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From the Green Notebook

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Lead with the best version of yourself.

Lead with the best version of yourself.

Don’t Look the Part, Be the Part

by Oren Abusch

In the early spring of 2020, my Battalion ran a two-week marksmanship course. Each day, NCOs would go to the range to hone their shooting skills and, on one particular range day, I noticed an NCO kitted in the most expensive after-market gear money could buy: an OpsCore helmet, Peltor ear-protection, a water-cooled plate carrier, Lowa boots, and a Crye-Precision Combat blouse and pants. Simply stated, he looked the part of a tried and tested warrior. 

However, he was struggling to zero. Finally, in a fit of frustration, one of our more senior NCOs looked at him sarcastically and said “all that Crye, and no precision.” 

His remark captures a core issue in our current army: a culture that values looking lethal over lethality itself.

<strong>Information Quality’s Outsized Effect on Decision-Making</strong>

by Jack Hadley and Addison McLamb

We all know bad decisions when we see them. For example, the commander who can’t ‘decide’ to stop talking at Friday formation, the NCO so entrenched in his ways he can’t accept the simple solution in front of his face, or the platoon leader on a patrol stupidly deciding to turn left. At the same time, it feels difficult to pinpoint the causes that distinguish good and bad decisions, even though we feel their effects in our bones. 

In July 2020, to identify and assess cognitive factors affecting decision-making, the Army launched the Army Critical Thinking Test (ACTT). The ACTT’s 45-minute multiple-choice Army-style GRE measures the critical thinking skills of analysis, inference, conjecture, and integration, with questions pertaining to hypothetical Army situations, such as deducing the timeline of a significant action (SIGACT) based on spotty intelligence reports. Test results capture absolute performance (“80% correct on questions measuring analysis”) and relative performance (“75th percentile in integration”) to provide an overall measure of the test-taker’s critical thinking skill. The ACTT’s second part is a metacognition self-assessment capturing the categories of focus, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. Respondents answer questions like “Before making big decisions, I assess my gut feelings” along a spectrum from “Never like me” to “always like me.” There are few ‘right’ answers to this second assessment, only honest ones, and results are given only relative to other peers’ responses.

In our opinion, the ACTT is well-designed, challenging yet reasonable, and the results are valuable for self-development. This is a significant outcome–equipping leaders, at relatively low cost, with the self-knowledge required to become better decision-makers. If the success or failure of our Army depends on the decisions made by leaders at all echelons, the ACTT can play a real role in improving leaders’ decision-making, and therefore greatly influence our mission success.

The ACTT is an excellent starting point for assessing cognitive factors that feed decision quality. But we would like to propose a third key uncaptured variable affecting decision-making, which the Army and its leaders should formally identify, define, and assess: information intake. 

Information Quality’s Centrality to Decision-Making

Information is logically prior to critical thinking and metacognition. Information is the raw material we digest via critical thought to produce decisions. In the language of John Boyd’s famous OODA loop, information is what we observe–before we can orient, decide and act. Yes, deciding absolutely depends on reasoning and logical skill (i.e. critical thinking). But critical thinking is a secondary skill of assessing and rearranging information, and knowing which information to look for next. Garbage in produces garbage out. 

The perfect leader will still make bad decisions if they unknowingly reason from the wrong information. Let’s say for example that battalion staff, including the S-4, mistakenly reports to an infantry company commander that there are no mortar rounds currently on hand for the battalion’s organic mortars. In reality, there are rounds available, but in this case, the S-4 and distro teams were not tracking; the commander had received bad information. His mission is to conduct a raid on a guarded building complex in order to identify and destroy an enemy supply depot. Of course, despite this (incorrect) information, the commander employs his critical thinking and metacognition skills to develop a tactical plan. He reasons from the information inputs given to him. He decides to assume risk by moving the support-by-fire element within direct fire range without the support of mortar suppression. 

The mission goes awry. The unsuppressed enemy guards prevent the commander’s achievement of fire superiority in his support-by-fire element. The maneuver element never meets the trigger to conduct a flanking movement. The company must withdraw under pressure. The mission failed–because of bad information. 

