What America’s Wars Teach Us About The Importance Of Strategic Decisions

Through multiple wars, we learned that decisions can have unintended consequences. To face down the pandemic, we need strategic leaders in all organizations to step up and help shape the new world.

As organizations face new challenges, such as the Covid-19 virus, it is critical that leaders plan strategically about the future. The future will change – but not without risk. A good strategic plan focuses on where the organization is today, where we want it to be in the future given the environment we operate in, and then plotting the road map from here to there. A leader must plan for a desired outcome but also consider the risk profile associated with that strategy. To achieve the strategic goal all levels of leadership (direct, organizational and strategic) must work together.

During my 37 years of service in the U.S. Army, I had the honor of serving in three armies, all U.S., and each different. I had a bird’s eye view of what a difference strategic thinking really makes. My strategic leadership journey began as a junior officer working directly for the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA). It came full-circle 21 years later when I found myself on the “other side of the door” in the CSA office. This time the issues were much tougher.

The Vietnam War

The first army was the Vietnam Army, a draft army whose mission was ill defined. It is hard to win the hearts and minds of people when your metric of success is body counts and whose institutional values were not understood (My Lai).  Personnel policies did not promote cohesion or professionalism and organizational culture was based upon survival in most units. The attempt by the administration to not mobilize and to consider as affordable both “guns and butter” turned out to be wrong and created a trust divide between the military and the American people.

My boss, General Creighton W. Abrams, understood this well. When he was selected as CSA in 1972, General Abrams immediately took steps to get us back on track. The country decided to support a volunteer force, which helped bridge the “trust divide” between the military and the people they swore to protect. This change meant the Army had to think differently about our responsibilities for protecting the nation. General Abrams immediately directed a Professionalism Study be conducted and serve as the strategic blueprint for the Cold War Army.

The Cold War

The Army Mission during the Cold War—defeat the Soviets on the plains of Europe—was short, powerful and gave us realistic focus. We recruited quality people (“Be All You Can Be”), Congress provided us quality equipment (Big Five), and we trained realistically to include live fire exercises at our training areas both at home and overseas.

The Be-Know-Do leadership framework (Be a leader, Know what a leader does, and Do it), provided us a means of professionalizing the undervalued non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, our critical middle management. They quickly became the backbone of our Army. Leaders at all levels concentrated on building teams by ensuring that everyone understood what they did was important and contributed to the mission. After Action Reviews and Lessons Learned became part of our battle rhythm. “Professional,” “Quality,” and “A Team of Teams” best describe the Cold War Army and were primary reasons why we won that war. My experience with the Thayer Leader Development Group, confirms that these traits apply equally well to civilian corporations.

Post-Cold War

The Cold War gave way to the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) world. Knowing that change is necessary and when to change are strategic decisions of enormous importance. We had to convince the Army that we needed to change. The fall of the Berlin Wall and Operation Desert Storm (ODS) occurred nearly simultaneously. ODS was very successful and because of that not everybody felt the requirement for change. But our threat-based force of the Cold War would not be able to meet the diverse challenges of the New World Order and we knew we had to mix and match capabilities much faster to deal with the full range of possible threats we saw in that future.

Satellite-based systems had proved their worth in ODS and we saw them as the best return from our projected resources. The cornerstone of change for us was a common operating picture (COP) consisting of, satellite based Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Based upon our experience in ODS, we defined the requirements for the COP in terms of the need to answer three simple questions “where am I, where are my buddies, and where is the enemy? We knew if we could answer those questions, we could revolutionize the way future wars are fought and best answer the challenges of the VUCA environment we faced.

Lessons Learned

We learned that the Army, a team of teams, was also—like most corporations—a complex organization. It had to be agile and adaptable to meet the full range of challenges we faced. We also found that sometimes our decisions resulted in unintended consequences.

In streamlining our structure to improve efficiencies, we cut it a little too much and the result was Aberdeen, on the surface a sexual harassment/misconduct scandal, but whose strategic implications were much greater. Because of the actions of a relative few, we were in danger of losing the trust of the American people who had given us their most precious assets, their sons and daughters—and we had failed to properly take care of them. Out of this crisis came the Army values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (LDRSHIP). While the problems of Aberdeen were uniquely military in nature, the solutions were universal. These same values have not changed and remain a part of our culture.

While missions sometimes changed as we collaborated with others to help defeat terrorism and stabilize the world in which we lived, our strategic purpose—to win the Nation’s wars— never did. We were mission focused/value-based and we empowered everyone to do the right thing based upon our values. That strategic orientation drove other critical decision such as: how we develop, train and evaluate our leaders; how we involve leaders at all levels in the decision-making process; the criticality of the after-action review in our learning culture; and how best to align our team of teams both horizontally and vertically.

In the three Armies in which I served I experienced what a difference a good strategic plan makes. It often is the difference between success and failure. Today we face a difficult crisis (VUCA on steroids). The world we are used to has changed and we must figure out what that means for our future and that of our children. Medical experts and scientists will help us defeat the Covid-19 virus but the structure of the new world will be determined by us. This is the time for strategic leaders in all organizations to step-up, plan and help shape that new world. That is the importance of strategic decisions and that is what leaders do.

Together we can make it happen.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events