All wars are tragedies, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a particularly brutal act of aggression that has yielded terrible human suffering, yet wars have always offered plenty of models for leadership, both good and bad, and the one raging across the towns and fields of Ukraine today is no exception.
On one side, you have Russia’s command-and-control dinosaurs blindly pursuing a plan that had already failed in the first days of the conflict; on the other, you have Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who according to a recent Politico profile, has “helped build a decentralized, empowered, more agile way of warfare than the Russian model, which has floundered in the Ukrainian mud.”
That Russian model of leadership sounds a lot like the one still practiced by the leaders of too many corporations: rigidly top-down, ignorant of the situation on the frontlines, and unwilling or unable to rethink a failing strategy until it is too late. In contrast, Zaluzhnyi has “allowed commanders of small, dispersed units to think for themselves” enabling Ukrainian forces to, in the words of one senior U.S. defense official interviewed by Politico “stay nimble” and “better adapt and react with initiative.”
Enabling Distributed Decision Making
Business leaders can learn a lot from this successful approach. Enabling distributed decision making is essential in today’s complex world, a world in which frontline managers can often identify challenges and opportunities more clearly – and respond to them more rapidly – than anyone in the C-suite.
Remember back in 2017 when a passenger was bloodied by police and dragged off a United Express flight because he refused to give up the seat he had paid for to make room for a United crew member? That incident, which did enormous damage to United’s brand and reputation, could easily have been avoided if the manager at the gate had more discretion to think through the problem and the cognitive tools necessary to do so effectively.
That is just one example of how important distributed decision making can be.
But enabling distributed decision making is only part of Zaluzhnyi’s recipe for success: he also understands the old military dictum (first articulated by the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder) that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
“We want to move away from maps – from writing battle orders,” Zaluzhnyi said in a 2020 interview with ArmyInform.
That is another important lesson for business leaders to understand – because few business strategies survive first contact with today’s volatile, uncertain, and rapidly changing competitive environment.
Probe, Test, and Learn
Like Zaluzhnyi, business leaders need to recognize that even a strategy that is correct today may not be correct tomorrow. What is important is to probe, test, and learn without overcommitting to a single course of action. What is important is to create plans with optionality and flexibility. What is important is to understand that decision making is a circular practice, rather than a linear process.
That is what the Ukrainians have been doing under the leadership of Zaluzhnyi and other commanders like him, and they have been doing it with great success – unimaginable success – against all odds. This resilient leadership has earned Zaluzhnyi the nickname the “Iron General,” and it has given his people the time to build support for their heroic defense of their homes and families.
This same type of leadership can help you and your company thrive in the far less dire, but no less chaotic, environment you operate in today.