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.

Disruption and Insurgencies – Part 1 – A Comparison

Discussion about the influence of disruptors is popular.  CNN’s 2017 list of 50 identifies 31 unicorns[1], a total of $44 billion in VC, and a market value of $239 billion.

But this post isn’t just about disruptors.  It is the parallels between disruptors and insurgencies that interests me – and the So What?  Although the Afghanistan campaign was launched under the auspices of Article 5, counter-insurgency has been the driving force for NATO’s raison d’etre since 9/11 (although rumblings from the near east in the short-medium term, and the potential of the Far East in the long term have provided some recent temperance).

I am not comparing Uber, AirBnB, Netflix etc with insurgents!  But their methodologies are similar.  Insurgencies are predicated on offering citizens of the space that they operate in alternate products – this could be in the form of shadow governance, moral leadership, and justice.  These alternate products would have no value if they weren’t needed – in the parts of Afghanistan that the government does not control many locals appreciate the ability of an organisation to come and settle disputes (a judiciary), deal with criminals (a police force), provide education (madrasses), and so on.

Disruptors do the same thing – although often they often do so in Blue Ocean space. Uber’s success was driven by frustration with cartel-esque pre-GPS practices of taxi-drivers; AirBnB’s by providing a personal experience that is so often absent from chain hotels (how many hotels have generic centralised websites which facelessly manage all their bookings?); Udacity’s by enabling the attainment of relatively cheap and recognised education qualifications to support increasing demands by employers for skills that are being offered with dubious quality with opaque pricing arrangements by universities.

I find real parallels in the way that disruptors and insurgents are funded.  Both have embraced alternate methodologies that sit outside of traditional means.  Both use cryptocurrencies –  disruptors are often spurred on by the innovative and ground-breaking nature of their founders to enhance their appeal to the type of customer that it wishes to attract; insurgents relish in the difficulty in tracing it. Both groups avoid cash.  Insurgents have a further method of money movement, making use of traditional hawalas that sit outside of government scrutiny.

External funding is similarly unconventional.  Many disruptors have developed from Kickstarter campaigns and venture capitalist investors; insurgents are often funded by the illicit drug trade.  Both types of organisations receive income from wealthy individuals.  Insurgents receive additional funding from supportive states; some disruptors from established companies.  In all cases these are far removed from the traditional methods of raising capital for a company.  But in the same way that insurgents often eventually come to the negotiating table and accept some traditional ways of doing business, many disruptors do eventually decide to float, or get acquired by established businesses.  By this time, however, the disruption has been caused.

Further similarities can be found in the leadership of both groups.  The leaders of both elements are often inspirational and held in high reverence by followers, whilst at the same time their behaviour can be morally questionable (see Uber…). Both types of group seek to increase their customer base, often through well-concentrated and planned public relations exercises. Disruptors want to increase their market share, whilst insurgents will attempt to gain everything from popular support to more territory.

In sum the parallels are clear, and in Part 2 I will look at what militaries can learn from how businesses have dealt with this challenge.

Summary of key comparisons between industry disruptors and insurgents.
Summary of key comparisons between industry disruptors and insurgents.


[1] A start-up company with a value of over $1 billion (Investopedia).

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.