Strategic Leadership and Change in Crisis – 5 Principles

You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.– Heraclitus, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, circa 460 B.C.

Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain, 1805: Admiral Horatio Nelson realized that he had a major threat on his hands and those of his British naval fleet. He was heavily outnumbered (and out-resourced) by Napoleon’s French and Spanish fleet and faced two options. He could stick with the usual naval tactics of that time and keep his fleet in an opposing line to fire broadside at his enemy, (which is what most commanders would have done). Or, he could develop and execute a new strategy which involved risk and uncertainty but could also allow him to damage and incapacitate the relatively massive combined French and Spanish fleet in front of him.

After analyzing the situation, he decided to change tactics and embrace that risk by breaking his own columns into two and attack perpendicularly, simultaneously splitting the larger enemy lines into three parts, surprising their leadership, disorienting them, and ultimately allowing for the unexpected British victory. The defeat was overwhelming as the French-Spanish coalition lost two-thirds of their fleet, while Admiral Nelson lost none of his.

There was no precedence for this type of a strategic decision, implementation, or tactic, and there was no guarantee it would work. It was not in the naval battle plan books, military guidelines, nor was there a previous rehearsal. It was the result of a leader taking a fresh, holistic view, identifying a few critical challenges to be addressed, then taking swift, agile action. Then followed the leveraging of available resources to focus on and execute the new plan.

What can we learn and what does it mean for a strategy of today and tomorrow, particularly in a time of tremendous change and crisis?

We (humanity and the global community) currently stand in the middle of a historical inflexion point, which will affect megatrends and the way we live our lives going forward, both personally and professionally. We must have or strengthen the ability to recognize this and begin to think of new strategies and tactics for attacking the threats and challenges now facing us. It also forces us to ask difficult questions of ourselves as leaders, and sometimes, to embrace vulnerability when testing a theory but may not be entirely sure of the outcome.

5 Principles:

1) People, Teams, and Trust first: No great or authentic military or business leader has ever won a battle or a war on their own. Regardless of how god-like or heroic he or she may have appeared, the truly great ones ensured the right people surrounded them and developed trust with them foremost. They chose people who were better than themselves at executing either the deliberate (previously planned) or the emergent (evolving new plan) strategy, or a hybrid of both. Build that trust by being authentic, serving, and taking care of your team members, and they will be there to execute your strategy in times of disruption, stress, and change.

2) Former strategies may no longer be effective: Like Admiral Nelson in the historical story above, we must come to understand that what made ourselves, our teams, or our organizational performance successful before, may no longer be applicable or relevant. Leaders must have the courage to challenge assumptions and previous tactics. Team members must be willing to learn, adapt, and change with the context and the external environment. Together, they develop new emergent strategies based on the facts and information available.

3) Context is everything: This one follows directly after the second principle. Regardless of the best strategy, planning, and processes currently in place for the situation (which may have changed yesterday or a moment ago), we must understand that the blistering pace of a battle or a war demands us to realize that context is everything. The decisions we as leaders take must account for and reflect the current situation and environment.

4) Analyze, synthesize, then decide and act with agility: Taking the context and environment around us into consideration, strategic leaders objectively analyze the facts in front of them, by breaking the issues/facts up. Then they synthesize those facts by putting them all back together for an action-oriented solution. They then take focused (and adaptive) agile action to address the root causes, iterating as the situation demands. When one principal threat is neutralized (whether viral, physical, economic or otherwise), others may appear which need attention.

5) Opportunity hidden in every crisis: In the consulting world, there is a tool used called a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, where we evaluate each primary risk to formulate an actionable strategy. The best leaders understand that in the middle of risks, threats and crises, there also lie opportunities. One requires a vision and firm resolve to push through the obstacles in the way and to step back from the chaos to view the horizon. As the well-worn cliché states, spring always follows even the darkest winter.                                                                             

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity

Sun Tzu, circa 500 BC (2,500 years ago)

Effective, authentic strategic leadership is not easy in times of crisis, heightened risk, and change, but it is possible. We must realize that now, more than ever, it is not only needed but required on a global scale. This is a must for ensuring future high performance in any area of life or field of work or service. Leaders who can navigate the rough, rapidly flowing waters we find ourselves in, as Admiral Nelson was able to do well over 200 years ago, will emerge as the new leaders of the future.

