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Leadership by Other Means—Bringing a Concept to Life

Leadership by Other Means—Bringing a Concept to Life

Another article by Tom Rozman

The general staff officer was several times in his Army career challenged with bringing new concepts into introduction, consideration, acceptance and implementation and fielding.  From these experiences he knew what lay in store regarding the process he would be encountering for a new concept development assignment.

His experience underscored that this process was particularly challenging when attempting it in the “development army”—the part of the army that developed concepts, doctrine, and materiel.  The “operational army,” the user of the products of the development army, had a process for its operations well understood by most in leadership roles. Given the relatively short time horizons involved in the operational army, these leaders usually enjoyed success though true, there were always some less gifted in conceptual thinking ability.

These latter, when in later career were assigned to the development army, were less effective in working the development army’s systems that were different and more arcane than those of the operational army. The milestones of these systems tended to be spread over much longer time horizons.  As well, many officers’ assignments in the development army involved only a segment of the development process life cycle, the final result in form of a fielded concept or system sometimes coming as much as 20 years after an initial involvement.  To an operationally oriented leader who was wired to see the result of an operational idea or concept in perhaps weeks or months, at least in their lifetime, this was anathema.

In the development army, there were processes but they were more complex and less straightforward in all of their relationships to each other.  The array of communities that had to be engaged and involved for any major change to concept or adoption of a new concept was daunting.  Not only did it include an almost impossibly large number of internal army constituencies, other services and joint players were part of the mix as were elements of the Congress and budgeting offices.  A huge universe of direct and indirect participants in an already multi-layered complex process of processes had to be negotiated.   Noting the connection to the legislative process alone made the development army’s environment a different universe from the operational army.

Getting a new concept understood and accepted in such an environment could be mission impossible on so many counts.  And, there was never a surefire route through the process.  Every new effort created its own variation on the theme.  After all, if a several year period had elapsed from one concept introduction to the next, a whole range of players in the mix had changed.  Officers at all levels had been reassigned and replacements were in the roles they had vacated.  Even on the civilian side where some bureaucrats seemed to be in place for life or eternity, changes did occur through retirements, promotions, even medical developments. And political players, may have moved on due to the results of the last election cycle—something that could be a good or a bad thing if they were a non-supporter or supporter of the concept.

Even a concept that seemed of the value of an 11th commandment, may have some at first unidentified opponent in the array of players, individuals that started working early to kill the concept at its various stages of development—sometimes simply because that player perceived the concept as a threat to an established programmatic cash flow.   That player saw the concept as a possible “end of personal career” threat if it took off, gained momentum and became a sustaining army system or program.  And this may not be a false perception. A concept that gains momentum and is adopted into program form may very well result in the defunding or ending of  programs that become obsolete or unnecessary.

Now the staff officer was again in an army wide concept development role, his second.  This time he was at another of the then four, four-star level headquarters that operated directly under the Department of the Army.  The new concept was a product of a “tasker” (a task or staff action assigned to a staff officer usually requiring a product in form of a report, position paper, fact sheet, etc.)  from the superior four-star headquarters.  That headquarters would have to be regularly engaged to confirm that the development of the concept was consistent with the senior headquarters intent.  The other two four-star commands would be engaged for certain aspects of the concept development.

As well, the internal command players that would be involved consisted of two three-star headquarters who orchestrated the contributing work of some 20 one and two-star headquarters, many of the latter requiring direct coordination in the development work.  This structure along with the cultural aspects that would have to be negotiated made concept introduction a task that seemed impossible to accomplish to most new staff officers just beginning their general staff careers.

In such an amorphous potentially hostile environment for a staff officer to develop, introduce or advance a concept, one they have been tasked to advance in the army’s development system, how can the task be performed with any hope of success?  How may the staff officer demonstrate leadership regarding  such an assigned  task action?

Certainly, the staff officer will be working with the existing staff action and development processes in place.  The officer will be working with the guidance provided by the senior officer responsible for assigning the task.  Existing internal and external communication protocols will be applied to inform other parts of the Army of the concept, its development and associated work.  Other elements of the “development army” that are to be engaged will be officially engaged per existing procedures.

But, if the concept is one that is likely to be controversial or not one the establishment may grasp quickly and get onboard with, even have a hostility to, what other means may be applied to gain awareness, acceptance and cooperation?  Certainly today with the ever greater reach of the internet, internal networks, local networks and the explosion of social media and other communications forms, capabilities to bring the community onboard are greatly enhanced. There is an ever growing array of means to develop strategies to communicate a concept with an early strategy to engage the entire development organization in such way that it is knowledgeable, aware and supportive in the process.

In this case, in a less capabilities rich “communication zone” relying on the array of official and printed journals an “ideas zone” was created by employing targeted articles, “strawman” staff papers, targeted memorandum, draft regulation language, War College text language and other communication devices and vehicles to create a sense of the concept, how it would work, why it was necessary and what were its benefits.  Through this harnessing of an array of devices to communicate and engage the larger complex development organization and coopt it as a team to successfully work the concept project to definition, development and fielding, a concept was put forward successfully.

The staff officer in this case made a wide-ranging use of existing communication tools to shape thought and build consensus in the large disparate community that comprised the “Development Army” to be engaged.  Effective momentum was obtained through a three year campaign of using these tools along with the more conventional process systems in place.   The result—the concept shaped gradually through engaged involvement of all commands within the development community.  The members of the team that formed across the command were provided a series of articles, official communications, regulation updating language and conferences as well as one on one personal communications that engaged them.  These communications shaped and defined the concept with their participation and through two Army Chiefs-of-Staff brought the concept to initial implementation within 3 years.  The product remains in operation in revised form 25 years later.

The leadership approach of engaging all elements that needed to participate by providing an initial working concept, fleshing out the thought behind the concept and communicating it through articles, messages and conference discussions provided a form of leadership that matured the concept with steady team/community input. The leadership maintained sustained momentum through two Chief-of-Staff regimes bringing the concept to approval and authorization to field, then implementing the fielding of the concept.  As a leadership approach in a complex almost Byzantine environment, this approach in adapted form offers benefits to other officers engaged in such operations in any army.