Feature Story

Leadership Lessons for the Digital ‘Battlefield’

An Army colonel offers hard-won wisdom on managing through disruption.

The fundamentals of leadership haven’t changed since time immemorial,” said Col. Scott Snook, an Army commander turned Harvard Business School professor. “Someone has to believe in what you’re doing, and you have to be pretty damned good at what you do. It’s pretty much competence and character.”

Of course, he’s quick to add, the context in which those fundamentals apply has changed. That’s thanks to technology, an unrelenting pace of change, and the rising tide of data at all levels of an organization.

And whether they’re on a battlefield or running a business, leaders must adapt.

“Very bureaucratic, very slow, very hierarchical is just not going to work,” said Snook, an expert on leadership who is author of Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks Over Northern Iraq. “Today it’s too fast-paced, with too many people at the front lines making decisions.”

The Army, Snook said, learned those lessons the hard way, eventually adopting a more agile organizational model that empowers junior leaders.

Not that it was easy.

“If we hadn’t been at war for the past 15 years,” he stressed, “I don’t think you make this change, because in peace time we can be as top-down, bureaucratic, anal, stupid as anybody in the world.”

Post 9/11, however, the U.S. military was fighting an asymmetrical war against terrorism, where traditional notions of strategy didn’t apply. And fast, in-the-field decisions became critical to success.

“We used to have big maps on the battlefield and checkpoints,” Snook explained. “And everything was controlled from some master control board through headquarters. Now, it’s just completely inside out. But it allows junior leaders to be creative.”

Asymmetrical Threats: in War or Business

While the challenges of the business world can’t compare to the extreme pressures of combat, there are parallels. And the Army’s lessons apply for any leader dealing with rapid change, disruption, and decision making in fluid situations.

“You don’t have to do what you did before,” Snook stressed, “which is run the company from your desk, making every call every minute of the day. We need to think about leadership and leader involvement in an entirely different way.”

There’s no better example of the Army’s agile approach to leadership than Snook’s own son.

“My son was a young lieutenant,” Snook said, “fresh out of West Point and Ranger School, he deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division. And they gave my son, who was 24-years old, a province in Afghanistan.”

As a result, Sean Snook was making decisions around everything from thwarting real-time terror threats to building schools for girls.

“I don’t even give him the car keys,” Snook joked.

But the story illustrates a fundamental change in army culture.

“Sean actually, even as a young junior officer in terms of distributed intelligence, he could query national command authority intelligence,” Snook explained, “like satellite imagery that normally would have been TS, top secret.”

As with any organization that no longer keeps its data insights locked within siloed divisions — or restricted to senior leaders — the Army had to rethink its approach to management.

“Knowledge changes the nature of authority,” Snook said. “Once you had to wait for the boss because he knew what was going on. But you actually know what’s going on because you’ve got the information that you need at the right time.”

A Matter of Trust — and Values

But with data empowering leaders at all levels, what is the role of a general — or CEO?

“[Today] a four-star reaches down to young lieutenants and just checks up on them,” Snook explained “and says, ‘What can I do for you?’ That’s what leaders do. They go around and make sure everybody’s clear, adjust, and then end up being in a support mode rather than constantly making things happen.”

That kind of organizational dynamic demands a new level of trust — backed with shared values. And that doesn’t happen overnight.

“It puts even greater emphasis on what we call competence and character training,” Snook said, “having people incredibly well trained to do what they’re doing, and sharing your values. Which we’ve gotten away from I think in the corporate world. We used to spend a lot of time thinking about onboarding and socializing people and trying to get them aligned.”

With trust, values, and competence assured, Snook advised, it’s time for leaders to “turn them loose.” Although, he stressed, “at some high level, you’re responsible.”

Trust, of course, is a two-way street, and leaders have to earn it as well.

“Think of somebody you trust,” Snook said. “You trust them because you saw them behave consistently in a certain set of circumstances over long periods of time. Yet, you can lose it just like that.”

Indeed, Snook is well acquainted with organizational failures. He was himself a victim of friendly fire early in his career, and wrote about another incident in 1994, in which U.S. helicopters were accidentally shot down by their own forces.

“The friendly fire incident I wrote about in the book was just a tragic case of organizational failure in large complex organizations,” he said.

“Everybody thinks, what broke?” he added. “Well, nothing broke, there were people in the system, there’s always people in the loop and we’re human. There will always be the art. There’s always going to be the science. There is an art and a science to leading.”

Part of that art and science is handling the aftermath of a crisis, whether a military tragedy, a cyberattack, or a product failure.

“It's an opportunity to double down on values,” Snook explained. “And yet, I'm guessing most people in the short run, would be like, ‘Oh, let’s make sure this doesn’t get out. Let’s put a lid on this.’ That's just instinctual. Instead of, ‘Look, let’s learn from this.’”

“Every time you have a bad product that goes out,” he continued, “it’s an opportunity to lock in that customer for life. How do you handle that customer who got a defective product? You take care of them more than they ever expected.”

Again, Snook stresses, even in a highly technological age, core values matter as much as ever. Maybe even more so.

“That’s what I teach, authentic leader development,” Snook said. “It’s really a course in EQ. It’s about self-awareness, self-regulation, about empathy, about social skills, about motivation.”

Knowledge, Snook argues, is highly perishable in the digital age. And these so-called soft skills will be paramount as the pace of technology change continues to accelerate.

“Give me somebody who’s got that other stuff, the character part,” he concluded, “and I can teach them anything. If the soft skills are constantly learning and being resilient and learning from mistakes, those are the gifts that keep on giving as opposed to someone who might be incredibly narrowly and technically competent at one particular skill. That’s the future.”