A Strategic Mindset

Lianne de Vries and Aaron Bazin

“If we then ask what sort of mind is likeliest to display the qualities of military genius, experience and observation will both tell us that it is the inquiring rather than the creative mind, the comprehensive rather than the specialized approach, the calm rather than the excitable head to which in war we would choose to entrust the fate of our brothers and children, and the safety and honor of our country.”
—Clausewitz, On War

The emerging security environment will challenge military forces in many new ways, some of which can be foreseen today, some of which cannot. The future force will likely require militaries to fight in a rapidly changing security environment, one where the traditional levels of warfare may become increasingly interconnected, compressed, and blurred. In this environment, every soldier should understand the strategic ramifications of his or her actions, and every leader should ensure every plan, order, and directive contributes to a realistic and clear strategic goal. Simply put, the force must be tactically credible and operationally capable, and also more strategically aware that it is today.

If military forces can help young officers and soldiers learn the importance of formulating their own strategic mindset today, then it will have the leaders it needs to address the challenges of the future. By building a mindset in a basic way early, perhaps as early as pre-commissioning and basic training, the military can build leaders who can address novel circumstances, understand complex adaptive problems, and understand the implications of their actions. If a military expects young leaders to develop into strategic thinkers and expert practitioners, learning and practicing a strategic mindset sooner is better.

A mindset need not be aimed just at the highest levels; it could benefit all ranks. If a military force can adopt the right mindset, it not creates more than the so-called strategic corporals; it will also create a strategically aware force that can better deal with challenges and capitalize on opportunities in unique ways. It is possible for every soldier and officer to understand and develop a personal mindset that ensures they have an appreciation for the strategic-level purpose and higher-level implications of their actions. If a military force can build a strategic mindset, it can better adjust to a future world where things such as ubiquitous sensors capture nearly everything, application programming interfaces (APIs) handle routine cognitive tasks, and open social media platforms ensure every tactical mistake could be tried in the court of public opinion, potentially affecting political decision making.

Why a Mindset Approach?

In its simplest definition, a mindset is “a mental attitude or inclination.” Although every person has a unique mindset shaping the way they solve problems, some psychologists assert a person’s mindset is, in general, either fixed or growth oriented. Where a fixed mindset is one where a person feels their intelligence, personality, and abilities are set traits, a growth mindset assumes they are continually growing and changing over time. A person with a growth mindset tends to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in others. The big idea here is this: if a person has the right mindset, he or she will approach problems with an attitude and traits leading them them to a greater likelihood of finding an optimal solution.

A soldier refelcting (Spc. Alexander Naylor/U.S. Army)

There are several good reasons why taking a mindset-based approach to strategy for young officers and soldiers is advantageous to teaching strategy across a large military organization. First, the corpus of knowledge comprising the field of strategy has an immense depth and breadth. It encompasses diverse fields such as history, international relations, sociology, operational art, intelligence, psychology, political science and many others. Unlike a so-called hard science, it is up for interpretation and debate, and a definition is elusive. Next, attempts to build models for strategic thinking are important but can be dangerous, as any model carries with it hidden assumptions a competent adversary can pick apart. Additionally, most strategic-level problems are novel occurrences that have never happened the same way before, and will never unfold the same way again. Finally, strategic-level problems involve complex adaptive systems, and once addressed give birth to new conditions resulting in future problems, requiring open and adaptive strategists.

By adopting a strategic mindset approach, a military force can help young officers and soldiers learn not what to think, nor how to think, rather how to approach thinking about issues of strategic significance. The underlying assumption being, if a person adopts the right frame of mind, they will seek out the information they need and uncover the best solution for themselves. This does not negate the need for strategic leaders, or strategic thinkers. Rather, it empowers a military force to become more strategically aware and able to deal with whatever the future may bring.

What Strategic Mindset May be Needed in the Future?

We will never be able to fully predict what could happen tomorrow. Unexpected twists and turns to the plot of the future will remain; that is all we can count on. Yet, it is human nature to want to define our surroundings: to understand, to categorize, to validate. We strive to make issues and situations familiar, approachable, and, most importantly, solvable. People are good at creating structures, tools, or visions. Deconstruction is unsettling because it challenges the status quo, but it is often also a method to adapt quickly. Deconstruction also manifests in our environment: the parameters that define our (international) way of life are being challenged, and if forecasts are accurate, we will see much deconstruction of the rules and ways by which we once lived. It is therefore most tempting to construct new images and concepts of how the world will or must look, so we have something tangible to prepare for that carries the same meaning for all individuals involved.

However, taking this approach can bring both value and grave disappointment. The need to control is a characteristic in direct contrast with the fundamental characteristics of the security environment. If we choose the path that appeals to our human need for comfort or try to make the environment adapt to us instead of adapting ourselves to the environment, we are setting ourselves up to fail when conditions change. Our mindset, therefore, is the fundament upon which we build, and it must be in tune with the changing security environment. This can be explained through the use of two theories.

