Strategic Leadership and Decision Making

9

STRATEGIC THINKING

 Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in the books; but, the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool. This is the test of generals. Success can only be ensured by instinct sharpened by thought. At the crisis, it is as natural as a reflex.

T. E. Lawrence

The Science of Guerilla Warfare

THIS CHAPTER

"What will give you competitive advantage as a strategic leader?" A corollary question is, "How do you develop the requisite skills in order to gain competitive advantage?"

Military organizations, and organizations in general, are concerned about leadership and leader development. Until the 1980s, the focus was on the direct level of leadership. Only recently has executive level thinking become significant.

A basic premise of Stratified Systems Theory (SST) is that the strategic leader operates within an increasingly complex environment, characterized by greater information-processing demands and a need to solve more ill-defined, novel, and complex organizational problems. Executives must develop skills and cognitive capacities to navigate successfully within such a complex environment (Zaccaro 1996). Strategic leaders must not only possess these capacities and skills but also be able to apply them, and effective application of these capacities requires highly developed self-awareness.

PERSPECTIVE

How do executive-level leaders regard decision making and thinking at the strategic level?

 At this level, there is a great premium on anticipation. If I am not drawing on my experiences and an intuitive sense of understanding of the situation, then I am not functioning as a four-star. One of my first requirements is to be a good anticipator. Number two is that at the four-star level, if I am anticipating right, I can shape issues, rather than issues shaping me. When anticipating, I have to have an intuitive judgment that says, "These things are important." The anticipation and shaping (of) issues are what this job is all about (Stewart, 1993).

Officers who succeed at the three- and four-star levels have the individual capacity to cope with complexity, amorphousness, and uncertainty. You do not have to have everything laid out for you. You have the resiliency and ingenuity to adapt to new and different circumstances (Franks, 1994). 

The most important phase in the exercise of strategic leadership is the front-end work. The in-depth, serious thinking by a leader and his or her team results in the creation of an intellectual framework for the future. Imaging the future first takes place in the mind of the leader and then must be communicated throughout the organization. Intellectual change guides the physical changes that manifest transformation. Without the tough up-front work of intellectual change, physical change will be unfocused, random, and unlikely to succeed (Sullivan & Harper, 1996).  

BLOOM'S TAXONOMY OF LEARNING

UPPER LEVEL THINKING SKILLS

LOWER LEVEL THINKING SKILLS

This is your last educational opportunity before entering the strategic leadership environment, and your best opportunity to explore the vast strategic environment that lies before you. This SLDM curriculum is designed to help you develop skills for thinking and functioning in an environment where there are no right answers, and only a range of solutions, some of which work better than others when implemented. Your focus is on developing your higher order thinking skills.

The strategic environment requires leaders to develop both individual and team thinking skills. It is important to differentiate between individual and collective thinking. In the Consensus Team Decision-Making Model (CTDM), you will find a paradigm for a team approach to strategic thinking. This collaborative problem-solving approach is what you will participate in and manage as your careers progress. A group/team approach to decision making requires you to adopt a different frame of reference about your own work in relation to others'.

CAPACITIES VS. KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS

The hypotheses for understanding executive development was presented at a U. S. Army Conference on Strategic Leadership. This theory suggests that executive development should be divided into two major areas. The first area accents technical, intellectual, and inter-personal knowledge and skills. The second area, one that is of particular interest to us, stresses capacities. Capacities include perspective-taking, visioning, and metacognition.

Traditional military education emphasizes knowledge and skills as most important. This focus may just be the primary reasons for the huge success of leadership at the direct leadership level in the defense community. However, research evidence suggests that capacities are essential for the executive leader at the strategic level. This is not to say that knowledge and skills are unimportant, only that the importance of capacity increases significantly at the strategic levels.

SELF-AWARENESS

Executive development efforts such as the SLDM course are designed with the belief that enhanced self awareness leads to higher levels of performance. Self awareness is defined as the ability to reflect on and accurately assess one's own behaviors and skills as they are manifested on the job. It is an important ability for achieving leadership excellence.

Rarely are self assessments and assessment by others completely congruent. We call the lack of agreement between self assessment and assessment by others "the coefficient of self delusion." This coefficient can be positive (when others' ratings are higher than self ratings) or it can be negative (when others' ratings are lower than self ratings). The positive coefficient of self delusion occurs with people who either are genuinely humble or may be trying to avoid over-inflating their self ratings for a variety of reasons. The negative coefficient of self delusion usually occurs with people who are not conscious of the impact of their behaviors on others or they have an inflated sense of self. In either case, it is important to investigate why the assessment gap exists and reflect upon ways that it can be narrowed, perhaps even closed. 

