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November 2020
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TD Magazine

Leadership Under Pressure

Three military leadership strategies can help managers of all industries lead during difficult times.

Leading under pressure is tough. From 2010 to 2011, I led a battalion of about 700 soldiers in combat in Afghanistan. Operating in a high mountain desert at 5,000 feet or higher in elevation, battling a robust insurgency, engaging with difficult Afghan leaders, working seven days a week, and having a challenging boss created an environment of constant pressure.

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The current global pandemic has brought its own set of challenges with the threat of infection, managing remote teams, the oversight of new protocols, and limited ability to travel. For managers leading in these difficult times, three military leadership tools—the operations order, the back brief, and leader decision exercises—can aid in navigating the challenges.

The operations order

This technique is a standard format for conveying information for a military plan. As a tool US soldiers have used in every conflict since the Vietnam War, the operations order comprises five paragraphs or sections: situation, mission, execution, service and support (or admin and logistics), and command and control (think org chart and communications plan).

In Afghanistan, the battalion I led used the operations order to convey yearlong campaign plans as well as short-duration missions. Using the same format every time for a plan enabled everyone to know where to listen for the information they needed (if they were receiving it orally) or where to look for the information (if they had a written copy). More importantly, using the operations order format forced everyone to think through all the elements of the plan.

Heading into 2021, many companies are planning their operations for the new environment. Are you writing the plan down? Does the marketing department have a plan? Does the sales team have a plan? Is the IT department synchronized to support the plan? Does everyone use a similar format to ensure the plan is aligned and nested? Keeping the operations order to one to two pages provides your team members enough of a framework, ensures they read the document, and enables them to retain their agility.

Each of the operations order's paragraphs helps you think logically through the plan and enables your team to accomplish myriad tasks. Developing the situation paragraph will enable you to think through the environment you are operating in and ensures you and your team have a common understanding of it.

The mission paragraph or statement gives team members the who, what, when, where, and why. That type of mission statement should be familiar to all businesses. But what really helps a team to handle the unexpected is the inclusion of your intent as three components:

  • The purpose, or the why—think about a slightly broader purpose than the mission statement that enables people to make decisions in your absence.
  • The key tasks that must be accomp-lished.
  • The end state, or what success looks like—for corporate organizations, I find it helpful for the end state to be measurable and tied to a date in the future.

The 3rd Battalion, 187 Infantry's mission statement was "Task Force Iron conducts counterinsurgency operations in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, to secure the population in order to develop local government capacity and Afghan National Security Forces and decrease the influence of the Taliban." Our leader's intent follows.

  • Purpose: Increase the safety and security of the Paktika Province.
  • Key task: Conduct counterinsurgency operations in conjunction with our Afghan partners.
  • End state: On December 31, violence decreased in the province 10 percent from the previous year.

A corporate mission for the fictional ACME Manufacturing during the early days of the coronavirus could be "ACME Manufacturing will make the best widgets in the market and organically grow 10 percent in 2020." And the leader's intent could look like this:

  • Purpose: Keep the team safe and employed.
  • Key tasks: Preserve cash and use money frugally—sales team must get orders (especially in the second quarter).
  • End state: By December 30, 2020, ensure the company has met 75 percent of 2019 sales and production.

The operations order's execution paragraph indicates the tasks your direct reports must accomplish. It also provides a platform to consider major tasks to accomplish by month or quarter. The final paragraph—the administration, logistics, and communications section—combines the military's fourth and fifth paragraphs into one. For companies, it provides instructions or information on recurring administrative tasks, support requirements, and communications to the organization and outside it.

Military veterans in your company may be using a version of the operations order right now to organize their plans. Even if you aren't a veteran, it is easy to use a corporate operations order format to help you consider all the facets of your challenges, build a better plan for your team, and help your team execute at a higher level under pressure.

The back brief

Another military tool that is worthwhile to add to your leadership toolkit is the back brief. Quite simply, the back brief (or brief back) begins when a leader says the task, pitches the plan, or gives instructions to a person or the team. Then, the people or person receiving the task, plan, or instructions gives a summary of the instructions back to the leader.

The strategy gives managers the opportunity to determine whether their team members properly understood the task, plan, or instruction. In short, in a back brief, you say the plan or instructions, then your team says it back to you in their own words.

In Afghanistan, leaders used the back brief technique every time after presenting an operations order to a team. If we did a combined mission with the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, we had to do the back brief in three languages—Pashto for the police, Dari for the army, and English for the US soldiers. Talk about a lot of opportunities to not understand the plan.

Some advantages of using the back brief include:

  • Both the leader and the team hear the plan twice.
  • Everyone walks away with a similar understanding of the plan.
  • The back brief eliminates the need for the team to have a meeting after the meeting to figure out what the leader really wants.
  • It provides an opportunity to refine or correct problems with the plan.
  • Team members pay more attention to the leader giving instructions because they know they will have to provide a summary back to the leader.

You can use a back brief in several ways:

  • Have each person provide a summary of their portion of the plan.
  • Have one person start the back brief and provide a summary of one part of the plan. Then ask another team member to pick up where the other stopped. Continue until your employees summarize each part of the plan.
  • If time is short, select one person to provide a summary of the entire plan.
  • If time is extremely short, ask open questions to team members who are responsible for the plan's critical aspects.

Because there is the chance that your direct reports will feel micromanaged or belittled when using the back brief, implement the strategy carefully. Consider these two strategies to avoid that pitfall when using the technique: First, model the practice whenever a direct report asks for assistance. For example, when your employee, Roberto, asks you to call Jennifer in sales because she is late turning in a report, use the back brief technique and say back to him, "So, Roberto, you need me to call Jennifer over in sales to get the report, correct?" The second way is to put the onus on yourself by saying to your direct report, "I don't think I'm communicating that well. Would you mind saying back what I just told you?"

