Leading Change in a Time-Constrained Environment

By Colonel (Retired) Kevin Farrell, Ph.D. , Sunday, January 01, 2017

It is a common but often dreaded phenomenon: comprehensive redirection of a broad and diverse organization in a time-constrained environment. Embracing change has become an essential aspect of success for most organizations operating today. Whether it is needed quickly to avert a crisis or more commonly to redirect an organization after a change in management or operating conditions, change remains a challenge. For those in uniform in general and the U.S. Army, in particular, preparing for and managing change is a principle imbued in leaders literally from their first day in military service. One of the key and defining aspects of the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) is its relentless pursuit of promoting good leadership, both at the individual and collective level. It is only natural therefore that TLDG draws heavily from leadership instruction used at West Point and throughout the US Army. As TLDG and its clients recognize, putting theory into practice is what differentiates the good from the great.

As a faculty member with TLDG, I would like to share aspects of my most significant experience “leading change.” It occurred when I was a new battalion commander preparing for a lengthy combat deployment to Iraq. Although I was an experienced Army officer and had served in various leadership roles during my Army career, I found myself confronting a leadership and management situation unlike any I had ever experienced. The thrill and excitement of being selected for command – at the time it meant being in charge of a tank battalion equipped with 44 tanks, many dozens of other vehicles, and close to 500 soldiers – was tempered with the knowledge I would be leading my team into combat. Preparing for extended combat operations in Iraq was clearly a significant challenge in itself, but an added requirement I discovered shortly before my assumption of command raised the stakes considerably. My organization would fundamentally transform from a tank-based organization into a combined arms team nearly double its original size and vastly more complex consisting of 925 soldiers, 30 main battle tanks, 30 infantry fighting vehicles, and many dozens of armored vehicles and ancillary equipment.

The magnitude of the reorganization was enormous while the time available was short – less than 5 months. Within this short amount of time, I needed to accomplish a myriad of missions simultaneously. Most pressing, of course, was preparing every soldier for combat. This mission in itself is always daunting. Now, however, my original organization had four subordinate teams (companies), four of which were identical (tank companies) and a larger team (headquarters company) that provided the staff and logistical coordination would instead become seven companies of a diverse nature while never losing sight of the primary mission of readying my team for combat operations. The solution would be leadership.

Although most of my experience with leadership has been in the context of my military career, I am convinced that leadership is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. No matter the endeavor or the career field, organizations with good leaders and a positive leadership climate thrive while those without a solid culture of good leadership are doomed to decline and ultimate failure. Knowing that everyone on my reorganized team – those who had been part of the previous organization and those who joined from other organizations – all had the potential to view the new situation as degradation in status. Non-tankers would now outnumber tankers, who had previously been the main members of the team. Similarly, Infantrymen, Engineers, and Logisticians would be assigned to an alien organization led by one who was not one of their own. Each had the potential to view their new assignment as a loss of prestige. In addition to the individual perspectives was the great problem of creating a smoothly functioning team of greater size and complexity.

Space here does not allow an in-depth discussion of the specific techniques I employed, but my general approach was to focus on leader development. When issuing guidance or seeking commitment from subordinates, a leader is always well advised to ask, “If I were on the receiving end of this request or guidance, how would it sound to me?” Although such an approach is similar to the Golden Rule, it is not quite the same thing, because in this case, there was a specified outcome: reorganization and combat readiness. Good leaders must understand the human condition; they must listen as well as direct; and they must strive to understand those above, alongside, and below. These attributes must be in addition to mastery of the science of the profession.

At all times, I sought the inclusion of new and old team members for training and social events. Fair recognition and focus on our team with our larger purpose guided every public statement I made or any training event I scheduled or approved. The end result was a cohesive team that prevailed during a lengthy, arduous, and often-deadly deployment. The experience vindicated my approach to preparation. It gives me great satisfaction to be able to share these experiences through my work with TLDG.


Colonel Kevin Farrell, Ph.D.

ExpertiseLeadership, history of West Point, American military history, history of World War II, history of modern Europe, staff ride leader  ExperienceColonel (Ret.) Farrell is a scholar warrior who served for 30 years in a variety of leadership, leader development, and staff positions overseas and throughout the United States. His most... Read More +

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"You build trust and cohesion through leading by example, empowerment, listening, talking to people at the lower level to check the morale, and having presence at different settings."
Colonel Kevin Farrell, Ph.D.
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"You build trust and cohesion through leading by example, empowerment, listening, talking to people at the lower level to check the morale, and having presence at different settings."
Leading Change in a Time-Constrained Environment




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