Here is an excerpt from an article written by Eric G. Kail for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Our complex environment demands a perspective that goes beyond viewing threats and opportunities as collective; we must see them as interactive. Leading through complexity means thinking non-linearly. You’ve probably heard that before, but let’s use a metaphor to get after what it really means. Picture a large marshmallow sitting atop a small round table. The marshmallow is so large that it’s falling over the edges of the table and you, me, and a few others have to keep it on the table. Now a marshmallow may not sound complex, but this one on our table certainly presents us with complexity. If any one of us is concerned with only the part of the marshmallow directly in front of us we may push it back on to the table, but by doing so we make our collective task harder for our team mates when our uncoordinated attempts push the marshmallow further off the other side of the table. Complexity can be overwhelming and discouraging, or a source of our greatest reflection and growth, so I’ll give this marshmallow some life.
I was once responsible for coordinating logistics for a large military unit in combat, and a quick glance at my metrics of success labeled me an absolute failure. Our unit was nearly out of fuel, ammunition, water, food, and vehicle repair parts (basically all the stuff you need to fight a war). To make matters worse, our higher headquarters could not push any supplies to us because of weather and sheer distance. One more thing we didn’t have: the luxury of calling a time out. Replace the weather with time zones and combat with the free market, and I’m sure many of you have been in my shoes, faced with complex challenges that cannot be dealt with separately with little or no help from our environment. Complexity can leave us frustrated, feeling solely responsible for success or failure, while at the same time feeling alive in the critical moment.
I’ll share some things that have helped me lead more effectively in a complex environment: .
Develop collaborative leaders: The same competitive drive that makes us so successful may sometimes get in our way. The most important characteristics I look for in high-potential young military officers are their ability to see the big picture and to lead their peers to achieve more together than they could individually. I once commanded a unit that produced impressive results and statistics. After my boss presented me and my soldiers with yet another award, he pulled me aside and said “You just don’t get it do you? I don’t need one great subordinate unit and three average ones; I need four very good ones. So start helping out your peers, and you might even learn something from them as well.” A very humbling experience, but it made me a better leader and an even better developer of other leaders. I learned to take pride in the accomplishments of my peers, and it didn’t cost me any professional ground. And I found out I needed their help more than I had originally thought.
[The others are: Stop seeking permanent solutions and Train tomorrow’s heroes now.]
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Colonel Eric G. Kail, commissioned as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army in 1988, has commanded multiple organizations and served at several levels of staff responsibility in conventional and special operations units.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by
for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military. It’s the second in a series on the four aspects of VUCA, a framework used by the U.S. military to describe the environment in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
The frenetic pace of our environment, brought on by volatility, also creates uncertainty, a lack of clarity that hinders our ability to conceptualize the threats and challenges facing the organizations we lead. Think back to the last time you attempted to explain a crisis or challenge to your boss, or perhaps other stakeholders not geographically co-located with you, and after a few attempts you were left to exclaim “You simply have to be here and see it to understand what’s going on right now.” That’s uncertainty in your environment.
Uncertainty becomes increasingly dangerous when we rush to understand it with an over-reliance on what we’ve witnessed before. The attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 are a tragic example of this. An exhaustive review of cell phone and email traffic from and between leaders of organizations housed in both towers revealed that rather than wildly fleeing the buildings, many were waiting patiently for first responders to come and lead them out of the buildings in an orderly fashion. This plan was created from a thorough review of the 1993 bombing of one of the basement parking garages. That review cited the unorganized rush to leave the buildings as the source for many serious injuries. The recommendation moving forward was to have a rational and well devised plan of evacuation should such an attack occur again. So, on 9/11, a seemingly similar attack was identified. But it was a very different type of threat and a previously conceived solution, regardless of how rational, might have been somewhat dubious. We thought we had a lot more time than we did.
It is human nature to see every challenge as something similar to what we’ve encountered before. That’s how our brains work and for good reason; if we had to assess every situation as novel we wouldn’t be as efficient as we need to be. We categorize situations using mental models. We see a disheveled person mumbling and staggering towards us on a dimly lit street and within seconds our volumes of previous experiences and categorizations allow us to deduce that we should move to the other side of the street.
Mental models can be very productive, especially when the consequences are high and the resource of time available to decide is low. However, relying too heavily on them might lead to the faulty assumption that yesterday’s solution to a seemingly similar challenge today is appropriate.
Here are three ways to lead more effectively in an uncertain environment:
[Actually, here’s the first. To read the complete article, please click here.]
Get a fresh perspective. Find ways to challenge the appropriateness of your mental models, individually and collectively. The concept of red-teaming is helpful. Red-teaming is the use of a devil’s advocate within the leadership team in order to counter the influence of group-think. Red-teamers don’t simply shoot holes in a plan; they think and act as the competition requiring leaders to move beyond “that won’t happen” to “what if this occurs.” The red-team members have no personal investment in the plan, so they don’t have problems exposing weaknesses or single points of failure. Red-team membership should be rotated and leaders must be careful to value and protect red-team members from any perceived backlash from other organizational members.
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Colonel Eric G. Kail, commissioned as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army in 1988, has commanded multiple organizations and served at several levels of staff responsibility in conventional and special operations units. He holds Master of Science Degrees in Psychology and Leader Development from Long Island University and in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College and a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from North Carolina State University. He has three combat tours and his awards include the Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device for Valor. Eric currently serves as the course director for military leadership at West Point.