Leadership : Integrating Adaptive Leadership into the Military Decision-making Process


Dr. Bill Cojocar, Ph.D., LTC (Ret) U.S. Army is a Senior Intelligence Trainer for the General Dynamics Information Technology, National Guard Programs, Battalion Staff Training Team 4. He is a Professor for the Texas A&M University-San Antonio, the University of Phoenix, and Wayland Baptist University, and serves as a Training instructor for the Texas Leadership Institute.

He’s previously served as a Planner for the Abrams Learning and Information Systems and State of Texas responsible for designing State Operation Border Star; Chief Scenario Director for the XCTC; and Intelligence and Operations Trainer for the 5th Army Training and Support Team for Kosovo and Iraq.  He is a 24 year U.S. Army veteran with servitude to U.S. Army CENTCOM in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Cadet Command, III Corps & the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, 2d & 5th Infantry Divisions and four (107th, 11th, 2d, 3d) Armored Cavalry Regiments.

Dr. Cojocar is a Capella University Ph.D. graduate, Boston University MA graduate, and Kent State University BA graduate, and resides in Canyon Lake, Texas. He can be contacted at Cojocar@sbcglobal.net.

Today’s Army leaders have accepted Adaptive leadership as a practice and methodology that is being integrated into the way we train leaders to meet the adaptive challenges of our contemporary operating environment. Adaptive leadership is an accepted leadership practice that facilitates leading in a difficult and changing environment, while encountering adaptive threats that change and evolve tactics, techniques, and procedures on a weekly to monthly basis.

Much has evolved regarding this leadership practice in the last eight years, to include the evolution of leadership and operational doctrine to the adoption of new training venues to train tomorrow’s leaders. This article examines current U.S. Army doctrine on Adaptive Leadership, reviews current Adaptive leadership theory as a practice, and provides recommendations and considerations for today’s Army leaders to incorporate Adaptive leadership practices into the Military Decision-making Process.

The U.S. Army TRADOC Commander, General Martin Dempsey, recently commented on new leadership and operational doctrine stating that,

The recent release of FM 5-0, the Operations Process, represents a major shift in how we develop adaptive leaders through its introduction of the design process. The goal here is to develop leaders who do not think linearly, but who instead seek to understand the complexity of problems before seeking to solve them. Design gives leaders the cognitive tool to “understand” complex problems as part of the “Visualize, Understand, Decide, Direct” responsibilities of the commander.”

Dempsey (2009) adds that, "We're trying to decide how to build in new skill sets for our leaders to meet the hybrid threats that exist in these uncertain times. The pace of change adds to the increasing complexity ... We're seeking creative thinking skills and trying to replicate those complexities in our training scenarios. We want to build on the ability to adapt. The 2015 learners will be able to easily create and adapt virtual training environments to meet their individual or collective training needs ...”

Despite this command emphasis on the induction of new leadership and operational doctrine taking place, our leaders in the field continue to search and develop new ways to practice becoming adaptive leaders to meet real time challenges. This is ever so apparent in the Commander’s and Staff’s development of the Military Decision-making Process (MDMP).

Our current doctrine addresses what Adaptive leadership is, provides some tools for being adaptive, but fails to cross walk this into the “How to” implement it into the MDMP process. Why is this important? MDMP is the genesis of operations. In order to develop and execute adaptive plans and operations, and lead them adaptively, today’s leaders must understand where and how in the MDMP they can integrate, apply, and master adaptive leadership for adaptive situations, and threats, and action plans.

Adapting to the “Hybrid” Threat and Environment

U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Threats Division defines the Hybrid Threat as a diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, and/or criminal elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects. (TC 7-100, p. iv). The term “hybrid” is being used to capture the essence of the complexity of war, the multiplicity of actors involved, and the blurring between traditional categories of conflict. While the existence of innovative adversaries is Hybrid threats are innovative, adaptive, globally connected, networked, and embedded in the clutter of local populations. They can possess a wide range of old, adapted and advanced technologies—including the possibility of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although not a new concept, today’s hybrid approaches demand that U.S. forces prepare for a range of conflicts.

This new threat doctrine provides an Operational Design component called Adaptive operations that are defined as actions to preserve the Hybrid Threat’s power and apply it in adaptive ways against overmatching opponents. (TC 7-100, p. 4-1) The Hybrid Threat’s immediate goal is survival. However, its long-term goal is still the expansion of influence. The Hybrid Threat’s goal for Adaptive operations is to adapt temporarily, using patience as its ally, adapting tactics, techniques, procedures, and even operational and strategic goals, to live an fight another day.

