Strategic Leadership and Decision Making



"You're wrong to say that you see nothing else. You see everything, although you may not be able to interpret it." Munoz didn't budge from where he was; he merely indicated the painting with a movement of his chin. "I think it comes down to points of view. What we have here are different levels, which are contained within each other: the painting contains a floor that is a chessboard which, in turn, contains people. Those people are sitting at a chessboard that contains chess pieces. The whole thing is contained in that round mirror to the left. And to complicate things further, another level can be added: ours, where we stand to contemplate the scene or the successive scenes. And beyond that there's the level on which the painter imagined us, the spectators of his work (Perez-Reverte 1994).


The Pentagon's approach to change-its frame of reference- is evolutionary rather than revolutionary:

Without a peer in the world or the threat of global war, the American military still does its conventional war-gaming with planning models developed during the Cold War. It retains many of the weapons systems and structures initially designed to deter and combat a long-gone Soviet menace. The Pentagon's battle doctrines still rest fundamentally on notions of massing military might against the kind of sophisticated opposing army that went away with the breakup of the Soviet Union, although each of the military branches in exprimenting with new organizational forms and high-tech methods of warfare (Graham 1997).

The notion of framing something is to focus on a moment in time, a scene, or a set of ideas. It can involve deliberate use of psychological, and intellectual skills, on the one hand, or less conscious skills within a sense of perception. Framing is a set of skills employed to one degree or another by the politician, photographer, chef, advertising executive, historian, teacher, coach, artist, academic, author, and by ordinary people. For example, the skill and depth used in appraising an event aid in helping to understand what might be taking place well beyond the limited knowledge of those who are involved in only part of the event itself. "The essential tool of the information manager is the ability to frame. To determine the entire meaning of a subject is to make sense of it, to judge its character and significance. To hold the frame of a subject is to choose one particular meaning (or set of meanings) over another. We manage meaning when we assert that our interpretations should be taken as real over other possible interpretations" (Fairhurst 1996).

The Quadrennial Review seems to be framed by using the traditions, experience, culture, and interpretations of the Department of Defense, and of the military services who are part of the DOD. But others might frame the same events from other points of reference or perspective:

21st-century military challenges will differ from past ones and so require changes in U.S. organization, weaponry, and fighting techniques" (Graham 1997).

This framing of the same set of data by those outside the Department of Defense or those in the Congress or academics leads to the debate about the future shape of national security. All parties frame what they see from their own unique set of experiences, tendencies, and interests.


Frames originate as a result of both our nature, and the experiences we have that nurture us; some are natural (genetic), others are learned, and many revolve around the nature/nurture influence on how we see the world and its events. In addition, there are some frames that can be contrived, deliberately learned and used as a way of more consciously trying to interpret events.

The most common frame of reference is each person's way of observing, interpreting, and acting in the world. "One's frame of reference includes all that one believes or knows to be true of the worlds; the sorts of things that are in it, both animate and inanimate, and how they behave; what has happened in the past; and what is likely to happen in the future" (Moore, et al. 1985).

One's frame of reference carries with it limitations that can impair the individual in recognizing and dealing successfully with the environment. There are gaps in our perception, knowledge, experience, ability to process information, and to report accurately on what we have seen or heard as, for example, a witness to an accident, or to a tale told by a colleague. What did we really see, or hear, and how may it have been affected by prejudice, or a momentary distraction, or by some previous encounter with what looks much like the current situation, but in fact is different? The fact that we use a frame of reference, with all its limitations, as the basis for decisions and actions which may turn out to be false, is important at all levels of management and leadership.

Alexander George, in Presidential Decisionmaking, discusses a particular kind of limitation in a frame of reference which he calls attribution errors, the difference between a dispositional and situational frame of reference. In looking at a situation, George suggests that we are inclined to view our own attitudes favorably, those of an antagonist in a less favorable way; this is his notion of disposition. The situations in which we find ourselves also affect what we do. A simple example: we most often believe that our "home" athletic team plays fairly and competitively, while our opponent's players are disposed to play "dirty."


