How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

I recently had to do a short essay on developing resilience in followers or teams – it is not particularly in line with the core purpose of this blog, but might be some useful food for thought nonetheless…


How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

Leaders have responsibility for people under them, or the output of these people; a follower is one of these people; and a team is a collection of followers which may or may not have additional levels of leadership within it.  “Resilience” is a quality that enables something or someone to return to the shape that it previously had after enduring a stressor or failure. Leaders are faced with multiple challenges, one of which is often setting the conditions that enable followers to be resilient enough to recover from failure. Two symbiotic elements must be established to enable this recovery: the right culture, and the right processes. Responsibility for this lies with the leader.

“Culture” is difficult to define – it is intangible, and metrics that indicate progress are largely subjective – but it is nevertheless driven by the leader.  He or she[1] must establish a culture where people are comfortable trying and failing.  Indeed, in some industries he should encourage “failing fast”, and this demands openness, honesty, and trust amongst followers and leaders.

The right culture must underpin the right process of learning, where failures and subsequent root-cause analysis – asking questions such as “Why did the failure happen?” and “So what?” – can enable the implementation of procedures that prevent the failure happening again; Syed’s Blackbox Thinking provides a good model.  Importantly, this Lessons-Learned event should be broadcast widely, and the leader himself should be exposed to it.

Implemented well a leader can use this tool to take his team beyond resilience, ideally stretching them until they are closer to Taleb’s Antifragile.  Resilience is admirable, but only brings people back to where they were. Robustness merely prevents challenges having any effect.  Antifragility acknowledges that some failures are beyond the control of an organisation – Clausewitzian friction does not simply exist on the battlefield – and allows followers and teams to be better positioned after a failure.

However, whilst there must be some degree of tolerating (and even encouraging) failure, there must also be some degree of removing the relentlessly fragile; those people that are unable to recover.  Not only is the judgement of where this balance lies a key role of the leader, responsibility for implementation of it lies with the leader. This is a real challenge; encouraging the right culture and enabling the aforementioned root-cause analysis while avoiding negative blame is ferociously difficult and demands buy-in from across the followers.  If done right, and if sufficient attempts to learn lessons and improve the resilience (or, even better, the antifragility) of a follower, have not borne fruit, then that individual may be better suited elsewhere.

This requirement is underpinned by the dichotomous challenge that a leader faces and must recognise – there is not necessarily alignment between resilience in followers and resilience in teams.  Although the two are not mutually exclusive, a team may become collectively more resilient by losing some people.  Goldman Sachs and GE are both examples of organisations that trim their bottom 10%; it is not a concept without precedence. If it feels uncomfortable, it should do.  Good leaders understand that the right decisions are often the hardest. However, by retaining a firm understanding of what the end state for the organisation is – and it could be anything from shareholder revenue to a happy and comfortable workforce – a leader is able to understand where the balance lies. By developing the right culture and process, and retaining this strategic vision, a leader can take his team and followers to resilience… and beyond.

[1] Henceforth simply “he” for simplicity.

The role of instinct in decision-making

‘Great strategies, like great works of art or great scientific discoveries, call for technical mastery in the working out but originate in insights that are beyond the reach of conscious analysis’ (Kenichi Ohmae, The Mind of the Strategist, p. 4)

‘[A commander] can comprehend the complexity of a situation in ways that defy the visual and audible’ (General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams)

Great leaders in the fields of military and business share many things (as this blog will continue to investigate…), and of particular importance is the ability to have a developed instinct that they trust and are comfortable exploiting.  The quotations above, although relating to business and military strategy respectively, are interchangeable between the disciplines.

The military put a lot of stock into their ability to intuitively read the battlefield.  Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Thin-slicing’, Daniel Kahneman’s ‘system one’ analysis, ishin-denshin, Clausewitz’s fingerspitzengefühl, and Napoleon’s coup d’oeil are recognised and accepted concepts. Commanders exploit their intuition and move themselves around the battlefield to best get a feel for it; in Vietnam General Westmoreland would go forward to subordinate HQs to get ‘the feel of the situation’; General Zhukov placed himself in the command trench of his subordinate, General Chuikov, during the Soviet advance onto the Seelow Heights in April 1945; Field-Marshall Slim estimated that he spent a third of his time visiting subordinate units (although this was also driven by his love for his men and his modest understanding that his presence raised morale); and Major-General Maurice Rose risked and lost his life by pushing forward during 3rd US Armored Division’s assault onto Paderborn around the same time.  Where a commander best locates himself is a continually discussed topic, and one factor to consider is how he can best understand the challenge before him.

Business leaders are similar.  As Martin Lindstrom points out in his article ‘Instinct is the most important leadership skill’, Rupert Murdoch reads his papers every day, Ingvar Kamprad would often spend time on the tills at IKEA, and Sam Walton would regularly walk the aisles in Walmart. Those who subscribe to Lean Six Sigma methodology understand the importance of spending time at the Gemba.