If decision outcomes are largely dependent on information quality, we should take great measures to ensure we leaders intake high quality information, both professionally and personally. 

But there is no easy way to ensure peak information quality or to assess it. Every person lives and works within different information ecosystems, with their own education, expertise, interests, and processing habits. Some scenarios, like the above, require interpersonal tact to confirm informational accuracy; others require deep domain knowledge. Nonetheless, there are some information navigation challenges common to us all. 

Navigating Information Superabundance

The most pressing modern information intake challenge is navigating information superabundance. Right now, nearly one million podcasts are actively releasing content. Each day roughly 2,700 books are published in the United States alone. Our information problem is no longer one of access, but one of filtering, or discernment, and this is a landmark shift in human history. William Jones said that “wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” We can take this advice and maximize the quality of our information inputs by measuring and improving our information intake along three axes: quantity, quality, and retention. 

The Challenge of Quantity: Break Your Information Bubble

The best way to take advantage of information superabundance is to diversify our information intake to increase its quality. Oversaturating ourselves with similar types of information reduces the benefit of each moment receiving that information. For instance, someone who reads the news on three different news apps, subscribes to two foreign relations magazines, and listens to four different political podcasts reaches information redundancy. This person can avoid making an echo chamber for himself by replacing political news with an adjacent information source–for example, economics reading–or something even more different, like a fashion YouTube channel. With algorithm-based social media, diversity can be even harder to obtain since an algorithm-induced ‘filter bubble’ feeds you information consistent with your reliable, established interests. If we read, listen to, or watch the same hot take five times over, which alternative views are we missing? This is the biggest challenge facing leaders in terms of information quantity.

The Challenge of Quality: Employ Azimuth Checks

Most information consumption is zero-sum – as we’re paying attention to one channel, we’re ignoring the rest. Common sense tells us not all information is created equally – there’s a difference between financial textbooks and financial TikToks. This does not mean we must always opt for the ‘high-quality’ textbook; occasional indulgence is of course healthy. But decision-makers must be conscious of their intake, and vigilant to ensure overall quality. Therefore, leaders should prioritize regular (say, quarterly) ‘information azimuth checks’. By this, we mean a semi-formal self-examination to monitor (and adjust as necessary) one’s information intake habits. In practice, this can look like re-assessing email subscriptions, upgrading to the paid version of a digital news source, temporarily deleting the Instagram app, analyzing screen time data, or reaching out to new people for reading or viewing recommendations. By incorporating a loose rhythm of information review, leaders can increase information intentionality and therefore maximize its quality.

The Challenge of Knowledge Retention: Consolidate Information Gains

Knowledge is only as valuable as our ability to recall it. We are constantly absorbing new stimulation, both actively and passively. Most of this lives and dies in short-term memory, never making its way into the deeper comprehension and recollection systems of our brain (sometimes called the “System 2” function). Yet – if we can’t remember what we watched or read two weeks ago, what was the point? Of course, no one should expect to remember every detail, but we should generally expect some lasting value from our information consumption. 

For improving information or knowledge retention, it can be helpful to slow down on new inputs, to consolidate information gains. One method is creating some sort of information journal or note-taking system. For example, I (Addison) like to dog-ear book pages the first time through, when a passage resonates with me (e-readers have digital methods for this too). After finishing the book I circle back to the notes and decide which information to keep. Usually, most notes no longer resonate the second time through. For the notes that do, I consolidate them into a digital journal. This method cuts down information superabundance into important, impactful, and retainable nuggets. I can reference them later with ease. More importantly, those excerpts – whether from stories, memes, or essays – become part of what and how I think. They become my working knowledge, with lasting impact years afterward.

Another way to improve retention is to simply intake less information in our free time. That could mean putting down the phone, closing the book, or turning off the TV. Instead, try a (phoneless) walk, or even reflective silence. Entrepreneur and author Luke Burgis argues that “today there is a public health crisis of noise.” He quotes philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Though perhaps both overstating the point, Burgis and Pascal direct us to a rarely proposed solution to the problem of information intake: sometimes just stop. 