"In real world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioners as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense" (Weick 1995). Situations involving spousal abuse (unexplained bruises, absences from work, mood swings, and the like), child abuse, alcoholism, rumors of unethical conduct, or even the Unabomber, represent a phenomenon in which a set of discrepant clues are spotted but sensible connections are not immediately made.

Sensemaking takes time. It arises out of an accumulation of barely perceptible items, of plausible speculations, on information gathered from sources not part of the current situation, and on contradictory issues of reputation associated with a respected profession (e.g., military or the clergy). It is the task of the leader to interpret or translate this complex of information, to unravel the ball of twine, to make sense of the situation.

The role of the leader is to interpret, on the one hand, and to alter or guide the manner in which his followers understand the world by giving it a compelling "face." A leader is one who gives others a different sense of the meaning of that which they do by recreating it in this different "face," in the same way a painter or sculptor or poet gives those who follow him or her a different way of "seeing." The leader is a sense-giver. The leader embodies the possibilities of "escape" from what might otherwise appear to be incomprehensible, or from what might otherwise appear to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world over which we have no control. (Thayer, 1988).

The role of a strategic leader in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment is to be a sense-maker of phenomena, to connect the dots of random events and activities, and to bring coherence to apparent disarray. Sherlock Holmes might be a worthy exemplar. He used a rigorous, determined method, plus his own ingenuity and sensemaking to solve the most complex crimes. Notes from a flute, or the dog 'not' barking, or a smudge on the inside of a glass were often enough. Scientists in studying the confusing deaths of African males in the 1980s ultimately made sense of what they were seeing, finally identifying the Ebola virus and the symptoms of AIDS. Their sensemaking provided a new frame of reference for identifying the medical mystery.


There are any number of other frames that are used , and they are simply mentioned here:


Framing seems to be a useful stratagem to use in making sense of complex problems and conditions. The inclination and artistry that some have in recognizing patterns and putting things into perspective is useful in making fundamental and significant changes. Framing is a kind of orientation or mindset, a set of skills used effectively in addressing complex problems.

In terms of national security, a series of events flows from the end of the Cold War, and notions of a multi-polar, uni-superpower strategic environment. These concepts lead to a rethinking of national security interests, and of consequent changes in force size, budget, infrastructure, and the like. This rethinking is a reframing of the defense component of the United States, a restructuring of physical, human, and policy dimensions of the military. The Executive Summary of the monograph, "Restructuring for a New Era Framing the Roles and Missions Debate," provides this terse rendering of the issue: Today, the United States faces a major challenge: restructuring its defense establishment to function efficiently and effectively in a new, dynamic security environment. This paper offers a framework for meeting that challenge, and offers restructuring as the frame to use in dealing with the ambiguous and complex conditions and assumptions that now exist. Restructuring seeks to utilize a frame, to gain control of a very fractious and volatile environment.


Some frames can be created. Those in the book, Reframing Organizations (Bolman and Deal), suggest a useful set of four frames to consider in analyzing organizations, their environment as a whole, or even individual events within their environment: The Structural Frame, the Political Frame, Human Relations Frame, and the Symbolic Frame. Each of the frames has a particular salience in itself; their combination into a multi-frame approach is perhaps their greatest strength.

Structural Frame. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., recently announced a budget proposal that would cut more than 500 billion dollars in spending over the next five years, while leaving Social Security untouched, cutting taxes by nearly $200 billion, increasing defense spending by $123 billion, shutting down the Rural Utilities Service, consolidating 160 federal job training programs, and trimming "corporate welfare."

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the proposal is the reduction in the number of cabinet-level agencies from the current 14 to only five: the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, and Health and Human Services. Three new bureaus would be created as independent agencies-Agriculture, Natural Resources, and National Statistics; and there would be some number of other independent agencies (Chandler 1997).

