#107 Do We Really Want Change?

When I have some free time in the evening, I usually try to find articles or websites to use as references here. Normally, I'll download something worth considering and then store it in a work folder on my hard drive. So yesterday I went looking through my archives and came across an interesting article from Small Wars Journal written in September 2010 by COL (Ret) Christopher Paparone entitled "Design and the Prospects for Deviant Leadership". You can find the link here:


COL Paparone's article raises some very interesting questions regarding leadership, change agents and the institution. Consider the following:

"Interestingly, Ron Heifetz, in his 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers, does not use any version of the word ―follower throughout his 348 pages of text. His thesis is that leaders help others lead themselves through difficult, complex, and even life-threatening circumstances (leaders beget self-leaders). His principal argument is that leadership is adaptive work that occurs where technical definitions and solutions are not available. The implications are clear for the military: if you and your troops are not dealing in adaptive work when faced with unique, novel, and complex situations, you are engaged in something else other than leadership.

According to Heifetz, adaptive work involves influencing others away from reliance on authoritative response. An undesirable feature of the more traditional way of framing leadership is that it creates inappropriate dependencies where others are not motivated to discover or create solutions because they rely on the leader to do it for them. In other words, the traditional (culturally, habit-forming) view is that leadership is a kind of technology that troops depend on as a source for authoritative response. This dependency is a constraint when adaptivity is needed.

Heifetz’s alternative view challenges the values, attitudes, and habits that comprise the military’s proclivity to see leadership as a socially-acceptable form of follower dependency. Heifetz argues that the preferred purpose of leadership is to lessen dependence, promoting a more decentralized adaptivity in individuals, groups and, organizations when faced with novel, highly complex, and ambiguous situations. Instead of authoritative response being the currency of leadership, reorienting the attention of others on creative deviance (or what others have called ―craftwork) becomes the important aspect of leaders’ work. ―Leading without authority‖ displaces the authoritative-technical mindset. From this view, leadership is provocative in nature – spurring the debate while not resolving it (―with no heat, nothing cooks‖). In Heifetz’s terms, ―A sense of purpose is not the same as a clearly defined purpose, and the former (purposeful sensibility) is more efficacious than the traditional norm – that leaders are supposed to provide clarity of purpose. While the difference may be subtle, on deeper reflection, his argument reflects the worldview shift demanded by postpositivism (leadership draws attention to the unsurely) from positivism (where leadership is expected to provide surety)."

In plain terms, our current leadership definition and model creates a dependent nature within the organization and when faced with challenges that do not have a proscribed, preordained, answer, the subordinate has no appropriate response.

I found the following sentences of particular interest:

1. "Leaders help others lead themselves through difficult, complex and even life-threatening situations."

2. "Adaptive work involves influencing others away from reliance on authoritative response."

3. "An undesirable feature of the more traditional way of framing leadership is that it creates inappropriate dependencies where others are not motivated to discover or create solutions because they rely on the leader to do it for them."

4. "Heifetz argues that the preferred purpose of leadership is to lessen dependence, promoting a more decentralized adaptivity in individuals, groups and, organizations when faced with novel, highly complex, and ambiguous situations."

For the last three years or so, the Army has been touting adaptability as a cornerstone for leader development. We need to develop leaders who have the ability to discern unfolding conditional changes in real time, understand the potential implications of those changing conditions and then craft appropriate responses to them that will lead to the organizations larger desired outcome. Much like Gen Dempsey expressed the idea that we have embraced decentralization as an "absolute good" without necessarily considering it's complete impacts, I also believe this is true for the buzzword of adaptability. We say it, that we need adaptive leaders, but have we really embraced what it means? And how long will it take until we come to a consensus on how to achieve it? By the time that we get there, the conditions will have changed again. It becomes a never-ending cycle of playing catch up.

But, here's the real question, do we really want this adaptive change? Are we truly interested in developing the ability to move away an authoritative response? Really? Or are we just playing another set of word games while continuing to reinforce at every level the authoritative structural model that currently exists? Right now I am inclined to say that we are really only dabbling around the edges. True reform of the leader development system is still very threatening to the organization as a whole.

