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From agile coach to the military officer: breaking stereotypes about leadership in the army

Every Ukrainian has their own story of how they met the full-scale war and how it changed them. As for me, on February 23 at 4 pm I was at the office of one of our agency’s clients. I spoke with the CEO and other top managers about the results of previous changes and we planned future transformations. It was the last normal business meeting I took part in. Because one day after, the Russian invasion began. I changed business offices to the self-organized bomb shelter in my house near Kyiv.

In March I decided to switch to protect the independence and freedom of Ukraine from the Russian aggressor. So, after 14 years in IT and 3 years in consulting, I’ve become an officer in the Ukrainian army.

It’s a completely new role for me. My father is an army man and my mother is an army woman. So, I knew a lot of military things from my childhood. But apart from military training at the university, I didn’t have any military experience. I’m not a professional soldier.

Moreover, there was no onboarding time. There were no buddies, no proper time for training, and the war was in progress, so together with other guys, we started to onboard ourselves in the fields from day one.

But it was just the beginning of my challenges. Then I started leading around 150 armed men who are not seated in one place, divided into units and geographically distributed. I haven’t hired any of them. We didn’t have any interviews or match the culture and competencies. Whether you like the person or not. I’ve got what I’ve got.

It sounds impossible to manage effectively in such crazy conditions especially if we add the problems of soviet methods of management, which are widespread, and excessive bureaucracy in the military service. But my coaching skills from a peaceful life gave me the power to cope with difficulties and even make a little leadership revolution in the military unit.

First, the Cynefin framework helped me to lead in chaos.

Cynefin model

It’s a decision-making framework created in 1999 by Dave Snowden. It says that, depending on what environment you are currently in, you should make decisions differently. There are five different environments and one of them is Chaos. And this is where all Ukrainians were in March when it was not clear what would happen, whether Kyiv would be captured by the Russian army or not.

I knew how to lead in complexity, according to the Cynefin framework. I should embrace uncertainty and shouldn’t worry about changing plans every 30 minutes. I just had to make small quick planning of the act and then act without waiting. And then sense the results of the act, get feedback, become smarter, and do another activity. And so on.

In contrast, my colleagues in similar positions in the Ukrainian army told me that they worry that they cannot communicate plans and other things. They spent a lot of energy and were nervous about it. I tried to help them by explaining that they simply shouldn’t worry about plans being ruined, that this is a norm in the Chaos domain. Sometimes they listened to my advice and felt much better.

Knowing the Cynefin framework also helped me in another way. If you are in the Chaos domain there are no best practices as your context changes. So if something worked before there is simply no guarantee that it will work again or in your dynamically changing environment. So you should be really careful when someone insists on best practices. This helped me to calmly ignore suggestions that I felt would not work. And instead of an imaginary “silver bullet”, act and create new practices.

Second, I always show empathy and consider soldiers not as subordinates but as people.

I know everyone from 150 soldiers by face. I know everyone’s names. I always try to have the opportunity to talk to them and understand their worries and pains.

For example, once I got a message at 6.30 am: “In 30 minutes give me 2 people that will go for Explosives Expert Training ‘’. I was advised just to select two people from the list. But I knew that the choice I make will change their lives, and they will be put in a really dangerous job. So I would better spend time finding two soldiers that would really like such a type of job, and that are psychologically ready for this. That’s why I didn’t assign people from the list but talked to them and we made this decision together.

Another message I got: “Give me 1 person from each battery that will be a medical instructor (without medical education). Deadline — right now.” Being a medical instructor is quite a risky job. Because a medical instructor is a target №1 together with a commander on the battlefield. So, I made a task not right now but I spent one day finding a person who could like it.

In this case, I broke deadlines but I stayed true to my principles about identifying and understanding what others think, feel, and believe. I incorporated empathy into my leadership when I was an agile coach. And I remain faithful to appreciate the needs of others in the army.

Third, I enable leadership on every level.

One of my favorite books is “Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders”. It’s about how the American captain led the team to self-organization. 95% of decisions were made and implemented without consultation and sometimes without notifying the captain. As a result, the boat that was the worst in the US Navy became the best, winning military training for several years in a row.

I was inspired by this book which was very relevant to my situation. Because the default leadership style in the Ukrainian army is Command and Control. But between Command and Control, there is an Option. And each of us, depending on our own experience, will choose this Option. I have decided to enable leadership on every level via delegation.

There is an Option between Command and Control ;)

Easy to say, hard to do. In order for Squad and Platoon leads to accepting responsibility I had to work on three things.

  1. Providing clarity.
Information Radiators

Some commanders wrongly think that if they have some secret information they have more power. The problem is that you quickly become a bottleneck as you are a container of information for other guys to move on. And they will bother you every 5 minutes.

Instead find the information that everybody knows or will know anyway, or the one that will not hurt to be shared. Believe me, there is a lot of such information. That’s why we provided “information radiators” to share useful information via visualizations and boards without barriers for the entire battery.