Conclusion

Leaders make decisions, and good decisions require good thinking. The Army has recently begun quantifying good thinking in terms of critical thinking and metacognition, excellently embodied in the ACTT. Still, we argue that a third pillar for assessing good thinking should be the quality of a leader’s information intake. Our brains are not static systems, we are not born with a preset calibration of premises, facts, or information.

Rather, our minds are growing and malleable, changing with time, and altered by the materials they consume and produce, just like our bodies respond to our nutrition and exercise. Therefore, filtering the information we consume matters. Leaders mindful about information intake quality can maximize their ability to connect dots, spot patterns, recall facts, and make optimal decisions under stress.

Jack Hadley is a Military Intelligence officer stationed at Fort Huachuca, AZ. Previously he served as an Infantry officer in the 173rd IBCT (A).

Addison McLamb is a former Military Intelligence officer with experience in both SOF and BCT units. He now works for a technology startup in California.

<strong>Opportunities and Applications for Executive Coaching in the Army</strong>

by BG Brett Funck

It’s likely “coach, teach, and mentor” is a familiar phrase for those in the Army.  However, understanding and differentiating the three items is less familiar. The Army is growing its exposure to executive coaching and learning along the way. The focus of this short article is executive coaching, how it differs from mentoring, and possible risks.

A leader most commonly selects a mentor to provide guidance, advice, support, and insights based on their years of experience. Simply put, the younger leader asking questions of the more seasoned leader. The mentor provides insights and most commonly a path to solution. This is the most common form of mentoring, but not the only way. Mentoring still belongs in the Army; however, leader growth is more significant with a complementary mixture of mentoring and executive coaching. 

S3,Ep41: Jesse and Emily Cole – Leading with the Savannah Bananas

Jesse and Emily Cole, the owners of the the world famous Savannah Bananas, share how they bet on their vision and themselves to create one of the most popular teams in sports history. In this special Bananas takeover of the podcast, the Coles talk about how they revolutionized the game of baseball by pulling in lessons outside their industry, reframing their concept of failure, and placing fans first in everything they do. They also share their approach to parenting and the fulfillment they’ve gained though being foster parents.

Click here to listen to the episode

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1410526/11719508-jesse-and-emily-cole-leading-with-the-savannah-bananas.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-11719508&player=small

The Savannah Bananas are an exhibition baseball team based in Savannah, Georgia. The team was founded in 2016 and has played at Grayson Stadium since its inaugural season. Until 2022, the Bananas competed in the Coastal Plain League’s (CPL) West division, where they won three Petitt Cup championships (2016, 2021, and 2022). The team has sold out every game since the first season in Savannah and every city on the Banana Ball World Tour. The team has been featured by ESPN, The Wall Street Journal, and Sports Illustrated because of its on-field hijinks and viral videos.

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<strong>Making the Case for an Army Peer-to-Peer Rewards Program</strong>

by Aaron “Butch” Pucetas

The Army’s current rewards system is mostly top-down, leader-driven, and formal in nature. If a Soldier excels in an event or area, their supervisor recommends them for a reward and it is processed through the chain of command. Once verified and approved by the chain of command, the Soldier is rewarded with time off, recognition at a unit formation, and/or an award that improves their performance file. In this rewards system, it is up to the supervisor to witness the exemplary behavior and initiate the process. Then the chain of command must verify and approve the reward. Furthermore, the accounting of the rewards is left to the unit. Command teams and their public affairs professionals must mine unit newsletters, S1 files/systems, and other data sources to paint a picture of how many “good things” happened in the unit over a given quarter or year.

<strong>Blind Intent and Vision-Impaired Guidance</strong>

By Joel P. Gleason

Road Trips & Staff Meetings

My wife and I have spent 20 years having the same discussion on road trips.  As dinner approaches and the kids get hungry, we agree that we should stop at a restaurant but, as we drive past rows of options, I frequently find selecting food frustrating.  I suggest the first restaurant, the second, the third, etc…  With each option, my wife hesitates or declines.

When I finally ask, “Well, what kind of food do you want?”  The answer often comes back, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Perhaps we have all witnessed a staff meeting that looks oddly similar.

A leader’s indecision often comes from being uncertain of what is up ahead. How do I know what I want if I do not know what is available? The decision is delayed by a lack of clarity or a knowledge gap about what is possible. Commanders are often faced with the same challenge.

