Small Wars Journal

More Than A “Given:" Professionalizing Military Strategic Leadership

Sun, 11/01/2020 - 12:59pm

More Than A “Given:" Professionalizing Military Strategic Leadership

Daniel H. McCauley, DSL,  Sadi Sadiyev, PhD, and COL Rashad Tahirov


“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

John F. Kennedy


There is no question that leadership is foundational to the “profession of arms”. Yet the Services treat leadership at senior ranks as a “given” based upon the results of an officer’s success at the tactical level. Certainly, as officers progress up through the ranks to senior leadership positions, some of the skills required to be successful are, in fact, transferrable from their tactical leadership experiences. Many of the leadership skills necessary to lead organizations successfully at the senior levels, however, are entirely new.


Specifically, the “soft skills” of strategic leadership, such as sensitivity, creativity, conceptualization, verbal reasoning and communication, empathy, and spontaneity[1] are needed to lead in the current and future global security environment. Fluency in these soft skills will facilitate higher levels of personal adaptability and agility. These skills enable the strategic leader to develop the necessary mindset to discern the local, regional, and strategic shifts that are endemic within the global security environment.[2] In addition, these skills allow the strategic leader to work in a collaborative fashion with peers and subordinates to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the myriad actors who also have a stake in the global security environment.

Given the interconnected relationship of economic, social, and military variables, modern strategy encompasses an expansive number of factors that are broad in scope and complexity. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a real-time example of the emergence of uncertainties that frame the strategic environment. As such, our senior strategic leadership do not require the skills necessary for designing a detailed roadmap; rather those leaders must have the skills necessary to “set the conditions”; bringing together disparate and sometimes opposing groups or coalitions, to achieve the  desired military and political results. Senior leaders must transition from what they know—the hard skills of detailed planning and the quest for certainty in the tactical environment—to the soft skills necessary to manage the ambiguities of an uncertain and continually changing environment.


Americans have always sought a technological solution to problems. The current focus on artificial intelligence and 5G technology is the next solution to all problems. To date, however, no artificial intelligence or “smart” technology can replace the human factor in strategic evaluation or decision-making process. Make no mistake, outstanding leadership along leveraging technological solutions will always be needed at the operational and tactical levels of war. The good news is that our current military system is designed to identify and promote the very best—both in leadership and technology. Strategic leadership, however, with its long-term implications for the health and welfare of the nation, requires an entirely different level of critical thinking, creativity, mental agility, intuition, vision, and communication. The higher the level, the greater the breadth and depth of thinking required.


Just as an officer would not be appointed as a logistician, pilot, or special operator because they did well at a military academy or through another officer accession venue, neither should strategic leaders be selected solely for their tactical competence. Leadership, especially strategic leadership, is not a skill that is simply “added on.” The required soft skills by strategic leaders are typically unmeasurable and often intangible. Therefore, leadership at the strategic level must be prepared for—there must be education, experience, skills, and selection criteria beyond tactical excellence.



According to U.S. Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command, leadership is “the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”[3] In general terms, military leadership is divided into three levels: strategic, operational, and tactical.[4] Operational and tactical leadership are more closely related at the direct and organizational levels.[5] At the strategic leadership levels, that basic definition transitions its primary focus to those individuals and teams who create the direction, alignment, and commitment necessary to maintain the enduring performance of the organization.[6]


In essence, the difference between strategic leadership and tactical or operational leadership is that the strategic leader’s responsibilities are far broader in scope, both in time and space. Typically, these responsibilities not only cross functions and domains, but often encompass multiple organizations that have very diverse roles and sometimes competing responsibilities. Strategic leaders are necessarily focused on the future; not just the immediate future of one or two years out; but five, ten, or fifteen years or more into the future. Strategic leaders, therefore, must possess the mental agility to anticipate potential futures, and be comfortable with a constant lack of clarity. They must have superb communication and collaboration skills to advocate for, persuade, and, ultimately, oversee the changes aimed at maintaining and enhancing the organization’s abilities to effectively execute its mission now and in the future. Even more challenging is to make the argument for eliminating a beloved or historical organization that is no longer relevant or lacks the priorities of current and future needs. Senior leaders at the strategic level must have the skills and capacity to do all of this within the framework of large, complex, bureaucratic, and, typically, political organizations.


