The military’s answer to VUCA: Build a trust-based culture

Do the following leadership challenges sound familiar?

· You need to make a decision that will affect other people’s future – but the information you have is incomplete, or you have no information at all

· By the time a decision can be implemented, conditions have changed so much that the implementation plan has become obsolete

· For a high-risk project you need to motivate a team to give it their all, because only then will the mission succeed.

What executives, CEOs, and corporate boards have come to know as the challenges of an increasingly fast and complex business environment has long been everyday leadership routine for commanders of special forces and intelligence services units.

Actually, the very term VUCA (volatile, complex, uncertain, ambiguous) – now used by Google, Virgin, Patagonia and the like – originated in the military, long before it even arrived at corporate executive floors: The US Military Academy used back in the mid-1990s to describe modern, faster-paced warfare, where self-organizing, fast-acting terror cells have replaced large armies with clear front lines and where you often don’t know whether you are dealing with an enemy fighter or an uninvolved civilian. It was a matter of survival for military organizations to adapt to the VUCA environment.

Along with digitization and globalization, VUCA had extremely disruptive effects on the business world. It took executives way out of their comfort zones. Sudden crises such as the global financial crisis of 2007 raised questions such as: Which tools should I use to cope with this threatening environment? What kind of counteraction is effective? How can I lead my team and my organization through turbulent times and get people motivated for continuous change?

Leadership development agencies and business consultants often try to tell us that we can manage change with the aid of tools such as OKR, SCRUM, or the Kanban board. What they often forget is that these tools, great as they may be, are only means to an end. They only work when applied on fertile ground, so to speak: Their foundation must be a corporate culture characterized by distinct values and beliefs – above all, trust, loyalty and appreciation – and which is truly centered around the individual.

Precisely this kind of value-based organizational culture can be found in military elite teams, such as NAVY Seals, Delta Force or Jagdkommando, as well as in intelligence services. Their commanders have spent years leading and motivating their people in a VUCA environment, trusting them with their lives, relying on the power of their organizational culture and leadership tools. So the question is: What can we learn from these agile leaders?

From my work with high-performing military and corporate organizations, I was able to draw a series of lessons that I summarized in what I call five simple principles for crisis resistance.

  1. Don’t cease to drive cultural development Building the organizational culture starts with the selection of new executives and team members. Leader are gatekeepers: they should let those applicants pass the selection process whose values and motives ​​fit those of the team. They key here is not to restrict your focus to credentials or technical skills, but also scrutinize the applicants' personal drive - the "WHY." Once the team is in place, one of a leader’s key tasks is to enforce the team culture by rewarding desired behaviors and sanctioning those that violate team values. During my own training for military officer, another candidate was dropped from the class because he had tried to hide a hasty error from the instructors. Process errors are admissible, violations of the value system are not. Had he confessed his mistake openly and accepted punishment, he would not have had to leave the class.

  2. Encourage continuous learning The example above also illustrates how errors are handled in the agile structures of military elite unites: Anyone who regards mistakes as something negative, something to be hidden or concealed from others, lacks the agile mindset. Conversely, anyone who welcomes mistakes as a chance to learn and to do better tomorrow adds value to the organization. A simple tool for putting this principle into practice, used by special task forces, is the "After Action Review", or AAR. It is a debriefing and team reflection process performed immediately after an operation, the purpose being to adapt the team's behavior and make future missions safer and more effective. The procedure follows some powerful ground rules. First of all, ranks and positions are left at the doorstep. They have no room in the AAR, nor do egos or blame games. Nevertheless, things do get quite emotional sometimes and it is not always a pleasant experience for everyone, especially when there have been mistakes that could cost lives. Team leaders will allow conflicts, as they are regarded as positive, but they take care to prevent blame and a lack of appreciation. During AAR, the operation in question is examined not only for obvious major errors but also for small mistakes. In analyzing them, team leaders make sure that each individual’s point of view is heard and their specific expertise acknowledged. Embracing diversity in this way ensures appreciation for every single team member and an expanded solution corridor.

  3. Lead by example A long-standing military tradition has it that the leaders of a unit eat only after their team has eaten. I have also seen the commander himself and his senior staff helping to dish out the food: a humble gesture expressing their appreciation of the soldiers entrusted to them – and a powerful sign to show how effective leaders relinquish privileges in favor of those who risk their lives on the battlefield. The same attitude is expressed in the principle that the commander is always the first in the danger zone and the last to leave. Leaders need to be with their people when things get rough, reinforcing team values ​​through words and actions. The focal point of the operation must be the commander’s position. Especially in times of crisis or major organizational change, executives need to be close to their people – not hide in their ivory towers while others are forced to make sacrifices. Would Christopher Columbus’s ships have reached America, if he had sent his people on the mission alone? I doubt it.

  4. Stay flexible In an uncertain and ambiguous environment, a fixed and unchangeable plan would be set up for failure. The elite teams of intelligence services and special task forces know that. Although planning is essential, there can be no clinging to plans when conditions change. In other words, you need to reckon with sudden change and take precautions. Effective leaders know that even the most elaborate plans are no guarantee, and do not attach their ego to it. For each important operation, several possible scenarios are considered, input from all team members gathered, and several possible courses of action outlined. While the operation is in progress, timelines and processes are adjusted as needed. Agile acting commanders also know that the only way you can respond flexibly is by having reserves to dispose of. By contrast, companies undergoing a major change or crisis often do the opposite: They reduce manpower and process reserves to make the organization leaner and faster – or so they think. Flatter hierarchies also mean greater leadership spans per executive, however, resulting in less personal contact with each person reporting to them. In elite military units, the leadership span is never more than seven people. Reserves and redundancies translate in greater scope for handling crises.

  5. Instead of giving orders, extend trust Trust mobilizes – fear demobilizes. People whose main goal is to protect themselves will not take risky actions, let alone follow their leaders and brave the gunfire. Even seemingly fearless elite soldiers feel that need for safety. But faced with a VUCA environment, which always means uncertainty, security and reliability within the team must be 100 percent. Only when each team member can be 100 percent sure that they are protected by their leader and fellow team members, can they focus on completing their task with confidence and commitment. A key principle is: If you fail to gain your people’s trust in peace times you won’t have it during battle. In times of change and crisis, it is particularly important that leaders spend time with their people. Nothing can replace face time, as it helps register private concerns, personal issues and individual goals. Also, soldiers in danger expect their leaders to inform them honestly and comprehensibly about the difficulties they are about to face. The opposite often happens in the business world: Companies in crisis tend to withhold from their employees vital information about changes, restructuring plans and future developments. And since change and crises are always agile, message control and information bans create distrust and insecurity, which, in turn, leads to demobilization – the opposite of what you need in a crisis.

The old unwritten law that applies for military special forces also applies for companies: Trust is not a matter of command and obey – you have to earn it.

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