Leading Distributed Teams: Theory and Practice (Part 1)

Air Force ISR is regularly executed by geographically-separated teams. New leadership models are required to optimize team performance.

Approximate reading time: 17 minutes

By Christopher L. Workinger

 Editor’s Note: This article proposes a new leadership model for leading teams on a distributed battlefield. The article is presented in two parts. Part 1 lays out the model and part 2 explores methods to implement this model. Although this article is focused on Intelligence operations, the concepts and skills discussed here are applicable to many organizations within the joint force.

Distributed teams are a foundational element for 21st century Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and collection operations in support of the joint and combined force are executed regularly by geographically-separated teams. In the 25th Air Force, more than 29,000 total force Airmen serve at 75 locations around the globe executing ISR missions. For the great majority of these ISR operations, multiple squadrons and teams come together from geographically separated locations, well outside of their traditional military chains of command, to execute missions. While there is incredible power in distributed teams, high-performing teams do not happen by chance, and leaders must purposefully set the conditions to maximize mission effectiveness to stay ahead of an ever-changing adversary. Current military leadership models are not optimized for leading distributed teams in an environment where mission success depends a patchwork of organizations more akin to a networked approach at warfare than a standard chain of command. This article draws upon two qualitative sources to identify the foundational principles of leading distributed teams: interviews of commanders within the 480th ISR Wing (Air Force Distributed Common Ground System – AFDCGS) and; a qualitative assessment of leadership books from the business world on leading “virtual” and other geographically separated teams. Ultimately, this article proposes a leadership model for the distributed teams environment and proposes two different techniques to graphically depict distributed teams. Lastly, this article identifies leadership best practices and offers five recommendations to help leaders thrive in the distributed teams environment. Future ISR mission environments will most certainly move with increased velocity, variety, and volume. The time is now for leaders to learn and apply the theory and practice of more effective distributed teams.

Distributed teams are a foundational element for today’s Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and global operations in support of combatant commands and coalition commanders are executed regularly by geographically separated teams. In the 25th Air Force, more than 29,000 total force Airmen serve at 75 locations around the globe executing ISR missions for the joint force. Lt Gen David Deptula, former Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR, described this environment as a “rapidly evolving paradigm, called distributed ISR operations, links platforms and sensors, forces forward, and human ISR warfighting experience around the globe in ways that make networked combat operations routine.” Leading in a globally distributed teams environment can prove extremely challenging for a myriad of reasons and this environment – geographically separated and highly interdependent teams – calls for leadership theory and practice that match this paradigm.

While there can be incredible power in distributed teams, commanders and leaders must purposefully set conditions to maximize mission effectiveness. Current military leadership models are not optimized for leading in the distributed teams environment, where mission success is dependent upon collaboration, communication, and teamwork with a patchwork of organizations well outside of the traditional chain of command. This article aims to provide leaders in this environment with the theory and practice of effectively leading distributed teams through a leadership model, a visualization tool to graphically depict teams, and five recommendations for commanders and leaders to survive and thrive.

For the purposes of this article, distributed teams are defined as geographically separated mission entities required to collaborate for mission accomplishment. What makes this environment unique is the emphasis on entities outside of the traditional chain of command, most often at or above the squadron level. Stated another way, squadron commanders must not only lead their squadron effectively (their squadron being one element of the distributed team), but they must also maintain solid relationships with multiple other teams and entities, most of whom are well outside of their traditional chain of command. This article draws upon two primary qualitative sources to identify the foundational principles of leading distributed teams: interviews of commanders within the 480th ISR Wing (Air Force Distributed Common Ground System – AF DCGS) and; a qualitative assessment of leadership books from the business world on leading “virtual” and other geographically separated teams. There are few standard operating procedures for military leadership in the distributed teams environment and this writing aims to raise the bar for leadership theory and practice, especially for leaders new to this environment.

Leadership Model
The results of the interviews and qualitative book reviews revealed multiple common themes and principles fundamental to thriving in a distributed teams environment including: communication; trust; mission command (combines the principles of intent, guidance, purpose, empowerment, goals, and flexibility); shared consciousness  (combines the concepts of common understanding, cross-organizational understanding, liaisons, and integration); problem-centric (combines the concepts of purpose, objective, integration, and common understanding); and habitual relationships (includes the concepts of liaisons, patience, and relationships). The proposed model incorporates these leadership theory elements into a schema designed to assist leaders with executing effective leadership techniques and practices.

Relationships are the cornerstone of leadership in the distributed teams environment where trust is essential. As a result of the critical importance of relationships, the core of the model is trust and engagement. Continuous, effective, communication and feedback enables trust and engagement, and this leadership element surrounds the core of trust and engagement in the model. Communication is represented as a circle (cycle) in the model due to its nature as an enduring process. Next, the four working elements of the model that surround communication are: mission command; shared consciousness; problem-centric; and habitual relationships. The four working elements are also represented as a cycle and are continuously accomplished and adjusted, based on changing conditions, lessons learned, evolving environments, and assessments. Finally, the model resides on a field depicting decision advantage – the ultimate “best” state of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance enterprise – and mission innovation, a necessary state to ensure continued relevancy and flexibility for effective ISR operations.


