In order to overcome the difficulty of really arduous undertakings, any leader must develop a dynamic and complex process of influencing the other members of his/her organization. This process, having to do with the technical part of the individual, has always had much more to do with the person’s own behavior.
Over the years, leadership is possibly one of the most studied and debated issues not only in the military environment, but also by sociologists, anthropologists, business schools or research institutes. It is undoubtedly one of the most researched, analyzed and dealt with matters, since leadership, or lack of it, is the most critical factor for the success or failure of any organization. However, there is no complete agreement on the ensuing results of those studies and opinions.
Referring to the qualities of the supreme commander, Clausewitz stated that ‘he need not be a political analyst or learned historian, just well versed on the higher affairs of State, current political issues, the interests at stake, the key political figures involved, and then apply solid judgments’.
He later continued: ‘supreme commanders need not be experts in psychology but must understand the personalities and character of the officers and troops under them; they need not know how to drive artillery trains, just how to calculate march-rates under various conditions’.
Clausewitz concluded by saying: ‘This knowledge can only be acquired through the capacity for judgment, and the application of this judgment to the observation of men and issues’.
This definition, which is still effective in some aspects today, shows a leadership model well rooted in personal charisma and geography, not technology. But, as we move along into the 21st century, the concept of leadership will differ significantly.
The advent of an ever more anxious generation concerned with information and ‘know-how’, emphasizes innovation, adaptability, collaboration and management. Information technology offers new opportunities, but it also demands new challenges that will require leaders to be very familiar with technology and with new ways of communication.
The new leader that society demands must be able to combine a myriad of multidisciplinary and multicultural teams under a single picture. That is to say, he must be less of a controller and more emotionally astute, culturally synchronized and, more important, willing to share authority and the decision making process. Something very similar to what Frederick William I of Prussia proclaimed in the 18th century, being of the opinion that is better to give his men generic missions, rather than tediously monitoring the small details.
On the other hand, and at all levels of an organization where leadership is exercised, it will be necessary to show its members that what they do is worthwhile; that their actions have a meaning that goes beyond the result itself. This way, commitment will not only be encouraged, but the team will also be able to work properly.
In day-to-day errands, we often forget that work experience is a requirement that will provide us with an essential value to understand one’s own existence. When people feel deeply connected to a common cause, cooperation and unity of action arise without the need for regulations, instructions or processes.
It is not just that organizations are more capable of processing and reacting faster to changes in a given environment, but the relationships between their members will be, above all, much tighter and presided over by commitment, service to the other members, and mutual trust.
In addition to these factors, mutual trust, commitment, common purpose and the adaptation of organizations to an increasingly uncertain environment requires a shared awareness of the situation, a state in which all team members have a common knowledge of the environment, which facilitates the unity of action.
The final goal is to have the ability to decentralize decision making towards the actors who are closest to the situation. Just as Field Marshal Manstein claimed in a letter addressed to the Chief of Staff, General Zeitzler, just before the Battle of Kursk: ‘As long as I remain in my position I must have the possibility to use my own criteria’.
In this way, the empowerment in the execution must be oriented towards the creation of the necessary space so that the members of an organization may act with autonomy, but within a common understanding about the awareness of the domain, the goals to be achieved, and the harmony and synchronization of efforts.
Nevertheless, the implementation of this philosophy is not so simple and poses an important problem: the fear of the leader to lose control on the one hand, and assume the consequences derived from the actions of his subordinates, on the other. Control is seductive because it creates the perception of power. But we must never forget that control often produces poor quality and narrow-minded solutions with a dangerous tendency to endure in time.
Nowadays, when confronting a problem or crisis, the leader may have the feeling that there is a dichotomy between calmly analyzing a problem with its possible solution, and taking immediate control of the situation assuming potential erroneous decisions. However, changes in the environment – to which I referred at the beginning of this essay – should not permit a leader to be paralyzed searching for the perfect response while information flows and the environment changes at a fast rate.
These days, leaders must handle scenarios that require immediate actions, even before significant changes in the environment may occur, and before they may have the chance to analyze the problems in depth. The longer we take to find a response, the more our environment will adapt itself, and the less we will understand the real nature of the problem as well as the way to solve it. Therefore, it is necessary to act quickly, but also intelligently.
Until now, leaders wanted assurance that the best and most informed decision was being taken. However, the leader’s ability to fully understand a given situation requires certain demands that had never been seen or imagined before, such as the ability to conceptualize tactical or operational situations across many and wide-ranging domains. These new demands will require flexibility in the leader’s way of thinking and in the way the organization is shaped.
Owing to the empowerment of the decision-making process within the organizations, instead of having the leader the responsibility of finding solutions alone or unilaterally, the problems will be solved, from now on, by deciding from the shortlist of creative solutions suggested by the members of his/her team.
Therefore, the experience of the leader must be used for decision making and supervision, rather than control and micromanagement. In an environment clearly characterized by complexity, a leader cannot just order the members of his organization what to do, and expect them to commit themselves to the Institution. Rather, his task should be to try and influence the members of the organization in making decisions and providing appropriate guidelines for specific situations, but without falling into excessive restrictions.
The Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Mark Milley, said in 2016 that future conflicts would require a new type of leaders with willingness to take risks to meet the intent and the acceptance of failure. According to him, these qualities should be included among the basic traits of a leader.
But these traits must be supported by a strong commitment with the organization and the adequate preparation of all its members. As U.S. Navy Admiral William Sims underlined, leadership in periods of uncertainty entails two essential qualities: loyalty and initiative.
Loyalty is always indispensable, but initiative without loyalty is dangerous. Leadership today must be based on unchallengeable values: the independent judgment and confidence of the leader in his own professional performance; and the initiative, under the principles of loyalty, to the mission entrusted, to his profession and to the nation.
But while some leadership principles remain unchanged, as stated by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in his most recent book ‘Leaders: Myth and Reality’, leadership is contextual and dynamic, and cannot therefore be reduced to a magic formula; it requires constant modulation.
Nowadays, leadership is more the emergent property of a complex system with rich feedback, and not so much a one-way process emanating from the figure of the leader. The leader – for want of a better way of putting it – is a figure of vital importance for leadership, but not for the reasons we traditionally attribute to him. It is more about the symbolism it represents – or the meaning for future leaders – and less about the results they produce directly.