Adaptive Leadership: Lessons Learned from the U.S. Army Rangers

3 Ways for Leading Effectively in a Complex World

by Dr. Bobby Sanchez

The Task Force Ranger mission had been a complete success up to this point. The six-key lieutenants of the ethnic warlord, who had been terrorizing the country, were now under the control of the highly trained special operations soldiers. The takedown of the building and the securing of the enemy personnel went exactly as Task Force Ranger had practiced in numerous brief backs, rehearsals, and simulations. All that remained to complete the mission was the extraction and a quick exfiltration back to the relative safety of the ISB (Intermediate Staging Base). The special operations force leader confidently looked back on the objective building as he prepared to call for the extraction aircraft. Activating his radio, he called the flight lead for extraction, "Super 44, this is Delta 33, ready for extraction." There was no response. Immediately, the isolation force commander came on the net, "Delta 33, this is Romeo 36, both Super 44 and Super 48 are destroyed. Air extraction aborted!" 

At this point the members of Task Force Ranger knew that their fate had quickly changed. Instead, of looking forward to a successful mission and a quick flight back to the ISB, the force was faced with the loss of two highly trained crews and two of the most sophisticated aircraft in the special operations inventory. Additionally, the swarming enemy was beginning to mass and engage the small, isolated elements of the special operations force. Very quickly, the large volume of enemy small arms fire began to overwhelm the sophisticated, precision weapons of the special operations force.  Instinctively, all soldiers realized that they were about to face one of their toughest challenges. The nature of these problems is captured in the essence of a term known today in military and business as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). 

I had the privilege and honor of serving our nation as an U.S. Army Ranger for almost a quarter of a century. Reflecting back on my experiences such as the one I just described, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. Today, I continue to serve as part of something greater than myself by working with an organization which focuses on helping leaders grow and change their worlds. Our approach is to work with leaders who are serious about changing behavior and achieving peak performance. For those who are frustrated with constant change, we understand how you feel and can help you become the type of leader you aspire to be by giving you the tools you need for leading in a complex environment. First, allow me to give you a little background about the nature of the operating or business environment we find ourselves in today. 

As Kirk Lawrence argued in his research focused on developing leaders in a VUCA environment, the chaotic "new normal" in business is real. The ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty and volatile nature of the business world today is having profound changes on how companies not only do business but how they grow capacities and develop leaders at all levels within any organization.  The leadership abilities and skills which proved effective in the past are no longer sufficient for meeting the complex realities of the business environment in our world. Thomas Friedman, in his book The World is Flat, argued that the VUCA environment is taxing even the most able of leaders. Many of these leaders, Friedman claimed, were finding their skills growing obsolete as quickly as their organizations were reacting to change in their organizations efforts to remain competitive and relevant in a volatile, unpredictable landscape. Today, each of us are faced with the reality that leadership agility and adaptability are now required skills if organizations are to succeed in this VUCA world.

Rangers Lead the Way. Here are 3 ways to apply the principles of the U.S. Army Rangers in leading in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous, environment. 

  1. For leaders to be effective in a VUCA environment, they must take the time to visualize their surroundings beyond their functional area of expertise by listening and learning from others. Doing so will help leaders gain a better understanding of their surroundings while countering the effects of uncertainty and complexity. Ultimately, this will also help leaders make timely and informed decisions along the way.

  2. Self-Awareness is critical. Chaos comes hard and swift in a VUCA environment. One of the ways in which Rangers demonstrate self-awareness is by readily admitting what they know and what they don't know. They are trained to absorb information from their own experiences (and those of others) to navigate the uncertain and complex. They apply "outside the box" thinking in every mission they perform.

  3. Mental Agility is essential. The first priority is to accept the fact that it is going to be completely unpredictable. You just have to make the best of it. You’re not learning unless you’re operating in the zone of discomfort. Rangers can quickly adapt to the rapidly changing nature of any environment. They are comfortable leading with incomplete, imperfect information, or constant change. They learn to become comfortable, while not ever being complacent in an environment which requires them to constantly adapt their tactics or techniques. Adaptive leaders learn to live with unpredictability. They spend less time fretting about the inability to establish a routine or control the future and focus more on exploiting opportunities.

Apply these principles in your personal and professional life now and you will be amazed at the different ways you can tackle challenges while leading stronger organizations and teams. 

Keep Leading the Way and See You on The High Ground!