From Crisis to Change to High Performance – 6 Principles

“If you do not change direction you may end up where you are heading.”                                           

-Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and poet.

Somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi desert, 2004: A co-ordination of elite military task forces, some of the most highly trained, equipped, disciplined, experienced, and high-performance teams of their kind ever put together (collectively known as the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC Task Force), were being beaten by a supposedly inferior insurgent group of fighters known as Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI). They were less-resourced, less trained, and less experienced than their foes by miles. Yet the insurgent groups were able to regularly foil and beat the elite soldiers despite the seemingly impossible odds. Something was different, and the traditional military organization, with its long, successful, proven operating models were getting outfoxed.

General Stanley McCrystal, the task force commander, realized that a shift had occurred. Despite the processes, systems, and structures (not dissimilar to Taylor’s theories of scientific management) they had in place which had proven unbeatable on countless missions, they were now operating in an environment which was quicker-paced, more interconnected, and wholly unpredictable. They were losing.  

It dawned on McCrystal that to win, they had to change and to change both radically and quickly. They decided to uproot military tradition and precedent and develop a new approach to the complex environment in which they were operating. That required them to go from a command structure to command of teams, and then to a team-of-teams structure (also known as multi-teams systems), and become a fast adapting, agile, resilient version of the network they were facing.

By utilizing this approach, they were able to build a ‘team of teams’ or multi-teams system (MTS) approach – a novel type, according to McCrystal, an “organization within which the relationships between constituent teams resembled those between individuals on a single team: teams that had traditionally resided in separate silos would now have to become fused to one another via trust and purpose”.

An integrated systems approach was still required, but it also meant the adoption of clear transparent communication (not a traditional practice in secretive military operations, even amongst sister units) and the encouragement of shared consciousness. Due in part to the fact that the teams were both geographically dispersed and culturally diverse, (team members from various nations and ethnic backgrounds), it was a tall order to fill. It would require all of them to be vulnerable, a feeling not common amongst those of this caliber. And the risk was high. However, they also realized that the safety and security – and success – of their teams depended on it.

To develop these capabilities, it would require a paradigm shift of culture change never before witnessed in the operating environment of war. Silos were broken down, and a new level of collaboration and alliances were established and nurtured. This enabled them to establish fluid, resilient, adaptive, and interdependent High-Performance teams (HPTs), who were led by senior leaders with high emotional intelligence.

One of the final pieces which allowed this strategy to be executed in the field was to empower them as self-managing teams and give them the authority to make decisions as the operations unfolded. Over time, they forged fresh mental models, allowing the best of the best to continue to experience success.  As collective mental models of processing information, knowledge, and their environment improved, a new level of synergy was achieved, which enabled them to ultimately get ahead of their adversaries.

More recently, in an interview with McKinsey, General James Mattis (former Secretary of Defense), further elaborated on the dangers of senior leaders getting involved in tactical details and decisions, rather than strategy, especially during a crisis.  Keeping decision making strictly at the highest levels has the effect of simultaneously making strategy an afterthought and slowing down execution.

Figure 1: Team of Teams Evolution Model (Source credit: McCrystal Group)

What does this battlefield story illustrate about how we can go from crisis, to change, to high performance (or High-Performance Teams) in today’s globally interconnected world?

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”

     – George S. Patton

As we begin the process of emerging from a global pandemic, much of the world is realizing that former paradigms of working and attacking complex issues are no longer useful. Those paradigms have been turned on their head. If we continued in the same manner, we would only edge closer to where we were headed previously – and to defeat. We may believe we are successfully leading a High-Performance Team, using operating models which have proven effective in traditional environments, then get hit with a nasty dose of reality – the operating model does not provide value to our teams or our clients the same way it once did.