EXECUTIVE DEVELOPMENT AREAS* 

KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS CAPACITIES

TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

BREADTH OF

TACTICAL EXPERTISE

PERSPECTIVE

KNOWLEDGE OF THE ENVIRONMENT

FRAME OF REFERENCE

COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS

METACOGNITION

DECISION MAKING SKILLS

SELF-AWARENESS

PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS

VISIONING

MOTIVATING SELF AND OTHERS

POLITICAL SENSITIVITY

INTEGRATIVE CAPACITY

JUDGMENT

CHARACTER

 

*Adapted from "The Preparation OF Strategic Leaders" (Forsythe 1992).

METACOGNITION

As you begin to understand what influences your decisions, it is also critical to understanding of metacognition so that you are better able to control and influence your own thought processes. Metacognition is a key variable which differentiates effective thinkers from less effective thinkers.

Cognition is the mental faculty or process by which knowledge is acquired through perception, reasoning, and intuition. The basic process of acquiring knowledge is simply learning. This includes the creation and management of aggregated knowledge in the form of complex cognitive structures or mental maps.

Metacognition is cognition directed at monitoring and controlling the process of cognition. Metacognition is thinking about thinking. The result of metacognition is the conscious regulation and rearrangement of how you think in the face of complex problems requiring novel solutions. 

Metacognition is both a process and a skill. As a skill, metacognition is about self-awareness and strategic management of self. As a process, metacognition involves conscious, self-directed investigation of one's mental process. This includes perception and understanding of context as well as the notions of perspective-taking and multi-frame thinking-walking in another's shoes. Therefore, the process of metacognition often involves temporarily suspending assumptions, including one's own values and belief systems. This also can be construed as placing self in perspective, or "decentering."

Argyris' (1977) notion of double loop learning is a nice analogy for comparing and contrasting cognition and metacognition. Construe the smaller, inner circle as cognition and the larger, outer circle as metacognition. The ball in position A orbits in the realm of acquiring knowledge-cognition. If, for some reason, the ball breaks its smaller orbit and gets out on to the larger, outer circle-say, in position B-the ball can look down and into the smaller, inner circle.

This is the process of metacognition-getting out on the outer circle, then investigating from a higher position the cognition going on the smaller, inner circle. The benefits of metacognition would be realized when the ball returns to the smaller, inner orbit and manages itself in a new way, appropriate to the times and situation.

If double-loop learning doesn't work for you, Markessini (1990) developed a model which juxtaposes metacognitive processes with cognitive processes. It construes metacognition as an umbrella or executive control function under which cognitive functions occur.

A third analogy for metacognition comes from models of information processing. Human information processing occurs at two levels. At the "lower" level, a closed system accepts input, processes it, and produces output without any feedback. At the "upper" level, a control system acts as a feedback processor with a capacity for both rewriting the rules used at the "lower" level and providing feedback to the "lower" level. The action process, cognition, merely executes, resets, and executes again. The executive process, metacognition, can edit or adjust the action process after considering feedback.

Unless you master metacognition, you will not be able to manage your personal development as a strategic thinker and leader. Conceptual capacity is a good indicator of how capable you currently are at monitoring and managing your thought processes.

CONCEPTUAL CAPACITY

One of the basic principles of Stratified Systems Theory (SST) is that leadership performance requirements change at higher organizational levels. The first implication of SST, however, is that leaders must be able to make choices about decision alternatives and problem solutions at all levels. Further, SST states that at higher organizational levels, problem types and decision choices become more ambiguous, less structured, and more differentiated. The complexity of the organization-environment interaction requires more productivity and planning within longer time frames that add to the cognitive demands of senior leaders. An effective executive-level leader is expected to have a high level of conceptual capacity. If you are working for an executive-level leader and you have considerable conceptual capacity, you stand a better chance of understanding the issues and problems at that level, and a higher probability of being a valued asset.

What if you aspire to be an executive-level leader and you are not satisfied with your current level of conceptual capacity? The good news is that conceptual capacity increases with age. The bad news is it may not increase at a rate that will equip you to function effectively at the strategic level. Conceptual capacity can be boosted by developmental experiences (e.g., attending a senior service college), by assignments (e.g., working for a strategic leader or serving on a special high level planning group), and by broadening your professional reading program.

EXECUTIVE FLEXIBILITY

High levels of conceptual capacity are associated with higher levels of executive flexibility. Being flexible allows you to see problems from more than one perspective, allows you to reframe complex problems so that solutions become clearer, and allows you to accommodate seemingly ambiguous solutions. Being flexible allows you to question underlying assumptions about a problem and facilitates the generation of an array of possible solutions. Being flexible also is related to an individual's disposition to work at the strategic level. 