To envision a desired future, leaders need clarity about what is possible. Intent-based leadership then requires commanders to share their vision. “A well-crafted commander’s intent conveys a clear image of an operation’s purpose and desired end state … [and] ensures shared understanding of what the commander wants.

But what if the commander does not know what they want?

The Problem with Blind Intent

The commander’s role in the operations process is to understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, and assess (UVDDLA) the operation. A decision maker in any organization might use different terms, but the requirement to envision a desired future is the same. At times a leader may give ambiguous direction to their team that keeps them from moving forward because that leader has not yet understood or visualized well enough to describe the problem. A commander struggling to issue clear guidance may be suffering from blind intent.

The term blind intent describes guidance given with insufficient clarity to meet the leader’s intent. When commanders operate with blind intent, they are leaning on subordinates to produce solutions for a problem that they have failed to visualize. “I’ll know it when I see it” is as frustrating to an organization as driving past restaurant after restaurant while increasingly growing hangry.

When leaders fail to recognize their own loss of vision, they communicate an expectation that, even though they do not know what they want, the staff will be able to clairvoyantly produce the desired solution. Blind intent is a poor substitute for guidance and can become a counterproductive leadership behavior. Saying only, “this isn’t what I want,” is guidance that sounds decisive yet remains unclear. It is counterproductive because the “not quite there yet” assessment is usually perceived as an unfair negative critique. Staff members that consistently work under unclear objectives become less likely to put in their full effort. 

Blind intent becomes most counterproductive when it is a pattern. Teams that become focused on gaining approval no longer fully embrace the creative process. After a certain point of continued frustration, leaders run the risk of the “I’ll know it when I see it” message eroding the trust the staff has in their guidance. At the very worst, a climate of uncertainty leads to burnout.

Seeing through Fog and across Distance

Contrary to what is stated above, it is acceptable for leaders to not have a clear vision. In fact, it is difficult to lead a large organization and not find moments where the fog is too thick to see through. The defining factor of blind intent is not that a leader is uncertain, but rather that they fail to provide clear guidance even when offered acceptable solutions. Acknowledging ongoing work and clarifying a way ahead, even if incomplete, does not constitute blind intent.

“Fog” could better be described as leading under unknown conditions. Emergent challenges, crisis situations, and hostile environments are all examples where it is not possible to fully forecast future requirements. Under these circumstances, commanders and staff members leverage various planning and intelligence methods to determine likely problems, solutions, and outcomes. Teams then prepare to execute based on what they know now. As long as the unknown conditions do not arise from a single individual or the commander’s failure to trust expert team members, knowledge gaps are an expected part of operations.

Fog is not the only challenge to a commander’s vision.  Innovating new solutions or pushing the limits of training may mean that the objective is too distant to bring into focus. Often great innovation requires exploring the adjacent possible or reaching towards undiscovered alternatives.  These ideas are considered on a “distant horizon” because the team needs to formulate partial solutions before the whole concept becomes completely clear. 

Having a vision that is not yet fully formed does not have to frustrate the staff.  The question is what do leaders do when they recognize that their vision is lacking or incomplete?  Do they issue guidance burdened with blind intent or offer instructions that free and encourage the team to help find the way?

Envisioning the Horizon: an Example

The simplest initial guidance I ever received led to the best training exercise I worked on as a plans officer. Between our morning run and the office, the 82nd Airborne Division Operations Officer (aka: the G3) asked me to look into “what kind of exercise we can build in Europe.” He then directed me to brief the Deputy Commanding General for Interoperability (DCG-I) with some options.

The DCG-I, a British Brigadier, tasked me to develop an exercise that would make the division’s training “demonstrably global.” The vision included training with high-readiness international partners, readiness under unpredictable circumstances, and setting up this training to occur annually. He clarified that he needed me to help him develop an understanding of what was possible in a US formation. This was a vision of innovation.

There were multiple opportunities for the DCG-I, the G3, or another leader to look at my work and declare it, “not there yet.”  However, when I presented new ideas, even bad ideas, I was given guidance that moved us forward.  As the project became a team planning activity, it became an iterative dialogue.  It was clear that the vision was still forming, yet no one ever indicated that they would “know it when they saw it.”

