Assessing One’s Leadership
It is insulting to the term to say that leadership merely is something. As an action-oriented process, leadership actually does something in the real world, producing a set of conditions that ultimately define an organization, its reputation, and its approach to life. At its best, leadership produces optimum conditions from which true teamwork flows and monumental achievements are realized. At its worst, it destroys individual and collective loyalty to the cause, both in the Marine and in the Marine’s family, with disastrous consequences too numerous to detail.
What leadership actually does, of course, should be no arbitrary matter. Ideally, a forward-looking orientation enables leaders to identify those specific conditions in the command environment they actually want their leadership to produce. We know this orientation by another word—vision—and it remains a critical aspect of any leader’s existence. Simply conceiving of these conditions, however, is a nice intellectual exercise, but one that guarantees nothing. Leaders at any echelon would do well, then, to implement the active process of assessment, most often associated with operations, as a proven approach to measuring how well their leadership is actually doing relative to what they intended it to do in the first place.
Operationally, assessment measures the effectiveness of the employment of capabilities, military and otherwise, to determine progress toward “accomplishing a task, creating a condition, or achieving an objective.”1 Assessment includes the development and monitoring of specific Measures of Performance (MoP) and Measures of Effectiveness (MoE), as well as other related indicators, tasks, effects, and objectives.2 The MoP, generally quantitative, measure friendly actions related to task accomplishment. The MoE, generally more qualitative, support larger objectives and are
used to assess changes in system behavior, capability, or [the] operational environment …[and] tied to measuring the attainment of an end state, an objective, or the creation of an effect.3
As a process, assessment includes three interrelated activities: (1) continuously monitoring the current situation to collect relevant information so that we know what is happening; (2) evaluating information to gauge progress toward attaining desired conditions, with an effort to understand why things happened and the corresponding risks and opportunities; and (3) recommending or directing actions for improvement.4 (See Figure 1.)
Operation assessment is best understood through its many descriptors: evidence-based, continuous, forward-looking, personal, commander (leader)-centric, collaborative, quantitative, qualitative, and hierarchical.5 Assessment requires an enduring regard for organizational success and mission accomplishment. To best support effective decision-making, it also requires refined human judgment, intellect, and ample perspective on the larger picture—the ultimate purpose of the effort or “the why” behind an organization’s existence.6 For maximum effectiveness, assessment is embraced early in planning, never casually or irresponsibly forced upon operations just prior to or during their execution. Assessment is most certainly not about colorful briefing slides. Also decidedly action-oriented, assessment is focused on changing the operational environment to enable success. As such, a formal assessment process naturally complements any leader’s active efforts to change his command environment for the better.7
Implications for Leadership
The proposition stands: if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll have no idea if you are on the right path to get there. Worse still, you’ll likely never know when you’ve arrived. No operation should, therefore, proceed without a well-formulated assessment plan that serves the needs of the commander. Likewise, no leader should exercise his leadership without due regard for its effectiveness in delivering the desired results he envisions. Just as operation assessment seeks to make operations effective, leadership assessment seeks enhanced organizational effectiveness, and there are benefits to individual leaders in any organization that are too meaningful to overlook. They include:
External orientation. Leaders who adopt assessment methodologies to gauge the actual effectiveness of their leadership naturally embrace an external orientation. This orientation is properly focused on what their leadership can do to enhance the organization and every individual within it, as opposed to an internal orientation focused on what organizational success can do for them and their careers. An external orientation is the most important aspect of any leader’s approach to the business.