Trust and Engagement
The core of the Distributed Teams Leadership Model is trust and engagement due to its critical importance in relationships. In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey states “simply put, trust means confidence … the opposite of trust is suspicion.” If trust is lost in a relationship or otherwise removed, the results can be catastrophic. There are striking differences between high-trust and low-trust relationships and this is most readily demonstrated in an example of leadership communication. Covey’s example that “In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning…In a low trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you” provides a powerful illustration of the impacts of trust.

The primary means of building trust is engagement – actively communicating, collaborating, and sharing with other teams. Trust can be both created and destroyed, and by actively engaging with mission-critical teams, leaders can build trust, maintain trust, and benefit from the speed of trust. Covey’s declarative statement that “nothing is as fast as the speed of trust,” is probably the most obvious when trust is low in a relationship. In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal repeatedly discusses the critical nature of trust and its importance in shaping the profound transition in the special operations community during the Iraq war. The need for trust is not exclusive to the special operations community and trust has a critical role in all effective relationships, especially in the military. Ultimately, trust matters and is essential to any team, but more importantly distributed teams, where mission accomplishment is not possible without all of the team’s elements working toward a common mission objective.

Continuous, effective communication and feedback encircles trust and engagement in the leadership model, and while communication is an obvious element in a leadership model, its importance cannot be overstated. Continuous and effective communication was a strong foundational theme in both qualitative aspects of this article. During her interview, Lt Col Laura Terry (Commander, 402 Intelligence Squadron at Distributed Ground Station Four, Germany) described communications in terms of a battle rhythm, or regularly-scheduled meetings with key team members, “if it isn’t a recurring event on the calendar, it isn’t going to happen.” While simple in concept, the positive impacts of the “right” recurring events on a calendar can greatly enhance the mission. Commanders’ calendars drive inter and intra squadron-level operations. Furthermore, creating events and placing emphasis where needed – on the mission and contributing teams – is important.

Ultimately, communications must be effective – succinct, purposeful, balanced, and timely – and include both providing and receiving feedback. Hassan Osman, author of Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done With Your Remote Employees proposes multiple seemingly simple but highly effective communications principles to thrive in the distributed teams environment including: always setting deadlines; assigning responsibility for tasks to a specific person; explaining tasks in person and in writing; writing assertive and purposeful e-mails and; making and executing a plan for every meeting. Again, while these principles are basic, even the most well-intentioned leaders can under-communicate – the key to successful leadership is to over-communicate. The positive and far-reaching impacts of effective communications will keep the team(s) operating efficiently and, most importantly, build trust and confidence in the leader’s ability to lead.

Mission Command
The elements captured within the concept of mission command were a prevalent and recurring theme in both the leadership interviews and qualitative book reviews for this article and included common understanding, commander’s intent, unity of command, and pushing decision authority to the appropriate level. According to Joint Pub 3-0, Joint Operations: “Mission command enables military operations through decentralized execution based on mission type orders. Mission command is built on subordinate leaders at all echelons who exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission. Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of the operation rather than the details of how to perform assigned tasks. Commanders delegate decisions to subordinates wherever possible, which minimizes detailed control and empowers subordinates’ initiative to make decisions based on the commander’s guidance rather than constant communications. Subordinates’ understanding of the commander’s intent at every level of command is essential to mission command.” Fundamentally, mission command is commander-centric leadership and is critical in the distributed teams environment because of the number of teams involved in executing the mission and complex battlespace encountered during today’s ISR operations.

The concepts of mission command are also highly prevalent in Team of Teams, where
General McChrystal lays out how “trust, common purpose, shared consciousness, and empowered execution” enabled multiple successful counterterrorism operations in Iraq. While mission command may be somewhat foreign to the Air Force audience who are most accustomed to “centralized control, decentralized execution,” the concept of mission command is now more prevalent based on the joint force, and leaders and commanders in the distributed teams environment must embrace and practice this concept whole-heartedly if our nation’s future fights are to succeed. Mission command in practice, which General McCrystal also describes as “empowered execution” requires shared consciousness in order to work effectively. The Team of Teams author explained the interdependence of the factors as “empowered execution without shared consciousness is dangerous.”

Shared Consciousness
Shared consciousness, or in layperson’s terms, common understanding, was a recurring theme as well. The explanation for why this concept was repeatedly mentioned and is so important can best be explained by the way information is created, discovered, and flows in distributed team environments. Important, even critical, mission information and data is also distributed based on the numbers of teams involved in the work. In hierarchical organizations, leaders often serve as “information pumps” as a result of stove-piped, industrial-aged hierarchies – the traditional military “line and block” chain of command structure is the perfect example of this. Controlled information flows are not conducive to shared consciousness, but are typical of military hierarchies. With the number of teams involved in distributed missions, the environment can quickly become complex and unwieldy. Ultimately, leaders in this environment need to find more effective ways of sharing information.

