Adapt and Grow

Posted 02.13.2009

One of the great challenges of leadership is to change your approach when the one that has worked in the past no longer does.  Earlier this week, the Washington Post  ran an excerpt from senior military correspondent Thomas Ricks’ new book, The Gamble, that illustrates how one leader addressed this challenge.

Generals Ricks tells the story of General Ray Odierno who is now the commanding officer of U.S. forces in Iraq.  As Ricks explains, over the course of his career, Odierno “had earned a reputation as the best of the Army's conventional thinkers — intelligent and ambitious, but focused on using the tools in front of him rather than discovering new and unexpected ones.”  In his book, Ricks outlines how Odierno shifted his approach from the leader of the “kick in the front door and intimidate the enemy” approach of the early years in Iraq to being, along with General David Petreaus, the chief architect of the counterinsurgency “surge” strategy which has brought relative calm to the country over the past year.  I share this story not as an endorsement of the war but as an interesting case study in the adaptation and growth of a leader.

In the early days of the war, Odierno and Petreaus were two leadership stars who took very different approaches.  As Ricks writes, “Odierno (was) inclined to use the closed fist and Petraeus the open hand.”  When he left Iraq for the first time in 2004, Odierno felt that the mission was almost accomplished and that things were going well.  When he returned in 2006, he was struck by the desperation of the situation. 

For many reasons that Ricks relates in his article, Odierno realized that a different set of results were needed and, therefore, different actions were required.  After assessing the situation upon his return to Iraq, Odierno admonished his subordinates that “planners must understand the environment and develop plans from an environmental perspective [instead of] an enemy situation perspective."   Along with General Petreaus, Odierno, who had made his reputation through the effective use of force, developed and implemented the counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold and build. (Click here for a U.S. Army presentation on the basics of a counterinsurgency approach.)

Doubleloop From a leadership development standpoint, Odierno shifted from a single loop to a double loop approach to learning.  As the picture to the left (which was originally developed by the great Chris Argyris of MIT) illustrates, it’s all too easy for leaders to get stuck in a loop of doing what they’ve always done because it’s worked for them in the past (represented by the small blue loop in the picture).  Effective leaders develop the capacity and the habit of stepping back and looking at the entire system and situation (represented by the large green loop in the picture).  They ask themselves questions such as:

  • What result am I really trying to get?
  • Do the actions we’re taking achieve the results?
  • What else could we try to get different results?

I encourage you take a few minutes and read the entire article in the Post.  There’s a lot more to it than what I’m able to cover in a short blog post.  The article also contains some great lessons about the differences between formal and informal influence and authority along with the importance of listening to the people who are closest to the situation.  Take a look and let me know what leadership lessons you take away.