For reference, there are multiple data points that highlight the primacy of the external orientation, if it was not obvious to the reader already. Consider Gen Joseph F. Dunford’s advice to a group of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen attending his 29 March 2016 address on global challenges at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
With regard to leadership … I’ll just remind you—it’s no longer about you. You know, to this point, someone cared about your grade point average. Someone cared about your level of physical fitness. Someone cared about your personal appearance. Someone cared about your accomplishments, your achievements. The day you become commissioned, that’s all in the sticker price of being a leader …
You get no credit anymore for any of those things. What you get credit for is the impact that you have on the young men and women that you’ll be so fortunate enough to lead.8
Also consider the must-read article, “The Bathsheba Syndrome,”9 by Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker. The article focuses on King David, a charismatic, visionary, and influential leader who, plagued by his sense of privilege, ultimately suffers from a debilitating internal orientation and regard for personal success, one that ultimately breeds complacency and indifference. This internal orientation ultimately proves catastrophic to his effectiveness as a leader, a set of circumstances no less possible today. While the leadership lessons of “The Bathsheba Syndrome” are plentiful, a careful read of the piece magnifies the primacy of organizational success while eschewing an internal focus on oneself. A fully implemented leadership assessment process would do the same.
Self-reflection. An enduring commitment to a leadership assessment process layers self-reflection over an external orientation, a powerful combination for any leader. Don’t be confused: this is not a contradiction to the value of the external orientation. Yes, self-reflection is internally oriented, but it is focused on the efficacy of the leader’s specific actions. It is not done for the personal benefit of the leader, however. Instead, self-reflection is done for the sole purpose of allowing the identification of new or modified leadership approaches that have a better chance of realizing those desired conditions in the command environment that emerged from the leader’s vision. Said approaches can then be reviewed and enacted in the recommend and direct step of the assessment process for the purpose of organizational betterment and mission accomplishment.
Leader awareness. A leadership assessment process is likely to generate far greater leader awareness of individual and collective human dynamics within the organization. It avoids detachment and connects the leader to his organization in a truly meaningful way. Put another way, assessing one’s leadership should allow a leader to get to know his organization far more intimately than would otherwise be possible. This is really fun stuff and likely includes some gritty, personal, in-the-trenches type of work, a purposeful place among the people of the organization where leaders should truly enjoy spending time.
Greater bonds. Related in its demand for an external orientation, the leadership assessment process seems likely to strengthen connections—bonds—between leaders and followers in both personal and professional ways. These human connections are the manifestations of effective leadership and consistently underpin our institutional success. When a leader who embraces the assessment process regularly ventures forth into his organization to determine the effectiveness of his leadership, only positive results emerge. Human-to-human connections are strengthened through these efforts, and, more importantly, new ones are formed. These connections will most likely lead to greater belief in the leaders by those they lead, with organizational cohesion and sustained success across many endeavors very likely to follow.
Unity of effort/purpose. Organizational leadership assessment, properly guided and framed, can produce a significant measure of collaboration, common awareness, unity of effort, and unity of purpose within a single command. Assessment, operation or otherwise, should be thought of as a team sport, and as a commander (leader)-centric activity, it takes commitment to leverage multiple sources for understanding and clarity. One way to do this is to reap the benefits gained from the simultaneous application of leadership assessment across multiple echelons in an organization, with each echelon able to benefit from the assessment efforts of the others. This gives leadership assessment an organizational and hierarchical quality, as opposed to merely an individual or single echelon of command quality, and likely generates more sustainable success as like-minded people all work toward the same end.
As an activity, assessment is not without its difficulties, and this article does not intend to imply simplicity in its application to leadership. Human factors and the complicated relationship between cause and effect, the same elements that plague strategy formulation and execution and warfighting at any level, offer some real complications that cannot be overlooked. An appropriate amount of self-reflection and external orientation can assist leaders so they are poised to see these complications and hopefully manage them effectively.
Cause and effect.10 Systems with any measure of complexity, to include any organization involving people of different backgrounds and motivations, have the real potential to thwart a direct relationship between cause and effect. Predictability and certainty are difficult.11 In the realm of leadership, where human beings interact and minds and mindsets remain enduring targets, cause and effect can be exceptionally complicated. How does a leader know with any measure of certainty that his leadership is producing the right thinking or the desired result or that actions are happening because of the leader and not because of some other interaction of circumstances? And if the assessment process reveals that desired results are proving elusive, how does one know what modified approaches will actually produce the desired results?
