Lessons from the military for leading in uncertain times

Leading in a fast paced world demands you find ways to adapt more quickly to change. The old systems of command and control don’t work anymore, it hasn’t worked well for many decades now. What’s the alternative?

Traditional management has been about improving control using best practices, standardisation, measurement and reports. Focus has been on improving administrative practices, rather than psychological and cultural improvement. The industrialisation of businesses processes through centralisation, standardisation and measurement has resulted in the improvement of efficiency at the expense of human freedom and creativity.

What has been the result of all this centralised control, standardisation and statistical reporting? The measure of success is measure against the question, “how well do you follow standards, execute tasks and adhere to process?”. It has caused people to focus on adhering to tasks and processes, rather than a focus on the achievement of customer outcomes.

This management approach has killed creativity and innovation. Project execution based on standards, templates, processes and checklists, causes people to loose the ability to think holistically, leaving them unable to take initiative.

The challenge of leading in a fast changing environment is not new. Military leaders have for many decades wrestled with this exact problem. About 200 years ago, the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) described war as chaotic, uncertain, filled with friction and unpredictable events. Clausewitz found that systems and rules don’t work in an environments of uncertainty and rapid change. Instead to perform well organisations need to be able to adapt to fast changing environments.

Learning from Napoleon’s style of command

quote - contact with the enemy

On the 14th of October 1806, Napoleon’s French force faced a much larger Prussian Army at the twin Battle of Jena–Auerstedt, yet despite the odds against them, Napoleon’s army defeated the larger Prussian forces.

After their defeat, the Prussian military reviewed their battlefield performance. Seeking to understand why they were so easily beaten. What lessons could they learn? They found the primary reason for Napoleon’s victory was his style of command. Napoleon did not lead by command and control. Instead he gave his officers the authority to make decisions as the battle changed. Rather than having to wait for approval from senior officers, Napoleon’s officers were able to adapt and take independent action. In contrast, the Prussian army dare not act on their own, they had to wait for orders from their commanders. This led to wasted time and lost opportunities, as command-and-control required troops to blindly follow orders, even when those orders no longer made sense.

Auftragstaktik the German style of command

After World War I, the German’s, drawing inspiration from the Prussians, where tight control over the troops led to poor decision-making, created an alternative style of command, called Auftragstaktik. Auftragstaktik required commanders to provide soldiers clear direction as to what needs to get done, whilst allowing solders the freedom to determine how to achieve it. Solders are able to act independently, as long as they do so in accordance with the commanders intent. German commanders would never discipline a subordinate for showing initiative. Solders could change an order based on changing circumstances, as long as it’s guided by the commanders intent. The unforgivable mistake is not failure, it’s failing to take initiative.

“In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situation one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution. The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority.” — Helmut Karl Bernhard von Moltke, 1869, Instructions for Large Unit Commanders

Auftragstaktik required the development of leaders who were willing to take responsibility for taking independent action. Fast changing situations faced during battle prevents you from doing advanced planning in any meaningful detail. This is made worse by the poor quality of information received during battle, which is mostly inaccurate and incomplete. What’s required is rapid decision making. For decision making to be rapid it must be made as close to the front lines as possible. In times of uncertainty, speed matters more than precision. Good enough, trumps a perfect solutions. This requires leadership at all levels, not just at the top.

Auftragstaktik is enabled by strong mutual trust between solders and their leaders. Commanders need to trust  their teams to act wisely in the face of uncertain and ambitious situations. In a similar way, solders need to trust their leaders, knowing they’ll be protected and not punished for taking initiative, even when independent action leds to failure.

Your turn

quote - culture cliff

Working in the paced and uncertain times demands leadership. Traditional management approaches such as centralisation, best practices and measurement are ineffective. The roots of successful leadership in uncertain times is cultural, rather than technical.

“He that would run his company on visible figure alone will soon have neither company nor visible figures to work with.” — W. Edwards Deming

These leadership lessons have been learnt again and again, over many centuries. It seems that for business leaders, it’s a lesson we’re still learning.

In summary, the key ideas for leading in uncertain times are as follows:

  • Be clear about the purpose and outcomes, the commanders intent.
  • In fast changing circumstances don’t try plan far beyond what you can foresee.
  • Making a mistake is preferred over delayed decision making. Good enough now, is better that a perfect solution later.
  • Mutual trust lies at the foundation of effective leadership required to adapt to change.
  • Leaders at all levels must be willing to take responsibility for independent decision making and action.