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Strategic Leader Competencies for Success in Constantly Changing and Complex


U.S. Army War College


Todays world environment is awash with the sweeping economic, political and
social changes brought about by globalization. Owen Jacobs has described this
environment as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). 1 Coupled with the
difficulties inherent in this rapidly changing VUCA environment is the forecast of
dramatically reduced resources for the Department of Defense. Given an operating
environment of declining resources paired with an increasing national reliance on
military engagement, it appears that the military will be required to do more with less.
Senior leaders of any military organization that desire to survive and prosper in these
tumultuous conditions must reassess their leadership competencies and rapidly align
their organizations to these changing conditions or risk failure. As Colonel (Retired)
Stephen J. Gerras outlines in his Strategic Leadership Primer, 21 st Century leaders
must approach this challenge with intelligence, energy, and urgency, confident that
these realities and complexities can as easily be transformed into a competitive
The most important strategic leader competencies that will enable a military
strategic leader to align his organization and excel in this complex environment are:
possessing the knowledge and skill to create an appropriate command climate,
understanding and influencing organizational culture, and the ability to manage the
external environment. Strategic military leaders that possess these core competencies
and emphasize and promote them effectively can lead organizations that thrive in
todays VUCA environment.

With respect to their internal organization, building and nurturing an appropriate

organizational climate is potentially the most important task that strategic leaders must
manage. Steven Jones reinforces this point when he states, Climate is the critical link
that ultimately shapes the effectiveness of the organizational processes and the
quality of the organizations accomplishments. 3 An organization that is at war with
itself is typically dysfunctional, filled with disgruntled employees, operates at reduced
levels of efficiency and effectiveness, and therefore cannot reach its full potential.
Successful organizations typically enjoy functional organizational climates and are
therefore better off than their competition, especially in a VUCA environment.
There are many factors that impact an organizations climate, but the most
important are the example set by the organizations senior leader, trust between the
members of the organization and their leadership, and the ability of the individuals that
comprise the organization to identify with and work together as a team.
The most important aspect of establishing a positive command climate is the role
of the organizations senior leader. The organization typically takes on the personality of
the CEO, which can ultimately lead to success or failure. As professed by R. Duane
Ireland and Michael A. Hitt, Strategic leadership theory holds that companies are
reflections of their top managers, and, in particular, of the chief executive officers... 4
Successful strategic leaders must demonstrate good basic leadership qualities. Many
do not, and their organizations languish or fail. Strategic leaders must serve as superb
role models and exemplify appropriate conduct, both on and off duty. They must also
practice the espoused values of their organization. Military strategic leaders should be
stewards of their organization and of the public they serve, always placing the needs of

the nation, the unit and the units members before their own. The personal example set
by a strategic leader is a central factor in establishing a positive command climate.
There are numerous examples of units with poor climate where toxic leaders do not
live in accordance with the espoused values of the organization, and the effects are
usually disastrous. As Steven Jones notes, When the professed principles of leaders
do not align with their actual practices, trust and confidence are degraded, and overall
organizational effectiveness is compromised.5 Setting a good example is especially
important to a strategic leader in a VUCA environment, as stress on the unit is typically
higher than normal, and the organizations toleration for infraction is extremely low.
After the personal role of the strategic leader, trust is the next most important
factor in establishing a healthy command climate. Trust is related directly to the success
of the strategic leader, as the leaders actions build trust with subordinates when his
words and actions are aligned. Trust is very difficult to earn, but very easy to lose. Trust,
especially between military professionals, is paramount. Breaches in trust can easily
result in loss of life within the organization. Soldiers and subordinate leaders who trust
their senior leaders are usually more motivated to serve and excel. Units with strong
bonds of trust throughout the organization typically include individuals who are more
willing to take risk and even sacrifice personally for the success of the organization.
Furthermore, organizations with strong trust values often display synergistic effects
springing from the unified and mutually supporting efforts of the organization. Steven
Jones highlights the importance of the organizations trust in its strategic leader and the
positive effect of trust on organizational output. He notes that Under trustworthy
leadership, the mission of the organization is pursued collectively so that the combined

