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  1. The Art and Discipline of Strategic Leadership
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  4. The Art and Discipline of Strategic Leadership

In an attempt to change this legacy thinking, General Martin Dempsey, USA, during his last 2 years as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, issued white papers on mission command, the profession of arms, and joint education, as well as a memorandum on desired leader attributes. Each of these documents highlighted this shortfall in strategic leadership in some form. Instead of designing a strategic leadership program to meet the demands of the 21 st century, the military community continues to embrace the outdated practices of the past. To rediscover the art of strategic thinking and planning, joint strategic leader development must disconnect itself from the paradigm of the past in which outcomes are known, risk is certain and manageable, and linear thinking is the norm.

In its place, a developmental paradigm that embraces the discomforts of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity must be adopted.

The Art and Discipline of Strategic Leadership

Modifying the training adage that the joint force must train the way it will fight, joint strategic leader development must reflect the realities of the global environment within which strategic decisionmaking occurs. Specifically, the joint force must develop strategic thinking competencies that will prepare strategic leaders for the ambiguities, uncertainties, and complexities of the 21 st -century global security environment.

Strategic Leadership. Why are the Chairman and so many others focused on leadership?

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There are a number of reasons. First, local and regional trends, which were once somewhat isolated and constant, are interacting with global trends to accelerate rates of change. This increased acceleration leaves little decisionmaking time for cumbersome bureaucracies; rather, the environment demands timely strategic decisions at the field level.

Second, the accelerated rates of change in local, regional, and global environments have increased uncertainty at all levels, paralyzing decisionmakers looking for risk-free strategies or plans.


Fourth, global interdependencies—economic, social, religious, and military, among others—demand that local or regional issues be viewed in a depth and breadth not previously undertaken. Finally, in a review of the lessons learned over the past 13 years of war, various organizations and studies assessed strategic thinking and strategic leadership as lacking during national strategic decisionmaking.

These five reasons demand that joint officers develop a level of understanding not previously required from a national security perspective or demanded of them individually. This newly required depth and breadth of understanding entail the development of a perspective that encompasses longer periods of time—not only the present and near future, but also the distant past as well as the distant future. By drawing on an understanding of the past, joint strategic leaders can build a realistic vision that pulls joint organizations through the challenges of the present while positioning the Nation for future success.

Without a vision of the future, the joint force is at a distinct disadvantage, as it will be caught unaware of developing trends, policies, and potential adversaries. Strategic leader responsibilities generally encompass multiple organizations and echelons diverse in missions and responsibilities. The current challenge is how to address the multitude of global challenges, given the limited range of individual and staff expertise and experiences.

Considering figure 1, one can get a sense of the skill requirements necessary in the industrial age.

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Generally, the degree of certainty of any given issue and the degree of agreement among experts for a solution as indicated by the x and y axes were fairly high. As such, knowledge—usually in the form of domain-specific experts—was foundational in developing an understanding of the issue.

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In most cases, both the tasks and the environment were familiar; thus, the need for different thinking methodologies meta-knowledge and cultural understanding humanistic knowledge was relatively small in comparison to foundational knowledge. Figure 2 illustrates the transposition of skills needed in the information age. Again, generally speaking, the strategic operating environment has expanded to include regions for which the United States has little or no expertise, with tasks becoming increasingly unfamiliar.

As the degrees of certainty and expert agreement have decreased, the need for domain-specific foundational knowledge has significantly diminished. In the information age, meta- and humanistic knowledge come to the fore as the need to address the dynamics of integrated domains and multiple cultural perspectives increases. Specific foundational knowledge is decreased proportionally because collaborative approaches can potentially develop multiple solutions needed to address the complexities of integrated security domains.

Joint Leadership. Given the skills required of strategic leaders in the information age, it is necessary to undertake a short review of Service and joint leadership development and doctrine to identify the current strategic leadership shortfall. As expected, the Services do an excellent job describing leadership at multiple command levels. II, Leadership , 11 provide definitions, purpose, competencies, and attributes required by leaders for conducting warfighting. Service leadership clearly formed the bedrock of American tactical and operational successes for many decades.

In lieu of leadership, joint doctrine relies on operational concepts, functions, and processes. For example, Joint Publication JP 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States , does a very good job describing command and control within joint organizations. JP 1 does provide a short description of the profession of arms, listing character traits, competencies, and values, but these are relegated to an appendix not quite two-and-a-half pages in length. Recognizing this shortfall in joint doctrine and leader development, General Dempsey provided new guidance for the joint community based on a review of the past 13 years of war.

In , he laid out six desired attributes for leaders in a memorandum for Service chiefs, combatant commanders, the National Guard bureau chief, and the directors of the Joint Staff. Examining this framework, two issues become readily evident. First, the definition of joint leadership is missing. Second, the competencies as described in joint doctrine focus primarily on the tactical and low operational levels of war and fail to address strategic leadership in any form.

Unfortunately, each of these missing pieces reinforces a tactical perspective of leadership at all echelons. Joint doctrine appears to assume that Service leadership development is adequate for strategic leadership despite recent evidence to the contrary. As General Dempsey and others have noted, the required leadership skills can vary broadly depending on the level of operations.

This familiarity generally includes the types of organizations for example, JTFs and components and processes for example, troop-leading procedures and the air-tasking cycle.

At this level, complexity is limited because most interaction is at the individual or small group level, with decisionmaking measured in seconds, minutes, hours, or a few days. The operational level of leadership expands complexity to include multiple organizations and the proliferation of the number and types of processes and products used. Reflecting this increased complexity, combatant commands operate at a different speed of decisionmaking to incorporate increased stakeholder views and desires.

Combatant command regional and functional strategies and plans are complicated further by the needs of the individuals and organizations at the tactical level. The strategic level of leadership expands complexity to include the defense enterprise decisionmakers, such as the Secretary of Defense and Chairman. At this level, specific processes reduce in number, but the numbers of stakeholders, including allies and partners, increase across a broader range of domains, such as the economic and domestic domains.

Decisionmaking can lengthen to months, years, or even decades. Finally, at the national strategic level, decisionmakers such as the President must deal with global complexity that involves decisions spanning the time range of each of the lower levels—seconds, days, months, and years. Wherever one resides in an organization—whether at the tactical, operational, or strategic level, or some level in between—different leadership paradigms exist.

The Art and Discipline of Strategic Leadership

To meet strategic leadership demands, the joint community must develop strategic thinking competencies. Strategic thinking relies on an intuitive, visual, and creative process that explores the global security environment to synthesize emerging patterns, issues, connections, and opportunities. Joint leader development thus becomes the vehicle that transitions the outdated military educational paradigm of the industrial age into one that serves the realities of the current information age environment. They develop too many goals. So employees are often confused about what exactly is expected of them.

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