Sadowski and Becker (2009), in their article entitled “Beyond the “Hybrid” Threat: Asserting the Essential Unity of Warfare”, reinforce the notion that Adaptive leadership is essential to utilize to encounter present and future advisories.
Their notion is based upon the rationale that today’s and tomorrow’s adversaries are adopting “hybrid” approaches, often network-based, decentralized organizational structures in order to adapt to U.S. military force strengths.

“Those that have not adapted have faced rapid extinction in the jungle of the global strategic order. Those that do are entities or movements that, based on a continuous scanning of their operational environment, maneuver with speed and agility through material and cognitive capabilities to affect the will and psyche of others, in order to attain their political objectives.”

The ability to shift among material and cognitive approaches with agility and speed is both the essence of the future threat, as well as of Secretary Gates’ vision of U.S. Armed Forces that are adaptive in organizational design, capabilities development, and campaign design and execution. (Sadowski and Becker, p. 11)  Sadowski and Becker’s analysis determines that Adaptability between cognitive and material approaches to warfare is a salient feature of future threats, and must become the same for the future joint force.

Future threats will adapt specific mixes of cognitive and material capabilities based on a continual assessment and re-assessment of the other‘s strengths and weaknesses, requiring constant adaptation, experimentation and learning. This adaptability is a measure of one‘s ability to change in order to fit altered circumstances and provides commanders an added measure of resiliency in the face of the unknown. This need for adaptability and Adaptive leadership points to a potential gap in our doctrinal system. (Sadowski and Becker, p. 11)

Adaptive Leadership Reviewed

The Army’s current leadership doctrine Field Manual FM 6-22 provides our leaders a solid definition for Adaptive leadership, exploring the practice of creative thinking that includes using adaptive approaches being drawn from previous circumstances or lessons learned, along with new and innovative approaches being created.(FM 6-22, p. 6-2).  It provides leaders and explanation that when tasks are difficult, adaptive leaders identify and account for the capabilities of the team. Some of these tasks are routine, while others require little leader clarification, while still others present new challenges for the knowledge and experience that the team possesses.

When a leader undertakes a new task for the first time with a new group or organization, they recognize their capabilities and commitment to the task. (FM 6-22, p. 9-1) FM 6-22 provides our leaders some new Tools for Adaptability, defining what it is to be an adaptable leader. These tools include the following:

  1. Adaptability is an individual’s ability to recognize changes in the environment, identify the critical elements of the new situation, and trigger changes accordingly to meet new requirements.
  2. Adaptability is an effective change in behavior in response to an altered situation.
  3. Adaptable leaders scan the environment, derive the key characteristics of the situation, and are aware of what it will take to perform in the changed environment.
  4. Highly adaptable leaders are comfortable entering unfamiliar environments. They have the proper frame of mind for operating under mission command orders in any organization (see FM 6-0).
  5. Adaptable leaders seek to apply new or modified skills and applicable competencies.
  6. Adaptive leadership includes being a change agent. This means helping other members of the organization, especially key leaders, to recognize that an environment is changing and building consensus as change is occurring. As this consensus is built, adaptive leaders can work to influence the course of the organization. Depending on the immediacy of the problem, adaptive leaders may use several different methods for influencing their organization. (FM 6-22, p.10-8-9)

The leader deciding when to adapt is as important as determining how to adapt, and yes, choosing a course of action not to adapt may result in poor performance in the new environment or outright Organizational failure. Adaptation does not produce certainty that change will improve results.
FM 6-22 describes Adaptable leaders as leaders who are comfortable with ambiguity, flexible and innovative—ready to face the challenges at hand with the resources available. They’re passionate learners, able to handle multiple demands, shifting priorities and rapid change smoothly. They view change as an opportunity rather than a liability. Adaptability has two key components:

  1. The ability of a leader to identify the essential elements critical for performance in each new situation
  2. The ability of a leader to change his practices or his unit by quickly capitalizing on strengths and minimizing weaknesses. (FM 6-22, p. 10-9)

Adaptive leaders are open-minded; they don’t jump to conclusions, are willing to take risks, and are resilient to setbacks.

