One reality of contemporary organizations is that in most cases the complexity of the leadership challenges in those organizations has evolved more rapidly than the leadership capacity of most executives. This partly explains the increasingly short tenure of executives in the “C suite” of all kinds of organizations and it also explains the deep dissonance and anxiety that many leaders today feel on daily basis.
The best description I have seen of this reality can be found in the Strategic Leadership Primer, which serves as a primary leadership development text for the U.S. Army War College leadership training program. In this text, the army describes the current operating environment as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). Although the concept was developed in the disorienting period immediately following the end of the Cold War, and further refined in the exceedingly complex environments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the model applies broadly across most contemporary operating environments. In short, the USAWC leadership training program argues that the VUCA environment requires strategic leadership that is quite different than traditional models, either military or civilian, and it is important to note that although the VUCA construct was created in response to challenges faced by the military, it applies broadly in civilian contexts as well. It would be difficult to overstate the difference in the requisite skill sets and traits necessary for successful, strategic leadership in the current operating environment compared to more traditional models of leadership.
For example, while traditional leaders often rely on positional authority, that “power” is less valuable and effective for leaders today than it has ever been. Even in vertical chain of command structures, let alone in highly matrixed environments, the ability to build consensus and drive behavior through influence rather than through power, is more critical for success in today’s world. Another example relates to internal vs. external environments. Traditional leadership models assume that leaders impact organizations by affecting, if not controlling, internal variables. In the strategic leadership model, it is assumed that leaders must also directly address and influence external variables and environments, which is much different task, focus, and competency.
Requirements for strategic leadership include skills and traits such as anticipation, intuition, empathy, high tolerance for ambiguity and risk, the ability to manage competing ideas simultaneously, the capacity to make difficult, ethical decisions in the face of limited data and moving targets, and, as noted, knowledge of and the wherewithal to influence external environments. Successful contemporary leaders must also have deep interpersonal, social, and political intelligence, self-awareness, and insights into organizational health. This profile bears almost no resemblance to traditional leadership profiles, which tend to be based on “technical” skills, effective use of management tools, pursuit of fairly static strategic objectives, and “strong” executive personalities.
In contrast, and somewhat counter-intuitive for traditional leaders, strategic leadership requires that executives cede control, disperse authority, and share credit. As noted in the Strategic Leadership Primer, strategic leadership is a team sport. This is less about altruism and more because the depth, breadth, and complexity of contemporary leadership challenges are frankly beyond the capabilities of even the most skilled leaders to solve wholly on their own. As such, contemporary leaders depend more on others than ever before for their own success.
At the highest level, strategic leaders must facilitate the creation of and dissemination of a compelling vision; ensure alignment of organizational structures, resources, values, and culture with stated objectives; and lead organizations through what is essentially a perpetual change environment, all the while making material decisions with sometimes limited or contradicting information, sensitive to “downstream” implications for all choices and commitments. In fact, it is the complexity of current operating environments, and the web of invisible second and third order connections, that make decision making itself so complex. As noted in the Primer, strategic leaders “have to decide how to decide,” and the decision process itself may be different from one context or challenge to another.
A related example of the fundamental difference between traditional models of leadership and strategic leadership is the reality that in the VUCA environment, leaders often cannot choose between one right or wrong answer to an identified problem, but must choose between a solution or solutions that are likely better than others.
Similarly, strategic leaders also understand that “success” in a VUCA world is often defined as iterative progress in a directionally correct way over time rather than a single “home run” that achieves total success via a single strategy or initiative. Likewise, failure is redefined as both inevitable and a valuable learning opportunity for the organization, rather than something to be avoided, as is often the case in traditional leadership thinking. And, of great significance, traditional leaders have frequently been taught that compromise is a reflection of weakness, while strategic leaders fully embrace the notion that, in a VUCA environment, compromise is not only often appropriate and necessary, but frequently the difference between partial victory or success and walking away empty handed.
Not surprisingly, the Primer’s final chapter is about the obligation of the strategic leader to be cognizant of and purposeful about the human dimension of leadership. Of course, in a military context, leaders engage their subordinates in what is likely the most wrenching and traumatic of human activities: combat. Although civilian entities rarely ever encounter that depth of human impact, there is no organizational enterprise in which the human dimension is not profoundly important. As I noted in a previous post, all businesses are people businesses. Strategic leaders recognize that truth and devote material time and energy to understanding and meeting the needs of the people in their organizations and to their own professional development relative to interpersonal intelligence, self-awareness, and communications skills. In fact, a key to success for contemporary leaders is the counter-intuitive, but critical need to be open to their own vulnerability. Historically, leaders have actually been taught to show no weakness, but compelling recent research by Brené Brown suggests that today’s leadership environments require courage, which is not achievable without deep self-reflection.
Sadly, one of the greatest challenges faced by strategic leaders (and greatest source of stress and risk) is the choice to assert oneself when superiors or boards or other executives may be less strategic or enlightened than the leader who is prepared to take the bull by the horns in a VUCA environment. Truly strategic leaders are rare, and by definition, “ahead of their time.” This often creates genuine dissonance in organizations when certain parties favor a conservative, even reactionary approach to daunting contemporary challenges, or are simply too risk averse for contemporary environments. Generally speaking, those organizations may be capable of slowing a downward trend, but long-term survival is unlikely and thriving under those circumstances is virtually impossible.
That political reality notwithstanding, strategic leaders can only bring value by being strategic. It may be useful to “choose one’s battles” or purposely pursue a slower path in some cases to allow others to become more comfortable with the requisites of operating in complex, uncertain and even volatile contexts, but in the end, the U.S. Army developed a new model of leadership precisely because the old model was no longer functional. Non-strategic or broadly traditional leaders are failing anyway because their approach does not work in today’s world. Any senior leader who wishes to extend his or her own shelf life in an executive role will have to assume the risks inherent in developing and implementing strategic leadership skills and traits. In addition to the USAWC strategic leadership model, another example is leadership for conscious capitalism. Both merit a close look.