An ever changing environment requires a new approach to how leadership is described, understood, and executed.
Estimated time to read: 9 minutes
By Ken Tatum, Dr. Mary Bartlett, and Clayton Bartels
In 1785, the 79-year-old Benjamin Franklin traveled to Versailles, France, to see the Montgolfier brothers conduct a public demonstration of their hot-air balloon. Franklin, troubled by gout, took in the proceedings from the comfort of his carriage. A French woman in the crowd recognized Franklin, who had been the American ambassador to France, and commented that the balloon was all very well, but asked “of what practical use could it be?” Franklin answered, “Of what practical use, Madame, is a newborn baby?”
The question might today be asked of leadership studies. It is all very well to consider the theoretical concepts of how people can be led, motivated, or persuaded to work in teams, but of what use is all that when the military leader has the legal and ethical authority to simply order people to perform–and punish them if they do not? In today’s military operating environment where those who are to be led are increasingly well educated, possess skills difficult to quickly replace, and have immediate access to ubiquitous sources of information unimaginable 50 years ago, the approach to leading them must also change. This is particularly true in a strategic environment characterized by increasing rates of change and complexity, but is compounded in the military environment due to a corresponding increase in the level of joint and international connectivity required to accomplish missions.
Thought leaders at the Air Command and Staff College have developed a conceptual framework to help guide the thinking of the modern military leader that focuses on the human domain. The framework, referred to as the Defense Leadership Framework (DLF), is based on the Meta Leadership Model developed by the National Preparedness Leadership Institute at Harvard University. It adds military-specific context and priorities, primarily building on the model’s relational aspects to help leaders be successful in the military operational environment. While the framework is designed to help leaders face the dynamic requirements of a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment; more so, it will hopefully encourage leaders to shift their mindsets beyond requirements and see the opportunities that exist to better accomplish their mission regardless of what the future environment holds.
Increasingly, successful leaders are utilizing participatory decision making, cooperative engagement, and collaborative leadership skills to assemble effective teams and lead them toward effective, and even efficient, mission accomplishment. These skills are just as applicable in the military context. In particular, methods of communication and the ways in which leaders motivate subordinates has shifted and continues to shift away from highly directive, one-way interactions to more collaborative, two-way activities that rely on an organizational culture and climate based on a level of trust between the leader and the led. The DLF encourages leaders to focus on the human element as the single most adaptive and lethal weapons system in the military arsenal.
Similar to the Harvard Meta Leadership Model, the DLF framework centers on the person as the leader. However, the DLF further defines the military leader’s priorities into three distinct areas: skill sets, strategy, and creativity. These sub-areas, and their inextricably linked relationships, help to outline the core aspirational values necessary for military leaders to be more successful in today’s highly demanding, constantly changing environment.
It is likely not surprising that technical expertise is a foundational requirement for leaders, although “expertise” tends to take on new meanings as leaders rise to more senior ranks. However, the skill of being able to “lead yourself,” which includes the specific skill of emotional intelligence, may be a new notion to some leaders. Incorporating the latest ideas in human management, the DLF makes use of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence construct to address the interpersonal realm, encouraging leaders to honestly think about their own strengths and weaknesses, particularly with regard to the effect their unique behavior patterns have on their subordinates. Empathy, motivation, and social skills are cited as critically necessary for effective communication, and the onus is put squarely on the leader to both recognize when a lack of these factors is impacting operations and to take action to address the issues. Self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy are stressed as necessary for effective leadership in the modern era. It is fundamental for leaders to understand how their personality, and associated preferences, such as communication style, have an effect on others. This is true in both the traditional authoritative top-down military structure, as well as in peer, superior, and external relationships discussed later in the article. Understanding one’s self is a critical step in leaders proactively establishing a top-down organizational culture and climate of trust.
Although not explicit, the DLF relies heavily on the establishment and maintenance of trust between the leader and the led, and models its approach on the work by Stephen Covey. Trust is a critical, but often overlooked, key to improving leader-led relationships. Academic research clearly demonstrates a direct relationship between organizational culture and improved outcomes, whether that involves mission or people-focused goals and priorities. This concept is perhaps best demonstrated by the concepts embodied in the “Creative” aspect of the conceptual model, often referred to as innovation. Trust is a necessary component for innovation to occur in the field, as personnel must feel empowered to try new and creative solutions without adverse risk to their own careers. Leaders that can define a common vision and purpose, and allow their members to work off commander’s intent towards that vision, make it possible for trust to be converted into innovative solutions. The DLF encourages leaders to make it clear to subordinates through words and deeds that there is not, and generally will not be, a so-called ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer or decision in the often ambiguous circumstances that characterize modern military operations. The traditional, one-sided Monday-morning quarterbacking and established rewards-punishment system that values compliance must be replaced with a mentoring/coaching-innovation-lessons learned cycle that provides subordinates supervisor-informed maneuver space to try new and creative ideas. And in the cases where innovation fails, leaders should not place the emphasis on the failure, but rather what can be learned from the experience and how those lessons influence future iterations. Leaders at every level must make it clear that as long as members adhere to the unit’s core values and the commander’s mission intent, personnel will be given the latitude to innovate, adapt, and adjust as needed be to meet the mission demand.
