#62 Roving Leadership

In 1989, Max DePree authored a book entitled "Leadership is an Art". I picked it up this morning and randomly opened to a page and found the following quote:

"Roving leaders are those indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them. Roving leaders take charge in varying degrees in many companies every day. More than simple initiative, roving leadership is a key element in the day-to-day expression of a participative process. Participation is the opportunity and responsibility to have a say in your job, to have influence over the management of organizational resources based on your own competence and your willingness to accept problem ownership. No one person is the 'expert' at everything. In many organizations there are two kinds of leaders, both hierarchical leaders and roving leaders. In special situations, the hierarchical leader is obligated to identify the roving leader and then support and follow him or her, and also exhibit the grace that enables the roving leader to lead. It's not easy to else take the lead. To do this demands a special openness and the ability to recognize what is best for the organization and how best to respond to a given issue. Roving leadership is an issue-oriented idea. Roving leadership is the expression of the ability of hierarchical leaders to permit others to share ownership of problems - in effect, to take possession of a situation."

Obviously, the Army is very much a hierarchical organization. By history and necessity its' rank and organization structure creates lines of authority and delegations of responsibility. There has to be a chain of command through which the vision or intent of the organization is achieved. Anything that is comprised of over a million people and expends over 500 billion dollars annually of the nations resources demands some form of structure to keep it moving forward. I am not advocating the removal of the chain of command, nor of the rank structure.

However, I think DePree's paragraph above is very instructive for today's Army and the types of wars we are currently waging. There has been a lot of talk over the past 10 years about decentralization and the empowerment of junior leaders to make decisions based upon the situation they are facing. You often hear of it as the 'Strategic Corporal'. The title alone implies and understanding that on the modern battlefield, in a counterinsurgency war, in an age of instant communication and relentless political punditry, there is a recognition that the actions of one person, in charge of a fire team or squad can have a critical impact on the perception and outcome of the larger national goals.

The question then becomes, how do you blend the hierarchical structure of the chain of command with the recognition that many critical decisions will actually be made by people very far down on the organizational ladder? How do we recognize, grow, and develop the 'Strategic Corporal' without losing the recognized need for structure? Are these two types of leadership styles mutually exclusive, or is it possible to bring them together in a manner that moves the entire organization forward toward achieving it's goals?

I believe that not only is it possible to successfully blend the 2, I think it is absolutely critical that we retain and develop talent in both the hierarchical and roving styles simultaneously. In order to do that however, will probably take some reprioritizing of the current manner of leader development. Here are my thoughts on how to bring these 2 parts together:

1. Start with an emphasis on the Values and institutional Ethos of the organization. For both the hierarchical leader and the roving one, an understanding of the shared Values, Ethos, and Norms sets the framework for success. Both groups remain bound by all 3.

2. Place human being development in the form of trust, responsibility and situational ownership as the first priority at every level. From the moment a Soldier joins the Army there should be problems for him or her to solve that develop trust and confidence and force them to accept and take individual responsibility for themselves, and their decision making process. I think this is beginning to happen in some of our commissioning and Initial Entry training centers right now, through the work of AWG, Don Vandergriff, COL Casey Haskins and others. Developing young Soldiers and leaders are being trusted and allowed to take ownership of a problem and then develop solutions to that problem. If you think about it for a second, the idea of Outcome Based Training and Education (OBT&E) is to grow roving leaders; people who are capable of understanding the diverse effects of their decisions on a strategic level. By removing institutional roadblocks and keeping the Values, Ethos and Norms ever present, OBT&E develops a Soldier who absorbs the character of the Army, possesses the ability to act accordingly and can think three dimensionally on the modern battlefield.

3. Connect the bottom and the top. Many times throughout this blog I have brought up the idea that the top must value the input of those at the bottom. Since roving leadership is much more likely to be exercised in numbers by people at the bottom of the chain of command, the top of the chain has to ensure that the 'rovers' posses a clear sense of the mission, it's purpose, the intended outcome and their piece in its' success. We are starting to see a lot of this right now as Gen McChrystal and other senior Army leaders are trying to communicate to the bottom most members of the Army and are by-passing a lot of the middle of the hierarchy to do it. Blogs started by the Vice Chief of Staff, the AKO information sharing websites, using modern technology to communicate strategic reasoning, all of these things are examples of the empowerment of the roving leader at the point of impact by the hierarchical leader high in the organization.

As part of the 3 week program that I am in charge of that prepares Soldiers for deployment, one of our events is a driving lane that presents the Soldiers with practice in convoy operations, IED awareness and response drills, and a rudimentary look at operating in a COIN environment. The last time we did this training, we simply drove the students in along a route and then simulated them getting hit with an IED. They really didn't get much from it. After the first week, I challenged my subordinates to build a more comprehensive holistic event that would demonstrate to the Soldier the complexities and ambiguities of operating in a COIN environment. (The hierarchical leader sets the goal). I did not tell them what to do. I simply let them develop the scenario and trusted that they could do it. (Establishing trust and empowerment and reinforcing the Values, Ethics and Norms of the institution).

Here is the operation they designed: The mission for the students would be to deliver a Dr. and medical supplies to an Afghan village. The village elders and women were in need of medical care and their various illnesses were preventing them from attending council meetings where they could get needed government assistance to aid in their development. There were insurgent groups in the area who knew of the planned MEDCAP. Although IED activity had been low recently, the announcement of the operation might increase the threat. Once they got to the village, they would then have to find a way to assess what medical care was needed and to provide what assistance they could.

Now lets pull the mission apart:

1. The Dr. on the mission was a woman in order to provide assistance to female villagers. Effect: For US forces this changed a behavioral paradigm by emphasising the strategic importance of providing non-lethal forms of influence. The idea that a woman Dr. was the reason for the patrol in the first place, and that her safe delivery was the expected outcome forced decisions to be made that are outside of normal military thought processes. This wasn't just a mission to hunt bad guys.

2. There was a recognition of the threat environment and previous training in IED awareness was emphasized because the threat is often unseen and random. Effect: Reinforces the idea of situational awareness and threat knowledge at the lowest level.

3. Cultural considerations had to be recognized. Requesting permission from the villae elder to enter the village and the recognition that Afghan women will not be seen and cannot be examined by male personnel. However, language barriers will be created if we do not have a female interpretor. Effect: Emphasize the importance of the political and power constructs that exist in Afghan tribal settings.

4. The lack of participation of the village elders in local council meetings has a strategic impact and must be addressed in order to limit the impact of insurgent forces on local activities. Effect: The strategic impact of enabling the village to connect to the central government in the region thereby helping to reduce the impact of Taliban forces in the area.

Overall, the training event was very successful from both the student and instructor standpoint. The instructors were able to build a mission based upon their considerable knowledge of COIN concepts and environmental understanding. They were given the freedom to operate in a manner that suited both the institutional priorities and the individual Soldier's knowledge requirements. At the very lowest level, the strategic lessons of Gen McChrystal and his intent were being implemented. Roving leadership embedded with hierarchical leadership connecting the bottom to the top in keeping with the Values, Ethics and Norms of the United States Army.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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