Adapt or Die – US Military develops Agile Leaders


I read a very interesting paper on why the traditional Command and Control, plan up-front approach steeped in military history must change.

“Operating within an uncertain, unpredictable environment, the Army must be prepared to sustain operations during a period of persistent conflict—a blurring of familiar distinctions between war and peace.” This is a protracted war against adversaries employing irregular, unconventional, and asymmetrical means. The implications of this new context are clear: “Adapt or Die.”

The landscape of warfare has changed. More uncertainty, hidden enemies, and unpredictability. Training leaders to respond in this context requires a different approach.

The Army’s Training and Leader Development Panel (ATLDP) Officer Study concluded that, because of the ambiguous nature of the future operating environment, leaders should focus on developing the “enduring competencies,” or what they call metacompetencies, of self-awareness and adaptability. They recognized that the two were symbiotic; one without the other is useless. These metacompetencies are the essential building blocks of learning. Agility embodies this symbiotic relationship between self-awareness and adaptability. In this paper, agility is a metaphor for self-awareness and adaptability in action, the essence of learning.

Adapting fast requires changes in doctrine and the evolution of rapid organizational learning.

The process of rapid, effective organizational learning is the essence of organizational agility.

Senior leaders have the authority and resources to drive this change into their organizations, be they military organizations, or otherwise. The organization’s culture must be tuned to allow Agility to take hold. Differences between British and American military culture is telling.

Culture is unique; it is the organization’s personality based on its own set of experiences. Nagl’s study, as well as others that he cites, show the differences between the American and British military cultures and the impact on their ability to innovate during conflict. His conclusion is that differences in organizational culture allowed the British military to adapt and learn during its irregular warfare experience of counterinsurgency in Malaya, while the U.S. Army’s culture prevented it from learning during its similar experiences in Vietnam. Culture, an organization’s conventional wisdom about its essence, is a powerful lens that organizations use in interpreting their experiences and determining how or what to learn from these experiences.

The change in mindset required is the adoption of the “culture of innovation”

The training approach recommended in this paper is a move away from the traditional master-apprentice approach to that of co-learner and facilitator. I’ll close with this quote from the paper which says it all.

Rather than operating in a paradigm that perceives certain determinable linear cause-and-effect relationships, students will operate in a context that sees holistic, open, dynamic, emergent, complexly organized, rationalistic relationships that are too complex to be absolutely known. Applying knowledge and skill sets in this complex and ambiguous environment, dealing with the unexpected, operating with incomplete information, and making calculated decisions of risk all increase individual agility.

You can find the paper here.

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