#67 The Return of the OODA

Earlier this week I came across the following quotes and thought that I could build a post around them:

"There was a time when correction was impersonal, frequently loud, often profane and sometimes demaning. That type of instruction or leadership has long since ceased to be effective in the United States Army. Each leader develops his own style of leadership, which comes naturally from his personality, education and training. But the style must be acceptable to Soldiers molded by a society which is hostile to authority and highly individualistic. Overcoming this conditioning is an important subject for consideration in noncommissioned offer academies and officer schools. "

"Interchange of ideas within the chain of command is essential to the achievement of training goals. Raising standards at every opportunity and correcting errors in a manner that ensures understanding are all part of the leadership process in training."

Those words were written by LTG Arthur S. Collins, Jr in a classic book, "Common Sense Training - A Working Philosophy for Leaders" that has been on more Army leaders bookshleves than I can remember. Like a few other military classics, you almost cannot walk into a commander's office and not find a copy of "Common Sense" on the bookshelf or window sill. Interestingly, LTG Collin's book was originally published 32 years ago in 1978, and yet remains incredibly relevant today. I have quoted and talked about article after article over the past months that reinforced or brought up the idea of 'how' we lead and why some things seem to work better than others, and the conditions required to build successful organizations. I have routinely said that the communication and interpersonal style of the leader must be acceptable to the subordinate. I have said often that the autocratic stereotype of an Army leader will generally fail. I have continually pushed to develop learning organizations where the exchange of ideas and methods is the key for unit success. Turns out, LTG Collins beat me, and all the other authors I have quoted, by three decades. Maybe, just maybe, these two themes; individual acceptance of the leader method of providing purpose, direction and motivation, and the idea that leadership is best exercised as a total involvement process of communication and learning provide 2 'thematic' pillars for developing solid leaders for the 21st century.

Turns out we may already being doing it. Earlier this week the Army Capabilities and Integration Center (ARCIC), highlighted an article in the latest edition of Joint Forces Quarterly entitled, "When Do We Teach the Basics" by Maj (Ret) Don Vandergriff. You can find it here:


[As some of you will recall, Don sent me a note a short while ago and I was more than pleased in Post #60 to pass along another article he had written for the AUSA Institute of Land Warfare. ]

The OODA Loop is back! For everyone who has laughed at me for the past 2 years and asked me what the hell I was talking about and how it applied, not only to training, but to leading and situational awareness, I highly recommend reading this article. I met Don briefly a year and a half ago at a symposium I attended to discuss Outcome Based Training and Education (OBT&E) at Johns Hopkins University. He and COL Casey Haskins, the Director of Military Instruction, at West Point were two of the main presenters pushing the idea that 'how' to think is much more criticial to success in a dynamic and ever-changing environment than memorizing 'what' to think. In this article, Don writes:

" The loop gains its power from the leader’s ability to form mental constructs. Timeliness and accuracy of decisions and actions relate directly to the decisionmaker’s ability to orient and reorient to rapidly changing and uncertain situations. Personal experiences, education, and training (also known as knowledge) empower the leader to form these mental constructs. Boyd’s theory thus emphasizes the importance of the leader’s ability to think. By-the-book answers to specific well known situations are not good enough. It is the ability to think that allows a leader to take the knowledge from personal experiences, education, and training and adapt it to the imperfect information of the present situation to arrive at a timely, sound, and
workable solution. Applying the OODA loop faster than the opposition is the essence of situational, or intuitive, decisionmaking."

Further on in the article, there you can find the following quotation from MAJ Chad Foster, the course director at the DMI at West Point:

"At the heart of ALM is the essence of the Boyd Cycle, a 4-step theory of decisionmaking that
was first articulated by Col. John R. Boyd following his study of fighter pilots in combat during the Korean War. . . . Commonly known as “OODA” (observation, orientation, decision, action), the Boyd Cycle is a useful framework for the assessment of students throughout the course. We focus on the critical step of “orientation” because this is where the cadet attempted to make sense out of the information at hand. The decision that the cadet makes is important, but how they arrived at that decision is just as important."