This structural frame addresses fundamental questions of national organization, how and where and why responsibilities are assigned, what connections and relationships are explicit, what certainty there is about the mission and aims of the organization, and the specific ways and means designed to help the organization achieve its goals. Every organization develops a design, and a set of mechanisms to cope with its environment. Businesses, military units, governments, and public or private associations all have structure and organization as a visible frame for their operational philosophy and processes.

The structural frame is based on scientific principle, and on the work of industrial psychologists like Frederick W. Taylor, or sociologists like Max Weber. These theoreticians espoused such ideas as time and motion studies, and the division of work into clear manageable units. This frame also is associated with the notion of bureaucracy, and depends on rationality and the sense that any problem can be solved by any group of people if it is simply organized into the most appropriate structural frame.

According to Bolman and Deal, the structural frame has these assumptions:

These assumptions and structural frames are reflected in organizational charts, or wiring diagrams, which spell out relationships between and among components of an enterprise, and the people who inhabit various 'boxes'. The structure usually contains a carefully crafted set of tasks within each sector of the organization, along with the procedure and protocols used to accomplish the mission.

Political Frame. The D.C. Board of Education announced that it would close 16 schools to eliminate excess space in the school system and generate millions of dollars for repairs. The Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees met to consider the proposal. The proposed changes have already been denounced by some parents, community leaders, D.C. Council members, and members of the elected Board of Education. Critics have said officials are moving too quickly and not consulting parents enough. In addition, the mayor, the Teachers Union, and other organizations indicated their displeasure with the idea. Previous efforts to close schools in the District have failed.

The structural frame is ordered and rational by nature. This structured organization is, in the end, overtaken by the implicit, informal, machinations of office politics, of the exercise of power that works outside the formidable walls of the bureaucracy. It is aptly illustrated as the phenomenon of the water-cooler, that proverbial meeting place where people talk over what is really going on, and decide how work will or will not get done.

Bolman and Deal describe this as the political frame, a "screaming political arena:" Five propositions summarize this perspective:

These political polarities are represented in global terms by such distinctive classifications as labor and management, separate military groups, and different branches of government. The reality of tension between and among parts of an organization, and the complex nature of that tension, underscores the condition that not all who are part of an enterprise see the structure in the same way. However, a strategic leader does have a considerable number of tools at his disposal; the office does confer some positional power which allows for setting agendas, taking initiatives, and co-opting the activities of others. Furthermore, strategic leaders can form coalitions with others, network informally, and negotiate and bargain to achieve agreement on certain plans of action. The leader, even with a structure of advisors and officers, a budget and other resources, may not be able to achieve as much success as he or she might wish,despite having the legal power. Others are able to utilize other forms of power, including public opinion and political influence to achieve what they might want, which could be contrary to what the leader desires.

Human Relations Frame. Organizations are formed to meet certain objectives for their members: workers in a corporation or other business, graduate students in a university, sailors in a navy, or youngsters who want to play baseball in a community. An organization provides the setting where participants gain access to training, education, sports, labor, or resources. There is an implicit, if not explicit, connection between an organization and the people who belong to it. On the one hand, the organization has the potential to bring some good to its members, but it also has the potential to "use" and even abuse its workers, students, or citizens at various times. And, while people can contribute to an organization through their energies, ideas, skills and talents, as citizens of a community, it sometimes happens that many ignore service they can perform on behalf of others and 'take' what they can from the organization.

The human relations frame has certain assumptions:

The human relations frame suggests the most valued asset an organization has is its people: "By showing trust in and respect for all employees, managers can empower people to do their jobs to the very best of their ability. . . . By cultivating and investing time in employees, managers strengthen the foundation of the entire enterprise" (Augustine 1997). The human relations frame advances the notion that the structure of an organization may be a gleaming but empty shell if it does not serve to enhance the people who are part of the organization, or conversely if it does not allow the people to contribute their energy, ideas, talents, and enthusiasm to the organization.