Adaptive Thinking, Design and the new FM 5.0

The Army’s new Field Manual FM 5.0 addresses adaption by focusing on creative thinking, defining it as a process that involves creating something new or original; facing old or unfamiliar problems that require new solutions. Creative thinking lends new insights, novel approaches, fresh perspectives, and new ways of understanding and conceiving things. Leaders look at different options to solve problems by using adaptive approaches (drawing from previous similar circumstances) or innovative approaches (coming up with completely new ideas) (FM 5.0, p.1-6). Today’s full spectrum operations demand flexible and adaptive approaches to planning that can be integrated and addressed in the operational design process, the MDMP, and Troop Leading Procedures (FM 5.0, p.2-7).

Central to all three of planning modes is innovation, adaptation, and continuous learning are all central tenets of design. Innovation involves taking a new approach to a familiar or known situation, whereas adaptation involves taking a known solution and modifying it to a particular situation or responding effectively to changes in the operational environment. Design helps commander’s lead innovative, adaptive work and guides planning, preparing, executing, and assessing operations. It requires agile, versatile leaders who foster continuous organizational learning while actively engaging in iterative collaboration and dialog to enhance decision-making across the all levels of the organization. (FM 5.0, p. 3-1)

Design provides a model for innovative and adaptive problem framing that provides leaders with cognitive tools to understand problems and appreciate their complexities before seeking how to solve them.  These cognitive tools help leaders recognize and manage transitions by educating and training them to identify and employ adaptive, innovative solutions, create and exploit opportunities, and leverage risks to their advantage (FM 5.0, p. 3-3).

FM 5.0 Design requires leaders to lead adaptive, innovative efforts to leverage collaboration and dialog to identify and solve complex, ill-structured problems. Leaders must lead organizational learning, develop methods to determine if reframing is necessary during the course of an operation and continuously assess, evaluate, and reflect on the problem at hand and that the actions addressing the problem are contributing to a successfully determined outcome.   (FM 5.0, p. 3-7)

Heifetz (2009) Adaptive Leadership Practice

The academic pioneer of Adaptive leadership theory, Dr. Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University, recently states in his new book “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organizational and the World”(2009), that Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. It’s about change that enables the capacity to thrive. Such successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it, and that Organizational adaption occurs through experimentation. (Heifetz, p. 14-17)

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) state that Adaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key activities
Our new leadership doctrine informs leaders to become more adaptable, they must: Learn to adapt by adapting, lead across cultures, seek challenges, and leverage their cognitive abilities to counteract the challenges of the operational environment through logical problem solving processes. (FM 6-22, p. 10-9)

  1.   Observing events and patterns around you                                                              
  2.   Interpreting what you are observing
  3.   Designing interventions based on the observations to address adaptive challenges identified. (p. 31-32)

The Adaptive Leadership Process is thus composed of three tenants: Observation, Interpretation, and Intervention. Adaptive leaders must adopt an experimental mind-set that actively commits to an intervention that you design, while not letting yourself become lock-stepped and wedded to it. Adaptive leadership is about will and skill. (p. 37) “The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis” (p. 7), which in military terms translates to “mission analysis” and “running estimate analysis”.

Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky (2009) provide the following recommendations for Practicing Adaptive Leadership

  1.  Don’t do it alone
  2.  Live life as a Leadership Laboratory
  3.  Resist the leap to action
  4.  Discover the joy of making hard choices (p. 41-45)

Adaptive challenges are difficult because their solutions require people to change their ways. Adaptive work demands three tough human tasks

  1. Figure out what to conserve from past practices (Lessons Learned).
  2. Figure out what to discard from past practices
  3. Invent new ways that build form the best of the past. (p. 69)

Heifetz’ (2009) elaboration on Adaptive leadership provides leaders practical recommendations to address new problem situations with new problem solutions. Leadership is an improvisation art. Everything you do in leading adaptive change is an experiment. Experiments involve testing hypotheses and courses of actions.  In doing so, leaders cannot become complacent to exercise risk management, authority, and integrate more intensive and alternative methods for problem solutions.

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linksky’s (2010) work, through the Cambridge Leadership Associates, explores and defines Adaptive leadership as a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of adaptation. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.

Organizational Adaptation

CLA (2010) Retrieved from: http://www.cambridge-leadership.com/index.php/adaptive_leadership

When leaders realize that their organization’s aspirations—the innovations and progress they want to see—demand responses outside the current capacities, Adaptive leadership is the framework required to effectively close the gap and make aspirations reality. It provides a disciplined approach to do more for what you care most about. Adaptive leadership is purposeful evolution in real time. The CLA (2010) has determined that very organization faces two competing demands: they must execute current activities and adapt those same activities to face future opportunities and challenges.