General Stanley McChrystal describes shared consciousness as “extremely transparent information sharing” to the point that it makes leaders feel uncomfortable. True shared consciousness is difficult to achieve, as leaders can be extremely hesitant to share information this openly, but it is an essential state where the entirety of the team has appropriate access to necessary information. Shared consciousness requires that team members have access to mission information to facilitate effective analysis and appropriate decision making at all levels. Bringing information together in an effective manner for decision-makers and mission contributors becomes the primary challenge. The 480th ISR Wing is currently experimenting with multiple tech-based collaboration tools to attack this issue. These tools enable a best approach at collaboration solutions which empower leaders and teams where they need it most and set the conditions for organic, grass-roots, bottom-up innovation to take place.

Problem Centric
The third working element of the distributed teams leadership model is problem-centric. This element captures the need for distributed team leaders to focus on solving problems, instead of working through processes. While the concept of problem-centric is technically duplicative with mission command’s principles of purpose and intent, its place in the leadership model is intended to emphasize the importance of problem-solving. Executing processes instead of solving problems is an all too common pitfall in large bureaucracies, and the distributed teams environment of Air Force ISR are certainly not immune from this condition. In a 2014 Joint Forces Quarterly article, Colonel Jason M. Brown stated “the goal of an ISR strategy should be to create a problem-centric and not a requirements-centric approach to operations.” This concept – focusing on solving problems – should permeate every level in the distributed teams environment. A state of problem-centricity is not sufficient however, and leaders must tailor their approach in order to execute missions successfully, specifically regarding the scoping of problems.

In an interview with Col Jason M. Brown, he stated that scoping problems “in time, space, and purpose” will help leaders to first appropriately define problems and issues before developing solutions to these problems. He went on to highlight that broad, overarching strategic guidance statements such as “degrade ISIS” (the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham) or “disrupt ISIS” are extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve without scoping. By tackling an issue temporally, spatially, and focusing on the core problem of the issue (problem-centricity), mission statements such as “disrupt ISIS” can be broken down into a realistic timeframe (e.g. days, weeks or months), in a specific location (e.g. neighborhood or city), and focused on a specific problem (e.g. enemy command and control).

Habitual Relationships
Strong working relationships between teams are critical for the distributed mission environment where leaders must focus and prioritize their time to build enduring, reoccurring relationships with all pertinent mission teams. This fact is not lost on the current leaders within Air Force DCGS and Col Kristofer Gifford, Commander, 497th ISR Group (Distributed Ground Station One, Virginia) provided a short, yet highly relevant answer in response to the author’s question “what is the most important leadership factor in the distributed teams environment?” His two word response “habitual relationships” is indicative of the importance of the relationship between teams. Leaders must develop solid trusting relationships with key leaders and members of their distributed teams in order to maximize mission effectiveness. Being habitual regarding these relationships is an important practice.

One common technique to build and strengthen relationships between teams is the use of liaisons. In Team of Teams, General McChrystal defines liaisons as “institutionalized ambassadors who serve to connect organizations” and the exchanging of liaisons was regularly practiced in the special operations transformation led by General McChrystal. Liaisons are utilized to mitigate barriers and are described in One Mission as “trusted members of their own organizations who can promote trust, cooperation, and understanding among different groups.” The use of liaisons across and within distributed teams is a widely accepted practice, and the interviews conducted revealed this common practice within the 480th ISR Wing to great effect. Liaisons demonstrate an organization’s commitment to a mission. The power of an ‘advocate in place’ can maximize mission effectiveness and provide immeasurable mission efficiency. With personnel availability and readiness levels a constant challenge, leaders can leverage liaisons with time limits in mind. Even short timeframe liaison opportunities can prove beneficial, especially for new or emerging relationships within the distributed teams environment.

Decision Advantage and Mission Innovation
The leadership model resides on a field labeled decision advantage and mission innovation to represent optimal states for Air Force ISR – decision superiority and agility. Decision advantage is defined as “providing commanders at every level with the knowledge they need to prevent surprise, make decisions, command forces, and employ weapons.” As a foundational theme in Air Force ISR 2023, decision advantage is described as empowering leaders to “protect friendly forces and hold targets at risk across the depth and breadth of the battlespace – on the ground, at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace.” By executing the principles in this leadership model, leaders can move their organizations and missions closer to decision superiority by providing decision advantage to commanders and decision makers at all levels.

Mission innovation on this model is intended to represent the distributed teams’ ability to adapt and transform to a more effective operational state. More than a buzzword, meaningful innovation requires an “innovation ecosystem that cultivates people, ideas and technology for a common purpose.” Additionally, in order to establish an innovation ecosystem, leaders must “avoid innovation theater; know why you’re innovating; embrace discovery learning, and create venues to bring out ideas.” In future fights, mission environments will most certainly move with increased velocity, variety, and volume, and current hierarchical, industrial ways of doing business will not be able to keep pace with adversaries. Effective innovation is one technique to help set the conditions for creating agile teams and processes.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher L. Workinger is a career intelligence officer with multiple unit level assignments including operational B-52H and F-16C squadrons, both at home station and deployed. He is a graduate of the Intelligence Weapons Instructor Course and earned his Master’s Degree in Special Operations & Irregular Warfare from the Naval Postgraduate School in 2011.

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 US Government.

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