#Leadership in an Ambiguous World

Why Future Leaders Must Be Trained and Educated to Embrace Uncertainty

“Although  our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” —Clausewitz, On War, Book One, Chapter 1

General Martin E. Dempsey: "Today’s global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service."

In the 2015 National Military Strategy, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey referred to the global security environment as “the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service,” and called for “greater agility, innovation, and integration.”[1] Recent events and trends such as the rise of the Islamic State, Russian and Chinese challenges to global order, increased cyber attacks, and an uncertain global economy all portend the Chairman’s description will remain the case for years to come. In light of this trend, America’s national security community must be led by men and women who thrive in the ambiguity that comprises the current and future environment. To further develop the current generation of leaders and to grow the next generation, the military must adapt its training and education pipelines, reform its promotion and assignment mechanisms to reward a more diverse set of leadership traits, and embrace a new paradigm of leadership in coming years.

The quote at the beginning of this article was highlighted by Alan Beyerchen in his noted article, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” a highly-regarded examination of Clausewitz’s seminal work.[2]  When Beyerchen published this article in early 1993, little evidence existed that would suggest or indicate that America could face the sort of conflicts it would find itself in a decade later. The “nonlinear” systems that dominate war that Beyerchen proposes have emerged as the norm within the Global War on Terror, yet could be applied as easily to the emerging challenges America faces today, and will continue to face for years.  Rapid change in global factors such as technology, economics, social trends, and globalization all lend additional layers of complexity that leaders must be aware of in order to be successful in combat, and further exacerbate the “ill-defined problems” our doctrine seeks to counter.[3] Doctrinal manuals alone while necessary, are insufficient to help leaders overcome the complexity of the wars of the future. Instead, Clausewitz posits an internal trait that must be cultivated in order to develop the next generation of leaders, one he terms “genius.”[4]  These “peculiar qualifications of understanding and soul” represent the innate abilities of a leader to overcome the uncertainty of combat. War alone in the present and near future is not the only province in which uncertainty will dominate, however, thus lending further to the assertion that leaders should be groomed to rethink the assumptions that drive planning and executing military operations. Just as Clausewitz said, “In war, the end result is never final,” the era of global terror and “gray zone” conflicts will continue to perpetuate the notion that ambiguity will define the next generation of conflict. The global problems we now face, stemming from issues that are additive and do not happen in isolation, cannot be solved by regional solutions alone.  If leaders cannot or will not embrace this fact, they will struggle in this environment.

Often, particularly at the strategic level, ambiguity in guidance, direction, and problem identification rules the day. Translating strategic documents into a clear, direct understanding of the operating environment derived from a nebulous array of facts and assumptions is a process deeply ingrained in the training and education of operational and strategic level planners. While operational design is only one step, it is for the most part only as good as its practitioners.  In many cases, the problems that frequently present themselves emerge from even less guidance, and at the most inopportune times. It is not uncommon for today’s military leaders to be required to begin planning on a blank sheet of paper or whiteboard, from only a cursory background of the issue to be solved.  While not ideal of course, this is often the environment in which we operate.

So, how can the military cultivate these traits in our current leaders, as well as the next generation? It starts with recruitment, accession, and leader development.  Noted astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson recently Tweeted, “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That's why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.” The same logic could be applied to military leadership. Human agency plays a key role in the complexity that permeates our environment on many levels, but it need not be the cause. Too often in the military, organizational inertia may stifle creative thought and emplace barriers to the creative process due to overly regimented communication and planning mechanisms.  This carries over to professional military education venues, where the oft-quoted maxim is “We won’t teach you what to think, we’ll teach you how to think.” Unfortunately this is often not the case, and regimented rubrics and constructs restrain disruptive thinking. Antithetical to this paradigm though, the cognitive domain is where the skills to lead in the world of tomorrow truly lie. We should look for ways to not only embrace and capitalize on the importance and value of relevant doctrine, but to further leverage educational opportunities that challenge leaders to think beyond textbook solutions where the results contribute to learning rather than mission success or failure.

Pending reform to the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which turns 30 this year, is already on the agenda. This provides a prime opportunity for those influencing the next generation of military structure and its accompanying education requirements to relook at the manner in which we train our leaders. Professional military education is not the only venue for potential opportunity to nurture and develop leadership. Through “broadening opportunities” with industry, international partners, joint assignments, and advanced education in civilian institutions, the services can further hone the innovation and critical thinking skills of leaders. Moreover, our recruitment and accessions programs must focus on seeking out and developing those with the cognitive skills to excel in a world that is no longer made for textbook solutions.

The nature of serving as a military leader lends itself to an innate desire to be in control of one’s circumstances whenever possible.

The nature of serving as a military leader lends itself to an innate desire to be in control of one’s circumstances whenever possible. That said, the future is not, and likely will not be so clear, and future leaders must be prepared to succeed in this environment. By embracing a new standard in training, and more importantly education and development, we can capitalize on the ability of innovative leaders to link new explanations to old problems. If so, the military can create a new paradigm in leadership, and capitalize on the potential of those who possess the coup d’oeil, and who can thrive in the ambiguity and uncertainty that will no doubt encompass the next generation of conflict.

Steven L. Foster is an Army Strategist currently assigned to United States Transportation Command and a Featured Writer on The Bridge. The opinions expressed are their own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 

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[1] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America, June 2015, http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/2015_National_Military_Strategy.pdf.

[2] Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War”, International Security, 17:3 (Winter, 1992), pp. 59-90.

[3] U.S. Joint Staff, Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operations Planning, 11 August 2011, p. III-3.

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), Book 1, Chapter 3.