“I must become an expert in a whole new set of skills.” – General George C. Marshall
“Strategic leaders… simultaneously sustain culture, envision the future, convey that vision to a wide audience, and personally lead change.” – Army Leadership, p. 7-1
“Strategic leadership is framing the questions for which there are no known, textbook answers and creating tams that can co-create the answers through forming hypotheses and conducting experiments. It’s the art of making it up as you go.” – Geoff Davis
In my work with senior leaders, one of the most interesting phenomena is, at some point, each will stop our conversation and share one of their biggest fears – “I’m afraid they’ll find out I’m a phony; that I’m just making this stuff up.” And my response always is, “That’s your job – to make it up. If you’re not creating the direction of your organization and confronting the big issues that have not textbook answers, who is?”
My early images of senior leaders within our community was that they were superhuman men (I can’t remember seeing a woman leader in the 1950’s) who somehow were born with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to achieve great things. They were “natural born” leaders who were bigger than life and always confidently shared what they knew to be the right answers to every answer. They were the guardians of our way of life and had assumed the mantle of responsibility through some divine right and deserved our unquestioning obedience.
In fact, in the early 20th century the prevailing wisdom was that only 10% of the population was naturally smart and gifted enough to create, lead, and manage the work for the other 90%. This shows up in the graduation rates for high school. In 1911 only about 10% of the population graduated from high school and fewer went on to college.
As my career began to take shape, I began to see some evidence that perhaps my early assessments were off-base – maybe even wrong! The more time I began to spend with leaders, the more I began to see evidence of doubt, fear, uncertainty, and even some anxiety (at times turning into terror). Now there were issues confronting these leaders that seemed to surface their weakness and uncertainty. As our society and economy began to move from complicated issues (those that have predictable outcomes) to complex ones (doing the exact same thing twenty times and getting twenty different results), confidence seemed to evaporate and was replaced by either a lack of attention to the big issues or a retreat to work that had “right answers” or both. In these cases, many organizations were swallowed up and spit out by complexity.
Several years ago, I spoke at a strategic leadership conference at the University of Connecticut. It was a gathering of academics and practitioners from around the world. As I often do, I found one person – a senior executive from a large European technology company – who I invited to lunch and asked him my favorite question, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about leadership?” His answer intrigued me – he simply said, “The Answer Book.”
“When I was a young manager, I was surprised how my manager seemed to have all the answers, so I knew he must have an answer book somewhere. So I worked to get promoted so I could get a peek at that book. My efforts paid off and I was promoted, but he took the book with him!”
“This started my quest to get the answers to the most confounding problems we faced. With each subsequent promotion, I got more and more agitated that those who had gone before me would hold onto their books and not share them. Until I finally became the CEO and realized there are no answer books to the kinds of problems we have at senior levels. We have to create those answers because of the nature of the problems.”
In the mid-1990’s, I had a unique opportunity to spend some time at the U.S. Army War College’s (Carlisle Barracks) Strategic Leadership Program as a civilian volunteer. This program is an incredible, transformative educational experience for the participants and is one of the required paths to promotion to the rank of General. One of the instructors, Dr. Herb Barber, and I struck up a friendship that was built on our mutual interests and enthusiasm for the art and science of leadership and I learned a great deal from Herb, who kindly shared many of the key concepts that I still embrace today.
One of the first concepts Herb introduced me to was what he called the “Army Leadership Framework.” He defined three levels of leadership within the Army:
- Direct Leadership – primarily influencing and interpersonal in nature, this is leadership from an individual and small group, task-oriented perspective. The three words used to describe it were “cohesion, procedures, and motivation.” These are leaders who get things done.
- Organizational Leadership – predominantly operating and maintaining in nature, these leaders deal with leadership from an organizational systems and processes perspective. “Climate, policies, and direction” define the focus of this leadership. These are leaders who focus inward on the organization and make sure things are working.
- Strategic Leadership – focused on improving and building in nature, these leaders primarily look outward, dealing with global/regional and national/societal issues. Their work is creating, confirming and generating commitment to culture, values, and purpose and is defined by the acronym, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). Strategic leaders are constantly figuring out how to navigate a VUCA environment. If they’re not, they’re not doing their jobs – and neither is anyone else – and eventually VUCA overcomes even the best plans and organizations.
But the Army has over one million members. They can create leadership functions that are specialized and laser-focused. What about the typical civilian organization? How do we think about leadership using this model when 89% of businesses in America have 20 or fewer employees?
One problem that leaders in these organizations have is that they don’t know or think about having all three responsibilities. This framework is one way that they can begin. In your leadership position, envision that you’re on an “elevator” within the pyramid, based on what the context of the environment demands. At times, you’re getting things done and giving orders. At other times, you’re taking care of the back office or making sure the computer systems are up and running. The one leadership responsibility you might be overlooking the most is strategic leadership because you’re either too busy helping others get their work done, are more comfortable (and having more fun) doing what got you into the business, or are uncomfortable doing strategic work that is filled with VUCA. It’s not fun doing work where there’s no “right” answer – just experiments that work or, many times, don’t. When leaders don’t have or make the time to spend time in reflection and define and consider the big questions that they have to confront, then no one is paying attention to the strategic issues the organization must wrestle with — and that can be catastrophic.
One of the greatest challenges in leadership today is the pace at which we work (“busyness”) and the tendency to react rather than intentionally create an organizational agenda and proactively work on the most important priority of that agenda. Stephen Covey famously identified this issue is something he called “The Urgency Addiction.” In Covey’s famous four box matrix graphic representation, he defined two axes, Urgent and Important, and extremes of both. This creates four possible ways we work and show up. According to Covey, only two of the four quadrants should be where we spend time: Urgent and Important work and Important but Not Urgent work. The first I describe as “fire-fighting” – reacting to every situation. This is the important work of organizational and direct leaders but it’s more management than leadership. The second I describe as “fire prevention.” If we would only spend more time in this area, we wouldn’t have as many fires to put out. This focus on important but not urgent issues is the work of strategic leaders.
My experience of leaders is that few people in any organization – business, education, non-profits – understand strategic leadership, how it works, what the work is, and what tools they have to master in order to do their work. In these posts, I’d like to offer some thoughts on becoming more familiar with the work of the strategic leader. We’ll begin to explore some of those in my next post.
© Geoff Davis, 2/8/19