Using the back brief will improve your communications, decrease miscommunications, and save you and your direct reports valuable time.

Leader decision exercises

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains that for individuals to develop a talent quickly, they need deep practice, ignition (or passion), and master coaching to reach the highest levels in a particular skill. One of the examples he cites is Brazil's ability to produce talented soccer players due to the country's love for futsal, a type of speed soccer played on a basketball court with only five or six players. Futsal gives Brazilian soccer players an edge, because its deep practice gives players more repetitions, demands precise handling of the soccer ball and sharp passing, and encourages improvisation.

But how does a company find its futsal to develop managers? One military technique that provides quick repetitions on decision making and critical thinking is the tactical decision exercise or the tactical decision game. Tactical decision exercises use a scenario that gives leaders the opportunity to develop a plan based on limited information and in a time-constrained environment. Think of them as a situational puzzle but one not as complicated as a business school case study. They require few resources and provide huge returns in developing managers.

For years, every month in The Marine Corps Gazette or Armor Magazine, the editors published a tactical decision exercise for readers to solve. Readers wrote their solution to the problem and mailed them in. The following month, the magazine published the best solutions. The technique was so popular that it migrated to police, security groups, firefighters, and others as a way to teach decision making.

A great way to train your team now—especially with social distancing—is to take the tactical decision exercise concept and change it into leader decision exercises. Use the exercises as part of a weekly meeting or as a dedicated leadership training event each quarter. They can encompass any scenario you and your team may encounter.

Here is a way to use a leader decision exercise with your team:

  • Develop a scenario (see sample exercise).
  • Give the scenario to your team via Zoom or Microsoft Teams by sharing your screen.
  • After everyone reads the scenario and asks questions, allot 10 minutes for each person to develop a solution.
  • Select an employee to talk through their solution with the team.
  • Facilitate an after-action review of the solution, answering four questions: What was the plan? What happened? What is one thing I should sustain, in my role or at my level, the next time this occurs? What is one thing I should improve, in my role or at my level, the next time this occurs?

The sample exercise above details a leader decision exercise for an owner of a restaurant chain; you can easily change it to any number of different businesses—grocery stores, gas stations, agriculture co-ops, etc. The chain's owner could use the scenario with her three managers as a training activity to develop their response to a large number of employees having to quarantine.

Leader decision exercises are a way for you and your team to develop and improve decision-making and communications skills. The leadership repetitions will help your business or team operate at a higher level.

Tools for success

Leading during a crisis isn't easy. Every day is a challenge in the current environment. The US military uses simple but effective tools to help its leaders perform better. Adding one or all of them to your leadership portfolio can help you and your team execute at a higher level, under pressure, in the coming months.


Sample Company Operations Order

Six-Month Plan, July 1–December 31, 2020

1. Situation:

a. The market

b. The customer

c. The competition

d. Coronavirus

2. Mission:

3. Execution:

a. Leader's intent

• Purpose

• Key tasks

• End state

b. Major events by month

• July

• August

• September

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• October

• November

• December

c. Key tasks for different business sectors to accomplish

• Operations

• Marketing

• Sales

• HR

• IT

• Accounting and finance

4. Admin, Logistics, and Communications:

a. Administrative issues and tasks

b. Logistics to support the plan

c. Communications

• To the board

• To the market

• To the company


Sample Leader Decision Exercise

Situation: You run a chain of three restaurants that serve great burgers and craft beers to customers in one state. Your restaurants, each in its own city, have an outstanding team of 45 employees and three restaurant managers. Despite the crisis, your takeout and outdoor seating sales are going well. You have enough cash to make payroll and pay the loans for one month. Your state does not have a mandatory mask rule. State unemployment assistance is not available for the employees.

However, the number of coronavirus cases is surging in the state. After a particularly busy weekend, you show up to work on Monday morning and read emails that state:

  • At Restaurant 1, the manager plus six out of 14 employees are in quarantine.
  • At Restaurant 2, four out of 16 employees are in quarantine.
  • At Restaurant 3, seven out of 15 employees are in quarantine.

What do you with your restaurant chain for the next two weeks? Take 10 minutes and develop a plan that answers:

  • What is your concept statement for the plan? (Try expressing it using who, what, when, where, and why.)
  • What key tasks must be accomplished in support of the concept?
  • How do you communicate the plan to your team?
  • What is your communications strategy with your customers?
  • What opportunity do you see in this crisis?
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About the Author

For the past four years, Colonel David G. Fivecoat (US Army, Retired) has had helped enhance the leadership of hundreds of individuals and improve the alignment of dozens of companies on battlefields and in workshops as the managing partner for The Fivecoat Consulting Group (TFCG).

Previously, Fivecoat served 24 years as an infantry officer. He led men and women during contingency operations in Kosovo and Bosnia, three combat tours in Iraq, and a combat tour commanding a battalion in Afghanistan—more than 41 months in combat. He culminated his service by overseeing the gender integration of the US Army’s Ranger School.
Fivecoat earned a bachelor of science in military history from the US Military Academy, a master of military arts and science from the US Army Command and General Staff College, and a master in national security strategy from the National War College. Also, he was the lead writer for the US Army Field Manual 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency, as well as numerous articles.

Fivecoat’s military decorations include the Valorous Unit Award, four Bronze Star Medals, the Army Commendation Medal with V Device, the Ranger Tab, the Master Parachutist Badge, and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He is a distinguished member of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade.

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