Due to the complex, networked, rapidly evolving environment we now live and work in, efficiency is no longer enough to go from great to excellent. Senior leadership will be required to depend more on self-organized, self-managing, and self-lead teams which are globally distributed (i.e. virtual) and must work interdependently to attain mutually shared goals.  If these teams are just starting to work interdependently with one another, there will be a tendency to follow the same processes and models, preventing the ultimate goal of mutually shared cognition – a common understanding of their environments, issues/challenges, processes, and proposed solutions.

By utilizing six general principles, authentic strategic leaders can help bridge this gap.

6 Principles:

1) Establish Trust, Culture, and Purpose first:

Regardless of the prestige, status, or amounts people are paid, they will not align with or contribute selflessly to their teams unless an environment of trust, shared culture, and purpose are known and established from the beginning of the relationship. This has been observationally shown not only in critical team operations but in many academic studies.

2) Challenge assumptions, previous models, and precedent:

Often, we may be successful in one area despite unseen flaws in actions over time and come to a point where we realize certain factors which made us successful previously will no longer have the same outcome. Our mental and operating models can become dated, and previous systems and processes must be changed and reconfigured to address new types of challenges. This may require the implementation of an interdependent, interconnected, multi-team systems approach – its performance outcome equivalent to the sum of its parts.

3) Set the direction, focused objectives, and accountabilities:

Once we reconfigure our operating models and systems for multi-team working and self-managing teams, it is up to the senior leaders to set the direction, establish unambiguous, specific objectives and targets, and ensure each member of the teams understands what they are responsible and accountable for. Without this direction from leadership, team members will not know what to focus on. Without focus, teams cannot achieve their performance potential.

4) Eliminate roadblocks, provide support, then get out of the way:

It is of no use to give your team an objective, make them accountable, and expect them to deliver results when there are obvious internal and external factors which are blocking their paths to excellence. One critical role for leaders is to identify and eliminate any constraints which prevent them from delivering. What we omit from the performance loop is almost always just as important as what we include in it.

5) Communicate, share knowledge, and empower your front lines to execute the strategy:

Inadequate communication amongst individuals, teams, and organizations is consistently identified as the root cause of many failed strategies. We cannot assume our team members have been shared critical operational knowledge, which they rely on to execute the strategic and tactical objectives. Once that knowledge is communicated adequately – and across all teams involved in operations – empower your front line and unleash team leaders to execute without interference unless absolutely necessary.

6) Measure/monitor, learn, and improve the cycle:

Sustained high performance would not be possible without becoming a learning team. For a team to continuously learn, constant monitoring of the operational systems, processes, and actions is continuously required to adjust the plan, and improve on it in real-time. Sharpening this cycle of input, output, and improvement is a critical differentiator for High-Performance Teams versus regular teams or groups. Keeping this cycle moving and improving it will become ever more critical in a globally distributed multi-teams environment.

We no longer live in the same world we did last year, or even six months ago. When former or current strategies do not get the job done anymore, authentic leadership (with the right emotional intelligence) must recognize that the context and environment around them have changed to such a degree that it may be unrecognizable. A convergence of new social and dynamic factors which have disrupted our previous team performance levels must be answered with equally novel thinking, systems, and approaches, even those that have not yet been proven, and often with limited facts to analyze.

Understand that the working (operating) context we now find ourselves in requires novel thinking at a strategic level, right alongside innovative implementation and execution at a tactical level. In this new theater of virtually distributed expertise, those who cannot adapt may find themselves left behind and outmanoeuvred by a fast-acting, resilient, interconnected opposing force.  

Alternatively, just as the JSOC task force was able to do against the dynamic, complex, ever-evolving challenges they faced in a foreign environment, those who do recognize the new world and quickly act accordingly, may just find that they are able to go from chaos and crisis, to change, to high performance.

Four Principles for Leadership in the New Normal

Earth has been ravaged and disrupted for millions of years by natural disasters, plagues, and other challenges to our ecosystems. The dinosaurs were able to survive for 66 million years until they finally met a (big) force they could not adapt to. Humans have been able to survive similar types of challenges to our ecosystem over the past 300,000 years, with similar successes. We have shifted, adjusted, and adapted to nearly everything which has been thrown at us. Now our species has been challenged yet again, prompting us to think about the way we not only survive, but live, work, and, one day, thrive again.

