In 1985 Gen Glenn Otis, the commander of US Army Europe contributed an introduction to section 3 of a book entitled, "Military Leadership, in Pursuit of Excellence" 2nd edition, edited by Robert Taylor and Walter Rosenbach.
"Leaders must adapt to a constantly changing world. Technological, economic, social and political environments are at a rapid pace; so are the education and experience levels of effective leaders and followers. The military too is in flux. Weapon systems have grown more technically sophisticated; organizational structures have grown leaner and flatter. Multinational armies embrace diverse cultures and values. Although military leaders were once elite in terms of economic and social background, as well as education, our society now endorses personal and professional development for everyone, regardless of economic and social background. Thus there are truly no inherent demographic differences between leaders and followers."
What struck me about that paragraph is that it was written 25 years ago, but might just as well have been written in the last week. Leaders must spend more time and energy understanding the people in their organizations rather than the equipment and stuff of their organizations. An understanding of the disparate values, norms, behaviors etc, is an important step in forming the common understanding of the task and it's purpose. And it puts the emphasis on the human factor of both the unit and the problem and recognizes that if the human beings don't have a clear sense of direction, then regardless of technology, the endeavor will probably fail.
Gen Otis goes on to say the following:
"The military's emphasis is increasingly on human skills, the strategic implication of decisions, development of a common purpose, and shared acceptance of accountability for both leaders and followers. The leader can no longer afford to be the most skilled Soldier; technical skills of followers must exceed those of the leaders if the organization is to be successful. Leaders are now evaluated in terms of having people in their units who are brighter and more capable than anyone else. "
The technology revolution has created a new paradigm for military organizations who, in the past, have been excellent generalists - it has created the specialist. The Soldier who essentially has been hired to do one thing exceptionally well rather than possessing an ability to work through a variety of challenges using broader thinking skills. We now have a group of young enlisted Soldiers, for example, who make our digital systems work. Without them we cannot communicate or send information or do any of the coordination that we need to make the Army run. We have become beholden to information and situational awareness and instant communication. As I have said before, the most important kid in the organization is the one who can keep the Internet running. I assure you, any modern day general will gladly step aside and make concessions to the young Soldier who can solve his communication problem. Why? Because the information itself has become the prize. He who has the most, wins. The goal seems to be instant situational awareness of the entire battlefield in real time.
There are however some unspoken aspects of that paragraph that should be considered. Is it the information that is key, or the ability to use it? By creating total situational awareness, are we limiting individual initiative and judgement? If so, what effect does that have on leader development? Are we losing our ability to efficiently use the advantage gained in information by trying to hold on to an outdated hierarchical personnel structure that imposes rules and gates to decision making that turns what was an advantage into a disadvantage? These questions introduce the idea of the effects of organizational structure, it's relationship toward leader development and the required mental agility that modern technology requires.
This also represents an understanding of the role of both the leader and the follower in modern organizations, both business and military. It becomes even more critical that leaders create environments where the skills and abilities of a wide range of technical experts can be brought together to serve a common purpose. The role of the leader is to create the conditions whereby the followers can excel and bring their particular talents to bear against a common problem. It inherently values the follower and their contributions to the unit.
Finally, Gen Otis outlines the things that he thinks are critical components of successful leadership:
"A leaders success depends on self-knowledge, self-confidence and a lifelong commitment to education and training. There are no surefire methods of developing leadership.....we believe that self-knowledge is the only way a person can prepare for the challenge. The discovery of one's own strengths and weaknesses enhances self-confidence. Taking risks and learning from failures are critical to leader development. The more we learn about ourselves, the more effective we can be in the roles of leader and follower."
I wish I'd found that paragraph when I started writing this, it would have saved me a bunch of time and energy! These three paragraphs taken together deserve a lot of consideration, but the final one is, to me, the most important. We must encourage, support, and insist that our young leaders have a clear understanding of who they are as individuals before we can begin to mold them into leaders. Personal study of yourself and the critical values and viewpoints you hold, as well as understanding why and how you came to hold them, is the only way to gain the self-confidence needed to lead people in any organization. This is even more critical for those charged with making decisions that may cause immense hardship and/or suffering to others. Secondly, these values and viewpoints must continually be challenged by mental exercise and ethical challenges to see if they withstand the pressure. Risking personal comfort and learning lessons from value failures is critical to the human understanding of compassion and empathy required from all leaders and followers in any organization.
Generically, I think Gen Otis's comments are pretty smart. The cultural (socio-economic and educational) divide between officers and enlisted Soldiers has changed.....The technology revolution has brought about a levelling based upon the unique specialized skills we now require.....There is no way for a modern leader to keep up with technological change, he/she will have to leave that to people more expert than they.....Successful leaders will create common pictures for follower experts to work within.....The follower's belief in the common picture will generate from their trust in the character and confidence of the leader.....The character and confidence can only be realized through self-study, risk taking, and the lessons learned from experience and sometimes failure.
As always, your thoughts, ideas and comments are welcome.