Information Refrigerators

Another problem is that in the army you should do a lot of reports every day. Sometimes the same information is asked but in a different format. That’s why we also implemented “information refrigerators”. We called them refrigerators because this information, unlike radiators, is opened only for Platoon leads. This is a huge table with a lot of information about each soldier in the battery and the different aspects of each unit.

Common task board for Platoon leads

Besides, we provided a common task board to be on the same page. It could sound simple but it was a revolution for some of the guys in the army because they have never used this tool before.

Also, we worked on a short feedback loop, so everybody can get answers to their questions or challenges as quickly as possible. We have decided to have daily check-ups twice a day, very early in the morning and very late in the evening. During the tough periods, we organize the review, retro, and planning on a daily basis. This is a short 15 minutes gathering that includes all three focuses: what have we done, what we can do better, and what we will try to accomplish tomorrow.

As units are distributed geographically, I cannot see everybody in one location. So I’m trying to see each unit face-to-face at least once a week, so they can ask questions and I can feel the atmosphere.

Finally, one of the biggest problems of our army was a lack of communication. Quite often everybody knew what to do but didn’t know why. For example, one day the commander asked me to take a picture of all the soldiers. I said: “Оk, but why? Is it for a passport or military documents?”. If you explain “why”, we could do it in a better way.

Sometimes I drive my commanders nuts by asking “why” questions, but this is the way of proper communication when you understand the objective and perform tasks better than just simply following some “what”.

2) Creating a psychologically safe environment.

Probably, we see psychological safety in the army like a “sir, yes, sir” meme. Some commanders learned in an old-school way in the Soviet era and some commanders learned from the ones who learned in the Soviet era. They tried to explain to me that the army is about command and control. “You shouldn’t be soft”, — they told me.

Seeking for learning instead of blaming

But I tried to explain that making mistakes shouldn’t lead to blaming people and that we just need to learn. Screaming is not okay. It’s about unhealthy culture, adding stress, and toxic leadership. We should only answer the question of what learnings we can take from the situation.

For example, we tried applying NATO’s key operational procedure — after action review, that is, post-operational analysis. Such an evaluation procedure allows for a quick analysis of the prerequisites for successful operations, and for analyzing successful tactics and management. We also made an analysis of unsuccessful operations.

As a result of not finding guilty people, but focusing on what we have learned and what we should change in the system in order to avoid such mistakes in the future, we have changed several procedures that minimize the risk of mistakes again.

It was easy for me to provide psychological safety for two reasons. First, I am not biased with “how-to-do-in-the-army” knowledge. Second, I don’t care about my career in the army, I have no plans to become a General in the army.

3) Raising competence.

When I came to the army one of the officers tried to explain to me that I need to have sanctions and benefits to motivate people. So, it’s about the carrot and stick approach. I said to him: “Yeah, I know about this approach. But it doesn’t work”.

Illustration of Daniel Pink’s motivation model

I prefer the model of motivation by Daniel Pink which says that people’s motivation will increase if you give them autonomy, set goals, and create opportunities for self-improvement.

For now, I’m focusing on the last point — creating opportunities for development. It’s about mastery and helping people to be better. When they have competence they become stronger and more motivated.

That’s why I organized a lot of training sessions. I found ex-soldiers with great knowledge and they made a base for training on different topics (medical help, tactical and technical characteristics of weapons, battle tactics, familiarization with the mine-explosive case, orientation to the terrain, camouflage and shelter, etc.).

So, providing clarity for making decisions, creating a psychologically safe environment for making mistakes, and raising competence help people to be ready for taking responsibility. And it means that you can delegate some of the tasks to Squad and Platoon leads, and to soldiers as well.

Delegation levels by Management 3.0

You can delegate things differently. According to Management 3.0, there are 7 levels of delegation, depending on how ready you are as a leader to lose control of some of your responsibility. As a battery lead, I’m still accountable for the tasks I have delegated, but I trust that they will manage better than me. And they feel better responsibility when they are performing the task and know that I have trusted them to do so. My job is to keep on providing clarity in what environment they are operating in, not focusing on blaming people but rather on changing the system and raising their competence.

For example, I delegated checking the availability of ammunition to platoon commanders together with department commanders. And nobody lost weapons or ammunition loads among the soldiers.

Also, I delegated the preparation of the rest schedule to the soldiers. They should agree among themselves and not disturb platoon commanders about permanent changes in the schedule.

My army story shows that it’s possible to be a different leader in the military, not as an authoritative command and control manager but as a servant and mentor to the soldiers. I see how my role model and leadership example become interesting for more and more soldiers in the Ukrainian army. And I will continue to provide a modern way of management that breaks down stereotypes about the leadership in the army.

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Dmytro Yarmak

Dmytro Yarmak

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Enterprise Agile coach, partner in agiledrive. Currently officer in UA Army. Passionate about Leadership, Agile and Software Development.