These are extremely complicated questions that require great organizational understanding, refined judgment, and heaps of clarity to answer. Only by physically venturing regularly into the organization, and by making an effort to truly understand the “organizational system” of individual emotions, motivations, interests, problems, fears, and concerns, can a leader even begin to generate worthy answers. While such venturing provides no guarantees of complete clarity, it is an essential activity in the monitor and evaluate steps of leadership assessment and an absolutely necessary one in informing sustainable change. This reinforces the active nature of the assessment process.
Human factors. Although the monitor and evaluate steps produce awareness, the recommend and direct step produces impact. It takes well-developed insights to identify the actions one deems necessary to attain desired conditions in the command environment, but it takes will and decisiveness—and maybe even a good sense of timing—to actually implement them effectively. Assessment is meaningless if there is no will to change course, even if only slightly, or to do something differently to attempt to produce those conditions that had heretofore proven elusive. Here, human factors may compete with or derail progress outright, as pride, overconfidence (my leadership is effective simply because it is mine), indecisiveness, fear (of failure), or indifference, among other factors, work to foil focused and timely actions that essentially pull the full assessment process together.
Applying one’s leadership without regard for what that leadership is specifically intended to do within the organization is a potentially wasted effort. It is most certainly an unguided one. By comparing actual results with desired results, the operation assessment process, doctrinally founded and practiced by the operational Marine Corps, provides a valuable approach to preclude such waste. Where this three-step process is applied to leadership and zealously implemented as an organizational and hierarchical effort, the benefits are great. On the other hand, where leadership assessment is discarded and indifference replaces zeal, the benefits are lost. Leaders up and down the chain of command can capitalize on the deliberate implementation of a leadership assessment process as an effective way of measuring what their leadership is truly accomplishing in the real world. Even if implementation of the process proves difficult, which it will, doing so at least recognizes that leadership is actually expected to produce something in the real world. More importantly, implementing such a process will avoid insulting a word that means so much to all who hold the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor so dear.
1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Commander’s Handbook for Assessment Planning and Execution, (Suffolk, VA: 9 September 2011). For further discussion, see also Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations.
2. In the realm of leadership, a Measure of Performance, or MoP, might be the number of Marines who have successfully completed PME courses or the number of small unit leader conducted counseling sessions during a specified period of time. A Measure of Effectiveness, or MoE, might be the increase in chain of command reporting by small unit leaders on potentially erratic or suicidal behavior. Unlike MoPs, which measure task accomplishment, MoEs measure changes in the operational environment or, in this case, the command environment.
3. Commander’s Handbook for Assessment Planning and Execution.
4. Air Land Sea Application Center, ATP 5-0.3/MCRP 5-1C/NTTP 5-01.3/AFTTP 3-2.87, Operation Assessment: Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Operation Assessment, (Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA: August 2015).
5. These descriptors were derived from the various resources cited in footnotes in this article. The list here is not all-inclusive.
6. For more on “the why,” I recommend watching the TED talk by author Simon Sinek called “Start with Why.”
7. This “formal” approach, what this article commends as the preferred approach, is characterized by the establishment of a deliberate assessment plan, complete with objectives identified by the leader, supporting MoE, MoP, and other indicators, as well as mechanisms to gain feedback. This deliberate approach would almost certainly be written down and published by the commander as direction to subordinate leaders. Generating unity of effort, it would serve as the unifying document for assessment plans of lower echelons of command.
8. See discussion at http://www.dodlive.mil.
9. Among other places, the article can be found at http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu.
10. See also the discussion in Commander’s Handbook for Assessment Planning and Execution.
11. For a fuller perspective on this, read Gen James N. Mattis’ 14 August 2008 memorandum for Joint Forces Command, “Assessment of Effects Based Operations.” Among other places, it is available at http://smallwarsjournal.com.