The challenge with operating effectively in such an environment is that those officers with the best skills for these roles are often “weeded out” early in their careers. It is always the most tactically-competent member of the organization who is promoted. Make no mistake, tactical, and even operational-level promotions, absolutely require this level of expertise. We owe it to our soldiers, sailors, airman, space force, and Marines to do so. However, we also owe it to our nation as a whole, and to those same soldiers, sailors, airman, space force, and Marines, to choose the very best for the strategic level. Although promotions are supposed to include the officer’s potential for greater responsibilities, promotion priorities occur with no determination of strategic leadership competencies, abilities, or even inclinations through assessments or other means. As a result, too many senior leaders are thrust into strategic leadership positions without adequate professional preparation, training,[7] skills, or aptitude.


This lack of strategic leadership preparation, often expressed as strategic thinking ability, is not a new problem. In the 1989 Report of the Panel on Military Education of the One Hundredth Congress, also known as the Ike Skelton Report, 18 pages were dedicated to identifying the strategic thinking shortfall and providing recommendations.[8] The Joint Professional Military Education community and the Services have had 30 years to address the shortfall but have failed to do so. To illustrate this continuing challenge, in 2009, General Anthony Zinni, USMC, retired, former U.S. CENTCOM Commander, stated that “Leaders today have lost the ability to look and plan ahead. They have no vision and they are trapped inside rigid bureaucracies, buried in the details of the here and now. They fail to think strategically. They are reactive rather than innovative—they fail to be creative and forward-thinking.[9]


Five years later, in 2014, strategic leadership, and its requisite skills, was again highlighted as a shortfall when an analysis of the lessons learned from 13 years of war was conducted by the Rand Arroyo Center, a US Army Research Center. The research identified seven lessons learned that clearly highlighted a lack of depth and breadth of strategic knowledge and thinking at the most senior levels. The first lesson learned encapsulated the gist of the entire report by stating that the national security strategy “suffered from a lack of understanding and application of strategic art.”[10]


Furthermore, as a participant in the 2019 rewrite of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP), strategic thinking was again highlighted as a shortfall and educational need. In fact, the need for strategic thinkers is so acute, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has recently partnered with Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies program to develop a Strategic Thinkers Program.[11] The first cohort of officers attending this program began last year.


Obviously, the need for officers, specifically senior leaders occupying strategic leadership positions, has remained constant over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, what has also remained constant, as the previous examples indicate, is the lack of progress in addressing that need. Clearly, the approach taken over the past 30 years has failed. What remains unclear are the underlying reasons for that failure. Are the military’s current selection criteria for promotion and assignments inadequate or inappropriate for selecting senior officers for strategic leadership positions? Are the skills for senior officer positions requiring strategic thinkers not appropriately identified? Are the education and training systems inadequate in whole or part? Or is it a combination of all three plus others? A recent Gallup poll, although non-military focused, found that in only 18% of hiring actions did companies select the right candidate for leadership positions.[12] Given the multiple examples provided above of the need for strategic thinkers, I would hazard a guess that satisfaction with senior military leaders would be similar lacking.


Strategic Leadership Need

Why all the consternation about strategic leadership and strategic thinking? There are many reasons and several of the most prominent ones are shown below (see Figure 1). First, the pace of change today it is accelerating, primarily driven by advances in information and technology. Whereas in the past, technological advancements and other trends were primarily felt locally or regionally, with the interconnectedness of today’s world, local events have the ability to go global in minutes or seconds. You no longer have the comfort of time—the days, weeks, months, or years in some cases—that our current hierarchical bureaucratic organizations are based upon. The rate of change and the interaction of local, regional, and global forces are increasing uncertainty at all levels—and it is becoming increasingly difficult to isolate events into neat, compartmentalized bins associated with the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Unforeseen turbulence has become a feature in today’s world that military planners have an official term for it. They call it VUCA world—an environment of non-stop volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.[13] Since the security environment is unpredictable, complex and volatile, leadership at strategic level is required to design and develop his/her decision and strategy based on multi-vectoral approach. In addition, today’s decision-making must occur at the speed of the environment, and the organizations and processes must account for that interconnectedness and have the agility and ability to respond appropriately.


Figure 1.


Due to the uncertainties associated with an increase in the rate of change in multiple factors, there is growing ambiguity about what tomorrow will bring. In the past, our lives were extremely steady-state—change happened only once in a while—successive generations lived in much the same manner. Today’s environment is the opposite—it is one marked by nearly constant change punctuated by occasional periods of stability. As the ability to travel and communicate expands, so does complexity. The world may be smaller in one sense, but in another it is much larger—with globalization there are far more stakeholders involved in any one issue than in the past. Each stakeholder has varying and changing interests making most issues far more complex than in the past.


