Leadership, Strategy and Tactics: Vision or Hallucination?

As I began reading through John McKee’s Stop with the “vision” stuff on TechRepublic, I found myself agreeing whole-heartedly. This quote, in particular, was a real howler:

The last speaker who came to talk about leadership told them that if they had ‘vision statements’ for their departments and teams, then things would be more successful. Consequently, a lot of time and energy went into creating departmental vision statements. But in the end, her advice didn’t work. Things didn’t improve much – if at all. I think it was a real turnoff for many of our staff.

Magical thinking like this may give a confidence boost to those who want to believe in the power of the ritual, but lacking any basis in reality, it fails for those with even a trace of skepticism. Developing a vision statement no more insures success than collecting four-leaf clovers.

John lost me, however, when he began to describe why popular leadership concepts fail:

1. Many of them were never expected to. The concepts, models, philosophies, were created for strategic value. Not tactical. Strategy is long-term in focus; tactics get us through tough situations we’re facing now.

2. Strategic planning was invented by the military, probably first used in ancient Greece as a methodical thinking approach for army leaders who needed to have a longer term perspective in addition to winning the next battle. But it was never intended to determine how to take the next bridge or town.

3. By definition, vision statements are intended to define the way an organization will look in the future. It is long term in perspective. Mission statements are more about describing what an organization does to achieve the vision. The can be helpful for those who need some clear direction on a big picture basis.

4. Most people get confused by terms and words like these, preferring to be given fairly clear direction. But I’m not saying you need to spell out each detailed step a team member should take to get his/her tasks accomplished – that mistake could result in a loss of your best talent who resent such detail

I’ve been an avid student of history, particularly military history, since childhood, so item number 2 was like waving a red flag. Both strategy and tactics deal with plans, the difference being one of scope (today’s battle vs the campaign/war as a whole). They are inextricably linked in that tactics will be constrained by strategic considerations and strategy may be affected by tactical outcomes. To build on the metaphor, strategic planning may not only determine how to take the next bridge or town (“we have no reinforcements, so avoid heavy casualties”) but whether to attempt it in the first place.

I would argue that the problem lies not with the military heritage of strategic planning, but in straying from that heritage. US Army Field Manual FM 3-0 outlines the principles by which operations are conducted. While many of those are also relevant to business, the one most applicable to this topic is Unity of Command (emphasis is mine):

Unity of Command – For every objective, seek unity of command and unity of effort. At all levels of war, employment of military forces in a manner that masses combat power toward a common objective requires unity of command and unity of effort. Unity of command means that all the forces are under one responsible commander. It requires a single commander with the requisite authority to direct all forces in pursuit of a unified purpose.

The civilian version can be found in Harold Koontz and Cyril O’Donnell’s Principles of Management: An Analysis of Managerial Functions. There it is referred to as Unity of Command and Unity of Objectives. Regardless of the name or the source, however, the idea is the same: a direction is decided upon and the constituent units execute based on that strategy. Each subordinate unit’s strategy (or tactics, as the scale reduces) is a refinement of the parent’s, rather than an independently sourced plan. The US military codifies this planning method in the Operations Order (OPORD):

An Operations Order, often abbreviated as OPORD, is an executable plan that directs a unit to conduct a military operation. An Operations Order will describe the situation facing the unit, the mission of the unit, and what activities the unit will conduct to achieve the mission goals. Normally an Operations Order will be generated at a regiment, brigade, division, or corps headquarters and then given to lower echelons to implement. Each lower echelon as they receive an operations order will in turn develop their own Operations Order which removes extraneous detail and adds details focused on what and how that subunit will implement the higher level OPORD. So an Operations Order at a particular level of the military organization will trigger units involved in the operation to develop their own Operations Order which will borrow from the Operations Order given them so far as the situation and mission but will then add additional details for the activities a specific unit is to conduct.

It’s important to note that having unity of objectives is not the same as micro-managing. The parent sets the outcome to be attained by the constituent units, each of which determine the best way to execute within the constraints they’re given. This provides both flexibility and coordination.

A vision that’s not executed is nothing more than a dream. Likewise, a strategic plan that isn’t developed into an actionable operation is nothing more than a what-if game. Effective leadership develops a unified strategy and then ensures that the strategy filters down to the various components of the enterprise so that all are pulling in the same direction.


One thought on “Leadership, Strategy and Tactics: Vision or Hallucination?

  1. Pingback: What do you do when you find yourself in quicksand? « Form Follows Function

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