posted 30 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 9
Learning from the edge
In the Special Forces, nobody gets out of a helicopter without knowing where they are. Richard Cross applies this logic to effective leadership
Knowledge professionals must be strategic to their businesses or face extinction. That’s the current mantra. But what do strategically significant leaders require to thrive in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world? Who are the role models KM professionals can learn from? From my experience those who have operated at senior leaderships levels in the elite Special Forces represent the benchmark.
Such individuals all share one quality. They have an edge. John Seely Brown has described the edge as representing the boundaries of organisations. For him when we do things by habit, follow the flock or complete repetitive tasks, we are working at the core. We stay within our comfort zone. Sweet as the core feels, comfortable and secure as it is, growth or change doesn’t occur. To learn new strategies, challenge existing viewpoints, or try out innovative ideas, we have to move from the centre to the edge. From the edge (recall guru Tom Stewart’s column in Fortune), you get a different perspective. Typically in such seedbeds of innovation, new ideas are more easily recognised and valued higher so there is the power, peer support, incentive and momentum to escape the gravitational pull of old ones. At the same time the core must be attended to and in that respect, the example of leaders from Special Forces presents a unique role model for the VUCA world – in how they combine learning from the edge and serving the core. The four areas below can help you assess your strategic as well as leadership edge.
1. In the game – the basics
First who do you think you are and who do you want to be? This elegant question associated with identity and reputation should not be underestimated. Consider too what others say about you when you’ve left the room or before you even enter. Who believes in you and trusts you? Another four questions sort out the also ran individuals as well as organisations:
What do you do?
How do you do it?
How well do you do it?
How well do you do it compared to the best?
In practical terms every role has its basics and in whatever you do there will be critical processes as well as practices, how you work, that determine your effectiveness. As summarised by a Special Forces individual, “You must have the basics in place of competence and relevant experience; my physical fitness and stamina is critical. All should be in harmony, the mind and body should be as one. The most talented people perform basic things exceptionally well under pressure.”
Additionally these are driven, competitive team players, selfless and appropriately selfish and prepared to step out of their comfort zone in applying training and theory to the arena.
In a competitive world if you play safe you will underachieve. Strategic leaders put themselves in the firing line to exploit opportunities. While many play close to the edge and are often highly independent, they recognise the foundation can only be firm when you understand the system. At this point, you can play the system. They understand the boundaries of risks to ensure any taken are known or anticipated through scenario development. Connections also help in the form of the breadth and quality of mentors and backers. These aren?t mentors who have told them what they wanted to hear, rather they have relayed what they needed, adding value and intelligence to individuals open to learning and personal development. Failure too for these people is not to be avoided but rather cultivated. It’s how they learn to win.
Mental resilience – how the mind copes under pressure – is pivotal. The ability to remain emotionally stable and composed sets maestros apart. To paraphrase Carl Von Clausewitz, ‘The calm leader is at peace with fear, danger, and confusion and can sort through this array of conditions and apply his mental talent in any situation’. While having a cool head, being elite and typically modest, they do not attract attention except in a crisis. Culturally versatile, they fit in with teams, organisations and senior stakeholders. Attuned to the environment and street-smart, they have an antenna to events, generating trust and confidence in interactions. They have political and networking acumen. They can compromise and know when not to compromise. They build rapport and alliances to strengthen their support when going against tradition. Ambigious and complex situations rarely have a single, simple, solution. So, by being open to and tapping into a variety of perspectives, they have foresight and more options. They further minimise luck through preparation and practice. They then seize opportunities in expectation, rather than opportunities in hope.
2. The North Star vision
In the Special Forces no one gets out of a helicopter without knowing why they are there. At an individual level elite leaders have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and understand the bigger picture. They all have a North Star. What’s evident is a clear, compelling and unambiguous statement of intent. Tough decisions must be made to achieve a vision. They have courage, the ability to adapt, direct, and organise through adversity. A simple question gauges courage: ‘Am I being true to who I am?’. There’s another integral quality – that of optimism and high moral courage, exemplified by the heroic Polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton.
3. Living in the pressure zone – operating in the arena
No plan survives engagement with the enemy. Consequently strategically sound leaders must be intellectually rigorous yet practical. This requires personal flexibility; they are adaptable, are always looking at ways of evolving their own skill set. Rather than wait till the situation is over and be ‘behind the curve’ they reconceptualise risks. They have coup d’oeil, the quick recognition of the truth, commonly called intuition. Their sense-making ability is such that they have a high level of situational awareness that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection. They have insightful swift judgement and curiosity enabling them to spot the absence of normality, the patterns that suggest agile responses are required. These elite leaders understand processes, are skilled at probing questions, they question the information that is coming their way. They combine intuitive ability with helicopter vision and the capability to drill down the detail. Cognitively complex such individuals screen and synthesise information to produce actionable knowledge. They are aware of the importance that ‘you have to make the most appropriate decision with what you have, whilst at times survival demands you lie low. Under pressure they stay in the zone, remain strategically focussed, assimilate information easily, monitor the periphery and adopt an agile but structured approach to map, anticipate and navigate through chaos.
Effective elite leaders are able to understand and make sense of the situation they are in and adapt to create a new reality. They are driven by plausibility, realism and the need for a workable level of understanding to guide action, rather than six sigma precision about ROI. When faced with uncertainty or information overload, they simplify information needs to make timely decisions and maintain momentum. They hold strong opinions, which are weakly held. Weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them.
Yet they are not dogmatically attached to what they believe because it undermines their ability to see and hear evidence that clashes with opinions. Finally, they have an almost bifocal ability to plan for the future whilst competing in the fog of the present. Timing and use of time is one of their most effective weapons. They are always one step ahead of the game.
4. Total commitment and harmonised execution
Total commitment and harmonised execution is required to escape from the vortex of a VUCA situation and sustain change. People need supporting and effective elite leaders use a ‘force multiplier’ by involving and inspiring others. Through passion and contagious optimism they support their team. Demonstrating robust and consistent principles and decisions in action, and empowerment, they develop loyalty and allegiances, capturing hearts and minds. By having allegiances their brand is alive and kicking when they are not there. They gain strength in depth. They also realise when something is worth fighting for and are focused in the zone for the reason it means something to them. They do not pursue lost causes.
The bottom line arête
In Greek myths arête is associated with bravery, as well as excellence and effectiveness. The man or woman of arête use all their faculties: strength, bravery, wit, and deceptiveness, to achieve real results. Learning from Special Forces remember reconnaissance missions are key. Never get out of a helicopter without knowing why. And, like them, when you enter a VUCA environment or KM project always have a backup plan. As they might say ‘who dares compares.’
Richard Cross is director of Second Wave Solutions and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial advisory board. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Professor Peter Saville and Tom Hopton of Saville Consulting, with whom I collaborated on their book Talent: Psychologists Personality Test Elite People, as well as Bob Wilson and the Willow Foundation for inspiring the research in support of the charity. Additionally I am grateful for the time and learning from Floyd Woodrow of Chrysalis Worldwide associates.commonknowledge.org/userimages/article_asking_problem.pdf