As one progresses in leadership positions from the tactical to the strategic, there are factors that influence one’s leadership style and decision-making. Some of the factors in the tactical environment are very suitable to an individual’s natural skills, and there are many opportunities to hone those same skills over 20 or 25 years. Senior leaders, however, are placed in an environment that requires a different set of skills, many of which are not natural. In addition, most, if not all, senior officers have not had the same number of “repetitions” at the operational and strategic level as they have had at the tactical level. As such, any strategic leadership journey begins with a known significant learning deficiency.


Let’s look at four variables for example to highlight these differences (see Figure 2). The complexity, organizational culture, communication methods, and speed of decision-making within the tactical, operational, and strategic environments changes significantly. At the tactical level, complexity is fairly simple as it is focused on the individual or small groups of like-minded individuals who share the same organizational, if not personal, culture. Communication, and just as important, feedback, is almost always direct, person-to-person, and almost immediate. The time spent in decision-making is relatively short, often measured in seconds, minutes, and hours.


At the operational level, complexity shifts from the individual to the organization, some of which can be composed of dozens to hundreds or thousands of personnel. Organizational culture is still likely mostly similar although there may be some differences, such as those you find within the Joint force between the land, maritime, and air forces. Communication becomes more difficult as bureaucratic layers of the organization now come into play some communication is direct, such as with commander’s calls or other large formation activities however, daily communication becomes more impersonal as it is filtered through layers of leadership. As a result of these organizational layers, the speed of decision-making can lengthen to hours, days, weeks, and months.


Figure 2.

At the strategic level, complexity is now increased exponentially as strategic leaders have to deal with dissimilar organizations, many of whom have vastly different missions and personnel with dissimilar experiences. The strategic leader must work within a broad multi-cultural enterprise composed of organizations who operate with different decision-making processes, values, and expectations. This level of leadership becomes even more challenging when allies and partners are factored into the equation.


Now, as you consider these differences across the three traditional organizational levels, think about how other concepts change within each of those levels: unity of command transitions to unity of effort, and mission command, comprised of shared understanding, trust, and intent, takes on a different context when face-to-face interaction is minimized or non-existent.


To further illustrate this change, within the tactical environment leadership responsibilities are generally limited and operations occurred within well-structure organizations with a single mission or purpose. Tactical units are an executor of policy, and because many of the problems given are in the present or very near-term, there is often a single-best solution that can be applied consistently. Leadership is personal, organizations composed of like-minded and trained individuals, and communications direct.


Strategic leadership responsibilities are positions that are very broad in scope, and responsible for developing something that is highly complex and usually ambiguous. Strategic leaders are the developers of policies that often are trying to solve problems for which there are no clear-cut solutions and all potential outcomes are undesirable. Strategic leaders become an “artist”—someone who can conceptualize and visualize complex problems, developing innovative solutions that address the needs of the future while addressing the demands of today. Strategic leadership is indirect and leaders must master the art of persuasion as they create synergy across multiple organizations and cultures while creating and reinforcing an ethical climate that enables an organization to succeed over time.


Sometimes a leader needs to be authoritarian or directive, sometimes able to listen to the opinions of others and compromise, and, in some cases, consultative and collegial. In many cases, constant presence is required, while in others only a short ceremonial appearance is required allowing the details to be entrusted to subordinates. In general, the problem of strategic leadership is to vividly and accurately describe the desired end state, create a sense of urgency, provide the necessary resources, and propose a way, or possibly ways, it can be achieved. Then the specific ways and means are left to subordinates with occasional direction, mentoring, and coaching.  


Why Strategic Leaders Fail

Strategic leadership often fails for a number of reasons. First, there is a lack of focus, which is typically the result of either a lack or prioritization or the failure to clearly define the desired end state. Strategic leaders who want to avoid making difficult choices or fail to prioritize inevitably develop and follow strategies that include a little bit of everything, yet focus on nothing. This lack of focus leads to an organizational sense of feeling overly pressured for time and overcommitted for resources. The old adage “if everything is important then nothing is important” applies here. Strategic leaders must embrace responsibility and must have the moral courage to stand behind their decision-making.


Second, the day-to-day, or tactical, choices and decisions are inconsistent with the strategy. This failure is often associated with lack of a clearly defined mission or lack of prioritization. Even when senior leadership may understand the priorities and mission, personnel at the lower levels may not understand what the strategy means to them on a daily basis. The lack of a clearly articulated vision, or a misunderstood one, leads to decisions at lower levels that may not support the higher-level purpose. Renowned leadership scholar John Kotter states that senior leaders under-communicate to their organization by ten-fold.[14] In addition, inconsistent decision-making contributes to the idea that the organization’s tactics are “loose” and not nested within the organization’s higher strategic purpose.


