War-gaming, Emergent Play, and Mission Command at Cass and Sandhurst - IEDP
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War-gaming, Emergent Play, and Mission Command at Cass and Sandhurst

Officer training colleges such as Sandhurst are one of the few institutions managing to achieve positive behavioural change – continually, and sustainably. Is there a secret sauce? – Something to be bottled for use in L&D?


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Cass Business School, IDG and Sandhurst are joining forces for the ‘Strategic Leadership in Action’ program running for the first time this June and September. We find out how they are weaving together the academic rigour of Cass with the ‘Mission Command’ philosophy of Sandhurst:

“I’m not sure it’s a secret sauce. I was on the staff at Sandhurst for nearly 20 years and Sandhurst has been around for a couple of hundred years – and what it alighted on, through practice – rather than any great academic research – was this idea that in order to develop leaders, you had to do three things;” Dr Ian Stewart, Head of Leadership Studies at IDG explains:

No. 1 - You had to inculcate a personal and professional identity as a leader. You had to feel that you are a leader. Not just do leaderly things. If Sandhurst does nothing else in its 44 weeks then it creates that sense of being a leader. Every one of those men and women who pass through the next commissioning parade will feel personally and professionally like they are a leader.

No. 2 - In order to develop people you have to put them in unfamiliar and challenging environments. That is both cognitively and physically. You have to stretch people. They have to feel uncomfortable in order to grow and develop; which is a lesson the developmental theorists discovered perhaps a little later than the military did.

No. 3 - Understand the organization you are joining, but also understand its environment. Organizations need to be able to flex, and change, adapt, and respond to the environment. The military understands this more than most. If you are in an operational theatre and you do not understand the opponent, terrain, or a host of other environmental factors – then frankly you can be the greatest leader in the world but you are not going to be any good on that day, in that environment.

All three of those factors are relevant to helping leaders develop - in any domain.”

[Sheepishly] When you say ‘uncomfortable’ - How challenging is the physical element to this program?

“The physical element pales in significance as compared with a Sandhurst candidates’ course! - But yes, there are some physical aspects to it. There are simulations, places we will take them – physically – that will make them feel a little uncomfortable. Don’t get us wrong, health and safety is paramount! No one will get hurt in the process! Uncomfortable can be simply getting them lost on a vast training ground, where they don’t know where they are and they don’t know what they’re doing. Sound familiar? A little like some business situations? – We’ll put them into those kinds of environments,” said Dr Stewart.

Dr. JoEllyn Prouty McLaren, CEO of Cass Executive Education at Cass Business School added: “Developing as a leader is so much about the range of experiences and the diversity of experiences that one has. Having the confidence to work through anything that comes your way – and being able to help carry others through it – that is what makes a difference. That’s where the physical side of this is really important. You’re stretching yourself beyond where you thought you might’ve been able to go. It’s about pushing boundaries and about trying to deal with the uncertainty and the discomfort that goes along with that – and then taking that understanding and confidence back into the workplace, where we’re pushing boundaries all the time. If you develop the confidence to deal with whatever’s thrown at you, then you’ll be able to lead people and help them feel secure in the middle of some very insecure and uncertain situations.”

What is ‘Mission Command’?

“When you look at organizational culture and organizational performance – right at the heart of it – is how you make decisions. That is always the final arbiter over an organization’s culture, and how it behaves and therefore how it performs,” explains Dr Stewart.

“The British Army in the late 1980s took on this idea of Mission Command. It’s really a formal means by which you empower those that you have the privilege of leading.

“Rather than giving an order to carry out a particular set of tasks in a particular way, you set an outcome. How your team goes about achieving that outcome is up to them. You give them the freedom to act within the constraints you give them.

“The other side of the coin is - not only do you have to give them that freedom – you also have to tell them, not just what you want, but what your boss wants - which then allows them a better line of sight on the strategic direction of the organization.

“I’m engaged in Task A and I see that actually there’s a better way of addressing your boss’ intent if I do Task B. I take the initiative. And that works all the way up and down the organization – theoretically - allowing the lowliest person in the organization to have a pretty clear line of sight on what you’re actually trying to achieve in organizational terms. It’s very difficult though. It’s hugely difficult!

Prouty McLaren adds, “No organization is smart enough, big enough, fast enough, intelligent enough - to know how to do everything. It’s the people inside that bring it to life. And it’s a leaders’ role to ignite that energy. And here is the interesting intersection between what we’re doing with IDG, Sandhurst, and Cass. In order to be able to do this inside an organization you have to fundamentally understand how the organization works and how all the different components of fit together to conduct business. If you don’t have that knowledge and understand it, technically, from the inside out – it’s very hard to help others deploy that strategy or to make sure they have the right building blocks to show initiative – that’s what the Cass faculty brings to this partnership.”

Professor Gianvito Lanzolla, Professor of Strategy at Cass, surmised; “Mission Command is the meta-level – it’s our philosophical approach. But that meta-level doesn’t work if you don’t have an understanding of the mechanisms and the technicalities of your business and its wider environment. That’s what Cass provides; not only the philosophical approach, but also the foundations, the knowledge pillars. In business there are paradoxes which have to be understood and appreciated first of all – and then to be managed, and challenged.”

On challenging the philosophy of Mission Command against the rigour of Cass academia:

Dr Stewart said, “Another lesson we are taking from the military in this program is the heavy use of simulation and exercise. Most military spends most of its time in rehearsal. In the military it’s called war-gaming, practicing – but practicing with an intelligent opponent. You do that because otherwise you can end up – in military terms - ‘fighting the last war’. You are very good at doing what you should have done five years ago. We need to help leaders practice the future, not practice the past. I think sometimes there is a tendency for us to do that in a business environment.

“We are really talking about “emergent play”. Open-ended simulation is where emergent play really starts to bring up those - not just dilemmas, because dilemmas are easy; you can just resolve those and make decisions – but those paradoxes – that have to be held and balanced – and that ambiguity that has to be tolerated and caressed – because out of that might come innovation and insight and creativity and a paradigmatic change in the way in which you do business.

“I’m always surprised when people think of play as something trivial. Anyone who’s got children knows how serious play is. Play is where you rehearse, where you explore, it’s where you manage new relationships, it’s where you make sense of the world – it’s an incredibly serious business!”

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