Overcoming Complexity through Collaboration and Follower-Based Leadership

Overcoming Complexity Through Collaboration and Follower-Based Leadership

Gary M. Klein                                                                                                                      

The Army readily admits that it increasingly faces what systems theorists call complex systems.[i] Since the Training and Doctrine Command published The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World in 2014, Soldiers and leaders have been inundated with discussions about complexity. Discussions have flourished about how the Army can meet the increasing demands of complexity by presenting the enemy with multiple dilemmas or through new concepts such as multi-domain battle.[ii] These are valuable discussions, but the Army must consider how its concept of leadership can help overcome these challenges as well.

The majority of leadership discussions currently focus on individual commanders and other green-tab leaders. This is likely a combination of Soldiers’ respect for commanders, authority, and a phenomenon called the “Romance of Leadership.”[iii] However, experts are not believed to be as valuable in the complex domain as they are in the complicated domain.[iv] To succeed in complex environments, military leaders must change their leadership from a leader-centric to a more follower-centric model to enable dialogue, organizational learning, and collaborative decision-making.

How Do Organizations Succeed in Complex Environments?

Complex environments require different leadership and decision-making techniques than succeeding in simple or complicated environments. The distinctions between these environmental “domains” comes from Dave Snowden’s work developing the Cynefin framework in the early 2000s.[v] The Cynefin framework’s value comes from its ability to help leaders make sense of the environment they are operating in and choose the best leadership methods to succeed in that domain. Although the complicated and complex domains have similarities, the complex domain is unique in its ability to adapt. In these environments, organizational success depends on the organization’s ability to identify cause-and-effect relationships and learn from its actions.[vi] Whereas leaders can solve complicated problems by leveraging resident experts to dissect problems and propose solutions, complex problems are circumstantial and rarely have predefined solutions. To succeed in these environments, leaders must be comfortable operating beyond the realm of best practices and subject matter experts.

Decision-making researchers in a number of different fields believe that experimentation and collaboration are keys to success in the complex domain. Previous authors have proposed a number of different processes to succeed in complex environments. Kevin Benson and Steve Rotkoff argue that leaders must embrace experimentation. Specifically, they state that organizations and leaders must act first, observe the results, and then act again, questioning conventional wisdom along the way.[vii] This experimentation enables organizations to identify the cause-and-effect relationships in the environment. Dave Lyle built upon Benson and Rotkoff’s arguments by connecting it with two inferred points from John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Boyd believed that the orientation step prior to acting is “the Schwerpunkt, the key” to the entire process and that testing is synonymous with acting during decision-making.[viii] According to this argument, the OODA loop does not encourage absolute speed as some have interpreted it. Instead, its value is the refinement of decision-making through repeated testing and feedback loops.[ix] This understanding describes the OODA Loop’s value in decision-making in complex environments.

Huba Wass de Czege described another way of thinking about decision-making and orienting, testing, and re-orienting using a metaphor of early explorers in the American West.

“The explorer knows he or she must generally head west, but may have to veer either northwest or southwest, or even due south or due north for short distances … [he must] decide what short-term concrete ends are achievable, reflect progress and allow the expedition to learn how to make even more progress … It is inconceivable that any strategy of ways and means he could formulate at the outset would not require extensive revision as he progressed and learned more about the country.”[x]

In this piece, de Czege emphasizes learning to describe the iterative and adaptive process that an organization must navigate. In order to achieve its goals, the organization must continually adapt its orientation and actions based on what it has learned from its experimentation.

Similarly, Lynda Gratton, a distinguished business school professor, believes collaboration is important in complex environments.[xi] Collaboration and experimentation work in tandem because, while experimentation is typically conducted by more junior leaders, collaborative dialogue enables peers to make meaning from the feedback that is greater than any one individual could achieve alone. Done iteratively, this enables the group to optimize its future actions. Ted Bililies, a corporate Chief Talent Officer, put it another way when he argues that, “leadership itself must be viewed as more of a network phenomenon.”[xii]

Leadership, Followership, and Collaboration in Army Doctrine

It is unlikely that many Army leaders would describe their current leadership environment as a networked phenomenon. Whether it is deliberate or not, the Army’s current leadership paradigm and doctrine encourage Soldiers to view leadership through a leader-centric, hierarchical lens. Leaders issue orders to their subordinates and subordinates must express “loyalty, subordination, [and] respect for superiors.”[xiii] Army Leadership describes leadership using the leader-centric Army leadership requirements model (ALRM). This model describes the attributes and competencies that the Army demands of its leaders. Unfortunately, Army Leadership only mentions collaboration in two contexts. The first is as a method of influencing others and the second is as a method for developing shared understanding.[xiv]