The third reason for strategic leadership failure is the pressure to meet short-term demands.[15] The demands of the daily parade of urgent issues typically outweigh future considerations that are far more important. In addition, most strategic leaders have risen through the ranks based upon their tactical or operational successes. As a result, they often have a hard time letting go of what they know and do best, which results in those leaders trading the long-term health of the organization for short-term gains or to satisfy their need for operating in a comfortable, familiar environment.  


The final reason for failure is the success trap. Essentially, today’s problem is solved using yesterday’s or last year’s solution. The problem with that is that the context has changed and what worked in previous situations will no longer work.[16] As the situation changes, behavior or the approach to the situation must change, too.  Most leaders are so enamored with what they have implemented or accomplished in the past that they maintain the same line of reasoning or problem solving, but which has lost relevance for the current situation.[17] Mental models are so deeply embedded in successful leaders’ images of themselves that they cannot appreciate alternatives.[18]


Traits of Strategic Leaders


Over the past 60 years, military strategic leaders have slowly transitioned from battlefield “doers” to national security “thinkers.” In essence, thinking has now become their primary joint or Service specialty. As artificial intelligence (AI) and associated technological capabilities are continuously integrated into military systems, the traditional direct and organizational leadership skills will become less relevant for the strategic leader. Even though many current specialties within the armed forces will be subsumed by automation, the ability of AI to provide problem solving, creativity, negotiation, collaboration, conflict resolution, and crisis response will be limited. As such, strategic leaders will need to have the soft skills that emphasize sensitivity, creativity, conceptualization, verbal reasoning and communication, empathy and spontaneity.[19]


These soft skills provide strategic leaders with higher levels of cognitive and metacognitive adaptability and agility. These two traits are extremely important for strategic leaders who will be operating in multiple dimensions, across domains and organizations in time and space. The uncomfortable “feelings” associated with the philosophy of mission command coupled with the ambiguity resident in an ever-changing and uncertain global environment demands these skills.  Strategic leaders with these skills will possess a high degree of tolerance for diversity of opinion and procedures. Such leadership traits in strategic leaders will encourage an adaptable culture that favors openness and rewards the integration of diverse ideas rather than conformity to a common idea.[20]


These strategic soft skills provide senior leaders with a mindset that is open to change and news ways of doing things. Strategic leaders will be less mired in the past and become more future-oriented and comfortable with risk. A more challenge-seeking leader is more likely to engage different perspectives and to accept new and original endeavors. They will necessarily be transformational and charismatic leaders. As has been our tendency, relying on excellent tactical thinking has not provided the necessary strategic thinkers; instead, we have had leaders who often do not seek new challenges, are risk averse, and stick with well-established and previously proven, yet inadequate, methods.[21]  



First, a formal strategic leadership career path must be developed. To create and develop the necessary strategic leaders, joint and Service strategic leaders must create a strategic leader development strategy that leads this change, reshapes culture, identifies leadership development priorities, and crosses Service and joint organizational boundaries. As with any profession, this will require an initial baseline course of study required to prove competence. Holding tactical command does not equate to possessing strategic leadership skills. There must be an accreditation process required to be accepted into the career field. There must be professional expectations for behavior as a member, to include various professional experiences and contexts. There must also be a commitment to personal and formal professional development within the specialty.[22]


Second, organizations who wish to be agile must develop organizational cultures that promote and reward these skills. The essential characteristics of people and teams who flourish in an agile organization include the ability to operate in ambiguity without losing focus. They have the ability to operate on multiple and varying timelines, and possess the resiliency to work within “fuzzy” contexts. These personnel have a bias toward outcome over process, focusing on the ends as opposed to the means or ways. Finally, they have the ability to contribute by being a team member leveraging diversity of thought.[23]


Third, the Services and the joint community must develop a culture in which reasonable failures are viewed as learning opportunities. To facilitate this organizational cultural change, educational institutions must develop environments that mirror the “thinking” environment. Just as “train the way we fight” changed training programs decades ago, “educate the way we think” must become the new academic mantra. Academic institutions must stop looking for the schoolhouse solution that makes grading and assessment easier and start focusing on developing the student’s ability to make a logical, coherent argument within the context of uncertainty, ambiguousness, and competition.


