The Devil’s Paint Brush Within Organizational Leadership

The Philosophy of LeaderShaping, the off-spring of the «Six Levels of Leadership,» depends heavily on «Communications» and «Intelligence» to be successful. When one or both of these elements becomes compromised, the result is known as the Fog of War. In military terms, this phenomenon encompasses all of the confusions and miscalculations, which can occur during an actual combat situation. In the case of unsuccessful organizational behavioral influences within the business sphere, it is defined as swaying public opinion across popular culture due to misinformation or ambiguous reporting of the facts. The Fog of War offers a clear definition for the «Devil’s Paint Brush:» a description of the actions across any organizational body that causes immanent death over a period of time.

An organization dealing with uncertainties within its master plan, internally and externally, can relate to the Fog of War through a common event known as «Murphy’s Law» (that whatever can go wrong, will): the natural result of organizations and their leaders rushing headlong into situations of negligible visibility. Further, this is explained as the influences of externally induced obstacles, which disrupt internal goal-oriented/directed behavior and process. The results of this common event could be catastrophic, as leaders in an organization fail to recognize the intentions of their cohorts, or target competitive positions thought to be clear of the organization’s interests. A collapse in process can be attributed to the Fog of War.

When Napoleon still ruled most of Europe, a Prussian general named Carl von Clausewitz wrote a book entitled «On War» — one of the all-time, classic books on warfare and strategy, still studied in military academies worldwide. In it, he coined the term «friction» to mean all the things that fail in the chaos of battle conditions. It’s better known in business as Murphy’s Law: that whatever can go wrong, probably will.

In another chapter of the same book, «Intelligence in War,» he discussed the problems of getting accurate information in the middle of a military engagement (for business purposes, this is known as «Intelligence of Process»): the effects of occupational hassles on negative mood and effort exertion.

Communication failures can also occur as a result of the Fog of War. By not closely examining operations, leaders cannot relay vital and timely course corrections or competitive positions to their Centers of Gravity in real time. This action can place the organization in harm’s way. Such delays and miscommunications are typically blamed on the Fog of War, since competitors and foes (in some cases, these people reside internally) may have to improvise a new strategy or retreat without sufficient time to relay their actions to their own operations. The Fog of War can also be blamed (in some cases) when vital orders from leaders are unsuccessful in reaching the strategic and execution teams in time.

The concept of a Fog of War has come under considerable criticism over the years. But, in the last eighteen months, it has been pronounced due to economic instability and poor planning by leaders across industry. Political leaders, elected officials and public and private leader’s response to these allegations often includes an allusion to Fog of War, meaning that some failures were due to real-time confusions, miscalculations and non-effective response to injury — not poor planning.

Some critics charge that the military depends too heavily on the Fog of War defense to excuse their own actions or missteps. This same defense can also be argued in the business sectors, but either sector being considered, military or business, the defense «should» not be accepted on a frequent basis — as a defense to failure (excuse) or missteps — for it goes against the very reason that «leadership» was birthed. Here’s an example of the Fog of War at work in business.

Fog and Friction: Why Organizations Suffer from the Devil’s Paint Brush

In 2008, I had the pleasure of training a new client on leadership, execution and team building. For the sake of eliminating any instance of embarrassment, I’ll change the client’s name to ABC & Company. Their dilemma at the time was two-fold; first, they wanted to become a stronger, more cohesive working team. Second, they wanted to learn a better way to execute by improving the leadership culture across the organization. During the four months of their training, an interesting occurrence continued to show itself — an example for demonstrated «Intelligence of Process.»

While outlining the Six Levels of Leadership, the client quickly realized that their business (and its future), like warfare, was messy and uncertain. They also learned that what von Clausewitz wrote holds true on both the battlefield and in the boardroom. As soon as people move from the calm of planning meetings to the messiness of action, fog obscures the vision and friction confounds preparation. While actions fail to work as planned (friction), accurate information is missed, lost, or mangled (fog). Regardless of how things are expected to turn-out, «all best laid plans change upon first contact with the enemy.» Amazingly, and with all of their training, the client quickly learned that regardless of any amount of training and learning, behaviors not changed brings calamity to any well run organization or military unit.