First, the changing security environment is dynamic, complex, and multi-layered. However, some fields of study are inherently more adaptable to their environment, and the military could look at such pioneering examples and filter the models and lessons that are useful for them. For example, a relevant theory drawn from business is that of the executive professional versus the improvising professional. Sabourin and Pratt argue that business needs both kinds of professionals for a balanced and successful approach. These professionals typically want to gain a competitive advantage by controlling people and events; they take charge, forecast, validate, and keep score. The improvising professionals, on the other hand, are in tune with their surroundings, listen, accept, adapt, explore new or unexpected situations, think on their feet, and move fluidly together with the changing situational context. Rather than forcing the situation, they accept it and adapt, proactively using it to creatively achieve their existing strategic objectives.

This theory is mirrored by experiences in the armed forces, where the question exists whether strategy is a science or an art. The scientific approach believes strategy is rooted in a fixed analytical process, while the artistic approach believes strategy is comes from creativity and intuition. Good strategy ought to be a combination of both, yet it is undeniable the focus in teaching and executing strategic thinking lies with the scientific approach. It, too, is controllable, accountable, and includes reasoning understandable to all. This has come at the expense of the artistic approach, as excessive control is known to form a stumbling block to flourishing creativity.

Considering the characteristics of the changing security environment, the United States armed forces must create a better balance between the executive and improvisational professionals and approach strategic thinking from a creative and intuitive perspective as well. Indeed, the future will call for greater awareness of the changing context, acceptance of it, and flexibility to adapt oneself swiftly and proactively. By letting the reigns of control go, to a certain extent, there is opportunity use contextual changes to one’s advantage. This is the type of mindset the armed forces must nurture and exploit, in balance with aspects of the traditional, more disciplined mindset, to create the forces that will be able to deal with the future security environment successfully.

There is an increasing focus on the operational level of war, shifting the focus from its purpose and long-term objectives to its execution.

Clausewitz’s ideas concerning the military genius support this further. The military genius has a deep understanding of war through a combination of the mind and character. A commander’s ability to make prudent decisions rests, among other traits, on a presence of mind, an ability to exercise self-control, intuition, an inward-looking eye, and the ability to keep ego in check. It is a special kind of mental gift to form a swift and accurate judgment of a situation and one’s place in it: “obviously this is an act of the imagination.” Clausewitz reinforces the importance on the human dimension in strategic thinking.

Theoretical Components of a Strategic Mindset (Authors’ Work)

Clausewitz also argues it takes a military genius to produce excellent strategy. However, current organizational and bureaucratic structures present barriers to letting the genius flourish. There is an increasing focus on the operational level of war, shifting the focus from its purpose and long-term objectives to its execution. This is unsurprising, as today’s digital environment and round the clock news focus on quick wins and immediate gratification. The bureaucratic process has also heavily influenced this phenomenon, as “the single strategic thinker was replaced by an expanding collective of strategic stakeholders and a growing span of military control.” The focus has come to lie with regulation and accountability to the upper and political levels and to the public. While certain reasoning is justifiable and necessary, this essay argues that to meet the future security environment, our forces must mirror its characteristics and be equally flexible and adaptable. That requires the nurturing of the mindset, as described, but also for organizational structures to allow the space for this mindset to deliver its added value.


The lieutenants and privates of 2018 are the general officers and senior enlisted leaders of the future. To affect the future force, it is key to set the foundation basis for flexible development and mindset today. Mindset training need not be an intensive or costly requirement, only modification of training objectives and discussing it with young soldiers and leaders is required. The importance of mindset should also be emphasized throughout professional military education at all levels to help reinforce these ideas throughout the force. No change in a large organization is easy, and it will take decades for strategic leaders to fully mature. Working to impart this mindset now, however, will likely pay dividends on the battlefield of the future.

Without the right mindset, even the most tactically competent force becomes vulnerable to strategic missteps, and, in the worst case, strategic defeat. Although we can never predict the future with perfect accuracy, we can benefit by trying to understand the parameters and to build a mindset in the force that will help the future leaders address the challenges they will likely face. If soldiers can progress beyond learning what to think and how to think, and learn how to approach thinking, they will be better able to overcome the novel and complex adaptive strategic problems of that future, whatever they may be.

 Lianne de Vries works at the NATO Headquarters, has a background in Strategic Security and Human Resource Management and has a keen interest in the adaptation of human capital to the changing security environment and disruptive technology. Aaron Bazin is a writer, researcher, and strategist. He is the author of Think: Tools to Build Your Mind. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, U.S. or Netherlands Governments or the U.S. Department of Defense.

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Header Image: Chess Board (Pixaby)