Strategy and Leadership: Handmaidens of National Defense

"The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards." -- Sir Francis William Butler
“The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.” — Sir Francis William Butler

A recurring challenge in discussing strategy is deciding where the concept ends and where others begin. In our defense activities (and as usual, Air Force, I am thinking of you specifically), we routinely structure organizations such that strategy is a thing apart — an activity at once ill defined and yet neatly binned, often conflated or outright co-opted by other organizational imperatives begging for the added heft of an important-sounding word to (inaccurately) describe them.

This reflects misapprehension. Strategy is a thread stitching together many things rather than its own article.

But it’s also misappropriation. Slapping the word “strategy” on the front door of an office that does logistical planning, budget churn, or rapid-response taskers from the boss doesn’t change what it means, or what it doesn’t.

Such conflations and their attendant confusions will never cease, so we are left to grapple. But grapple we must, because if we ever succumb to the self-defeating impulse to forget what words mean, more critical incoherences will be close in trail.

For example, the ideas of strategy and leadership are often discussed as distinct disciplines, when in reality they are overlapping and intertwined in important ways.

If you think carefully about it, you recognize that strategy assumes leadership and leadership assumes strategy. Each is an embedded expectation of the other. When a strategist creates a roadmap to important objectives, she assumes someone will conduct the necessary leadership to navigate that roadmap, negotiating its inevitable twists and turns. When a leader marshals resources to achieve goals, he assumes his actions are contributing to a broader plan, and looks for opportunities to advance that plan.

Of course, if I’m going to lament definitional insolvency, I should probably make myself accountable by providing a few definitions of my own.

Borrowing from Dr. Everett Dolman, who teaches at the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and who authored the influential masterwork “Pure Strategy,” I think of a strategy as a plan for continuing advantage. This definition implies, inter alia, a competitive environment, a duty to think forward and anticipate adversary responses, and a requirement to adapt in order to create and sustain an advantage. For such adaptation to occur, some person, team, or agency must sense the need for it (which in turn implies situational awareness) and orchestrate it within the bounds of circumstance and available resources, all amid ongoing contestation. Thus, this definition of strategy relies heavily on competent leadership.

Leadership has been defined so often and by so many that a summation of those definitions would have it mean everything, which is another way of having it mean nothing. Making the concept too expansive is a common pitfall in thinking about and assessing leadership. Yet unless we’re willing to define it, we lack a point of departure for deciding who should do it, when and why it is necessary, and how it gets done appropriately.

My definition of leadership — the effective marshaling of people and resources for the achievement of important objectives in a competitive environment — encompasses several important implications.

“Effective” is a threshold qualifier. If you get things done by crushing people or wasting resources, you’re not leading. You’re just exercising authority.

“Marshaling” signifies that taking inventory isn’t enough; leadership only happens when there is a careful thought process and deliberate orchestration.

“People” denotes a team-based, human activity, complete with relationships, nonlinearity, emotion, and the need to communicate — often persuasively. If you don’t anticipate and contend with these things, or if you attempt to cache them out of the environment through onerous control measures, you’re not leading. You’re just managing a static process or a rote system.

“Resources” are an assumed precondition of leadership in this definition. In other words, leadership is not about securing resources, it’s about employing them, which means living within resource limitations and extracting maximum output from them. Any time limits are implied, there arises the possibility of having to do less than would be expected in an unbounded resource model. This gestures toward an important requirement of all leaders: the courage and ability to articulate not just what you can do with what you have, but what you cannot do, or what risks will be assumed to get it done with insufficient people or resource flows.

“Achievement” connotes securing something against a degree of contestation and doubt about the outcome. Risk, chance, and the possibility of failure or defeat are part of leading. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, there is no competition, and thus, no leadership.

Which brings us full circle: my notion of leadership assumes competition against some opposing force, be that an adversary on the field of battle, a business competitor, even one’s own bureaucratic support system.

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The overlap in these two definitions, and in how their concepts operate, is considerable, mostly because they’re both born of a need to participate in a competitive environment.

For example, the President of the United States is responsible (at least in theory) for developing a National Security Strategy, within which nests a defense strategy. His plan for continuing advantage assumes an ongoing competition that must be effectively waged to safeguard national interests. In fielding his strategy, he assumes the availability of military commanders to perform the necessary leadership to make his strategy successful. Those leaders, as they carry out their duties, find themselves conducting the same sorts of advantage-seeking and anticipatory estimates that were performed by strategists well above their level. Without sufficient guidance, leaders would lack the necessary framework to evaluate potential courses of action. Without adequate leadership, strategists would be starved of a key assumption necessary to craft an actionable plan.

The relationship is symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. It shows us that every leader is in-part a strategist and every strategist is in-part a leader.

At some level of abstraction, the overlap is so complete that these two thing are virtually indistinguishable. At this level, strategists do what they do because it is the dominant component of their leadership responsibility, and leaders strategize in order to achieve their assigned objectives. In other words, at some level, strategy is leadership, and vice versa.

Why is any of this important? Because it exposes how foolish we’d be to have our strategies hatched by office-bound nebbishes or craven politicos who have no comprehension of leadership, and how equally foolish we’d be to choose leaders with no appreciation of the strategy within which they and their teams are situated.

This train of logic has a clear destination: we should be developing leaders with strategic appreciation and assigning to strategic duties those with leadership experience. Unfortunately, we don’t do this consistently. Walk out to the lobby of your current building and take a glance at the lineup of mug shots representing your chain of command. It may surprise you just how regularly this simple maxim is violated. Such violations are usually traceable to upstream developmental neglect and the perpetual debilitation of bureaucratic incrementalism. Our tolerance for such systemic ineptitude is a matter of, well, failed leadership and an anemic human resource strategy.

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And yet, hope springs eternal. For example, there are stirrings within the Air Force’s Air University indicating a re-affirmation of the nexus between leadership and strategy. Students at all levels of professional military education are being presented with exercises and projects that test and develop adaptation, forcing critical thinking about adversary behavior and competitive advantage. The reforms underway there represent a modest glimmer of optimism.

Hopefully they’re the first sparks of a service-wide movement to reform how the Air Force develops and uses talent. Promotions, assignments, seasoning, command slating, career path modeling, the handling of leader missteps, and special developmental opportunities all need more intellectual rigor behind them. The Air Force must once again become a thinking service, and the computerized mentorship-by-email system recently touted by the service’s civilian boss will not generate this outcome.

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Enemies will always vote. American security will always be contested. For these reasons and many others, leadership and strategy must always be handmaidens.

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