COMPOSITE INDICATOR OF EXECUTIVE FLEXIBILITY

SOURCE

MBTI

CONSTRUCT

NT VS SF

MANSPEC CATALYST

PERSISTENCE

INGENUITY

SLDI INTERPERSONAL

COMPETENCE

MCPA CONCEPTUAL

CAPACITY

There are several ways to measure executive flexibility. We can use behavioral measures, cognitive measures, and/or dispositional measures. Re-searchers at ICAF are involved in investigating these approaches, trying to determine an integrative measure of executive flexibility.

Results of the composite measure of executive flexibility used at ICAF are directly related to indicators of conceptual competence, vocational interests, and style of creativity. The composite measure also is inversely related to mental rigidity. 

CREATIVE AND CRITICAL THINKING

Creative thinking and critical thinking are two sides of the same coin. Both are important skills in strategic decision making. Your careers, to this point, focus mostly on the critical thinking side of the coin. You may not have spent much time generating solutions to complex problems.

For some, creativity remains a mysterious gift, an elusive phenomenon that defies scientific description. For others, it provides an opportunity to use their decision-making ability. Over the years different theories of creativity have placed varying degrees of emphasis on the personal characteristics of creative individuals, or the dynamics of the social and motivational forces influencing creativity. Some theories stress personal growth or self-actualization, while others stress the historical views of human behavior. Nevertheless, one tenet seemed common to all-creative thinking skills can be developed or learned.

One ideology involves the cognitive, rational, and semantic approach to understanding the creative process. The first element, cognition, refers to creativity as an intellectual activity, thoughtful in nature. Rational implies that the activities and skills involved in the creative process do not just happen. A variety of methods and techniques can be used to assist creative efforts. Semantic merely emphasizes that language is a powerful tool to assist in creative learning and the problem-solving process.

Creative thinking is associated with the divergent phase of problem solving. In the divergent phase of problem solving, we seek to generate or create as many possible alternatives. We can take existing alternatives and tinker with them to see if we can adapt something that already is working to the problem at hand. People who exhibit this creative style generally are called adaptors. Or, we can start with a clean sheet of paper. People who exhibit this creative style are called innovators. People who tend toward the MBTI(r) N (intuitive) and P (perceiving) preferences elect the innovative creative style. People who tend toward the MBTI(r) S (sensing) and J (judging) preferences elect the adaptive creative style.

INDICATORS OF RISK TAKING AND RISK AVERSION

SOURCE

CREATIVE THINKING

CRITICAL THINKING
MBTI E (EXTRAVERSION)

N (INTUITIVE)

P (PERCEIVING)

I (INTROVERSION)

S (SENSING)

J (JUDGING)

MANSPEC CATALYST

CREATIVE

INGENUITY

NEW IDEAS

PERSUASIVE

EXECUTIVE DISPOSITION

ADMINISTRATIVE

DETAILS

PLANNING

PRACTICAL

RISK CONTROL

STIMULUS CONTROL

MCPA HIGHER LEVELS OF

CONCEPTUAL CAPACITY

LOWER LEVELS OF

CONCEPTUAL

CAPAPCITY

RISK TAKING

The strategic environment rewards or punishes risk taking and quickly sensitizes decision makers to resource issues. This resource-constrained environment demands that leaders must do more with less, and often increases the risk of failure to achieve the desired end state. Because the strategic environment is rapidly changing, decision makers must learn to think smarter and more creatively in order to get the most out of dwindling resources. Creative solutions are not achieved without taking risk, and often deviate sharply from known ways of doing things.

There are several indicators of creative thinking ability and critical thinking ability. It is important not to focus on any one of these indicators. Rather, you will find it useful to integrate all of these indicators into a mosaic of your creative and critical thinking abilities.

CONCLUSION

A leader can develop more effective strategic thinking skills. This is done by exploiting any opportunity to better understand yourself, how you think about complex problems, and how to go about making decisions. This understanding of yourself is critical, since this information that forms the foundation for developing your strategic thinking capabilities necessary in the strategic environment. The more you understand yourself, the more control you have over both the process, and the products you produce.

Virtually all of you will be required to serve in strategic environments. This means there will be many opportunities for you to function as a strategic thinker or advisor. You must, therefore, continue to develop a new and broader set of thinking skills. The SLDM course, and the overall ICAF experience have been designed to help you understand and develop effective strategic thinking skills to solve the complex, fast changing, unstructured problems you will soon encounter.

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