Explaining the benefits of intangibles such as instinct, however, is difficult to anyone that has not experienced it.  This quality does not come easily; as John Masters writes in The Road Past Mandalay, it is ‘either there, by a stroke of genetic chance, or more usually, is deposited cell by cell on the subconscious during long years of study and practice’.

And resource must be put into developing it; when the USMC Combat Development Command was established in 1999 it had the remit of ‘identifying, developing and cultivating appropriate intuitive combat decisionmaking [sic] skills at all levels’ (General Krulak). Of course, one could argue that there is evidence of bias at play; Effort Justification Bias dictates that people and organisations favour what they have personally invested in; as such the military may over-inflate the role of instinct.

Perhaps instinct is no longer an appropriate quality in a modern world which ‘requires that decisions be sourced’ (Gladwell). Gerd Gigerenzer agrees, and has outlined here some of the techniques that executives use to de-risk their decisions, many of which (he says about 50%) are made on gut instinct. And intuition can be dangerous; in stressful situations – such as combat – men are ‘more likely to act irrationally, to strike out blindly, or even to freeze into stupid immobility’ (Norman Dixon’s classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence should be mandatory reading for all officers every time they get promoted). Retaining a dispassionate decision-maker that is removed from the front line, perhaps even sat in Patton’s swivel chair, helps ensure that challenging choices are made with a cool and rational head.

The ultimate achievement, when the planets align, is of course when the independently gathered data support a gut feeling.  Whether it is intelligence on enemy movements or an accurate analysis of market segmentation, if the data that are delivered to a decision-maker agrees with what his instinct is already telling him – when the head aligns with the heart – then more often than not the decision he makes based on this will be the right one. And this matters to Ohmae or McChrystal.


Addendum: McKinsey have a great piece on Gut Instincts here.

The Importance of Simplicity

The Importance of Simplicity

“[W]e believe that the underlying cause of the recent slowdown has been the ongoing, long-term rise of complicatedness.”  (Reinhard Messenbock, Yves Morieus, Jaap Backx, and Donat Wunderlich, ‘How Complicated is your Company?’, Boston Consulting Group.)

“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Ch 7.)

It is important to recognise the difference between Complex and Complicated. I consider a complex problem to be the same as a Wicked problem; there is no clear-cut solution, there are numerous levers that can be pulled, levers often owned by people that sit outside of the established hierarchy, often with unpredictable secondary and tertiary impacts on a wide variety of stakeholders, many of whom want opposite things but have similar levels of influence. In comparison a complicated problem is something that may have a lot of steps, but can be fixed. Given the tools, materials, and a detailed-enough instruction manual I could probably build a high-quality computer (I’ve never built a computer in my life). However, I couldn’t design a new OS to replace iOS. General McChrystal does a good job of examining the difference in Team of Teams.

The second point is that one of the fundamental principles of war is Simplicity. As the Dead Prussian’s quotation alludes to, the nature of conflict has within it enough fog and friction from external actors (by which I mean external to your organisation, although they may still be friendly forces) to make even simple activities hard enough. From the outside it might appear that moving an Armoured Infantry Company’s worth of vehicles (c. 18) from A to B is an easy job. It isn’t. Before departing one must plan for every eventuality, including, but not limited to, breakdown, direct fire attack, indirect fire attack, IED, getting lost, getting separated, having orders changed, having some of the route put out of bounds, having a flanking force stray into your AO and not knowing about it, being re-tasked and so on… any of which can even impact on getting to the line of departure in the first place. In sum, there is enough challenge inherent within the activity that any additional layers of process (such as additional checks) that get placed on top should only be produced if there is a clear reason to do so.

BCG’s article ‘How Complicated is Your Company?’ demonstrates that there are clear parallels with the business world. Their Complicatedness Survey chart demonstrates that those companies with above-average profit margins and above-average revenue growth are the ones that are the least complicated. Nugatory complicatedness has a number of negative effects which contribute to lower profits and growth. Although (potentially) providing necessary layers of assurance – which for an organisation such as the military which operates with public money may be more necessary than for partnerships – it leads to: increased Cost of Quality; lack of trust; lack of agility and flexibility; empowerment of process experts over output experts, and more.

Lean thinking can help, but it must be couched in a holistic view, driven by the top. Operators – those creating the output – should not be held back, but should be enabled by those that understand which boxes to tick and which forms to fill in. There is often little that can be done about the environment that we’re operating in. Today it is necessarily complex – Mary Kaldor’s ‘Old Wars’ have (largely) gone. In the business world and in the military we must continue to aggressively pursue simplicity, reduce process, reduce unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, and remain agile enough to not only respond to changes and development, but lead them.