Because we were innovating, the staff maintained shared understanding with our leaders. We knew the gaps they needed us to fill. As lead planner, I received very open guidance with the freedom to operate, permission to experiment, adjustments when required, and multiple opportunities to seek guidance.  Our leaders trusted the planning team, and set conditions for us to inform their vision.

The resulting exercise was Swift Response 2015, the first in an annual US Army Europe & Africa series. Swift Response continues to evolve as an allied airborne exercise, and enabled the 82nd Airborne Division’s deployment to Eastern Europe in support of US European Command in 2022. That exercise started with a single sentence of purpose and direction between the morning run and the office – unclear, yet perfectly clear. Our leaders had not finalized the vision, but they did not let that blind them.

Avoiding Vision Impairment

Stopping blind intent requires self awareness.  When leaders listen to their own words as well as those of their team, when they are accessible, and when they are open to suggestions, forming a vision becomes a matter of time. Commanders who become aware that the staff are stagnating through unclear guidance, can begin movement towards a clear vision immediately.

Norman Dixon, author of the classic “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence,” shows a pattern through historical examples in which bad leaders are risk averse and indecisive.  Leaders who tell staff members that they are “not yet there” and they will “know it when they see it” may fit that pattern.

Multi-step decision making processes are purpose-built for enabling a commander’s vision. (For 13 different military planning processes, see Appendix C of this Handbook). However, if the staff already presented a solution, use that outcome decisively.  Adjustments are acceptable, but restarting complex processes with no new inputs leads to staff burnout.

Great leaders extend trust instead of viewing their team as a source of risks.  Trusting subordinantes when leaders have impaired vision represents a prudent risk.  Leaders can save time and reduce their burden by extending trust.  Trust allows leaders to follow expert advice despite their distance from the details.  

When a leader’s vision is unclear, iteration and accessibility become critical.  Allow time and permission for the staff to candidly ask and answer questions in order to move the process forward. Commanders who find themselves not knowing what they want, may actually find they can better articulate the negative: what they do NOT want.  Frame the way ahead by identifying its opposite.  Open staff engagements feed the collective vision, overcoming blind intent.

Leaders who find themselves retracting phrases like, “I’ll know it when I see it,” need to own their role. Confirm or deny whether unclear guidance is causing the team to stall. Blind intent places task ownership on the commander to clarify before moving forward.  

Clear Commander’s Intent

At the heart of intent-based leadership, commanders issue “clear intent.”  If commanders are able to clearly articulate what they want to accomplish, the rest will fall into place. Blind intent fouls this process, decreasing successful outcomes and increasing burnout. When leaders are uncertain of how to proceed, they can allow their team to feed their vision. It is possible to maintain forward momentum before fully envisioning a desired future, but commanders need to make sure they are not issuing blind intent.

Thank you to my wife for being my best editor and for suggesting a lighthearted travel story to replace an ugly tale of counterproductive leadership behaviors. Joel P.

COL Joel P. Gleason is a student in the U.S. Army War College’s Carlisle Scholars Program.  He is a former Garrison Commander and a graduate of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.  COL Gleason is slated to command Defense Logistics Agency – Europe & Africa beginning in summer 2023.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

S3,Ep40: James Patterson-Pursuing Your Passion

Bestselling author James Patterson joins Joe to discuss his memoir, James Patterson by James Patterson: Stories of My Life.  In the interview they discuss how James walked away from a successful first career in advertising to pursue his love for telling stories. Patterson also shares lessons he learned coauthoring books with President Clinton and Dolly Parton. Finally, he shares the approach he used to get his son into reading books and offers advice to parents on getting kids to put down their devices and pick up a book. 

Click here to listen to the episode

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1410526/11628497-james-patterson-pursuing-your-passion.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-11628497&player=small

About James

James Patterson is one of the best-known and biggest-selling writers of all time. His books have sold in excess of 375 million copies worldwide. He is the author of some of the most popular series of the past two decades – the Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club, Detective Michael Bennett and Private novels – and he has written many other number one bestsellers including romance novels and stand-alone thrillers.