In fact, the strongest argument for collaboration is found in ATP 5-0.1: Army Design Methodology (ADM). The Army’s ADM manual states that “commanders establish a culture of collaboration and dialogue in the organization. They recognize that they do not know everything, can be wrong, and recognize that they have something to learn from even the most junior Soldier. Throughout the operations process, commanders demonstrate humility to learn and understand from others to make better decisions.”[xv] These three sentences allude to this article’s thesis, but it is unfortunate that the Army’s leadership doctrine does not recognize the strength of collaborative decision-making in the same way.

Similarly, Army doctrine does not mention followership a single time in either the ALRM or any of its leadership doctrine.[xvi] Army doctrine’s description of a good follower is that they learn “loyalty, subordination, respect for superiors, and even when and how to lodge candid disagreement.”[xvii] Soldiers must understand and obey these aspects of service life, but followers are capable of contributing a lot more than what is described here.

Where Army doctrine falls short in acknowledging the importance of followership, the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and professional literature have begun to fill the void. CGSC teaches a leadership class on “Leading from the Middle: Effective Followership” using the growing body of literature on followership from the academic and business communities.[xviii] Additionally, Military Review recently published an article on followership in 2015 titled, “The Importance of Teaching Followership in Professional Military Education.”[xix] These sources focused on explaining the leader-follower relationship, responsibilities of followers, the importance of communication, and how followership can prevent ethical lapses. This is a nice start, but the Army should emphasize followership for its ability to enable dialogue and collaborative learning too.

Leadership and Collaborative Learning

The Army’s current leader-centric leadership paradigm serves it well in many situations. In the heat of battle, leaders must evaluate the situation and make decisions relatively quickly. At other times, even when groups are empowered to collaborate, a leader is required to make the final decision because of the difficulty in generating the consensus necessary for true group decision-making.[xx] However, these two examples do not represent all decision-making in the Army; and it definitely does not represent an optimal learning environment.

Leaders usually have the time to allow more collaboration when making strategic, operational, and even some tactical decisions. When leaders have the time, they should foster collaboration by collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing observations and orientations from across the group. Optimally, this collaboration would take place in face-to-face dialogue, but units can collaborate virtually as well, using information technology such as Defense Collaboration Services or Adobe Connect within the Command Post of the Future. Another option would be to share information via some sort of knowledge management (KM) portal. However, the purely KM method is the least preferred, because it does not foster a dialogue to enable collaborative learning. The Army recognizes the importance of collaboration when it emphasizes things like developing a common operating picture. Unfortunately, the current hierarchical flow of information usually encourages filtering and extrapolating information rather than dialogue and collaborative learning.

The Army has advocated for collaborative learning in the Army Learning Concept, but these techniques have not been championed in the operational Army yet.[xxi] Collaborative learning allows individuals to contribute to a dialogue in which meaning is created that is greater than the sum of the individuals’ contributions.[xxii] In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge distinguishes between discussion and dialogue based on their intended outcomes. A discussion is more like a game, where participants exchange ideas with the intent that one of these ideas “wins.” Dialogue on the other hand is an exchange of ideas with the intent of constructing a new idea based on a common understanding created through collective meaning making.[xxiii] Instructors at the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course – and elsewhere within the Training and Doctrine Command – are taught to facilitate dialogue and collaborative learning as part of the experiential learning model.[xxiv] This style of teaching enables everyone within the group to contribute and learn, including the instructor – or the commander in an operational unit. Leaders should emulate these teaching techniques in the operational Army to enable dialogue and collaborative learning.

