Interview with an Air Force veteran reveals three big shifts in the U.S. military’s approach to leadership

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This article is an excerpt from a series of interviews with a twenty-nine year Air Force veteran Mustafa “Kujo” Koprucu. He recently retired as a Colonel, after having commanded a flying squadron and a combat wing, and he also served two tours at the Pentagon. He has over 4000 hours flying Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), and Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft.

The changes caused by ongoing technological innovations that affect societies today, have not spared the military. Historically, the American military has been an enduring symbol of traditional organizational hierarchy. The concept of command-and-control leadership styles, in which decision-making is mostly centralized, with power flowing vertically, has long been considered an effective way to operate, during large-scale combat operations. That mindset is changing rapidly[1].

Marked by constant digital disruption and the need for genuine employee engagement, traditional hierarchies have had to adapt effectively. The new military mindset is characterized by collaborative leadership styles, and smaller, autonomous teams empowered to cooperate and to share information. Kujo Koprucu’s insights about the ways external changes have affected the military’s approach to leadership and talent, revolve around three points:

  • Technology involves a more agile and efficient organization
  • Collaborative leadership is the new normal
  • The Military demands perpetual employee engagement

Technology Involves a More Agile and Efficient Military

Technology has been one of the greatest disruptors to traditional organizational hierarchy, and it highlights the importance of transparency, responsiveness, and flexibility. According to Koprucu, the way in which technology has replaced traditional concepts of power and control in society is especially important in the military. He points out that, in addition to changing the way information is communicated and processed, technology is creating an entirely new battleground for combat: cyberspace. With the emergence of “cyber soldiers,” parts of the military may begin to look more and more like a Silicon Valley tech company, consisting of cyber warriors guarding and protecting a nation’s most precious resource: information. This is likely to transform the way the military leads, develops, and conceptualizes talent.

Most importantly, the concept of distributed control where dispersed teams collaborate simultaneously across time zones to both plan and execute operations is revolutionizing what it means to be an “organization.” As technology connects military planners across the globe and enables them to tap into expertise within and across communities, rapid decision-making is pushing empowerment down to lower and lower levels, while the requirement to feed important information back up the leadership chain is still maintained.

Collaborative Leadership is the New Normal

According to Koprucu, while the military will always be one of the leading laboratories for leadership development, the organization is moving further away from top-down command-and-control decision-making. Similar to some of the most innovative companies in corporate America, the practicalities of making decisions in a world that’s far more col-elaborative and technology-driven has prompted military branches like the Air Force to become flatter, more agile, and more efficient.

Koprucu describes not only an operational shift, but also a cultural shift in the way organizations are led. Since front-line personnel often have the greatest understanding of the environment and what’s needed on the ground, much of the military has taken a more distributive approach to leadership which empowers personnel at every level of the organization to make strategic decisions.

The key to making this work effectively is not just empowerment, but also the leadership imperative of ensuring that strategies, mission, and intent are well understood across the collaborative environment. When leaders are clear on their vision – communicating transparently what needs to happen, where operations are going, and what defines “success” – and trust employees to carry that vision out, organizational agility is able to dramatically increase.

The Military Demands Perpetual Employee Engagement:

While employee engagement is key to the sustainable success of any organization, military personnel are the organization’s single most important resource. Because active engagement of military personnel is critical, military training has been designed to quickly instill a mission-oriented sense of belonging that subordinates self-interest to the interests of the team or the unit.

Koprucu argues this need for perpetual and genuine cadet engagement currently transforms the military’s talent management. According to the most recent Department of Defense demographics report, over one half of Active Duty enlisted personnel is 25 years of age or younger[2]; and this young generation often feels constrained by traditional, antiquated hierarchies and seeks greater autonomy over how they do their work[3]. Hence, not unlike most civilian organizations, the military should continually demonstrate an understanding of this generational shift and work to create more flexible and collaborative conditions under which young personnel can thrive.

Traditional methods of top-down communication such as newsletters, e-mail, or quarterly gatherings may be considered too slow and can be perceived as “inauthentic.” A younger workforce desires leadership visibility and accessibility; while the institution still requires a disciplined workforce. The challenge typically falls on mid- to senior-grade officers and non-commissioned officers to learn to bridge this gap. The most effective leaders are those that make themselves accessible via various means and medias; while also instilling a sense of purpose, history, and culture in a workforce eager to be a part of something larger.

Summing up

Koprucu agrees that traditional hierarchies may not be obsolete in the military, but he believes they have experienced a fundamental shift towards more decentralized, open and flexible structures. Stark shifts in the demographic composition and operational nature of the military point to a need for a very different organizational structure than militaries of decades past. He concludes that these changes involve a military that is far more efficient and responsive, and leaders be far more democratic and collaborative. As much as organizations in the civilian world, the armed forces should strive to embrace the realities of our knowledge economy that value achievement of a shared vision over titles, silos, or ranks.

 

We want to thank Mr. Koprucu for sharing his insights about the changes affecting the U.S. military!

A big Thank You also goes to Alneada Biggers, who helped put this story together.

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[1] Hostage III, Gilmary M. & Broadwell Jr., Larry R., Resilient Command and Control: The Need for Distributed Control, in Joint Forces Quarterly Issue 74 (July 14)

[2] 2015 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, http://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2015-Demographics-Report.pdf

[3] Rob Asghar, “What Millennials Want In The Workplace (And Why You Should Start Giving It To Them),”

Forbes, Jan. 13, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/01/13/what-millennials-want-in-the-workplace-and-why-you-should-start-giving-it-to-them/#38f5ff24c404

Andrea Derler

Andrea Derler, Ph.D., joined Bersin by Deloitte in March 2015 and leads the Leadership & Succession Management research practice. She brings international work experience as leadership trainer & coach and a solid academic background to this role. Prior to joining Bersin, she collaborated closely with organizations in the USA as well as Europe in order to pursue practice-oriented leadership research. Andrea studied international management, organizational culture and integral leadership and facilitated leadership development efforts in a variety of industries. She holds a doctoral degree in Economics (Leadership & Organization), and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. Her work about leaders’ Ideal Employee recently received wide-spread media attention in Europe and was published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal

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