James is passionate about encouraging children to read. Inspired by his own son who was a reluctant reader, he also writes a range of books for young readers including the Middle School, I Funny, Treasure Hunters, Dog Diaries and Max Einstein series. James has donated millions in grants to independent bookshops and has been the most borrowed author of adult fiction in UK libraries for the past eleven years in a row. He lives in Florida with his wife and son.

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<strong>Lessons Learned Leading Zero-Experience Ad-Hoc Teams</strong>

by Brad Crosson

Thanks to a recurring overseas exercise, I have had several opportunities to take about two dozen people who have never met before and quickly turn them into a functioning team. I measure my impromptu teams’ success by how well these strangers turn into a team in three short intense weeks. There are a few thoughts that come to mind that help direct my actions. Hopefully you find them useful should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

The Cornerstone of Our Profession

By Marc Meybaum

As we raise our right hand, our oath is expected to be, and must be, an honest commitment to serve. Honesty is called forth in the very first act of every military service member in our modern volunteer force. It is our first act of spoken truth as we pledge to support and defend the constitution.  

This expectation of honesty nurtures the very trust and confidence that the American people have in military service members. An argument can be made that honesty is the virtue that underpins many others within the context of our military service. Honesty is necessary to embody other virtues vital to military service such as obedience, discipline, courage, integrity and likely others. If trust is the foundation, honesty must be a cornerstone of our profession, and it exists in various forms, in our actions, in our thoughts, as intellectual honesty, and in our words.

Forging Trust in Time for the Next Crisis

by Ted Delicath and Danny Kenny

Trust serves as the foundation and fuel of our Team of Teams’ core capabilities. During a crisis, pre-established trust speeds and deepens a team’s response and impact. In contrast, an absence of trust creates friction and apprehension, the last things you need in an already time and resource-poor environment. So here is how we recommend establishing, intensifying, and sustaining trust in preparation for the next inevitable fight.   

Insuring against the cost of a crisis Why trust is your organization’s most effective insurance policy

Team of Teams & The Age of Complex Crises

When General McChrystal, CEO & Chairman of McChrystal Group, codified our Team of Teams methodology around 2014, he proposed an operating system for leaders who realized they now led in a complex, instead of complicated, environment. Made famous in the Cynefin Framework by David Snowden and others, unpredictability (among other factors) separates a complex environment from a complicated one. Most recently, COVID-19 revealed that our playbooks are just a starting point during a complex crisis. Once our checklists no longer resembled the crisis before us, effective responses to complex challenges required constant communication, adaptability, and resilience—each requiring trust to succeed.  

Before several crises forced General McChrystal to rethink his worldview, he believed leaders resembled chess masters who can dictate an effective response to a complicated problem set, which often entails clear cause and effect. His experiences over the last twenty years, especially during many crises, showcased the lie behind a persistent illusion: The most significant challenges we face are often complex, not complicated, requiring us to rethink how we lead and respond.

Complex environments are more likely to produce unexpected outcomes that don’t always play well with ‘rinse and repeat’ formulas. The speed of today’s technology and the global nature of our connections make any understanding of ‘cause and effect’ a muddy proposition. Instead of chess grandmasters, complex environments ask us to take the approach of gardeners. In this role, success sources from leaders and organizations who set conditions and provide flexible guidance with clear guardrails to their teammates closest to the problems. This empowerment formula

allows those teams to respond as unexpected situations inevitably unfold, showcasing the importance of empowerment during a crisis.

Previewed above, shifting from complicated to complex asks teams and organizations to rethink and restructure. General McChrystal created the Team of Teams methodology to help teams successfully navigate that transition. A successful transition invites organizations to scale the most compelling aspects of world-class teams to the enterprise level. Born out of studying how elite small teams (usually under 30) consistently operate with excellence in all environments but especially crises, we identified four sequential core capabilities that were common to groups across nearly all domains:

Creating a Team of Teams challenges leaders to elevate those capabilities throughout the organization. We understand this can be easier said than done which is why we’ve developed an accompanying toolkit to explain, operationalize, and implement these core capabilities.

