I attended the APA earlier this month. Their keynote speaker was a retired Lieutenant General. He spoke on leadership, riffing off of the Army Doctrinal Manual’s approach to leadership development. I learned a few things from this talk I’ll now incorporate into my views of leadership attributes.

But my most important take away was what the general did NOT include in his talk. Even after taking 25 bullets (I counted) delineating a leader’s attributes, the most important (and unifying) concept was not specifically touched on!

So, here is what I believe is the most important attribute of a leader: it is to 1) anticipate the future and 2) guide the organization through this ever evolving space of possibility. I like the quote by Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo, “The law never is, but is about to be.” I believe this future focus applies to every endeavor, not only the law. The future is the ground of action, where the battle for surviving and thriving plays out. If this battle is lost, diminution and early death of the enterprise ensues.

To anticipate the future the leader needs to develop the skill of foresight, and to lead the organization to bring about a better future the leader needs the skill of fore-action – to coin a word. The future, of course, is unknown, and it affords a range of threats and opportunities. To be prepared for these possible futures, that is, to practice the skill of foresight, the leader has conceptual tools to guide them and their team. One such conceptual tool is called hazard analysis. This technique acknowledges that as an organization continuously moves into some as yet undetermined future, that bad things most assuredly will occur: competitors or adversaries can arise; natural disasters can happen, and – easiest to anticipate – human error will occur. The military term, coined by GIs in WWII, for these occurrences is SNAFUs – I’ll leave it to you to look up what that acronym stands for. Given the assuredness of the occurrences of disaster in one or another of the possible futures at some undetermined point in the future, mission critical industries like nuclear power plants, electrical grids, and biotechnology labs, all run scenarios of all the ways their missions can fail and, by failing, can lead to death and destruction.

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I never blame military men and women for what their leaders lead them into and I harbor a deep respect for our soldiers. But I have no problem turning a cold eye onto their leaders. So, here again, is a Lieutenant General with all his talking points, who never gets around to talking about foresight, about anticipating and preparing for opportunities and threats, as a key characteristic of leadership. If our military leaders showed more of that future focus and preparedness, how many Iraqi and American lives would have been spared and fiascos avoided in the war in Iraq? I’m still exercised by this guy’s talk and all I can say is, “Sheesh.”

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”
– Steve Jobs
“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
– Warren Buffett
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”
– Matsuo Basho