it’s direct and straightforward. Telling people the difficult truth they need to hear is much kinder than protecting them (or yourself) from a difficult conversation. This is weak.

True kindness also doesn’t come with expectations. Kindness is weak when you use it in a self-serving manner. Self-serving kindness is thin—people can see right through it when a kind leader has an agenda. Think of Schultz, who dedicated $250 million to employee education with no strings attached, and as soon as employees finish their degree, they are free to walk out the door. That’s true kindness.

2. They’re strong without being harsh 

Strength is an important quality in a leader. People will wait to see if a leader is strong before they decide to follow his or her lead or not. People need courage in their leaders. They need someone who can make difficult decisions and watch over the good of the group. They need a leader who will stay the course when things get tough. People are far more likely to show strength themselves when their leader does the same.

A lot of leaders mistake domineering, controlling, and otherwise harsh behaviour for strength. They think that taking control and pushing people around will somehow inspire a loyal following. Strength isn’t something you can force on people; it’s something you earn by demonstrating it time and again in the face of adversity. Only then will people trust that they should follow you.

3. They’re confident, without being cocky

We gravitate to confident leaders because confidence is contagious, and it helps us to believe that there are great things in store. The trick, as a leader, is to make certain your confidence doesn’t slip into arrogance and cockiness. Confidence is about passion and belief in your ability to make things happen, but when your confidence loses touch with reality, you begin to think you can do things you can’t and have done things you haven’t. Suddenly it’s all about you. This arrogance makes you lose credibility.

Great, confident leaders are still humble. They don’t allow their accomplishments and position of authority to make them feel that they’re better than anyone else. As such, they don’t hesitate to jump in and do the dirty work when needed, and they don’t ask their followers to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves.

4. They stay positive, but remain realistic 

Another major challenge that leaders face is finding the balance between keeping things positive and still being realistic. Think of a sailboat with three people aboard: a pessimist, an optimist, and a great leader. Everything is going smoothly until the wind suddenly sours. The pessimist throws his hands up and complains about the wind; the optimist sits back, saying that things will improve; but the great leaders says, “We can do this!” and he adjusts the sails and keeps the ship moving forward. The right combination of positivity and realism is what keeps things moving forward.

5. They’re role models, not preachers

Great leaders inspire trust and admiration through their actions, not just their words. Many leaders say that integrity is important to them, but great leaders walk their talk by demonstrating integrity every day. Banging on at people all day long about the behaviour you want to see has a tiny fraction of the impact you achieve by demonstrating that behaviour yourself.

6. They’re willing to take a bullet for their people 

The best leaders will do anything for their teams, and they have their people’s backs no matter what, and even more so in times of crisis, pay more attention to their team. They accept responsibility and hold themselves accountable when they fail. They’re never afraid to say, “The buck stops here,” and they earn people’s trust by backing them up. Great leaders also make it clear that they welcome challenges, criticism, and viewpoints other than their own. They know that an environment where people are afraid to speak up, offer insights, and ask good questions is destined for failure.

Bringing It All Together

Great leadership is dynamic; it melds a variety of unique skills into an integrated whole. Incorporate the behaviours above into your repertoire, and you’ll see immediate improvement in your leadership skills.

Learning From Failure — Communicating as a ‘Team of Teams’

I have learned an invaluable lesson about the connection between the strategic and the tactical levels of a multi-national organisation, and the importance of effective communication as a leader. It is a lesson with vivid implications on the battlefield, but also one with universal applicability to today’s interconnected world.

Even on the easiest days, a battlefield is an ugly and confusing place. Only the most seasoned warriors can create a semblance of order and discipline amongst the confluence of unpredictable, life-threatening variables of combat. The oft-cited phrase “fog of war,” first coined by the 19th century strategist Karl Von Clausewitz, has survived the ages simply because the confusion he described was as true for the Prussian foot soldier as it is for today’s most elite operators parachuting out the back of an aircraft at 20,000 feet. The great differentiator then was, and remains today, the way in which organisations adapt to the chaos, cutting through the fog so to speak.

Over the years I have experienced many examples of leadership failures and successes from various conflict zones. Leadership failures in the field can have catastrophic consequences and personal experience has taught me the importance of positive leadership, consistently maintaining your guard, carefully interpreting changing signs around you, trusting your gut instincts and acting quickly when required.

There are significant similarities with organisational structure, and my personal experience of working in large and small units as well as alone, tactically ingraining myself with local teams and working in other disciplines to facilitate successful leadership and reach end goals.This would not have been possible without excellent leadership from my superiors, from me towards my team and with my local counterparts. Another key factor is managing emotional states. These can run away from you and lead you to make ineffective, rash decisions that have a hugely detrimental impact on the operation. Learning to recognise, channel and/or change them is a crucial factor in maintaining a calm, clear mind and making the right decisions at the right time.