Understanding & Building Trust Before the Next Crisis

However, no one can fabricate trust where the seeds do not already exist. Our Trust Model deconstructs trust into three buckets, encouraging teams to realize that earning and improving trust is possible. Eloquently explained by James Kerr on McChrystal Group’s No Turning Back podcast, environments are not trust neutral. They are products of our choices, many of which are under our control. Specifically, you can focus on these three interconnected facets to create pro-trust spaces and cultures. Therefore, cultivating trust is a conscious choice available to all teammates and the duty of leaders with comparatively greater executive power.

Knowledge alone, however, rarely translates into action. And of all the core capabilities, trust is the hardest to build when crisis strikes — time-poor environments require teams to assume their teammates’ competence, benevolence, and reliability or miss critical opportunities. When mistakes arise, which they inevitably will, a lack of trust will introduce friction into an already inefficient system, causing avoidable errors that cost dollars and, at worst, lose lives.

No approach provides a “one-size-fits-all approach” to cultivating trust, but some are more effective than others. Just as complexity and crises necessitate creative, context-specific responses, earning trust requires leaders and organizations to adapt best practices to the demands of the moment and continuously adjust throughout the process.

With that understanding, we offer a system of behaviors and approaches that instill and increase trust between our teams across various crisis-prone environments. What follows pulls from US special-operations organizations, emergency management teams, crisis fusion cell centers, and many more crisis professionals who worked to build teams thick with trust before the crash.

“When COVID came, there was no time to build trust…” – Midwest COVID Response Leader

Earned through our teammates’ many years leading in austere, crisis-prone environments, McChrystal Group understands trust as an ongoing commitment that organizations, leaders, and teams add to or detract from daily. Drawn from our direct experience and supported by academic research, we believe three approaches can have an outsized impact on creating and intensifying trust:

1. Name Limits – Introduce & acknowledge your organization’s sphere of control

2. Close Gaps – Eliminate your say-do gap through clearer decision space

3. Fail Fast – Encourage productive failure with a Minimum Viable Product mindset

Name Limits, Sphere of Control & Influence – What’s in and out of our control, and what to do about it.

A flexible concept invoked across a range of domains from personal development to international relations, we depict the sphere of control & influence (SoCI) as a circle where your power lessens the further you stray from the middle. Most often demarcated between three separate spheres—control, influence, and concern—McChrystal Group believes such tidiness looks comforting but ultimately lies to leaders. Instead, today’s complex challenges are more greyscale, challenging leaders to evaluate the potential impact of their response and adapt accordingly. Importantly, where an organization determines they fall within the SoCI influences their possible responses. What might seem like an obvious point is nontrivial: Crises create time-poor environments. If organizations let go of what’s outside their control, they avoid wasting time on ineffective options.

To model the SoCI mindset, leaders should look to Diana Chapman of the Conscious Leadership Group. Diana coined the difference between “by me” leadership versus “to me” leadership.

  • By-me:  A by-me outlook recognizes that personal “emotional states, my physical states, my mental states, are happening by me. The circumstances are not ultimately the cause of my direct experience here.”
  • To-me: In contrast, a to-me perception wallows in the outer bands of the SoCI, dwelling on what’s outside of its control

Equipped with both a model and a mindset, our most influential partners leverage both frequently. First, leaders work with their teams to identify where they are within the SoCI. Because complex challenges are often ambiguous, teams usually place their potential responses along a spectrum from direct control to outer influence. With their desired end state in mind, the team then identifies their most efficacious course of action—given the constraints of the situation—and moves out, leaving what they can’t control behind.

In creating the conditions for greater personal and institutional trust, our partners’ feedback explains that the SoCI model and approach create a common framework and language that all teammates understand. Practiced frequently, teams feel confident in the organization’s decision-making process and are, at minimum, aligned even if not in agreement.

Close Gaps, The Say-Do Gap – How sunlight between what you say and do erodes institutional and personal trust

Employing the SoCI model is necessary but insufficient for creating a pro-trust environment. Once we decide on the path forward, what you say must match what you do. Failure to follow through undermines credibility, and if your team cannot trust you in calm waters, then there is little chance they will believe in you when crises come.