Organizational Structures, Leadership as a Networked Phenomenon, and Followership

To enable collaboration, leaders and staffs must be capable of forming more flat, distributed organizations in addition to traditional hierarchical models.[xxv] To achieve this, business literature states that organizations must achieve three conditions: transparency, “teach people to think with a strategic mindset,” and increase the number of connections between leaders and Soldiers.[xxvi] The first two conditions require senior leaders to explain the rationale behind their decisions so that everyone can nest their decisions within the larger strategic context. This can be achieved through a renewed emphasis on commander’s intent. The third point concerning connections directly reflects the idea of leadership as a network phenomenon. As the number of connections between people increase, the potential for “creative collisions” and new ideas increase as well.[xxvii] Ori Brafman explained a potential solution in an interview with the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum when he encouraged the creation of distributed “starfish” organizations within traditional “spider” organizations.[xxviii]

In the near term, leaders can encourage networked leadership and collaboration by increasing their emphasis on followership. They must educate their subordinates about and demonstrate qualities of good followers. Good followers support their leaders, but demonstrate an even greater commitment to the organization itself.[xxix] As such, followers must learn to exhibit awareness, critical thinking, moral courage, and diplomacy to enable collaboration.[xxx] Additionally, leaders at all levels must communicate freely and place as much emphasis on nurturing relationships as they do on accomplishing tasks. One way of encouraging this is to create units and teams that build upon preexisting relationships, which makes it easier for people to share information freely.[xxxi] The skills required to be a good follower naturally make followers better leaders as well.

Followership will help units strengthen its leadership networks by encouraging a more holistic view of leadership. Whereas the Army’s current culture and leader-centric view of leadership emphasizes leading subordinates and authority, a more follower-centric view of leadership will encourage leaders to influence up and laterally across the chain of command as well. Instead of the current two-dimensional leadership model, collaboration and followership will enable leadership to occur in three dimensions (Figure 1). In certain situations, leaders can then flatten this networked leadership environment to maximize the communication of feedback, dialogue, and collaborative learning. Once leaders have expanded their current leadership paradigm to include followership, their organizations can become more connected, adaptive and innovative through collaborative learning.

Figure 1: Organizational Leadership Models. Military leaders can adjust their leadership model along a spectrum from a traditional, hierarchical leadership model (A1 and A2) to a more connected (B) or flat model (C). The hierarchical model enables rapid decision-making, while the connected and flat models increase the potential for communication, dialogue, and collaboration.

Understanding that no leadership model is optimized for all situations and that each has strengths and weaknesses, the most obvious challenge will be recognizing which model is most appropriate for the current situation and then transitioning between them. Referring back to the Cynefin Framework, leaders will have to determine which domain their current environment fits into (i.e. simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or disorder) and then adjust their leadership model and style accordingly.[xxxii] In complicated combined arms environments, a more traditional leadership model is probably best, while a longer campaign including an evolving threat will probably favor a more networked, or flat model.

The biggest challenge in changing leadership models will likely be cultural. The current leadership paradigm has created an expectation where the leader is the smartest person in the room, because they have the most experience.[xxxiii] However, expertise is not necessarily the most important factor in complex adaptive environments. Additionally, the military’s hierarchical command structure has a cultural tendency to promote conformity and groupthink.[xxxiv] This tendency will challenge the military’s ability to encourage dialogue, diversity of thought, and dissent. The military has a tenuous relationship with dissent because some leaders view it as a challenge to their authority. To overcome this, leaders must express humility and understand that loyal dissent is not a challenge to their authority. Loyal dissent enables vibrant dialogue and provides clear advantages for collaboration.[xxxv]


To succeed in complex environments, military leaders must be capable of adjusting their leadership model from a traditional, hierarchical leadership model to a more networked or flat model that enables collaboration. They can do this by educating their subordinates about and encouraging followership. Additionally, leaders should strive to increase the connectivity between leaders at all levels. By taking these actions, leaders can enhance dialogue, organizational learning, and collaborative decision-making within their organization. It is easy to fall into the “Romance of Leadership,” but to succeed in complex environments, leaders must be capable of transforming their leadership from a leader-centric to a more follower-centric model.

End Notes

[i] Department of the Army, TRADOC Pam 525-3-1, The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2014).

[ii] “Extending the Second Offset and Multi-Domain Battle | RealClearDefense,” accessed February 12, 2017, http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/11/30/extending_the_second....

[iii] Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, “Beware the Romance of Leadership,” War on the Rocks, February 15, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/beware-the-romance-of-leadership/.

[iv] H. William Dettmer, “Systems Thinking and the Cynefin Framework” (Goal Systems International, 2011), http://www.goalsys.com/books/documents/Systems-Thinking-and-the-Cynefin-..., 11, 14.

[v] David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 1, 2007, https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making.

[vi] Dettmer, 13.