Here we compare organisational leadership vs leadership in the armed forces.  In the military we have the concept of ‘2 Up Intent’, where as a leader within an organisation you always know the intent of the overall mission and have a clear picture of the goals and actions of the person whom you report into and the person they report into.  Having a clear idea and understanding of the Bigger Picture allows teams to strive for the end goal and innovate where, how and when required. An excellent leader shows great instinct and humbleness in their self assessment and effectively adapt how they deliver their orders and their vision of the outcome clearly and concisely.

I have worked in a variety of countries, with limited intelligence and on many occasions with no military back up; the results weren’t always a success, and we took the positives from every operation and used them to refine our capabilities in the future. Success on the battlefield, just as in the boardroom, can be determined by a variety of factors including:

• Understand the Bigger Picture – Ensuring your team has clarity on the value of their contribution to the overall mission

• Know your people – Understand your team, you will need to rely on each other

Emotional regulation – recognising emotional triggers, knowing what emotions are the right ones for any given situation

• Collaborate – You do not know what expertise is within your team until you ask, utilising these hidden talents can result in the greatest ideas

• Due diligence – Mitigate risks through thorough research and ‘think outside of the box’

• Be prepared for change, especially unexpected and enforced change and have alternative options in play and allow time for readjusting your plan as you go

• Understand the culture eg. Understanding the enemy mindset and behaviours facilitated increased surrenders in battle and negotiated surrenders

Battle zones are scenes of CHAOS which can be defined as a state of DANGER and OPPORTUNITY.   As in business, danger and opportunity are all around us and successful leaders are those who learn how to exploit the dangers and capitalise on the opportunities.

My aim is to contradict the negative connotations associated with chaos and show how people who can’t work in chaos generally lean towards a 100% plan before moving forward.  Troops in a military context will generally charge a battle field with only an 80% plan and learn the rest, adapting as they go, because they are exceptionally well trained and are conditioned into adapting and improvising as they go.  No plan is perfect and whilst there are risks associated with not planning properly, there can be huge missed opportunities by staying in the planning phase for too long.  The key is flexibility, agility and empowering people to move quickly without the need to always refer decisions back up the hierarchy. 

Reflecting on various incidents, I thought to myself: How could these have been handled differently as a leader in order to avoid catastrophic outcomes?

These are personal discoveries in discussion with peers:

  1. Clear articulation of intent: Ensure you communicate your intent clearly enough so people several layers down do not misinterpret your messages. Intent behind directives can get bogged down somewhere in the intervening layers of management and hierarchy between those delivering instructions and those carrying them out.

2. Use technology to have real communication: Model transparent and inclusive leadership behaviours. Articulate not just guidance, but more importantly your thought process out loud, in front of your subordinates (potentially thousands of them at once in large video- teleconference), so they can walk away understanding how you are thinking.

3. Transform the system: Traditional bureaucratic models don’t allow for the multi-dimensional problem solving and communication structures that are needed. A better, hybrid organisational and leadership model would ensure a breakdown in understanding is prevented.

This last point is a critical one. The organisational models and leadership practices that are typically used in the past are incapable of dealing with complex sets of challenges we now face on the modern battlefield, similar to the problems many of you are likely seeing manifest in your own environments. I’ve wrestled with this intellectual challenge for a long time (I’ve spent many days discussing and thrashing this out with many colleagues, on the changes we instigated and implemented) and I’m more convinced than ever that this is the critical challenge of our time – transforming traditional, cumbersome, bureaucratic models into ones that are able to function with the adaptability the information age demands.

The world is grappling with 21st-century problems (networked terrorism, global supply chain disruptions, viral trends, pandemics), yet we are still using 20th-century organisational solutions (a command-and-control hierarchy, siloed corporate structures, bureaucratic procedures). In today’s world, it’s not one isolated military unit or one lone corporate division tackling a problem — it’s a task force involving multiple nations, or a global corporation spanning multiple countries. Your team may understand your mission, but your counterparts in a different country may not. You as a senior leader may have a clearly defined vision for your company, but if those five layers down don’t know your strategic objectives, then how can you achieve them?

The organisational models from the 1980s and 1990s weren’t built for rapid, cross-functional communication and execution; yet that’s precisely what is needed to solve the multi-dimensional problems we face in the 21st century. Teams in silos can no longer have all the answers — it takes a “team of teams” to accomplish today’s missions, whether it’s defeating Al Qaeda, the Taliban, growing a small business into a globalised corporation or leading a multi-national organisation toward an ever changing future.

Mistakes are valuable and failing as a leader is essential to growth. But we can’t wait to fail, we have to change the way we operate and collaborate now. The people in the world we live in demand it and deserve it.

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