"The decision is important...but how they arrived at that decision is just as important."

I have written a lot in past postings about the Orientation portion of the loop, because it is the critical first step to gaining insight into how we think (and therefore lead), and equally importantly how we are percieved by those we lead. Both have a huge impact on organizational success. As I observe my unfolding circumstances in training, in combat, in my day-to-day existence, I am 'seeing' my world. What is important to understand is that 'how' I see my unfolding world is colored by the many filters Don mentioned in the article, education, experience, training, culture, background, gender, ethnicity etc. Those filters alone will make each of us a unique leader. No two people will exercise leadership the same way because no two people have the same set of Orientation filters. Therefore, there cannot be a 'one-size-fits-all' solution to any leader challenge. The key is to make people aware of their filters as early as possible in the development process in order for them to be able to suspend them when required to re-orient to a situation from another perspective with equal vigor. The other awareness gained by the loop is that the subordinate is 'looping' as well. My actions are not only mine. They are being interpreted, filtered, and put in context by my subordinates.This is a key understanding that many senior military leaders forget and is reflected in my thoughts on the importance of generational understanding. Too many seniors believe that by rank, position, or authority, everyone below them on the food chain sees the problem and it's attendant solution in the same manner they do. This beliefe causes misunderstandings and issues on a rapidly changing battelfield - be it the office, or Afghanistan. The Orientation of the leader and the Orientation of the led have to come together at some point for the unit/mission to be successful. That point should be found in the commander's intent portion of Task, Purpose, Intent.

I think if you go back to LTG Collin's first quote above you will find a perfect demonstration of the loop at work. Collins' view is formed by his 'Orientation'. However, it is his ability to understand his filters that allows him to recognize that different generations of Soldiers will have to be lead differently based upon their filters. He recognized 33 years ago that directive, autocratic, abusive leadership would not work well for the Soldier of the late '70's and early '80's. By being able to re-orient himself to the problem without imposing filter judgements he was able to find ways to develop viable learning and training solutions for successful units.

However, Collin's second quotation above may be even more improtant than the first. Collins understood that the "Interchange of ideas within the chain of command is essential to the achievement of training goals." This idea is brought forward to the present by MAJ Foster's thought that ensuring Cadets learn to recognize how they make decisions is critical to their development. Without the interchange mentioned by LTG Collins, there cannot be the 'how they decided' understanding mentioned by MAJ Foster.

Collins and Foster naturally come together again when both recognize that, "Each leader develps his own style of leadership, which comes naturally from his personality, education and training." This recognition of individuality is a basic fundamental of successful leader development. Training programs and institutional schoolhouses that attempt to package any type of leader development program that does not recognize the individuality of each leader and the impact of that individuality on the led will inevitable fail.

Ever since I was introduced to the OODA Loop by JM two years ago, I have been convinced that it is what has been missing in our leader development programs since I joined the Army and possibly even before that. My beliefe is that OODA happens at personal, professional, and societal levels all the time. Recognizing how it works and impacts units is critical to both personal and unit success. On the few occassions that I have been asked to present my ideas on how to use OODA to develop worthwhile training solutions, the reception has almost always been positive. I had one battalion commander who has seen the presentation multiple times comment to me that "Each time I walk away with something new to think about." His unit has adopted a more OODA-like style for developing training and have had some good success. He commented to me that his junior leaders seem to be taking to the ideas well and that it is having a positive impact on the unit as a whole.

In order to build thought-full, adaptive leaders who can rapidly adjust to changing circumstances we must create leader programs that begin with self awareness. We must concentrate our efforts on learning about ourselves before we can ever lead others. By recognizing our Orientation, and accepting that our followers also have their own Orientation we can begin to close the gaps in perception and understanding that will allow the entire organization to see itself clearly and will harbinger a return to being able to act upon intent and capitalize on the talents and abilities of each of the individuals in the organization. If you think about so many of the issues and problems that I have mentioned in light if the "Black Hearts" incident, you can clearly see why teaching OODA, focusing on gaining a common understanding of the institutions values, and fostering dialogue over discussion have become critical parts of my views on leadership.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.