In addition to the premise that man is by nature gregarious, that he seeks to join with others in social enterprises, the human relations frame suggests that there is a more fundamental notion, that of human need. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, posits a hierarchical set of human needs, with the higher needs being able to be satisfied only after lower needs are met. Maslow organizes the hierarchy as follows:

1. Physiological needs, such as food and water

2. Safety needs, such as being free from fear

3. Belonging and love needs; positive relations with others

4. Esteem needs valuing self and others

5. Self-actualization and developing to one's fullest.

The U.S. Army's slogan, 'Be All You Can Be," Jesse Jackson's mantra, "I am somebody," or the challenge of many educators, "All Children can Learn," addresses self-actualization and the implied satisfaction of all the other needs.

There is a discernible orientation toward human relations awareness in organizations of all kinds. Structure has changed, often because of economic considerations. This has led to more participative management, an implicit sense that bringing people together to solve problems can lead to improvements in quality, increases in productivity, decreases in time lost because of injury, illness, or other negative influences. Specific negative attributes in the workplace are forcefully addressed as issues of human and/or civil rights, equal opportunity, sexual harassment, gender opportunity, health, training, etc. A broad democratization of workplaces, both public and private, classrooms, and athletic teams; and, components of industry and the defense department are defining a different human relations environment with more accountability, quality, zero-defects production, self-managing work teams, and project management.

More recently this notion of fit or compatibility between the organization and the individual has been described by Professor Ouichi in his Theory Z, a management philosophy successfully blending Japanese and American approaches to management. Theory Z reflects the central assumptions of the human resources frame: that individuals want their productive time to be a rewarding experience, that they want to contribute to the success of whatever enterprise they may be associated with, and that if the structure is engineered appropriately they will be able to achieve those goals. Theory Z suggests that humanized working conditions not only increase productivity and profits to the company but also to self-esteem for employees. What Theory Z calls for is a redirection of attention to human relations in the corporate world as well.

Symbolic Frame. Sotuknang destroyed the world because the Hopis forgot to do their duty. They forgot the songs that must be sung, the pahos that must be offered, the ceremonials that must be danced. Each time the world became infected with evil, people quarreled all the time. People became powaqas, and practiced witchcraft against one another. The Hopis left the proper Road of Life and only a few were left doing their duty in the kivas. And each time, Sotuknang gave the Hopis warning. He held back the rain so his people would know his displeasure. But everybody ignored the rainless seasons. They kept going after money, and quarreling, and gossiping, and forgetting the true way of the Road of Life. And each time Sotuknang decided that the world had used up its strit and he saved a few of the best Hopis, and then he destroyed all the rest. Lomatewa stared into the eyes of the Flute Clan boy. "You understand this?" I understand," the boy said (Hillerman, 1988).

There is this symbolic frame, or lens, to view an organization, a most unconventional one to those who see the environment as organized and structured, rational and linear. In an environment, though, that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, the ordinary frames may not fully explain the course of events as they cascade through the chasms of history. Rather than idyllic and placid streams, leaders experience wild, unpredictable, and even contrary currents. Rather than looking at things through the eyes and careful measurements of a time and efficiency expert, for example, we often seem to be viewing a world epitomized by symbols of ethnicity, tribalism, religion, or even myth. This so-called symbolic frame is based on a set of things embedded in the 'culture' of organizations. Rituals, protocols and manners invite us to look beyond visible and tangible elements to find out what really might be important; unlike the political frame it does not smack of cynicism, but provides an insight to persons or events invested with 'magical' power.

The symbolic frame is based on the following assumptions:

The symbolic frame looks at events-what people do, how they form and organize themselves, how they govern, how they reward and punish-and tries to discern what that means. It gauges the importance and significance of the symbols, rituals, customs, practices, and traditions of a particular organization. Anyone observing the Congress of the United States, for example, recognizes a set of protocols and observances that lend civility, order, and dignity to the complexity of lawmaking: people are addressed in certain ways, despite heated emotions; seniority is revered and acknowledged in itself before it becomes a factor in naming Committee Chairs; elaborate rules govern debate and discussion; and rituals abound, such as a phone call to the President of the United States by the Speaker of the House that closes a session of the Congress.