Consider this...Last week a discussion was started on the Army Website that asked people to consider what negative impacts the last decade of war and constant deployment cycles has had on the Army. These forums are going on all over the Army right now as we try to understand the American Profession of Arms after a decade on conflict. One of these forums is for ILE (Intermediate Level Education Program) students - normally Army Majors. Some of their responses appear to demonstrate to me that even if we have a somewhat fuzzy understanding of what adaptability and agility requires, the idea of it is positively scary to many folks.

One student wrote: "With changing economic constraints, it is imperative that we focus our efforts on specific goals and priorities. While we would like to imagine dealing with every possibility, we should adapt to what is "the likely" and build aggressive teams that are grounded in the basics and can think through problems."

Thought: By the time we could determine what those 'likely' possibilities are and develop training mechanisms for them, they undoubtedly will have already changed.

Another: "The past nine to ten years have had the effect of making us jacks of all trades, but masters of none. Although it is advantageous that we are building a diverse skill set, it is presenting a critical challenge as we move forward. How do we, as leaders, begin to resharpen not only our but our Soldier's skills as a conventional Army? Moreover, will we ever be the conventional Army of the past again? As we learned the other day from a speaker doctrine is evolving that will, one would hope, address how we get to the crux of this challenge."

Thought: How can you recognize on one hand that the skill-sets needed for unconventional warfare are advantageous and yet not recognize that they are also critical skills in a conventional conflict?

Another: "We spend a lot of time and energy training our Soldiers and leaders to be prepared to fight the current battle, sometimes to the detriment of basic skills and knowledge sets. Our Soldiers and junior leaders know a lot about the insurgents and how to accomplish this mission, but sometimes tend to forget the basic tenets that set us apart from those we fight."

Thought: What war should we be fighting? If not the current one, then which one?

Sadly, although this discussion forum is posted on a website for all Army leaders, so far, I am the only NCO to reply. Interestingly, although I always include my contact data at the bottom of any posting, no one has bothered to challenge any of my assertions.

What bothered me most about their replies however, was an almost plaintive desire to return to an army that no longer exists. 'Back to the basics'...'Conventional skill sets'...Our Soldier have learned how to fight the insurgents to the detriment of basic skills'. If we accept that counter-insurgent warfare presents a much more complex series of problems for people to solve, then why are so many people wanting to return to a conventional mindset? We have been playing chess for 10 years, why return the checkers?

There was another response though that really brought this home:

"Those of us who have been in the Army longer than the War on Terror remember being OICs or RSOs at ranges. We remember planning FTXs for our platoons outside of the company, battalion, and brigade-level exercises. We remember police call, mandatory training events, and a myriad other things we don't do as much or at all anymore. Many of these lost skills of garrison leadership and activity are leading to the discipline problems we're now experiencing, because the younger leaders are unfamiliar with what to do in garrison, but let the soldiers do as they did while deployed."

I'm sorry, I guess I forgot that mandatory police calls of the motorpool and mandatory chain teaching events equaled a 'lost' leadership skill. Hands across the motorpool and herding people into an auditorium to watch an Equal Opportunity video isn't leadership at all. And, unless that particular Major is a former enlisted Soldier, it is not very often that officers engage in police calls anyway. While his argument that we have a need to learn how to operate in a garrison environment is true, as I have often stated before, this only requires an understanding of the 'new' environment using the skills that a decade of war have provided us.

Truly adaptive leadership will require that we develop more 'jacks of all trades'. In fact, that would be an expressed purpose. In order to become a 'jack of all trades' one must possess the mental agility to rapidly bring together various pieces of information and arrange them in a manner that provides possible solutions. To be a 'jack', means that we will inherently have to foster an environment that moves away from authoritative responses and moves towards an environment of self-awareness, self-confidence, self-initiative, and self-reasoning. The purpose of the leader becomes not to give the answer, but to help others discover the answer by assisting in developing their awareness. In effect, true adaptive leadership training will require less, not more. It is also true that this type of leader development may suit the Millennial generation more so than their predecessors. Their world is one of rapid changes, instant access, and continually evolving and redefined realities. The Army is already beginning to deal with this with it's reinforcement of the basic tenants of Mission Command, but I truly believe that it is the institution that resists this change. Many people still secretly want to remain a top-down, check with the boss, type organization. They still want operational and personal validation. And coupled with that validation is the idea of responsibility sharing. They don't want to be the only one holding the bag if the outcome of an event is different than what was intended. Especially if it ends up with dead or wounded Soldiers. The current model makes risk aversion and risk sharing the norm. An agility based model would inherently place the burden of risk, it's awareness, and it's mitigation at the singular point of the event itself. I alone would be responsible for the decisions I make. The institutions responsibility is to develop my ability to make them.