resources of the people working in the organization are greater than the sum of the
individual parts.6
Closely related to and supporting an effective command climate is the need for
the strategic leader to build and develop cohesive, productive and mission-focused
teams. Closely knit teams of dedicated individuals will survive and excel in a VUCA
environment, whereas an organization comprised of indifferent individuals will be more
likely to fail. As stated by Dr. Stephen Gerras, Strategic leaders have an inherent
responsibility to understand the social system of their leadership team to ensure they
properly manage and change how people work together to accomplish the goals of the
organization.7 Strategic leaders must strive to create a flattened organization that
communicates more effectively and rapidly with all of its employees. The team should
value the concerns and inputs of each individual and provide a system for the worker to
provide input and feedback to his leadership. In an age of doing more with less, it is
critical that organizations maximize the contributions and energy of every member of the
The most important strategic leader competency is the capability to establish and
nurture an appropriate command climate. It will allow the strategic leader to align his
organization to the threats of todays VUCA environment. As the 2004 TRADOC study
on division commanders recommended, strategic military leaders should spend the
same energy on establishing a functional command climate as they have traditionally
spent on developing tactical and technical skills. 8
Another critical strategic leader competency that will enable a military strategic
leader to properly shape his organization and excel in todays complex VUCA

environment is the skill to recognize, understand, influence and change organizational

culture. A successful strategic leader will possess the ability to understand the culture of
his own organization and the cultures of organizations with which he must interact. A
senior leader with this competency will be better postured to align his organization with
a transforming environment while staying tuned to the values of his organization and its
individual members.
One of the most important tasks for a strategic leader is to provide a vision or a
mental picture for his organization of what the unit and environment will look like. 9 In
order to construct an appropriate vision, the strategic leader needs to understand his
organization and its cultures and sub-cultures. Simply defined, the organizations
culture is how the organization responds to the environment and organizes internally to
accomplish its goals.10 A military strategic leaders ability to rapidly understand the
culture of the organization he is leading, especially if he isnt a product of that culture, is
essential to being able to effectively lead it, especially in a VUCA and Joint, Interagency,
Intergovernmental, and Multinational environment.
Even more important than recognizing the organizational culture is a strategic
leaders ability to influence the culture when it is inconsistent with the environment or
the leaders vision for the organization. As mentioned earlier, the changes impacting
todays world environment will undoubtedly force changes in the DoD. The capacity of
strategic military leaders to vision and manage change in their formations will ultimately
determine their success or failure. In order to lead their organizations through this
inevitable period of transition, strategic leaders must fully understand the effects of
embedding mechanisms in their organizations. They must consider what they pay

attention to, how they react to crisis, how they allocate resources, how they educate
their organizations, how they allocate rewards and status, and how they recruit, promote
and attrit personnel.11 These organizational norms drive the culture that a strategic
leader is responsible for aligning, and each mechanism heavily influences the
performance and success of both individuals and the organization.
The last element of organizational culture that strategic leaders must master to
align their organizations to the environment is the effects of diversity. Recognizing,
embracing, and taking advantage of the various dimensions of diversity will allow the
strategic leader to more rapidly and effectively align their organization to the
environment. Organizations that possess heightened cultural awareness, cultural
intelligence and cultural adaptability will inevitably be more successful in multicultural,
multinational and global environments.
It is clear that todays strategic leaders must exhibit the capacity to recognize,
understand and influence their organizations culture. Todays contemporary operating
environment is already challenging each military services culture and each military
members views of other national cultures, civilizations and groups. Ultimately, a
strategic leader who best exemplifies the competency of understanding organizational
culture will lead an organization that is innovative, adaptive and versatile, and will excel
in todays VUCA, JIIM environment.
The third competency that a strategic leader should possess in order to prepare
his organization for success in todays VUCA environment is a capacity to manage the
external environment. Within this competency, a successful strategic leader must guide
his organization to scan and interpret the environment, and conduct analysis of possible