[vii] Kevin Benson and Steven Rotkoff, “Goodbye, OODA Loop,” Armed Forces Journal, October 1, 2011, http://armedforcesjournal.com/goodbye-ooda-loop/.

[viii] Dave Lyle, “Perspectives: Looped Back In,” Armed Forces Journal, December 1, 2011, http://armedforcesjournal.com/perspectives-looped-back-in/.

[ix] Paul D Tremblay Jr, “Shaping and Adapting: Unlocking the Power of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop” (Masters of Military Studies, Marine Corps University, 2015).

[x] Huba Wass de Czege, “Thinking and Acting Like an Early Explorer: Operational Art Is Not a Level of War,” Small Wars Journal, March 14, 2011, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/operational-art-is-not-a-level-of-war.

[xi] Lynda Gratton, “Leading in Complex Times,” Harvard Business Review, October 21, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/10/leading-in-complex-times.

[xii] Ted Bililies, “How to Be a Great Leader in a Complex World,” World Economic Forum, January 19, 2015, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/01/great-leader-in-complex-world/.

[xiii] Department of the Army, ADP 6-22: Army Leadership (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2012).

[xiv] Department of the Army, ADRP 6-22: Army Leadership, 6-2 and 9-6. The Army’s evaluations do not emphasize collaboration or followership either. The closest it comes is to encourage building trust, extending influence beyond the chain of command, creating a positive command/work environment, and using influencing techniques to empower others. This is important because how the Army rewards and promotes its leaders are primary embedding mechanism to influence thinking and behavior within an organization.

[xv] Department of the Army, ATP 5-0.1: Army Design Methodology (Government Printing Office, 2015), 1-7.

[xvi] Department of the Army, ADRP 6-22: Army Leadership.

[xvii] Department of the Army, ADP 6-22: Army Leadership.

[xviii] The author was a student of the Command and General Staff Officer’s Course Class of 2017, which included the leadership class L205 “Leading from the Middle: Effective Followership.”

[xix] Paul Berg, “The Importance of Teaching Followership in Professional Military Education,” Military Review, October 2014, 65–71.

[xx] Bob Frisch, “If You Think Your Team Makes Decisions, Think Again,” Harvard Business Review, April 10, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-illusion-of-decision-makin.

[xxi] Department of the Army, TRADOC Pam 525-8-2: The U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011).

[xxii] John M. Peters and Joseph L. Armstrong, “Collaborative Learning: People Laboring Together to Construct Knowledge,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 79 (Fall 1998): 75–85.

[xxiii] Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Revised & Updated edition (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

[xxiv] The author was a Small Group Leader (SGL) for the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course from 2015-2016. He learned about collaborative learning during instructor certification and the Faculty Development Program and subsequently applied it as an SGL.

[xxv] This paper refers to flat organizations, but there are actually four different flat organizational structures that the Army might seek to replicate. For more details, read Jacob Morgan, “The Complete Guide To The 5 Types Of Organizational Structures For The Future Of Work,” Forbes, accessed March 6, 2017, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2015/07/22/the-complete-guide-5-....

[xxvi] Vivian Giang, “What Kind Of Leadership Is Needed In Flat Hierarchies?,” Fast Company, May 19, 2015, https://www.fastcompany.com/3046371/what-kind-of-leadership-is-needed-in....

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ori Brafman, Mike Skiff, and Tristan Manning, #DEFChat with Ori Brafman, YouTube, July 20, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_rvxdFY65Y.

[xxix] Robert Kelley, “In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review, November 1, 1988, https://hbr.org/1988/11/in-praise-of-followers.

[xxx] Gwen Moran, “5 Ways Being A Good Follower Makes You A Better Leader,” Fast Company, April 30, 2014, https://www.fastcompany.com/3029840/bottom-line/5-ways-being-a-good-foll....

[xxxi] Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson, “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams,” Harvard Business Review, November 1, 2007, https://hbr.org/2007/11/eight-ways-to-build-collaborative-teams.

[xxxii] H. William Dettmer, “Systems Thinking and the Cynefin Framework.”

[xxxiii] Kevin Benson and Steven Rotkoff, “Goodbye, OODA Loop.”

[xxxiv] Milan Vigo, “On Military Creativity,” Joint Forces Quarterly 3rd QTR, 2013, no. 70 (n.d.): 83–90.

[xxxv] Thomas B. Craig, “Leveraging the Power of Loyal Dissent in the U.S. Army,” Military Review, December 2014, 97–103.


Your rating: None