As something of a final thought Bolman and Deal suggest the presence of a "fifth" frame that combines elements of each of the other frames. Based on systems theory and cybernetics, the fifth frame suggests, in effect, the use of all the frames in looking at, or trying to gain the most appropriate frame of reference to use in analyzing a particular situation.

For example, on June 25, 1996, a terrorist truck bomb exploded outside the northern perimeter of KhobarTowers, Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, a facility housing U.S. and allied forces supporting the coalition air operation in northern Iraq. There were 19 fatalities and approximately 500 wounded. The perpetrators escaped. There have been a series of investigations revolving around such questions as to whose responsibility it was to provide security, whether that was adequately provided for by the base commander, what cultural and other issues might have been factors, and what role the United States should have in continuing operations in Saudi Arabia.

The structural frame would analyze the physical attributes of the base, the procedures that were in place, the security precautions that had been implemented, and the like; this frame could trace the series of meetings and understandings on what was to be done to protect the American base from terrorists. The human relations frame would reveal the extent to which the base commander considered and communicated the dangers of threats to those stationed there, and communicated the steps that were in place to protect them. The political frame might reveal the major constituencies, leadership, and the management of disagreement; further more, leaders might have decided not to push, or to move more slowly in implementing certain things because of sensitivity between components of the Air Force, elements in the Saudi Government, the Central Command, and others who might have had differing views about threats of terrorism, and adequate protection. The symbolic frame might be particularly relevant in the sense that perceptions of the threat, and adequacy of protection, and even the kinds of protection might have been perceived differently by Americans and by the host Saudis.


While we may have an inclination to use one frame over another to look at a situation, we might not make full sense of a situation by doing so. If nothing else, knowledge of the frames should alert the strategic leader of the importance of applying all the frames to a situation in order to leverage the best possible solution.

Some frames may have more relevance in certain situations than others. In a scenario in which employee morale is poor, the human relations frame might have more significance. Rather than reorganize and restructure to improve production or conditions, it may be more important to find out what is really bothering the employees, and then include them in the process.

A familiar argument among leaders is whether a review of policy or practice should be a "top-down" or a "bottom-up" process. From a more traditional and structural frame, the inclination is that it be studied by senior managers, perhaps supported by consultants hired by the leadership, with the results implemented based on the recommendations; a top-down approach. On the other hand, the political frame would argue that change might best be done by a review of things by those who are closest to the problem. Workers, for example, might decide that they could be more efficient if the lighting was improved, or if certain pieces of equipment were rearranged in the work area. This is a bottom-up approach. The symbolic frame suggests that the best way to show an interest in real reform is not to isolate it to either bottom or top, but to include both ends in the process. The role of the strategic leaders is diverse enough for them to be at various times an architect (structural frame), catalyst (human relations frame), advocate (political frame), prophet and poet (symbolic frame) (Bolman and Deal 1991).


Frames can be differentiated as natural, learned, or created. Frames can be used effectively to address most problems, and the more complex the problem, the more points of view and frames of reference have to be employed. Some frames of reference contain bias or misperceptions or prejudice, even when done in good faith; how else to explain the imprisonment of large numbers of Japanese and Italian Americans in the Second World War, or the Tuskegee experiments on black Americans? Some frames of reference are flawed due to the lack of information about the fundamental problem and their second, and third and fourth order impacts. Some frames are overused; how else to explain the tendency of leaders to revise the structural frame when coming into an organization? Some frames, such as the human relations frame, may be underused; how else can you explain the failure to include employees, or students, or citizens in matters that concern them?

Making sense of the environment is one of the critical tasks of the strategic leader. Awareness of the value of framing (and reframing) as ways of looking at the world, and skill in using sensemaking techniques, are critical to success at the strategic level.

| Return to Top | Return to Contents | Next Chapter | Previous Chapter |