WorkMatters
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WorkMatters

Week 33, 2022—Issue 216

Wartime Leadership: Survival, Command, and Intelligence

Each week: three ideas to help you build better organizations. This week: three ideas on and about leadership in times of crisis.

It’s been more than 11 years since Ben Horowitz of A16Z wrote his widely influential Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO article. But with a recession looming, it seems more relevant than ever.

Let’s dig in:

1. Survival

The main thesis in Horowitz’s article is that companies need a strong hand in times of crisis. “In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.

2. Command

The ramifications are anything but subtle! Whereas peacetime leaders devote time to building unity and buy-in, wartime leaders do nothing of the sort; they are singularly focused on survival. They don’t have time for consensus building, nor do they tolerate disagreement. Wartime leaders need results like there is no tomorrow because, without those results, tomorrow might not come around. “Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.” Not because they want to necessarily, but because they have to.

3. Intelligence

All companies face existential crises at some point. And yet as Horowitz points out, management books tend only to “describe peacetime CEO techniques”. He writes that such books are often “written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand” and that they can’t teach us “how to manage in wartime like Steve Jobs or Andy Grove” or Elon Musk or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. Wartime leaders are demanding and intolerant when they need to be, and while their methods might not qualify for feel-good management books, Horowitz argues they are necessary for survival.

I’m a peacetime CEO in an organization transitioning to self-management. Should I be trying to arm myself with “wartime techniques” ahead of a possible economic downturn? I don’t want to necessarily, but maybe I have to?

Maybe.

Writes organizational design firm NOBL: Organizations and their cultures are always in conversation with their markets, so yes, a change in the conditions of the market should result in a response from your leadership and a possible change in your culture. But that response should be strategic; calibrated, not a caricature.

There’s definitely an argument to be made for building a broad-based leadership repertoire. After all, no company is ever in perpetual war or perpetual peace. Markets move and things change.

As long as I have the CEO role, I should be able to adapt. But I shouldn't rush blindly into battle. As NOBL puts it, I need to make sure my wartime response is strategic; calibrated, not a caricature.

Maybe you do too?

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: make it matter.

PS. Remember also that a recession does not necessarily a crisis make. As Albert Einstein said: “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

How can we build better organizations? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for the past 10 years. Each week, I share some of what I’ve learned in a weekly newsletter called WorkMatters. Subscription is free. Back-issues are published to Medium after three months.

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Andreas Holmer

Designer, reader, writer. Sensemaker. Management thinker. CEO at MAQE — a digital consulting firm in Bangkok, Thailand.