What business leaders need to learn from Vladimir Putin’s failed war

In this month Foreign Affairsone of Britain’s foremost strategic thinkers, Sir Lawrence Freedman, offers a critique of Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine titled “Why War Fails”.

It could just as well have been called “Why Businesses Fail”.

Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, says top military leaders are not that different from leaders in all walks of life, including business. And like leaders in any other setting, how they lead can have a big impact on the success or failure of their business.

Don’t lead like a dictator

“Dictators can certainly make bold decisions about war, but these are far more likely to be based on their own ill-informed assumptions and unlikely to have been challenged in careful decision-making,” writes Freeman. “Dictators tend to surround themselves with like-minded advisers and prioritize loyalty over competence.”

The same could be said of autocratic business leaders. And whether in the boardroom or on the battlefield, this inability to challenge their own assumptions and encourage healthy debate too often leads to bad decisions – decisions that, once made, are hard to follow. to do.

Freedman says that puts field officers, the military equivalent of middle managers, in a difficult position.

Sometimes the orders are inappropriate, perhaps because they are based on dated and incomplete intelligence and therefore can be ignored by even the most diligent field officer. In other cases, implementing them might be possible but unwise, perhaps because there is a better way to achieve the same goals. When faced with orders they dislike or distrust, subordinates may seek alternatives to outright disobedience. They may procrastinate, half-heartedly follow orders, or interpret them in a way that better suits the situation they are faced with.

Western militaries have sought to address this inevitability by bringing decision-making down to the lowest possible level – a practice that is variously referred to as “mission command” or “Auftragstaktik.

Encourage distributed decision making

“(L)West has increasingly sought to encourage his subordinates to take the initiative to deal with the circumstances of the moment; commanders trust those close to the action to make vital decisions, but are ready to intervene if events go wrong. This is the approach the Ukrainian forces have taken,” observes Freedman. “Russia’s command philosophy is more hierarchical. In principle, Russian doctrine allows local initiative, but the command structures in place do not encourage subordinates to risk disobeying their orders.

Or even question them. He says Putin’s autocratic approach to leadership, which makes it very risky for lower-level leaders to speak out, let alone think for themselves.

“In autocratic systems like Russia’s, officials and officers have to think twice before challenging their superiors,” Freedman says. “Life is easier when they act without questioning the wishes of the leader.”

Sound familiar?

If you work or have worked for a large company, I assume so. Most big companies work pretty much the same way, even when they don’t want to. And this is a big problem, not only for employees, but also for shareholders.

Again, the solution is to enable and encourage distributed decision making.

“The value of delegated authority and local initiative will be one of the other key lessons in this war,” Freedman concludes, adding that this is only possible when certain conditions are met. “There needs to be mutual trust between the senior and junior levels. Those at the highest level of command must be confident that their subordinates have the intelligence and ability to do the right thing under demanding circumstances, while their subordinates must be confident that the high command will provide whatever support they can. .

Effective leadership is therefore a two-way street. Senior leaders must ensure that those at the front line have the cognitive ability to make good decisions so that they can have the confidence to entrust them with decision-making authority. These frontline leaders need to let those at the top of the house know what’s really going on so they can get the support they need to adapt to the situation on the ground.

This is also true in the corporation and in the combat zone.

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