Leading in Chaos - Lessons From the Fog of War

By Colonel (Retired) Tom Magness, P.E., Sunday, January 01, 2017

Can you imagine anything more disconcerting than driving at 100 mph in a thick fog – with the radio blaring, cell phone ringing, and the kids in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?” Yet, isn’t that what it is like operating in business today? The fog is thick, the pace is rapid, and the distractions are constant. Where can business leaders find solutions to be able to navigate through this chaos and produce results in this very uncomfortable environment?

Perhaps our military leaders can offer some ideas. If there is anything that today’s military leaders are comfortable with it is in being…uncomfortable. In places like Afghanistan (and Iraq before it), spans of control are so broad, geographic distances are so immense, and challenges so diverse that leaders cannot possibly be everywhere or know everything that is happening. The fog of war is an almost constant companion to our military heroes. VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity – is the new normal.

Much of what we thought about organizational management is grounded in the “Command & Control” world, a paradigm that just doesn’t fit in today’s VUCA scenario. Places like Afghanistan are causing us to think differently about some aspects of leadership. Decision cycles are too compressed to fit within the top-down Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). Things that were accepted norms like, “No more than 5-7 direct reports” are not necessarily true. Even leadership teachings about things like planning, risk, or scope of responsibility are being re-thought in light of what we are learning downrange.

Places like Afghanistan and Iraq have been humbling to those leaders who were fixated on the “good old days” and could not function in this uncomfortable environment. Those who have succeeded have been those who recognize the things that are changing and, more importantly, those that remain constant. It is the latter that creates the beacon for those who may be lost in the fog, the solid foundation for those for whom chaos is a constant companion.

So, with battlefields as confusing as they are, with leadership as we thought we knew it in evolution, how do leaders provide clarity of purpose and thought and drive appropriate actions? What follows are some of the enduring responsibilities for leaders, in any setting, to help make sense of the chaos and to enable the success of those they lead. These are the bedrock elements that give today’s leaders comfort, despite how uncomfortable the situation may be. They give a leader presence, even though not physically present, and drive the behaviors, decisions, and actions of the team – aligned in task and purpose.

— Values. What is important to us and why? Leaders must ensure that the organization’s values are clear and reinforced at every opportunity. More than just a poster in the hallway, the values must truly motivate behavior and help define black versus white in a world full of gray.

— Vision. Where are we going? What is our shared view of the end state, purpose, and key tasks that will keep us on track? Vision inspires people to want to do more, especially when times are tough, because they believe in the purpose and have bought into the organizational direction.

— Strategy. How do all of our actions align to get us out of this chaos and into calmer waters? Strategy adds specificity to the vision and connects short-, intermediate-, and long-term goals and objectives. Strategy looks not just at how to execute the mission but also how to improve the organization (people, systems, processes, etc.) for sustainable success.

— Intent. Intent conveys to teammates guidance and direction, without actually being there. It communicates the desires of the leader, such that people can answer – for themselves – what would my boss want me to do if he/she was here? The leader’s intent is the pathway through which people exercise initiative and take action, without being told, because they know what is required and why. The how is up to them.

— Information. What are the big picture and the context in which we execute? Nothing enables execution and the exercise of judgment, consistent with the leader’s intent, like being informed. Leaders over-communicate to ensure that the vision sounds like a “drumbeat” in people’s heads, keeping them in step and marching toward victory. No more stovepipe communication that filters out all but what subordinate leaders think people need to know. Experienced leaders ensure that everyone has the full story and can take advantage of opportunities, learn from the challenges of others, and make decisions that align with the big picture.

— Alignment. How do we ensure consistency with regard to our actions, priorities, and resources? Leaders spend much of their time – in meetings or just walking around (we call it battlefield circulation) -- checking and adjusting the alignment of the organization, ensuring the connection of individual actions with the overall team goals. The role of the leader as “Chief Alignment Officer” is among the most significant of the leader’s many responsibilities.

Be sure, the chaos that defines our overseas operations can be just as prevalent and equally challenging to business leaders. Change is constant, decisions are made much closer to the problem, organizations are flatter, and people are empowered to measure and manage risks and take bold action like never before. Twenty-first century business leaders, like their counterparts in the military, either learn to similarly operate in this VUCA environment by putting their time and energy into the elements above, or risk becoming bureaucratic, over budget, locked in the past, and teetering on irrelevancy! They do this by learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable, turning on the “beacon” for their “troops” as they navigate through the “fog.”