Fast forward a year to mid 2009, the client found themselves dealing with the Fog of War in the most profound way. A senior official responsible for running one of the organization’s successful profit centers decided to leave for a new opportunity. In doing so, the senior official offered a resignation, effective thirty days from the date of submission. In this specific situation, the executive leadership’s actions fell fault to Murphy’s Law and the Fog of War all in one swoop. Because their culture was one that demonstrated a «hierarchal leadership» approach, one that was actually disconnected from the day-to-day operations of the specific revenue center, the resignation caused confusion, tension, adrenaline, and anxiety to govern the more important pre-events of the transition process.

If you create «battle» pressures within an organization — by a lack of leadership and timely communications, competitiveness, low employee moral, fear of dismissal, pressure to win no matter what, and tyrannical management — you’ll get what real battles bring: chaos, confusion, constant breakdowns, frantic levels of anxiety, and many unnecessary losses. By the last week of the resignation and leading up to the last day as a member of the organization, the senior official was faced with employee infighting, a lack of trust from the consumer markets, insubordination, rebellious attitudes, and disobedience. The culture across the organization along with the stresses, competition, anxieties and pressures increased fog and friction a thousand-fold. This is a clear example of the effects of occupational hassles on negative mood and effort exertion. Simply, this is the potential for the beginning of the end — and, if this is not a wakeup call for the hierarchal leadership culture across ABC & Company, it could be the end of the organization as a whole. Little do they realize, but the Devil’s Paint Brush is designing a masterpiece on the very canvas of the client’s organization and culture.

Ten Lessons to Overcome the Devil’s Paint Brush

Every business activity has to generate a benefit to the business; if it does not I suggest you change it or stop doing it; hence, the concept of the Fog of War. The implication is that you need to measure the productivity of a number of activities so that you can measure and improve their profit contribution. This is why it is important to outline a series of lessons to overcome the Devil’s Paint Brush. These are your levers of productivity for your business — «a common architecture, a common application and a seamless approach» by all stakeholders to combat Murphy’s Law. This segment explains the principles of execution to increase/overcome barriers to productivity. Simply setting goals will not achieve your objectives; managing the activity that produces the result is what really counts. As we begin to look at how-to overcome this fog phenomenon, it’s important to comprehend the words of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, influential thinker and the founder of analytical psychology (known as Jungian psychology): «The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.» — Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1962.

The lessons to overcome the Devil’s Paint Brush show you where to start:

1. Empathize with your Enemy. In order to limit opportunities for conflict, yet experience potential for peace, empathy must reside in all situations. However tough business and organizational needs might be, communicating with the enemy, empathically, creates an opening for successful outcomes. Empathy is the corrective action that overcomes all forms of misrepresentation and misunderstanding. Leaders using this strategy can remove themselves from their current emotional state, look at a situation through the lens of the opposing force and understand the thoughts that drive the decisions being made. The key to winning this strategy lie in your ability to know the enemy and how their culture responds to differing circumstances. In a military context, during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese Government saw the United States as wanting to replace the French Government to preserve colonial power. The United States saw the Vietnamese as another potential cold war power, similar to the Russian Government. In the end, both countries were wrong. Neither imposed the strategy of «empathy» to learn what the other actually wanted (strategic intent was never understood). In the end, hundreds of thousands died on both sides and life for both cultures changed forever.

In the business context, leaders can only win this strategy by remaining connected to the day-to-day operations. Keeping a finger on the pulse of the business, internally and externally, including the actions, behaviors and thoughts of all stakeholders, allows leadership to remain ahead of the curve. But, at times of uncertainty as when essential staff moves away from the organization to pursue greater opportunities, the incident cannot cause for alarm as in the case of calling the fire «out-of-control.» This is the time that the leaders are able to spread their wings and demonstrate the true strength and foundation of excellence — the true substance of the organization must prevail beyond the parties being removed. To be successful, leaders must empathize with the situation from all aspects (good and bad), understanding what is needed to use the situation as a growth opportunity, and get their hands dirty to realize how-to maximize the talents of the remaining human capital. People are the greatest asset to any organization, so this means that the leadership must be able to understand the thoughts and feelings of others — their internal and external customer. This cannot be done if the leaders are disconnected from the daily functioning of the organization or department being effected.

