The Environment —What sea are you Swimming In?

The Fourth Element of Gen Zinni’s Leadership Qualities Model is the “Environment.” “The new leader has to understand the environment he and his organization must operate within.

The leader and his organization must be learning entities that constantly take the pulse of the dynamic, complex, and ever-changing environment swirling about them.”

Leaders of every kind – in government, corporations, military commanders, or academic institutions – function in a much more complex and complicated world today than most of them grew up in. Understanding the new world is critical to survival and success.

“The guerilla is like a fish swimming in the sea.” Wrote Mao Zendong, the master of modern insurgency doctrine. “The fish cannot survive without a sea to support it.”

For guerillas, he said, the sea is the people. Guerrillas must be sensitive to the people, understand them, and build and nurture relations with them.

Unless a significant part of the population backs a guerilla force, the guerilla force cannot survive. If a guerilla falls out of tune with the people, he loses them.

According to Gen Zinni, the pulse of the people has to be   monitored constantly by both insurgents and counterinsurgents. For both, winning “hearts and minds” relies on understanding and adapting to a very complex environment.

This is true in virtually every endeavor. How many businesses fail because they don’t understand location, customer desires, the competition, or other market realities?

How many fail to see the trends that will lead to their demise if they don’t adapt?

Any leader who intends for his organization to survive and flourish must be intimately familiar not only with the sea he swims in but with what he must do to swim in that sea. This requires adaptive leadership.

Whether his sea is a battlefield or a marketplace, a leader has to know and understand all the components that comprise his environment and how they interact and impact his enterprise if he is to successfully function in it and influence it.

If he does not, his organisation risks becoming irrelevant in this dynamic, competitive, twenty-first-century, adapt-or-die world.


What is the Environment?

An environment is the entire space within which an enterprise operates. It includes the nature of the enterprise, its external functions, its influence, its stakeholders, its partners, its resources, the challenges and threats, other enterprises influencing or supporting its efforts, natural conditions affecting it, the competitors, regulators, or governing agencies that affect its functions and set the rules, and any other factors, entities, or conditions that impact its functioning. It is a vast sea.

Along with rapid radical change, one of the strongest marks of the new world order is the growing interconnection of environments previously limited to smaller realms. These intersecting environments further complicate any understanding of our space.


Understanding the Battlefield

Back when Gen Zinni was a Marine Corps tactics and operations instructor, he used to teach a course called “Combat Concepts.” In one part of the course he covered what he felt were the four principles for mastering the military environment i.e. the battlefield: understanding, assessing, and influencing the environment, and execution (fighting the battle on that prepared, or shaped, battlefield).

Commanders not only have to effectively read and understand the battlefield; they also have to sense the dynamics of the battlefield and shape it to their favor prior and during the fight.

As in a battle, a leader of any enterprise can fail, survive, thrive, or master the field. No leader can be effective unless he clearly knows how to sense the environment, analyze it, influence it, and shape it.

The ability to sense is not enough; the leader also needs to affect his environment.

This process starts with accepting the reality of the environment – not what we want it to be but what it is.

We should not deceive ourselves: Understanding our sea takes time and effort; initial impressions are more often wrong than right; and any influence we can exert over it does not  come quickly or easily.

Too often planning does not credibly assess the operational environment. We push an unrealistic plan, hope or desire in the face of reality this major command flaw is what the military call “falling in love with your plan.”

Commanders become reluctant to change or adapt in the face of an environment that is causing their plan to fail.

They remain in denial and don’t want to adjust or adapt to reality that is rendering their plan ineffective, or worse.

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” That is, you learn about your environment through the process planning.

Though the product i.e. the plan may not survive the “fog and friction” of war, if it  is done correctly, your planning effort will give you the depth of understanding to adjust, react, capitalize on opportunities, and foresee challenges. Fall in love with the planning and not the plan.

What may seem logical from corporate headquarters many not be logical out there where business is done. The leader can never stop asking hard questions about himself, his organisation, and the sea he and his organisation swim in.

And he can never be satisfied with the answers. It is too easy to believe the sea is the one we want or that the sea will stay constant and calm.


Where Do You Fit?

It is important for leaders not only to understand but also how they fit within it.

This understanding also includes an assessment of how the enterprise stacks up against the competition in given field.

A leader must ask himself questions like these: What are the barriers of entry into my field?

What are my signature capabilities, how relevant are they, and how do I retain their uniqueness?

What are my limitations and weaknesses, and how can I mitigate their negative impact?

Is my environment changing, and am I adapting to meet the changes?

From the lowest to the highest levels of the military leadership, before plans are made and orders issued, we have to go through a process called an “estimate of the situation.”

Though these estimates usually become more intricate and elaborate as you go higher up in command, the component parts are basic to all levels: We analyze the mission we are given to glean the specific and implied tasks we must accomplish.

We judge the enemy’s strengths, capabilities, and vulnerabilities. We analyze the terrain and weather. We assess our own capabilities and resources. We examine time and space constraints we must deal with.

More recently, mighty military powers have added an assessment of the cultural environment they are supposed to be operating within. A process like this, adapted to your particular enterprise, should be routine in every endeavor. Your world may be changing or shifting under your feet.

If you don’t have the process in place to constantly sense and influence the changes, you will miss opportunities and become vulnerable to challenges and threats.

According to Gen Zinni  too many leaders out there today have misread their world producing too many failed leaders. However, he believes a rising few are succeeding in this confusing sea of change.

This is because this new generation of leaders makes a concerted effort to understand the changing environment.

They embrace the new world and adapt, and they don’t curse the darkness or the confusion. They are innovative and opportunistic. They are not reactive. They will not let this world pass them by.

Capt. Sam Addaih (Rtd.)

The writer is a lecturer at the School of Development Management, Ghana Christian University College



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