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Monday, August 1, 2016

Military Leadership in an Information Rich World

Leadership requirements are different in a globally diverse, data rich world, where higher mental processing powers are needed to understand emerging situations. As our environment changes, it will have a natural impact on our ability to generate leaders who can manage complex systems to achieve meaningful results. Skills that would make a leader successful in managing a sophisticated modern system in the military can also be applied to the civilian world, and visa versa, making it a worthy topic of exploration.

The Army defines leadership as, "the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization” (Department of the Army, 2006). It is thus a way of encouraging others to follow a path based on a higher level of understanding of the environment. Today, that understanding should include abstract ideas formed from our physical and virtual environment.

Leadership and Cognitive Capacity

We have defined leadership by our historical understanding of psychological and physical attributes. The strong willed and muscular male figure prevails our understanding based on a world of physical requirements but do doesn't give full weight to the new needs of leadership. While many of those attributes are still important, like personality and physical capabilities, the new world requires higher level of abstract mental faculties to understand larger and more complex systems that continue to adjust to each new factor.

One of the things that have made humans successful is their ability to think abstractly and understand ideas without having to physically experience them. They can think through contingencies that allow them to predict the moves of their opponents and understand the details of the survival game. This is purely a "brain skill"developed through the learning and adaptations of our minds to challenging situations. Today's military requires many of these same skills but projected into the need to move beyond the protection of self and into the protection of units and society.

Therefore, these large, fast changing systems, that dominate modern military life require a different level of abstract thinking ability. The person must be able to see a larger system in a political environment and know how it will influence and change the world around it. The person will need to develop a solid grasp of the details and how they fit within the larger system and influence each other. A highly developed intellectual skill.

Complexity of Organizations

Consider the complexity of an modern military organization whose fabric is woven with science and technology in a way that would be impossible for even for some of our most successful historical figures to understand. According to an article investigating leadership in the Journal of Military Psychology leadership exists within a dynamic environment and is influenced by historical factors that create contextual influence (Halpin, 2011).

A battle is not just a battle but a thriving series of transactions based on different types of people, environments, and influences that make up the scene and create outcomes. Data streams back from the battlefield in real time and the organization synthesizes this information for leadership to use for instant decision making. The modern leader must be able to understand this information quickly, how it is gathered, siphoned and displayed to make better decisions in "real time".

Information Influences Social Systems

According to the book Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel human beings belong to complex social systems and their thinking is influenced by such systems. Each part of the  organizational machine will interpret information and their responsibilities differently leading to a variety of outcomes based on how they perceive the world through their cognitive models. In essence, they are blinded by their social groups and limited by organizational environment in which they exist.

Data isn't hard cold pieces of information but a moving entity that interacts with individuals and our social systems to create new understandings. It can change human understanding and perception even though you can't touch "data". Highly developed leaders understand this data-human dance and can manage these influences is a way that lead to complex organizational achievement. They are capable of taking in feedback and adjusting components on the field to help achieve goals.

Organizations contain values, beliefs, motivators, and activities that interact with available resources in a way that produce a meaningful result. New leaders will need to pull together these large social, economic, and physical systems to create the best of all possible outcomes. They get a larger grasp of how all of these influences create winning organization through years of additive experience.

Effective command decisions will hedge new technology and information to influence people to achieve important results. It will be understandable to the social structure in which the information is is used. The type of cognitive abilities will rest upon the capacity to understand the many details associated with this information and its influence on existing structures. Doing this well will help needs to overcome the constraints of organizational structure.

An Example of Logistics

Lets consider an example that applies to both civilian and military worlds. A product must be shipped  from one to another part of the world. Speed will be based on the complexity of the system, motivations of people within the system, available resources, inspection points, financial transactions, information exchanges, skills of employees, technology, treaties, local customs, and customs.

Data can help the leader understand the speed at which and where the product is moving. It may also tell when a product gets stuck. or where damage to products occur. Improving the speed of the system requires using this data but then investigating "hang ups" to create greater efficiency. Sometimes a little research of data can lead to an adjustment of an entire leg of a system thereby saving precious hours in future deliveries.

An Example of USS Cole

In October 2000 the USS Cole was attacked by two suicide bombers catching the crew unaware and in need of quick reaction. Within this dangerous situation information streamed into senior leadership at a rapid rate. Ambiguity mixed with data, human interaction, and still unknown threats creates a highly complex situation where there are few perfect answers.

Thanks to the training and decision making of the crew, and their commander Kirk Lippold, they were able to secure the ship, minimize causalities, and coordinate with foreign entities. The cognitive processing skills need to be high to ensure the  incoming data, human element, and contingency plans are understood and deciphered quickly to make the best possible outcomes under the circumstances..

The leader didn't ignore the human element within that system when responding to the attack. He integrated them into his decision making. The way in which people interact with these machines, how they interpret the information, and the understandings by which they live have a big impact on their performance. Each position and part in response to the attack was understood leaving quality decisions to be made by well-trained staff at their appropriate level...and they successfully improvised.

Higher Cognitive Skills

Leadership will require cognitive skills beyond that which was experienced in the past. New technologies and interrelation of cultures within organizations will make many organizations short on leadership talent until new selection and grooming methods are developed. The field of leadership is starting to explore these phenomenon and how the environment influences effective outcomes. We do know that the conception of leadership will change over time and the high speed of modern information will make no exception.

Leaders are able to hedge the skills and abilities of those around them while still being able to make decisions in situations that don't have all of the information available. A higher level of complex systems thinking is needed to bridge the interaction gap between people and the information that creates new realities and understandings. Future generation of leaders will have highly developed cognitive processing abilities to deal with a greater amount of information and choices that apply to the business and military worlds.

Halpin, S. (2011). Historical Influences on the Changing Nature of Leadership Within the MilitaryEnvironment. Military Psychology, 23 (5).


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