At the McChrystal Group, one of the tools we use to close the say-do gap is called “decision space,” which is most intimately interrelated to the core capability of empowered execution. In essence, we use decision space to delineate what I am responsible for, what you are responsible for, and what, if anything, needs to be escalated or delegated to a different level. The tool orders the institutional response, creating clear expectations: What is my work and what is your work, and anything that falls in the gray space signals the need to convene, discuss, and decide.

Decision Space Sets Expectations & Expectations Foster Trust
Time and attention are our most precious leadership resources. Given our constraints, leaders must determine what decisions they can delegate. Step One of framing helps leaders determine where to invest their limited focus and what are those decisions, they can involve others in or give away completely. From there, factoring determines who is best positioned to take part or take on that decision. The clarity from the first two steps equips leaders to explicitly decide what they will retain, what they will delegate, and what guidance is required. From there, teams should iterate repeatedly to refine what’s working, what’s not, and how to optimize decision space to achieve the mission.

Logically, SoCI orders your environment and proposed response.

From there, decision space, structures that proposed action with by-name accountability and guidance that sets limits for where a teammate’s decision space encroaches on someone else’s lane. Done well, this eliminates chokepoints where too many responsibilities fall to one teammate. It also empowers people closest to the problems to solve them proactively and creatively without unnecessary bureaucratic input from those disconnected from the on-the-ground reality.

Clear decision space thus furthers trust by dividing an agreed-upon course of action into by-name lanes of responsibility, eliminating ambiguity and empowering teammates.

Fail Fast, The Minimum Viable Product Mindset – How redefining failure as learning improves organizational trust and spurs innovation

Most prominent in the tech sector, the minimum viable product (MVP) concept redefines failure as learning. Moreover, many tech firms see the speed of learning (fail quickly) as a risk mitigation measure against the asymmetry of what we don’t know we don’t know.

In our partnership, we encourage our leaders to embrace an MVP mindset—choosing messy curiosity over fabricated certainty. However, leaders often arrive in their roles after decades of experience and expertise. Tragically, many leaders feel handcuffed by their previous success, scared to trade what’s worked to this point for what will serve them, their teams, and the organization moving forward. The MVP outlook changes the leader’s dynamic as a boss with answers to a teammate with questions: “How do I uncover my blind spots—and fast? Where are the voices closest to the problem? What’s our most direct route to the information necessary to (in)validate our hypothesis?”

Translating MVP Theory into Practice
McChrystal Group melds John Boyd’s OODA Loop with the MVP mindset to provide a framework of “productive failure.” Leaders provide minimum viable guidance above which teams are empowered to create, test, evaluate, and adapt as fast and productively as possible. As the graphs show, when adopted, teams mitigate risk and increase innovation. More broadly, organizations signal they trust their teammates to try. 

When modeled by an organization’s leadership, teammates trust their exploration will be charitably interpreted, even heralded as a courageous attempt to quickly learn how they’re mistaken to build a more resilient enterprise. Paradoxically, the MVP approach wins trust by encouraging failure.

Slow, Steady Actions Build Smooth, Trusting Teams

In complex environments, it is a question of when, not if, the next crisis will strike. And whether it’s an emergency or not, trust provides an organizational insurance policy—the coverage needed to ensure survival and promote resilience.

Building trust doesn’t happen overnight, but we can take action to build it now – owning what we can control within our limits, close the gaps between words and actions, and embrace a fail-fast mindset. Those are actions of great teams, and great leaders. It is this slow, smooth work that builds the capacity for fast action when it’s needed most and provides the foundation for a resilient recovery on the other side crisis—which is coming, and will test if you and your team are prepared.

Dr. Danny Kennyis a leader and learning designer at the McChrystal Group. He holds a PhD in behavioral science and was a college athlete. On the weekends, you can find him on the jiu-jitsu mats.

Ted Delicath is a Principal at the McChrystal Group. Ted is a former Ranger-qualified Infantry Officer, who is still in the reserves, focusing on Army space capabilities.

[1] Parrish, Shane. “Diana Chapman: Trusting Your Instincts.” The Knowledge Project. Accessed March 13, 2022. https://fs.blog/knowledge-project-podcast-transcripts/diana-chapman/.

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