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Real Leadership and the U.S. Army: Overcoming a Failure of Imagination to Conduct Adaptive Work

Real Leadership and the U.S. Army: Overcoming a Failure of Imagination to Conduct Adaptive Work - Cover

Authored by Colonel John B. Richardson IV.

December 2011

152 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This monograph begins with a case study that provides a means for analyzing the complexity of organizational leadership in the contemporary security environment. As such, it presents a high stakes problem-set that required an operational adaptation by a cavalry squadron conducting combat operations in Baghdad. This problematic reality triggered the struggle to find a creative response to a very deadly problem, while cultural norms served as barriers that prevented the rejection of previously accepted solutions that had proven successful in the past, even though those successful solutions no longer fit in the context of the reality of the present. The case study highlights leaders who were constrained by deeply-held assumptions that inhibited their ability to adapt quickly to a changed environment. The case study then moves on to provide an example of a successful application of adaptive leadership and adaptive work that was performed by the organization after a period of reflection and the willingness to experiment and assume risk.

The case study serves as a microcosm of the challenges facing the U.S. Army, and the corresponding leadership framework presented in this monograph can be used as a model for the Army as it attempts to move forward in its effort to make adaptation an institutional imperative. The paper presents a more holistic approach to leadership where the leader transcends that of simply being an authority figure and becomes a real leader who provides a safe and creative learning environment where the organization can tackle and solve adaptive challenges. The paper concludes by recommending that U.S. Army leaders apply Harvard Professor Dean Williams’s theory to the challenges confronting the Army’s leader development process thereby fostering a culture of adaptive leaders.


Former Army Chief of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey has highlighted “failure of imagination” as a major obstacle in an organization’s ability to learn, adapt, and find solutions to complex problems. As a former Commanding General of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), General Dempsey led the redesign of the Army’s conceptual foundation. He and other Army officials, reflecting on the previous decade’s conflicts, aggressively instituted a campaign of learning, which TRADOC describes as “a broad set of initiatives designed to produce an Army capable of rapidly adapting to defeat unforeseen threats.”

This paper argues that the U.S. Army should continue its bold initiatives and go even further. It should develop creative leaders who can exercise adaptive leadership with the capacity to provide learning environments within their organizations. Included in the paper is an analysis of adaptive challenges facing the Army. Specifically, the Army espouses the need for decentralized operations and operational adaptability, but the Army culture is driven by control, stability, and risk aversion. The author provides a recommended solution for overcoming this disconnect and achieving adaptive leadership through the application of a leadership framework provided by Dean Williams of Harvard’s Kennedy School. The focus of “real leadership” as presented by Williams is not to get others to follow, but rather is directed toward getting people to confront reality and change their values, habits, practices, and priorities to deal with the real threat or opportunity the group faces. It is through this more holistic approach to leadership that the Army can maximize the adaptations in its campaign of learning and develop leaders with the capacity and skills to foster learning environments within their organizations.

In many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the Army is getting it right. Junior leaders, routinely exercising adaptive leadership, demonstrate numerous examples of how to overcome intractable challenges in changing and ambiguous environments. In these cases, commanders are leading their organizations through complex realities by assuming necessary risk and seizing the initiative from our adversaries. These examples of a more creative approach to problem-solving based on mutual trust inside of the organizations ensures that these units achieve and maintain momentum over the enemy, which is necessary to progress successfully in the fight against adaptive opponents in the current operational environment.

Unfortunately, the discretion and flexibility granted to many leaders in these theaters of war is not how business is done on a day-to-day basis throughout the U.S. Army. What is at stake if we do not incorporate these battlefield lessons into the organization’s DNA will be a lower likelihood that the Army will produce the quantity and quality of leaders who are creative, imaginative, and innovative, and can lead learning organizations on today’s competitive battlefield. It is the risk of operating at 80-percent effectiveness as an organization when 90 percent or better can be achieved with cultural alignment between what the Army says is important and what it actually rewards as success through professional advancement. The Army is at a pivotal juncture as it attempts to transition over the next decade from war in two major theaters back to a traditional garrison routine in the context of persistent global conflict. Its ability to institute an organizational change in culture that can produce operational adaptability is critical to successfully moving the Army toward making adaptive leadership the way it does business.

This paper begins with a case study that provides an example of a real-world adaptive challenge during a cavalry squadron’s recent deployment to Baghdad in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The case study accentuates the challenges of organizational leadership in complex environments and the consequences of failing to adapt fast enough on today’s battlefields. Ultimately, the unit makes in-stride adaptations, demonstrating how the exercise of adaptive leadership must start with a reflective diagnosis and an accurate understanding of the adaptive challenge. It highlights the role of the leader in presenting the reality of the changed conditions to the organization, and then providing a learning environment based on trust and empowerment to allow the group to develop adaptive solutions. Simply put, the case study confirms the requirement for operational adaptability to become “how we do business” in the security environment of the 21st century.

Following the case study, evidence is presented that suggests there is a lack of congruency between the Army’s espoused values (what we say we should do), and the Army’s basic underlying assumptions (what we actually do), which can cause a trust deficit and produce an organizational culture that is not conducive to the development of adaptive leaders. A review of the espoused values from emerging Army doctrine, focused on decentralized execution and operational adaptability, is contrasted with the conclusions of a study conducted by Dr. James Pierce at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Dr. Pierce’s findings suggest a lack of congruency between espoused values and actual practice. His study brings into question whether the Army’s organizational culture is one that encourages the kind of imagination necessary to achieve operational adaptability. This cultural disconnect is the primary barrier confronting the Army’s campaign of learning.

To overcome this divergence in the Army’s organizational culture, the author presents Williams’s framework for leadership as a way to help close the gap between espoused values and basic underlying assumptions. Williams posits a theory of leadership from which the U.S. Army can glean critical insights in its quest to change its culture and achieve operational adaptability. Williams postulates that traditional notions of leadership are inadequate for today’s challenges—that they do not address the complexities and diversity of the problems, threats, and opportunities that groups and institutions must confront in today’s globalized and complex world—if these groups and institutions expect to progress. Traditional notions of leadership unduly emphasize the role of the leader in providing a vision or “showing the way,” while leading in primarily straightforward environments. In contrast, Williams addresses the demanding task of mobilizing people to confront their predicament and solve their most pressing problems.

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