Learning From Failure — Communicating as a ‘Team of Teams’

I have learned an invaluable lesson about the connection between the strategic and the tactical levels of a multi-national organisation, and the importance of effective communication as a leader. It is a lesson with vivid implications on the battlefield, but also one with universal applicability to today’s interconnected world.

Even on the easiest days, a battlefield is an ugly and confusing place. Only the most seasoned warriors can create a semblance of order and discipline amongst the confluence of unpredictable, life-threatening variables of combat. The oft-cited phrase “fog of war,” first coined by the 19th century strategist Karl Von Clausewitz, has survived the ages simply because the confusion he described was as true for the Prussian foot soldier as it is for today’s most elite warrior parachuting out the back of an aircraft at 20,000 feet. The great differentiator then was, and remains today, the way in which organisations adapt to the chaos, cutting through the fog so to speak.

Over the years I have experienced many examples of leadership failures and successes from various conflict zones. Leadership failures in the field can have catastrophic consequences and personal experience has taught me the importance of positive leadership, consistently maintaining your guard, carefully interpreting changing signs around you, trusting your gut instincts and acting quickly when required.

There are significant similarities with organisational structure, and my personal experience of working in large and small units as well as alone, tactically ingraining myself with local teams and working in other disciplines to facilitate successful leadership and reach end goals. This would not have been possible without excellent leadership from my superiors; from me towards my team and with my local counterparts.
Another key factor is managing emotional states. These can run away from you and lead you to make ineffective, rash decisions that have a hugely detrimental impact on the operation. Learning to recognise, channel and/or change them is a crucial factor in maintaining a calm, clear mind and making the right decisions at the right time.

Here we compare organisational leadership vs leadership in the armed forces.  In the military there is the concept of ‘2 Up Intent’, where as a leader within an organisation you always know the intent of the overall mission and have a clear picture of the goals and actions of the person whom you report into and the person they report into.  Having a clear idea and understanding of the Bigger Picture allows teams to strive for the end goal and innovate where, how and when required. The General in the story earlier showed great instinct and humbleness in his self assessment and went on to effectively adapt how he delivered his orders and his vision of the outcome much more clearly and concisely than previously.

I have worked in a variety of countries, with limited intelligence and on many occasions with no military back up; the results weren’t always a success, and we took the positives from every operation and used them to refine our capabilities in the future. Success on the battlefield, just as in the boardroom, can be determined by a variety of factors including:

• Understand the Bigger Picture – Ensuring your team has clarity on the value of their contribution to the overall mission

• Know your people – Understand your team, you will need to rely on each other

• Emotional management – recognising emotional triggers, knowing what emotions are the right ones for any given situation

• Collaborate – You do not know what expertise is within your team until you ask, utilising these hidden talents can result in the greatest ideas

• Due diligence – Mitigate risks through thorough research and ‘think outside of the box’

• Be prepared for change, especially unexpected and enforced change and have alternative options in play and allow time for readjusting your plan as you go

• Understand the culture eg. Understanding the enemy mindset and behaviours facilitated increased surrenders in battle and negotiated surrenders

Battle zones are scenes of CHAOS which can be defined as a state of DANGER and OPPORTUNITY.   As in business, danger and opportunity are all around us and successful leaders are those who learn how to exploit the dangers and capitalise on the opportunities.

My aim is to contradict the negative connotations associated with chaos and show how people who can’t work in chaos generally lean towards a 100% plan before moving forward. Troops in a military context will generally charge a battle field with only an 80% plan and learn the rest, adapting as they go, because they are exceptionally well trained and are conditioned into adapting and improvising as they go.  No plan is perfect and whilst there are risks associated with not planning properly, there can be huge missed opportunities by staying in the planning phase for too long.  The key is flexibility, agility and empowerment allowing people to move quickly without the need to always refer decisions back up the hierarchy.

Reflecting on various incidents, I thought to myself:

How could these have been handled differently as a leader in order to avoid catastrophic outcomes?

These personal discoveries I will share with you next week in Part 4

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