How do you lead when you don’t know all the facts? That’s a question that Don Vandergriff and George Reed explore in a thought-provoking new article “Old Dogs and New Tricks: Setting the Tone for Adaptability,” published in Army Magazine. The authors, both retired Army officers, discuss the challenges the Army is facing as it continues being a command-centric organization engaged in a world and in battlefields that demands on-the-spot thinking, reacting and action all in split second time.
The article opens with a metaphor that former Chief of Staff, General Pete Schoomaker, used in describing the Army’s transformation as a cattle drive that was less about destination and more about the journey. Cowboys moving from the high country of Wyoming to the flat lands of Kansas knew they were moving southeast, but they did not know what or whom they would encounter on the trek. The landscape and stars pointed them in the right direction; experience held them together. Along the way, the cowboys, led by the savvy trail boss, dealt with the unexpected – weather, topography, and thieving poachers.
The issue of adaptability that Vandergriff and Reed explore for the Army has relevance to the corporate world. True enough desk jockeys are not seeking to outwit fundamentalist militants. But they learn soon enough that plans provide directions; leaders provide guidance. Thinking ahead as well as dealing with the unknown is part of the everyday reality. And so it is useful to explore ways of dealing with the unknown so that when the unexpected occurs, you will not be caught unawares.
“Reliance… on technically rational approaches will not suffice in the future,” write Vandergriff and Reed. “Instead of creating longer lists of false independent variables – knowledge, skills and attributes – that leaders must master… it may be better to address essential values and attributes such as fast learning, adaptability, and ethical reasoning.” Well put, and worthy of exploration point by point.
Learn fast. Preparation for change begins in the mind. You must think about what is coming next. Education conditions the mind to learning as does exposure to new and different challenges. Grooming leaders by having them work cross-functionally is valuable. Having them think and react in real time to situations that are new and different. In our global world, speed often becomes the operative factor in decision-making.
Adapt always. Change is part of business; adapt or die may be a cliché but it is reality. While change for change sake is churn, adaptability dictates observation first, flexibility always, and fundamental change third. Sometimes you change a process or a person, but not the whole system. Adaptability is more of a mindset that keeps the minds, people and the organization nimble. Comfort comes from a sense of preparation rather than a sense of status quo.
Reason ethically. Speed in the form of expediency may be tempting especially when everything seems to be falling down around you. However, the quick way out may end up costing more damage in terms of lost revenue, employees and reputation. By thinking ethically, that is, what is good for our stakeholders – employees, customers, vendors and investors – orients you to reality. Will there be trade-offs? Absolutely. Investors may advocate job cuts; customers may want more investment in product. Employees want job security. Finding the right balance is not easy, but ethical reasoning can point the leader in the right direction. Better it can allow the leader to make choices while painful in the short-term may be beneficial in the long run.
“The Army,” the authors write, “must be prepared to support, encourage, and reinforce adaptability.” So, too, must corporate leaders. The ability to change on a dime when necessary is vital to a company’s ability to meet evolving consumer expectations as well as unexpected changes in the economy and the geopolitical landscape.
But as much as we must embrace change, leaders need to hold firm to their values. The Army has its credo – duty, honor, service. Each company has its mantra, but so too do leaders. What matters is holding firm to your values but running forward, or standing firm, when the situation demands.
Adaptability does not always demand movement. Sometimes you hold your position. Knowing when and if to hold or move is essential to leadership, too. That comes with experience as well as with the support of an organization that prepares people to think on their feet and make decisions that matter. Dealing with you what you don’t know is unsettling and even frightening, but just like those old trail bosses heading out from Wyoming, judgment, experience and adaptability may help you ford the eddies and rivers ahead.
Maj. Donald E. Vandergriff (USA retired) and Col. George Reed (USA retired) “Old Dogs and New Tricks: Setting the Tone for Adaptability” Army Magazine August 2007
[For more on this topic see Don Vandergriff’s newest book, Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptive Leaders to Deal with the Changing Face of War Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information Press 2007.]
John Baldoni • Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com