futures. Also, he must personally lead the organization through intense periods of
change and he must build consensus with internal and external stakeholders.
One of the most critical strategic leader competencies with respect to managing
the external environment is scanning the environment. Organizations that are not in
tune with the environment are less likely to anticipate or be prepared to enact change
when surroundings require it. As outlined by Daft and Weick in 1984, Organizations
must develop information processing mechanisms capable of detecting trends, events,
competitors, markets, and technological developments relative to their survival. 12
Military organizations, like any other, must forecast change by keeping a constant view
of the changing environment. Given the increasing tempo of change, it is even more
important today than in the past to continually scan the environment. Strategic leaders
who direct their organizations to conduct persistent boundary scanning will be best
prepared to align and transform efficiently and effectively.
Rapid change places severe stress on most organizations. Many do not survive.
But all organizations must adapt to the environment to endure. Because the senior
leader should serve as a role model for an organization in crisis, the strategic leader
should personally and visibly lead the organization through the transformative period.
As Dr. Stephen Gerras recommends, Strategic leaders proactively manage change
through the processes associated with embedding their vision within the organization
and shaping organizational culture to support the vision. 13 Todays strategic leaders can
find good role models in predecessors who personally led unpopular change when it
was necessary. Strategic leaders like GEN Shinseki and GEN DePuy recognized the
need to transform the Army, created vision, shaped culture and led from the front.

The last competency related to managing the environment that a strategic leader
must master to transform his organization and excel in a VUCA environment is in
building consensus. Strategic leaders can build internal and external consensus through
a variety of means, but two of the most common means are through negotiating and by
creating and transmitting proactive and purposeful strategic communications. In a world
of limited resources, the successful strategic leader must represent his organization and
communicate his vision through relationships that span boundaries and extend his
sphere of influence. His ability to think outside the organization is decisive, but his
ability to negotiate for resources and build consensus among all stakeholders will
determine his organizations ultimate success or failure.
In summary, the most important strategic leader competencies that a military
strategic leader should possess to align his organization and excel in todays VUCA
environment are: possessing the knowledge and skill to create an appropriate command
climate, understanding and influencing organizational culture, and the capacity to
manage the external environment. The competencies discussed in this paper depend
on a strategic leaders knowledge, skills, attributes and capacities and span the
spectrum of conceptual, technical and interpersonal categories. 14
Although the transition to strategic leadership may seem particularly intimidating
to even the most experienced senior leader, we can all be comforted by two points.
One, that strategic leadership is a responsibility shared by the senior leaders and staff
of an organization.15 Steve Gerras espouses that, Effective strategic decision making
and leadership cannot reside merely in one leader. 16 Secondly, he notes that strategic

leadership is a skill that leaders develop over a lifetime, by stating that Success at the
strategic level is a matter of continuous learning... 17



1 Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed., (Carlisle Barracks, PA:
U.S. Army War College, 2010), 11.
2 Ibid.
3 Steven M. Jones, Improving Accountability for Effective Command Climate: A Strategic
Imperative, in Strategic Leadership: Selected Readings (Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army
War College, 2011), 116.
4 R. Duane Ireland and Michael A. Hitt, Achieving and maintaining strategic
competitiveness in the 21st century: The role of strategic leadership, in Strategic
Leadership: Selected Readings (Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army War College, 2011), 3.
5 Steven M. Jones, Improving Accountability for Effective Command Climate: A Strategic
Imperative, in Strategic Leadership: Selected Readings (Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army
War College, 2011), 118.
6 Ibid.
7 Dr. Stephen J. Gerras and COL Steve Sobotta, Command Climate and Team Building,
in Strategic Leadership Course Directive, (Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army War College,
2011), 30.
8 Ibid.
9 Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed., (Carlisle Barracks, PA:
U.S. Army War College, 2010), 20.
10 Steven J. Gerras, Leonard Wong, and Charles D. Allen, Organizational Culture:
Applying a Hybrid Model to the U.S. Army in Strategic Leadership: Selected Readings
(Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army War College, 2011), 84.
11 Ibid., 99-101.
12 Richard L. Daft and Karl E. Weick. Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation
Systems. The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 1984, (accessed October 16, 2011).
13 Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed., (Carlisle Barracks, PA:
U.S. Army War College, 2010), 52.
14 Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed., (Carlisle Barracks, PA:
U.S. Army War College, 2010), 28. Gerras defines competencies as the knowledge,
skills, attributes and capacities that enable a leader to perform his required tasks. He also
says that The major categories of leadership competencies can be grouped as
conceptual, technical and interpersonal.
15 Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed., (Carlisle Barracks, PA:
U.S. Army War College, 2010), 6.
16 Ibid., 6.
17 Ibid., 31.