The idea of embracing operational risk creates an opportunity for leaders to learn, adapt, and grow. Leaders at lower levels should be encouraged to be innovative in their thinking and approaches to problem solving with the full expectation that not all of the innovations will be successful. By not cashiering lower-level leaders who may fail while innovating, the DLF model sets the stage for the building of experience that permits leaders and their teams to learn how to innovate. In general, this should reduce the levels of risk by improving such processes as communication flow, lessons learned techniques, and risk assessment. The benefit to be gained through a culture of innovation can outweigh the potential for some operational failure. These experiences equip both leaders and organizations to innovate smartly and purposefully, reducing risk while improving abilities to respond to unforeseen–and unforeseeable–circumstances.
The concepts inherent within the “Skill Sets,” namely knowing yourself and emotional intelligence, and “Creativity” or innovation, are precursors in a sense to the third circle of “Strategy.” Although oversimplified, strategy can be viewed as the necessary byproduct of clearly understanding the “situation” that you are facing. This is a direct emulation of the Harvard Model’s link between their first and second dimensions, which they refer to as “Self” and “Context.” In the Harvard Model, the aim of context is “getting as close as possible to objective reality and conveying it accurately to others…” While the military leader writ large may see strategy as the role of the commander or higher senior leaders, DLF portrays strategy as the product of creating organizations built on relationships of trust that allow all leaders, not just higher level commanders, to see diverse perspectives and creative ways of tackling issues. But even more important than that, it also provides organizations an inherent ability to respond to dynamic and volatile situations by deliberately developing subordinates to think and act in ways that encourage and reward creative solutions. If strategy is the ability to visualize a problem and envision potential solutions, then the military leader needs to capitalize on all their resources to do that; this requires empowering, supporting, and rewarding their people to think about, create and actually try new ideas as part of strategy.
The Defense Leadership Framework model directly incorporates Harvard’s concept of Directional Leadership, positing it as leading down, leading up, leading across, and leading beyond. The model defines leading down as the traditional leadership role between the leader and the subordinates, and leading up as the traditional followership role that the leader has to his or her own commander, with expectations of loyalty, support, and commitment to the cause. Less traditional are the concepts of leading across, which is defined as a responsibility to reach beyond functional and organizational silos to establish relationships critical to overall success, and leading beyond, the notion of leading, or rather being influential, with organizations completely outside the entire chain of command. For the military, the DLF model includes the important idea of deliberately developing the next generation of leaders by providing opportunities for potential replacements to have experiences in the real-world environment that will contribute to their own development. Taken together, the DLF uses these dimensions of directional leadership to put the results of unit leadership into action across the broader spectrum and context that the unit fits within. An example would include an operational flying unit that develops a new and innovative approach to accomplishing training, that must then work with other flying units (leading across) for agreement; their Group Commander (leading up) for approval; their maintenance and support organizations (leading across/beyond) for de-confliction and support; Major Command or Number Air Force staffs for waivers or approval (leading across/beyond); and perhaps with members of the local community (leading beyond) if there are community implications. All of these interactions, particularly the ones where the leader is creating influence rather than utilizing legal or positional authority, require an understanding of self (emotional intelligence) to create the environment for creativity and to communicate and negotiate with the numerous entities, a willingness to accept new and creative solutions as the idea is born, matures and evolves, and the ability to articulate the benefits and opportunities of a new strategy to all parties based on overlapping interests and common goals.
The conceptual Defense Leadership Framework forms the basis for a set of tools to guide the thinking and actions of leaders at all levels. The framework presents a fresh perspective on tackling the critical areas of skills, creativity, and strategy. Military doctrine places great emphasis on the need for effective strategy, and the DLF supports this by thinking of strategy as the ability to visualize a problem and envision potential solutions by harnessing the diverse perspectives and ideas of all the people that are engaged in the mission at every level. Creative thinking is essential to finding solutions for the difficult problems, and this creativity should be encouraged through a leader’s creation of a culture and climate founded on trust and relationships. In turn, this creates the environment and conditions to permit appropriate risk taking in order to innovate and adapt to changing context. This includes the acceptance – and even reward — of well-thought out and intended failures, as long as appropriate lessons are learned and factored into future iterations. These skills form the pathway to all facets of directional leadership, or the idea that leaders use these skills to display leadership behavior not only toward their own subordinates, but also in their loyalty and commitment to their own leader(s), and in reaching out to make connections and build coalitions across traditional organizational boundaries.
Like a newborn baby, the conceptual Defense Leadership Framework will develop and change as leaders make use of the model to direct their thinking and subsequent leadership actions. Leaders have an obligation to motivate and inspire their subordinates to continually strive to achieve traditional aspirational goals such as maintaining the highest moral character; but leaders should also value and reward such ideals as intellectual agility, risk tolerance, and information-age thinking under the banner of the values and ideals they hold as core to the success of their mission. The DLF model seeks to incorporate an increasing body of both academic and practical knowledge for leaders to consider as they face the increasingly challenging, complex, and dynamic environments of the modern day, where they must rely more on the deadliest and most powerful weapons systems in their inventory: their people.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.
Ken Tatum is a retired Air Force colonel and is the Director of the Air University Leadership Institute at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Dr. Mary Bartlett is Professor of Leadership Psychology for the Air University Leadership Institute, and the Department of Leadership at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Clay Bartels is a colonel and F-22 pilot in the U.S. Air Force and currently a student at the Air War College. He was previously an instructor in the Department of Leadership at the Air Command Staff College.