These two tasks of managing for efficiency or effectiveness and leading the organization through change correspond to the two functions of Authority and Leadership. Few organizations or individuals can do both well. By separating the functions of leadership and authority, you can more easily build integrated competencies across an organization, which is critical to creating new and sustained values. (http://www.cambridge-leadership.com/index.php/adaptive_leadership).

Integrating Adaptive Leadership into MDMP
Having a good understanding of what Adaptive leadership is and what it can do for you the leader, and for your organization, is important for becoming and Adaptive leader. Being able to integrate it into the Military Decision-making Process (MDMP) is another significant challenge. Not much is written today elaborating on integration of Adaptive leadership into MDMP, however there is much being practiced on this very subject at many of our training institutions nationwide, as well as the multitude of adaptive plans that are being formulated and produced overseas in support of our GWOT missions.

Many leaders ponder this tough task; the how, the where, the what, and the when; the art of application of Adaptive leadership into such a process such as the MDMP. The following recommendations provide leaders worthy considerations for making your MDMP more adaptive in nature to exercise adaptive leader competencies, using the first five of the seven steps of the MDMP.

Step 1: Receipt of Mission. Receiving the higher headquarters’ plan or order of a new mission is Receipt of Mission. Commanders are responsible providing initial guidance and allocation of time. Depending on complexity of the situation, commanders may initiate design activities before or in parallel with the MDMP. Commanders may choose to conduct design to assist them in understanding the operational environment, framing the problem, and considering operational approaches to solve or manage the problem, as specified by FM 5.0.  Why are leaders reluctant to “Design”? Is it because of a lack of understanding of what Design is? Is it because it takes too much time? Or is it because they feel that they have a firm grasp of what the real problem is and do not need to waste time validating the real situational problem?

Whichever the case, Design provides an ideal platform to commence Adaptive thinking with the modeling for innovative and adaptive problem framing that provides leaders with cognitive tools to understand problems and appreciate their complexities before seeking how to solve them. Taking and making time for this valuable exercise help to build Adaptive leaders by educating and training them to identify and employ adaptive, innovative solutions, create and exploit opportunities, and leverage risks to their advantage. Time invested in the Design process is a valuable step in understanding the adaptive threat, the adaptive environment, and facilitating your ability to meet both with adaptive and actionable plans and operations.
Step 2: Mission Analysis.
The commander and staff conduct mission analysis to better understand the situation and problem, and identify what the command must accomplish, when and where it must be done, and most importantly why—the purpose of the operation. Since no amount of subsequent planning can solve a problem insufficiently understood, mission analysis is the most important step in the MDMP. This understanding of the situation and the problem allows commanders to visualize and describe how the operation may unfold in their initial commander’s intent and planning guidance (FM 5.0, p. B-5). 

Mission Analysis can be one of the most important steps for integrating Adaptive leadership. Let’s start with the S2. How many S2’s actually spend time analyzing how adaptive their threat is? At what rate and frequency does the threat change and adapt their tactics, techniques, and procedures, in order to survive and continue their mission? IPB is a staff collaborative effort. Ensuring that the entire staff looks at how adaptive the threat is in each warfighting functional area, brings very much to the Mission Analysis table.

From an operational perspective, looking at ourselves, how adaptable, flexible and agile are we? Are we lock-stepped in our TTP and TACSOP procedures so that we are continually reacting to the threats changes and adaptions, or are we pre-emptive, proactive, agile and flexible enough to conduct predictive analysis, and execute actionably to get inside the threats’ adaption and decision-making cycle? Two tools that can greatly facilitate the battle staff’s ability to become more adaptable are the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, and the FFA (Force Field Analysis), analyzing Friendly Forces for the mission and forces against. Both of these tools, although not specified in Army doctrine, are valuable tools to practice becoming more adaptable to a continually changing environment. In doing so, the staff exercises Heifetz’ (2009) Adaptive leadership process activities of observing, analyzing and understanding events and patterns around you (Pattern Analysis), and conducting interpretation of what is being observed in order to prepare for intervention.
Step 3: Course of Action Development:
The COA development step generates
options for follow-on analysis and comparison that satisfy the commander’s intent and planning guidance. During this step, planners use the problem statement, mission statement, commander’s intent, planning guidance, and the various knowledge products developed during mission analysis to develop COAs. Too many times during COA development, staffs develop one to two courses of action that may be diametrically different in their approach to solve the problem.

