Illustrating the Differences between Leadership Levels

In the U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual, the Center for Army Leadership delineates leadership skills and attributes at three levels: Direct, Organizational, and Strategic. Direct Leadership is characterized by face-to-face interactions with a handful of people, such as project team members, up to several hundred people, such as the staff of a large department or a manufacturing site. Organizational Leadership influences many more people – several hundred to several thousand – but mostly indirectly, through what I term one and two-removed relationships (a one-removed influence relationship is one where I direct a person who does the actual hands-on work; a two-removed situation is one where the person doing the work is directed by someone who I direct). It is also concerned much more with cross-cutting processes and systems as well as policy development. Strategic Leadership often encompasses hundreds of thousands of people and might affect millions more (in the case of a leader of a political movement, for example, or a military governor, such as General MacArthur in post-war Japan.

It is useful to disaggregate concepts of “leadership” in this way since both the requirements and the capabilities of individuals, varies significantly depending on which level we are discussing. This is not to suggest that the three levels of the Field Manual are the only or best taxonomies for leadership, but merely that it is an example that an organization has applied, with some success, in the real world. Other notable thinkers, such as Elliot Jaques, have taken this thinking even further, in books such as Requisite Organization (1989).

Technical Skills: An illustration of the differences between the three leadership levels

The description of the technical skills expected at each of these levels helps to illustrate the importance in an organization of explicitly and precisely defining our own terms and definitions for “leadership” and not lumping leadership development, assessment, measurement, or recruitment under a single umbrella concept of “leadership.”

  • Direct leadership: Direct leader’s technical skills include “knowing the equipment” and “operating the equipment.” In basic terms, they need to have a grasp of the fundamentals of their work, trade or profession. Since a great deal of practical learning occurs on-the-job, a direct leader who does not possess the requisite competency in the essentials of their craft or profession cannot properly coach, correct or instruct their staff or team members. This concept applies to everything from the foreman of a construction crew who does not know how to properly use a radial saw or how to correctly grout tile, to the production manager at a bread plant who does not understand baking science, to the continuous improvement professional who does not know how to properly map a business process.
  • Organizational leadership: The Organizational leader’s technical skills, according to the Army Leadership Field Manual, consist of maintaining critical skills, resourcing, and predicting 2nd and 3rd-order effects.
    • The maintenance of critical skills refers to the need, even as an individual progresses to organizational leadership (and consequently is more removed from the day-to-day action of direct, face-to-face leadership) to “keep the saw sharp” in terms of the most essential, foundational skills of their trade or profession. For example, a partner in an accounting firm might not ordinarily have to get into the details of a client case, but must maintain their knowledge and skills with respect to the relevant tax laws and accounting standards.
    • Given that organizational leaders must get things done through others, it is not surprising that a key technical skill is determining what kinds of resources are required to achieve organizational goals, and then having the skills to identify and acquire them, including the inter-related skills of planning, budgeting, lobbying and deploying. Typically, a major aspect of this level of leadership is ensuring that the right people are recruited, developed, progressed, and retained.
    • The ability to envision and predict 2nd and 3rd-order effects refers to the skill to think in terms of a wide range of intended and unintended consequences, often far removed in time and place from the initial action. These actions might be physical (“if we change this part of the structure, this other part will weaken”) or political/organizational (“if we change this guideline or policy it will cause this change in behavior to occur”). Often the knock-on effect is more like a domino, where there is one direct consequence (1st order effect) which then causes something else to happen (the 2nd order effect) which then triggers something else (the 3rd order effect). Systemic or system thinking is often the name given to this skill and is perhaps the most difficult of the skills required at this level. Indeed, it is up for debate the extent that this skill is learned versus is, at the limit, an innate ability of some individuals more than others.
  • Strategic leadership: The technical skills the U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual assigns to strategic leaders are the “strategic art,” “leveraging technology,” and “translating political goals into military objectives.”
    • The strategic art encompasses the ability to envision how the organization fits into the broader external web of relationships with other organizations, societies, and governments. This skill is appropriately labeled “art” since it is an arena characterized by ambiguity, multiple options, the need for holistic envisioning, creativity in generating novel options and solutions.
    • Leveraging technology involves more than simply applying the latest piece of equipment or software. Rather, it refers to the necessity and ability to understand and anticipate opportunities and vulnerability generated by future technologies and to ensure that plans and programs are in place to minimize the chance that disruptive new technologies do not threaten the competitiveness of the organization and at the same time, increase the chance that their organization can reap the benefits of applying new technologies.
    • Translating political goals into military objectives. In the non-military sphere, this corresponds to understanding, and where possible shaping, the larger political context in which an organization operates. It also involves preparing the organization to operate effectively in the current and potential environments. For example, the head of an airline needs to understand and also try to shape international agreements or laws regarding air travel. At the same time, they must anticipate the consequences of changes to the air travel landscape and position their organization to survive and thrive in possible new realities.

Thinking of leadership at multiple levels and their varying demands and requirements is an important element of clear thinking on leadership, organizational design, and the management of change. One can easily see the issues that arise from a weak, unclear, or inconsistent leadership model in an organization such as leaders operating at one or two levels below their job titles either because they did not understand the changing nature of their leadership role as they advanced or because they are incapable or unwilling to exercise the requisite skills.

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