2. Understand «Rationality» as the No-Safe-Zone. I remember watching a fantastic movie titled, «Thirteen Days,» staring Bruce Greenwood and Kevin Costner. The film is set during the two-week Cuban missile crisis (Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba) in October of 1962 and it centers on how President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and others handled the explosive situation.

In October, 1962, U-2 surveillance photos revealed that the Soviet Union was in the process of placing nuclear weapons in Cuba. These weapons had the capability of wiping out most of the Eastern and Southern United States in minutes if they became operational. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors had to devise a plan of action against the Soviets. Kennedy was determined to show that he was strong enough to stand up to the threat, and the Pentagon advised U.S. military strikes against Cuba, which could have led the way to another U.S. invasion of the island. However, Kennedy was reluctant to follow through because a U.S. invasion would have cause the Soviets to retaliate in Europe. A nuclear showdown appeared inevitable and the question to ask now, some forty-seven years later is this: «how was it prevented?»

This story offers one of the greatest lesson for leaders to truly understand how-to win the strategy here. I encourage you, the reader, to rent the film from your local video rental for a lesson in leadership, patience, communications, strategy and the Fog of War. Having a true understanding of the actions from both presidents, Kennedy and Khrushchev, during this tense stand-off teaches just how fragile «rationality» actually is in times of uncertainty. It was later found out in a meeting in 1992 that the Soviets had parked 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads in Cuba during this critical moment in the crisis.

In the business context, leaders must have a proven process by which individuals are selected to be leaders, given they possess the required attributes and style that best fits the organization. Leaders responsible to the selection process must be equipped to make the best decisions to maximize the greatest payoff distributions. They must select the abilities after removing the noise inferred ex post from the immediate observed outcomes. The framework design to follow must offer a model, which leaders’ judge relative to three different outcomes: First, risk must be considered at all levels of the organization. Behaviors and personalities coming together as ineffective ingredients can have a greater cost to the organization than any newly appointed incoming/ineffective leader. Second, «overconfidence» must be considered to ensure the actual needs of the organization are not being underestimated. This can cause a potential appointment decision to be based on «rationality» rather than «best practices» to meet current and future needs. Third, numerous implications for the analysis of real-world leadership and organizational behavior, new product development, relation of risk-taking to an organization’s situation and culture (past, present and future) must be discussed (i.e. one who underestimates project risk, has a higher probability of being chosen as the leader than an otherwise identical rational manager). Rationality can in fact cause a «No-Safe-Zone.»

3. Maximize Efficiency, Decrease Ineffectiveness. Time is critical and has a value that is mostly misunderstood. Efficiency must be a major consideration when faced with serious issues. Maximizing efficiency requires both «incremental change of process» in the way things are being done today, and «fundamental change» that brings on greater gains in efficiency for the future. Another aspect for consideration on this topic is «acceleration.» As we venture into the new world after the down sizing of the global business sphere, we’ll begin to see the need to do more with less — less cost, less time, less risk and less redundancy. To win this strategy, leaders must learn to increase efficiency across all aspects of their information infrastructure, deploy the most energy-efficient common application platforms for best practices, simplify their processes of compliance with regulations and policies, utilize the benefits of the digital age (automate IT management platforms and archetypes), secure accurate and trustworthy information at every level to execute strategically and flawlessly, and aim to be a strategic partner that enables the success of the people and organization simultaneously. Experiencing high levels of success in this area not only maximizes efficiencies, but also leverages expertise to help the organization emerge from areas of uncertainty stronger than ever into the future. All of these actions (and some not listed) decrease ineffectiveness across an organization and offer, to a leader, the many opportunities to be more effective within their operations.

4. Proportionality is an Absolute Guideline that Fails — within Reason! Some people seem to pursue an intuitive definition of proportionality in warfare: that the civilian casualties in war on either side should not be significantly higher than the civilian casualties on the opposing side. But, the actual definition, from international law, does not define it that way: the incidental or unintended harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by an attack on a military objective. The question now is this: which definition makes more sense, the intuitive one or the legal one? One problem with the intuitive definition is that civilian casualties on one side could be used to justify deliberate civilian casualties on the other side. But, the official version is also problematic because it seems to justify any number of civilian casualties if the military advantage is judged great enough. Neither formulation, however you examine them, offer a quantitative comparison, which means that in any war, people holding different biases are unlikely to agree on whether or not proportionality was actually observed. Simply stated, «proportionality» in the military context is all about the rights and wrongs of killing civilians.