Many times, staffs are directed to develop a third COA that in many cases serves as a throw away COA, with the staff not spending much time on the investment. Integrating a COA that adheres to adaptability focusing on the flexible and adaptive threat, that is proactive and preemptive in nature, is one way to integrate Adaption into this MDMP step. Another is by integrating “Adaptive” as screening criteria to be used for screening validity for COA analysis. What’s key here is training the staff to understand what this screening criterion means and how to apply and evaluate it in quantifiable terms.
Step 4: COA Analysis (Wargame): COA analysis enables commanders and staffs to identify difficulties or coordination problems as well as probable consequences of planned actions for each COA being considered. (FM 5.0, p. B-21) This MDMP step can become very adaptive in nature by the S2 portraying an adaptive threat. Adaptive decision-making, pro-active or reactive, with respective actions, re-actions, and counteractions are ways to make your COA analysis more dynamic focused on adaptive threats. During this step, another consideration is to assess your risk for a particular action. Are we pushing the risk envelope? Are we hinging on a low to moderate, or moderate to high risk level with our Composite Risk Management assessment, assessing what level of risk is acceptable during your wargame?

Certainly if an adaptive COA is developed, it can be wargamed with results determined, integrated and assessed, using developed screening criterion. COA Analysis (Wargaming) can become an extremely adaptive exercise using these and many other considerations, to exercise intervention measures and techniques. This MDMP step is your experimental stage, whereby the staff is testing designed intervention methods based on the observations, analysis, and predictive analysis, to address adaptive challenges.

Step 5: COA Comparison:
COA comparison is an objective process to evaluate COAs independently of each other and against set evaluation criteria approved by the commander and staff. The goal to identify the strengths and weaknesses of COAs enable selecting a COA with the highest probability of success and further developing it in an OPLAN or OPORD.  (FM 5.0, p. B-33) Certainly, with the integration of an Adaptive screening and evaluation criterion utilized for COA comparison, you’re integrating adaptively into your MDMP process.

Just as General Dempsey indicated,

"We're trying to decide how to build in new skill sets for our leaders to meet the hybrid threats that exist in these uncertain times. The pace of change adds to the increasing complexity... We're seeking creative thinking skills and trying to replicate those complexities in our training scenarios. We want to build on the ability to adapt. The 2015 learners will be able to easily create and adapt virtual training environments to meet their individual or collective training needs ...” (Dempsey, 2009).

Adaptive leadership is today an accepted leadership practice that facilitates leading in a difficult and changing environment, while encountering adaptive threats that change and evolve tactics, techniques, and procedures that span the spectrum of conflict and “hybrid” threats.

This summary provides today’s leaders a current examination of Adaptive leadership, it’s doctrinal and practical application, and recommendations on how to integrate Adaptive leadership into the Military Decision-making Process, which serves as the crux for today’s leaders to practice observation, interpretation, and intervention, adopting experimental mind-sets that actively commit to an intervention that will make a difference for tomorrow’s adaptive challenges.  


Cambridge Leadership Associates (2010), Introduction to Organizational Adaption Figure,

             Retrieved from: http://www.cambridge-leadership.com/index.php/adaptive_leadership

Dempsey, General Martin (2009) Retrieved from: http://www.military-training-

technology.com/mt2-home/259-mt2-2010-volume-15-issue-4-july/3105-qaa-general-martin-e-dempsey.html; http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/09/04/27024-tradoc-commander-discusses-leadership-training-at-forum, http://www.military-training-technology.com/mt2-home/259-mt2-2010-volume-15-issue-4-july/3105-qaa-general-martin-e-dempsey.html

Field Manual 5.0 (2010) The Operations Process, Headquarters, Department of the Army,

             Washington, DC, March 2010.

Field Manual 6-22 (2006) Army Leadership, Headquarters, Department of the Army,

             Washington, DC, 12 October 2006.

Harvey, Dr. Francis J., Secretary of the Army (2005), Speech for U.S. Army Command and

General Staff College graduation, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky (2009), The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Business

Press, Boston, Mass.

Sadowski, David and Becker, Jeff (2010), Beyond the “Hybrid” Threat:

Asserting the Essential Unity of Warfare, Small Wars Journal, Small Wars Foundation.

Training Circular 7-100 (2011) Hybrid Threat, Headquarters, Department of the Army,

             Washington D.C.


Copyright 2011 Dr. Bill J. Cojocar

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