Finally, the joint community and Services must look for strategic leaders outside their traditional organizations or career paths that lead to tactical excellence. Research shows that strategic leaders from outside the organization have a tendency to make significant organizational changes far more often and effectively than those who come from within. These outsiders challenge the organization’s culture and paradigms with far greater objectivity, and overcome the familiarity and inertia that limits an insider’s action.[24] Traditional non-combat arms personnel are overlooked for senior positions, but can bring unique perspectives to strategic problems—most of which are non-traditional.



All strategic problems are complex problems for which there is no one correct solution. In fact, all solutions to complex problems will be inadequate in some way and undesirable for some, if not all, stakeholders. As a result, strategic leaders need to embrace ambiguity and a lack of finality in strategic problem-solving. Strategic leaders must learn to manage complex problems over time and ask themselves “and then what? Strategic leadership requires a way of thinking that enables senior decision-makers to frame key issues affecting an organization, integrating hindsight, insight, and foresight to envision possible and preferred outcomes. Strategic leaders must understand these alternatives and the choices they potentially pose.

If the current strategic leadership problem has not been solved for the past 30 years doing the same things over and over again, then perhaps it’s time to try something different. We already know that relying on the Peter Principle to select strategic leaders is a losing approach.


Dr. Sadiyev ( and COL Tahirov are faculty members of the Azerbaijan War College of the Armed Forces. Dr. McCauley is an education consultant with the UAE War College (






[1] Whittington, A., Talwar, R., and Wells, S. “Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace—The leadership Challenge,” Innovation Management, March 26, 2019.

[3] ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Command and Control of Army Forces, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 31 July 2019, p. 2-10.

[4] Vego, Milan N. Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, September 20, 2007, Government Printing Office, USA.

[5] Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd Edition, Edited by COL (Retired) Stephen J. Gerras, PhD, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management, United States Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 2010, p. 6.

[6] Hughes, R. L, Beatty, K.C. & Dinwoodie, D.L. Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success. Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[7] Dinwiddie, D.L., Quinn, L., and McGuire, J.B. “Bridging the Strategy/Performance Gap.  How Leadership Strategy Drives Business Results,” White Paper, Center for Creative Leadership, 2014.

[8] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, Report of the Panel on Military Education of the One Hundredth Congress, 101st Cong., 1st sess., 1989, No. 4, (The Skelton Report).

[9] Zinni, A. and Koltz, T. Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 28.

[10] Robinson, L., Miller, P. D., Gordon, J. IV, Decker, J., Schwille, M., and Cohen, R. S. “Improving Strategic Competence. Lessons from 13 Years of War.” Rand Arroyo Center, 2014.

[11] Strategic Thinker’s Program. OUSD Personnel & Readiness, Force Education & Training, PME.

[12] Schneider, Michael. “Only 10 Percent of People are Natural Leaders. The Rest of Us Have to Work on developing These Three Qualities,” Dec 15, 2019.

[13] Ertel, C. and Solomon, L. K. Moments of Impact, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014.

[14] Kotter, John. “Think You're Communicating Enough? Think Again,” Forbes, June 14, 2011.

[15] Hughes, Richard L. and Beatty, Katherine C. Becoming a Strategic Leader, Center for Creative Leadership: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

[16] Newman, R. “10 Great Companies That Lost Their Edge,” How to avoid three traps that ensnare even breakthrough companies,

[17] Lucas, J. “Newton’s Laws of Motion,” LiveScience, September 27, 2017.  

[18] Kleiner, A. “Jay Forrester's Shock to the System,” MIT Sloan Management Review, February 4, 2009.

[19] Whittington, A., Talwar, R., and Wells, S. “Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace—The leadership Challenge,” Innovation Management, March 26, 2019.

[20] Mirai, Kyasurin Tenshi, 2019.

[21] Mirai, Kyasurin Tenshi. “Strategic Leaders”, The Sky of Kyasurintenshi, November 29, 2019,

[22] Dinwiddie, D.L., Quinn, L., and McGuire, J.B. “Bridging the Strategy/Performance Gap.  How Leadership Strategy Drives Business Results,” White Paper, Center for Creative Leadership, 2014.

[23] Ratanjee, Vibhas. “Develop Your Leaders for an AI-Driven Future,” Gallup Workplace, October 25, 2019.

[24] Birshan, M., Meakin, T., and Strovink, K. “What makes a CEO ‘exceptional’?,” McKinsey Quarterly, April 2017.

About the Author(s)

 COL Tahirov is a faculty member of the Azerbaijan War College of the Armed Forces.

Dr. Sadiyev ( is a  faculty member of the Azerbaijan War College of the Armed Forces.

Dr. McCauley is an education consultant with the UAE War College (



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:11am

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