In this month’s Foreign Affairs, one of Britain’s greatest strategic thinkers, Sir Lawrence Freedman, offers a critique of Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine entitled “Why War Fails.”
It might just as accurately have been titled “Why Businesses Fail.”
Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, states that military senior leaders are not that different from leaders in any milieu, including business. And like leaders in any other milieu, the way they lead can have a big impact on the success or failure of their enterprise.
Don’t lead like a dictator
“Dictators can certainly make bold decisions on war, but these are far more likely to be based on their own ill-informed assumptions and are unlikely to have been challenged in a careful decision-making process,” Freedman writes. “Dictators tend to surround themselves with like-minded advisers and to prize loyalty above competence.”
The same could be said of autocratic business leaders. And whether in the boardroom or on the battlefield, this failure to challenge their own assumptions and encourage healthy debate too often leads to bad decisions – decisions that, once made, are hard to unmake.
Freedman says this puts field officers, the military equivalent of middle managers, in a tough position.
Sometimes orders are inappropriate, perhaps because they are based on dated and incomplete intelligence and may therefore be ignored by even the most diligent field officer. In other cases, their implementation might be possible but unwise, perhaps because there is a better way to achieve the same objectives. Faced with orders they dislike or distrust, subordinates can seek alternatives to outright disobedience. They can procrastinate, follow orders half-heartedly, or interpret them in a way that fits better with the situation that confronts them.
Western militaries have sought to address this inevitability by driving decision making down to the lowest echelon possible – a practice that is variously referred to as “mission command” or “Auftragstaktik.”
Encourage distributed decision making
“(T)he West has increasingly sought to encourage subordinates to take the initiative to deal with the circumstances at hand; commanders trust those close to the action to make the vital decisions yet are ready to step in if events go awry. This is the approach Ukrainian forces have adopted,” Freedman observes. “Russia’s command philosophy is more hierarchical. In principle, Russian doctrine allows for local initiative, but the command structures in place do not encourage subordinates to risk disobeying their orders.”
Or even questioning them. He says Putin’s autocratic approach to leadership, which makes it very risky for lower-level leaders to speak up, let alone think for themselves.
“In autocratic systems such as Russia’s, officials and officers must think twice before challenging superiors,” says Freedman. “Life is easiest when they act on the leader’s wishes without question.”
If you work or have worked for a large corporation, I’m guessing it does. Mmost big companies function in much the same way, even when they don’t mean to. And that is a big problem – not just for employees, but also for shareholders.
Once again, the solution is to enable and encourage distributed decision making.
“The value of delegated authority and local initiative will be one of the other key lessons from this war,” Freedman concludes, adding that is only possible when certain conditions are met. “There must be mutual trust between those at the senior and most junior levels. Those at the highest level of command must have confidence that their subordinates have the intelligence and ability to do the right thing in demanding circumstances, while their subordinates must have confidence that the high command will provide what backing they can.”
Effective leadership, then, is a two-way street. Senior leaders need to ensure that those at the coal face have the cognitive capability to make good decisions so that they can have the confidence to entrust them with decision-making authority. Those frontline leaders need to let those at the top of the house know what is really going on so that they can get the support they need to adjust to the situation on the ground.
That, too, is true in the corporation and in the combat zone.