In an increasingly distributed and virtual world, trust and culture may not be so easy to establish. Leadership and management models we have been using successfully for the past 20 to 50 years may no longer be the best options. Strategic objectives may no longer align with our purpose or that of our societies.

The way we communicate, share information, and learn is evolving as well. Research from all corners of the world is revealing that thinking is changing in more ways than one, due to both necessity and a realization that the extreme challenges also present opportunities to do things better.

In essence, we are at a major inflection point, which affords us the chance to reroute our connections. This includes how we lead in any industry or endeavor, and for us, this has implications for leadership. This holds true for organizations, entrepreneurs, and consultants, which brings us to four new principles for leaders:

Leverage Technology to Build Team Trust and Culture Quicker

We all understand that trust and culture do not happen by accident and are traditionally steadily established over time, and with intent, from the very beginning of the engagement. The unfortunate (or fortunate?) fact is that in today’s dizzying pace of personal and business interactions, we often do not have that luxury.

We may be part of a short-term virtual or project team in order to solve a complex problem or issue. To do this collectively, we must build this trust and culture first, but quickly. Understanding the time-limited opportunity to break down and solve the issue, work aggressively at the very beginning to establish frequent communication via online mediums such as video conferencing, and encourage your team to be open and honest, feedback (and feedforward) information to one another, debate divergent views, and resolve internal conflicts simultaneously, ultimately solving the problem or issue they have been brought together to deliver a solution for.

Construct Novel Models of Thinking and Operating

Do you really require an hour and a half of everyone’s time at every meeting, every day, to discuss, brainstorm, drill down, and map solutions? Or would it be more effective to cut that in half (at most) a few times per week, with a focused agenda, and allow team members to think, plan, and prepare to execute between those times?

Productivity and value studies indicate that people generally perform better and produce greater results from working in sprint cycles, rather than over longer periods. The human brain has a short attention span, and higher-level thinking drops off very quickly when capacity is reached.

Design your team’s schedule—where possible—to allow for this flexibility based on individual context and environment, while balanced with the overall mission and collective goals. What sets the new era apart is that we must learn how to be effective virtual leaders as well.

Eliminate the Competition Mind-Set, and Instead Focus on Collaboration

Competition has been the foundation of business and success for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So has collaboration. Our ancestor hunter-gatherers would not have survived had they not teamed collaboratively to find and track food, and neither would have many animal species. However, sometime around the dawn of the industrial revolution, individuals and organizations shifted to a competition mindset to get ahead of their peers and win market share, either through providing valuable services or products.

In the networked and interdependent nature of today’s social and business worlds, this is no longer an advantage, but a crutch. Innovation, creativity, and critical thinking are key to problem-solving, and this process is much more efficient via interconnected, interdisciplinary teams with professionals of complementary knowledge and skills. Working with one another in this context, rather than competing, is a win–win for both.

Integrate Human and Systems Factors into One Framework

A majority of people are either good at dealing with technical details, via protocols, procedures, processes, or systems, or are adept at soft skills such as communications, empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, and other social skills (collectively often referred to as emotional intelligence). It is fairly easy to find professionals who possess one or the other, but much rarer—and more valuable—to find someone who possesses nearly equal measures of both. Do we design our systems, processes, and procedures with humans in mind? And do our managers and supervisors on the front lines actually understand and follow those same systems, processes, and procedures? If not, the root cause of that failure is most often leadership, not the worker.

As usual, when it comes to principles, true authentic leadership is the catalyst and sustaining force that enables all of them. Being authentic means having integrity, being open and consistent in your behavior with others, being humble, of service to others, and leading with purpose. Think of this leadership as a combination of the wheel that holds the spokes together and the outer tire which keeps that wheel rolling.

In any field—and especially in leadership—where there is often a gap between its importance from an external public perspective versus the internal professional perspective, getting this leadership right is critical to enabling strategic vision to translate into tactful execution on the ground.

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