By Stuart Tootal DSO OBE, Leadership Speaker.
Stuart Tootal DSO OBE led the first UK battle group into Afghanistan, before then spending 10-years as a global head at Barclays. He has worked with over fifty FTSE and Fortune companies on the issue of leadership and decision-making. He is The Sunday Times bestselling author of ‘Danger Close – Leading 3 PARA in Afghanistan.’
The criticality of decision-making, planning and executing
The intervals between 9/11, the Credit Crunch and Brexit, were on average seven to eight years apart. The Covid pandemic reduced crisis frequency to four years and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has reduced the interval between global shocks by half again. Furthermore, the entropy created by crises is compounding and enduring. Loss of life, financial harm, supply chain disruption, high-cost inflation, and higher interest rates, have combined with employee fatigue, poor mental health, changing workforce expectations and hybrid working challenges, which further exacerbate market disorder, poor productivity, and uncertainty.
In a crisis, leaders have to step up, difficult decisions need to be made quickly, organisations have to plan at pace, execute faster and demand more from their people if they are to avoid succumbing to the predicaments they face. But potential calamity also offers opportunity. In crisis mode, companies often gain a greater sense of mission purpose, leaders lead, colleagues often feel more empowered, and a more proactive, responsive, and resilient organisational culture pervades. The pivot to remote working during the pandemic demonstrated this phenomenon. Conversely, most companies adopt a short-term approach to dealing with crisis and default back to BAU practices once the immediate imperatives of avoiding catastrophe fades. However, these traditional working practices will no longer cut it, in an era of perennial crisis where leadership, critical thinking, decision-making, agile planning, and empowered execution, which is resilient to change, need to become scalable and repeatable business requirements that can be sustained on an enduring basis.
Good leadership revolves around disciplined decision-making and empowerment
It is not surprising that three years on from the advent of Covid, many businesses cite poor leadership, the need to change their culture, and ways of working, along with talent management issues and poor resilience amongst their workforce, as the major issues they face today. The cause is often rooted in poor decision-making and a lack of empowerment. This is because too many firms remain wedded to outdated operating models. Decision-making is traditionally too concentrated and subject to human bias, such as cognitive dissonance, group think or ‘only what the boss thinks’. While lacking pace and precision, those processes that do exist, are often overly rigid and stifle creativity by ignoring optionality, the critical input of permission to challenge and the diversity of thought that exists among the more junior cohorts of a business.
Absent an agile and disciplined critical thinking approach to making decisions, the necessary planning and execution of a strategy is also ad hoc and cumbersome. Execution responsibility is abrogated rather than empowered. Consequently, executives become overwhelmed by frozen middle-management delegating everything back upwards to them. Poor empowerment is further compounded by traditional matrix management, which is too siloed, too slow, fails to provide accountability for getting things done, and generates too many ‘off mission’ blockers.
The right mindset
The solution lies in generating a decisive autonomous leadership and empowerment mindset, which involves delegating and cascading decision-making, planning, and execution to each relevant level, thus generating speed and responsiveness. This allows organisations to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances, whilst remaining within the boundaries of strategic intent contained within a clearly articulated mission statement where everyone knows their part in the plan. Properly empowered, the workforce will be engendered with an adaptability, agility, and resilience that businesses need to survive in challenging market environments, while making them robust to the shocks that will surely come, and able to seize the opportunities they may present. However, this requires a change in mindset and organisation-wide commitment to change, which is unlikely to occur if all decisions are made in the boardroom, only to then get stuck among the dependency foot-draggers in the matrix.
Mindsets require toolsets and skillsets
Talking about changing mindsets is easy, but the necessary mental approach and operating culture will only come from having the right critical thinking decision-making, agile planning, and empowered toolset and skills. Mindsets rely on skillsets, which must first be built around equipping people with the right tools. Take culture for example. Anthropologists will tell you that vibrant cultures are founded on commonly understood language and social practices. In essence, culture is also about actions and behaviours; in turn this requires people to make decisions, often in situations of complexity and ambiguity, where conduct and reputation may be at stake. However, if organisations have not empowered their people with decision-making tools and skills, can they really claim that they have a strong culture? Further, real culture materialises when there is a collective habit of doing things in the right way, which is common, scaled, and sustained.
A different solution perspective
So where do companies look for the right tools and skills to lead through complexity, empower their colleagues with mission purpose decision-making, planning, and execution? How do they fulfil the desire that their people step up, lead, and become accountable, while also harnessing their creativity to drive productivity, with pace, and precision, and improve culture and workforce well-being at the same time?
When appropriately adapted to the circumstances of the business domain, the military approach to devolving empowered leadership throughout an organisation offers a powerful learning perspective; not least given the convergence of similarities between the operating challenges of the combat and commercial world. Both have to deal with the dizzying pace of tech change, the proliferation of non-traditional actors or disruptors in their operating spaces, while also dealing with the consequences of constant, and increasing, media, conduct, and regulatory scrutiny. The difference is that while the business world has been responding to these challenges with focus since the credit crisis of 2008, the military has been framing their responses constantly in the ever evolving landscape of combat over the last eight decades.
By its nature, their common operating space is one of the permanent crises of battle, where making order out of chaos quickly and seizing fleeting opportunities dictates who prevails. However, it is not about being like the military and one also needs to debunk the misnomer that combat units get things done by hierarchy. If you think about it, why would an eighteen-year old soldier risk his or her life repeatedly on the basis of rank and orders, especially when they are suffering from fatigue, privations, and fear? They do so because they have faith in their leaders, how they make a decision, how they are engaged in shaping the plan, and the shared collaboration of being part an executing team with a strong unit ethos; or what we would call culture. These are the soft skills emanating from the tenants of military mission leadership. While firms cannot make the same level of investment in leadership training, there is a compelling argument to leverage the relevant learnings of the decision-planning and empowerment tools they use. This is especially true in the current and future business environment, where the next shock is no doubt already heading our way.