Military Adaptive Leadership: Overcome or Overcompensate?

The commander was surprised by the incredible number of enemy forces that greeted him as he surveyed the enemy’s camp.  Despite intelligence that estimated the adversary at roughly the same as his own 700 men, nearly ten times that number stood before him. The enemy’s size advantage was now indisputable and would therefore require a reevaluation of the planned attack. Nonetheless, the commander had a good expectation of success based on previous experiences with both the troops under his command and the ferocious, yet frequently unsophisticated force he faced. In the commander’s mind, the resources, training, and leadership available to his side were undoubtedly among the best in the world. His troops were battle-tested and coherent as a fighting force, and took their orders from a leader with a great deal of experience in command and under fire.

Despite their weariness from battles recently fought, the commander’s men also had both surprise and urgency at their backs. Knowing the time spent awaiting reinforcements would cost him the element of surprise, the commander now summoned his subordinate leaders. Although the officers had every expectation that their commander might choose to recuperate, reconstitute, and await a set of circumstances more favorable to their side, the commander was resolute: The attack would commence at once. He knew intuitively that the relative advantages he enjoyed clearly outweighed the sheer mass available to the enemy, and the demonstrated ability of his side to adapt to rapidly evolving circumstances was all the edge they needed to score a quick victory. After conducting one last survey of the map and giving instructions on the placement of forces, he set out to lead his portion of the attack.  In ninety minutes both he and over half of his troops would lie dead in the Montana heat, having committed one of the most infamous blunders in U.S. military history.  Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was thirty-six years old.


Embracing Adaptive Leadership

In a variety of forums, senior leaders across the U.S. military have made a point of extolling the virtues of adaptive leadership. General Martin Dempsey was particularly emphatic in a 2011 article in ARMYmagazine, noting:

The dynamic nature of the 21st century security environment requires adaptations across the force.  The most important adaptations will be in how we develop the next generation of leaders, who must be prepared to learn and change faster than their future adversaries.  Simply put, developing these adaptive leaders is the number-one imperative for the continued health of our profession.

Pioneered by Harvard University’s Ronald Heifetz, the key tenets include empowering subordinates in the decision making process, encouraging innovation, fostering an experimental mindset, and inculcating willingness to deviate from existing plans given evolving circumstances.  There are quite a number of useful aspects of adaptive leadership for military leaders: avoiding linear thinking when confronting the enemy, understanding complex problems before attempting to solve them, and dealing confidently with the uncertainty of battle.  These concepts are, not coincidentally, among the essential elements underpinning the concept of mission command, and have a great deal of utility within the doctrine of a US military seeking to evolve beyond a strictly hierarchical organization.  Nonetheless, the downsides to this leadership style, despite the limited discussion they receive, are equally compelling.

It iscritical that while embracing and instilling these concepts into military organizations, leaders take the time to reflect on the very real and potentially very dangerous downsides to adaptive leadership.

The Risks of Adaptive Leadership

Certainly, the tactical and operational lessons learned by U.S. forces in trying circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan must be internalized in some fashion lest they be forgotten before the next conflict. Adaptive leadership provides an attractive means of doing so.  The U.S. military prides itself on being a learning organization, and ground combat in recent wars has demonstrated the necessity for rapid, empowered action among junior leaders.

However, it is critical that during the process of evolution, the military must not fall back on the platitude that adaptive leadership is an infallible construct to be adhered to at all costs, lest they become latter day Custers. Among a set of potential challenges, adaptive leadership has the potential to undermine leaders’ efforts at implementing change by overestimating the skill of subordinates, diminishing the role of the planning process, unnecessarily confusing team members with rapidly changing guidance, and potentially even de-legitimizing the leader in the eyes of their team.

One significant danger associated with the military’s embrace of adaptive leadership is the risk of utilizing adaptive leadership in instances where technical leadership is the more effective approach.  Heifetz, the father of the concept, even concedes this risk, explaining that, “With a technical challenge, the problem and the fix are already known. That is, youre facing a challenge to which you have already developed a successful adaptation.”  In the military, these sorts of semiautomatic leadership scenarios are in fact far more common than the alternative.  This is attributable to the composition of the force.