Further on in Paparone's article is the following:

"Adaptive (deviant!) leadership is dispersed, linked primarily by common values and sense of purpose. Instead of directing operations, those in senior positions would instead seek to foster support to these diverse and disperse island-communities of action-learning."

First, I find it interesting that he terms the Army's new favorite word 'adaptive' deviant. Since deviance usually has a negative connotation, I'm positive that this was done by design. The idea that we could (and should) have an 'inverted' system that focuses all effort at the bottom and those efforts are supported by the top, instead of our current top down solution would truly be a deviation for many people. Think about all those titles and egos and self-professed leaders who would then have to reorient themselves to the idea that they play second fiddle to a 25 year old Lieutenant or Sergeant who is operating at the point of attack. Generals and Colonels, and Majors and Command Sergeants Major and all other 'senior' people would exist for the singular purpose of clearing space for the smallest element to effectively work in.

Second, notice that the role of the senior is very broad and generalized. The role of the hierarchy becomes to foster common values, build teams, thematically support objectives. It would expressly remove a lot of the directive top down approaches we are all familiar with today.

Col Paparone's article should be mandatory reading for everyone. If we truly desire to build adaptability into our system, and we commit to building leaders who possess mental agility and the ability to rapidly reorient themselves to changing conditions, then we need to study this work. Start with one Soldier - anyone, doesn't matter who. Determine their mental / moral / behavioral start point. Outline, define and demonstrate the institutional values, ethic, and norms. This creates a line with a new Soldier on one side and the Army on the other. Then drive the Soldier's development by constantly challenging them with growth opportunity. Challenge their knowledge - and develop it. Challenge how they think and develop it. Challenge their moral convictions and develop them. Challenge their behaviors and develop them.

The singular purpose of all leaders is to create the conditions by which their subordinates can be successful. If you believe that, then you likely believe that Soldiers are our centerpiece. If you don't believe that then you likely place your faith in systems and structures. Sooner or later we all have to choose. Right now, for all the talk about developing mental agility and adaptability, it still appears that there are many who prefer the systems and structures method. Maybe what this period requires is a whole bunch of deviants. Those who challenge and question, and grow. Count me in that group.

I was watching one of Col Boyd's videos the other day I came across this quote:

"I don't have a problem with doctrine as long as those who write it understand that it is never final. It is doctrine one day and dogma the next."

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Most (not all) people are comfortable being comfortable....they work to stay in their comfort zone....even most, (but not all) Soldiers like being comfortable...however, depending on MOS, some Soldiers:
    ...are comfortable in uncertainty
    ...are comfortable with complexity
    ...are comfortable with volatility
    ...are comfortable with ambibuity
    ...are comfortable being uncomfortble
    ...are decisive while in discomfort (cognitive, physical, & moral)
    ...are resilient
    ...can assimilate and filter vast amounts of information

    Soldiers like this are adaptive leaders....and our Army needs lots of them...

    I think a real challenge with the new adaptive leader paradigm and work is that some people/Soldiers ARE NOT and CANNOT do and be all the "stuff" required of adaptive leaders....

    and oh by the way..."that is okay"....it does not mean they don't have a place in the Army...the Army is an enormous organization and it needs all types of Soldiers....

    All Soldiers and leaders don't HAVE to be adaptive...does a mechanic? a cook? a PAC NCO?

    Some MOSs (11? 13? 18? others?) attract people who are more prone to being adaptable...certainly not all.....clearly there is a "cut line" for those who can and those who cannot...

    I HUGE cultural challenge (that falls in the HR/personnel and leadership lanes) the Army faces as we delve into the adaptive leader world, is rewarding and valuing the "cans" and "cannots"....

    just my thoughts....