A 2008 McKinsey study estimated the “tooth to tail ratio” of combat to noncombat personnel at one to three.  This means that the bulk of the military medical personnel, logisticians, mechanics, technology professionals, and construction engineers is therefore frequently engaged in decisions requiring technical rather than adaptive solutions.  Thus, the concepts of greater empowerment and decentralized decision making are largely incompatible with the non-combat military, and their unglamorous yet effective technique of technical decision making.  After all, how much latitude and empowerment are appropriate for a Navy dental technician to determine the amount of anesthesia to apply to a patient?  How much for an Army engineer Sergeant calculating the acceptable load for a float bridge?

Risks for the combat ranks of the military exist as well, albeit for different reasons.  Harvard Business Review recently took an interest in the military’s ongoing implementation of adaptive leadership as a useful tool of commanders and business leaders alike, with a writer spending time with Marines in combat training as they sought to inculcate the concept.  Some advantages of the adaptive leadership model that the author cites are indeed impressive on the surface.  From the necessity of speed in decision making to the practical nature of the military’s “after action review” in identifying mistakes, the author draws a number of leadership lessons germane to both the business and military worlds.   In one observation, the author notes with respect to adaptive leadership that, “the ability to make fast and effective decisions that draw quickly upon the insights of all those on the front lines is among the defining qualities of combat-ready leadership.”  This perspective, however, fails to account for several pertinent factors bearing on effective leader decision-making.

First, the message the author (and the Marines he is observing) conveys is that adaptive leaders are somehow able to solicit perspectives from appropriate stakeholders at the appropriate time to guide higher order decisions. This is a flawed assumption indeed on the military’s ability to relay information in an accurate and useful way when under duress. Rather than rely on the free flow of information to and from the “front lines” in times of urgency, military leaders (and those in business seeking to emulate them) should instead emphasize the necessity of contingency planning in conducting pre-combat operations. This is a more useful construct than either fully enabling subordinates to make reactive and potentially counterproductive decisions, or relying on the free flow of information in times of maximum stress and uncertainty. Most importantly, it correctly emphasizes the responsibility of the subordinate leader in mission planning, stressing planning and rehearsals over quickness and empowerment as virtues unto themselves. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously remarked to a room of National Defense Executives, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”


Striking the Right Balance

Clearly, the overall aims of adaptive leadership, from enabling subordinates to developing comfort with uncertainty, are sound.  That is not to say, however, that these are infallible abstractions. It is therefore critical that while embracing and instilling these concepts into military organizations, leaders take the time to reflect on the very real and potentially very dangerous downsides to adaptive leadership that can cause organizations to fail. Junior leaders can betray their inexperience, problems requiring technical solutions can succumb to an abundance of creativity, and those overly empowered and insufficiently prudent George Armstrong Custer’s among us can indeed lead teams into doom.

Only when the military takes a balanced approach to adaptive leadership can it avoid these pitfalls while yielding the sort of positive results envisioned by both General Dempsey and Professor Heifetz.  Leaders at all levels in the military must balance risk and reward when making decisions; it is no more important than when determining the kind of leader they wish to be.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Chuck_893]


Army Major John McRae is a student at the Naval War College’s College of Naval Command and Staff.  He previously served as Executive Officer to the Army National Guard G-3, the Engineer Force Manager for the Army National Guard’s total Engineer force, and the Aide de Camp to the First Army Deputy Commanding General.  He holds a Master’s degree in Management from Webster University and is a Master’s candidate in International Relations through the University of Oklahoma.  The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect DoD policy.



    • ADMIN 12 October, 2014 at 10:23 Reply

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  1. Basscat 15 October, 2014 at 17:13 Reply

    In addition to the drawbacks conveyed above, I think a key danger to adaptive leadership is it derails synchronicity and creates another degree of complexity in an already difficult situation. Where is the line from which subordinates may stray, is their definition of accomplishing their key tasks different than higher’s expectation, how is their operation supporting a higher or lateral cause? Leaders should learn their craft (doctrine) and study historically relevant conflicts. The direction and actions they perform on the ground should have a pretty solid degree of commonality with their neighboring units and be in line with their higher headquarters. The higher headquarters should, rather than being overly general, be specific with their direction, expectations and measures. There is an appropriate level for experimentation, and it probably isn’t in combat under the guy who has all of 6 years in the military or in some cases 18. As I tell many of those I mentor, changing a paradigm takes a great degree of talent and personal energy, and chances are you don’t possess these things, so model yourself after someone else who has performed your job successfully. Then, after you understand the way things have usually gone, you can get creative, but root yourself in doctrine, history and experience in that order.

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