Proportionality in the business sense also has parallels to the definitions above, only it is outlined as a strategy to win. How, you might be asking yourself. Earlier, we outlined the definition for the Fog of War as the «actions across any organizational body that causes immanent death over a period of time.» One of the actions that leaders fail at is taking care of their organization’s greatest asset — the people. The principal fundamental asset of an organization is its people. They are the engines that drive performance and make things run. Without people, nothing can be achieved.

If leaders fail to inspire greatness from their people, they’ll quickly establish a guideline of perception that things such as profit and process has a greater value. This action is one that promises to cause immanent death to an organization. The key is to establish «Success Traps» that help individuals achieve Personal Proficiency to increase Professional Mastery. Leaders must be able to get people to answer a few questions:

— How do «I» respond to problems and challenges?
— How do «I» influence others to my point of view?
— How do «I» respond to the changing pace of the environment?
— How do «I» respond to rules and regulations set by others?

And, they too must be able to get their people to answer the following questions, as it relates to the overall state — and the future state — of the organization as well:

— Do «I» know where the organization wants to be in the future?
— Do «I» know what the organization will apply its resources against to achieve its Future Picture?
— How will the organization apply those resources? And, how might «I» contribute in the process?
— When and under what conditions will the organization exit from its current strategic plan? And, what influences will «I» contribute to ensure greater success to its outcomes?

It basically comes down to a single issue: «does leadership help everyone in the organization lead upwards? And if so, do they reveal the secrets of Service Performance Management to everyone?» In the current economy, facing the challenges of a deepening global recession with limited financial resources; many organizations are charting a new course. As business leaders navigate this evolving terrain, it is important that they satisfy the demands of customers, employees, and vendor relationships — and develop new strategies that address the economic, social, and environmental impact of their business processes and practices. This is where service performance management adds value: Strategies to create business and societal value to provide the strategic clarity needed to align performance and service oriented management to business and organizational strategy, and hold individuals accountable while managing successfully through the downturn.

When leaders take care of their people, «proportionality» becomes a non-issue. But, when they do not value their people as their greatest asset or forget, immanent death over a period of time (shorter rather than later) is realized.

5. Achieve the Data — Optimize its Resource. Machines that run at high speed demand constant and abundant lubrication to prevent friction between the moving parts. Slower-speed machines need less. Running a machine, or a business organization, faster than it is designed to perform is the perfect recipe for provoking the maximum number of breakdowns. This is even more true when an organization is being forced to operate efficiently and effectively on a daily basis. Although its design requires peak performance, without the proper data to optimize its resources, things will go wrong and the leaders will experience the Fog of War.

Speaking about the need for data quality helps organizations generate the right form of business intelligence and assist leaders with making the right business decisions that becomes the game changer for the people and organization. The key to maximizing the data relies on a simple acronym that is all too familiar: GIGO — «Garbage in, Garbage out.» Data integrity is essential to an organization’s success and the leader’s ability to make great decisions.

6. Belief/Seeing are both often WRONG. «We see only what we want to see, and in most cases, our judgment in the face of chaos, causes us to be wrong — and right — when we only see half the picture.» Tom Petruno’s Money & Co. Blog back in April, 2008 talked about Wachovia Bank’s shareholders wishing that they could have a «do over» of the bank’s major foray into California. What he was referring to at the time was Wachovia’s 2006 purchase of Golden West Financial, the California lender that specialized in so-called option ARMs. As mortgage loan losses soared in 2008, Wachovia was forced to slash its quarterly dividend payment by 41%, from $.64 a share to $.375. At a time that the business world, more specifically, the financial markets were imploding, Wachovia was stated as saying «California really is bad and the acquisition of Golden West Financial was riskier than we initially thought» (Source: Goldman Sachs & Co. report). The Golden West Financial organization didn’t just specialize in option ARMS, it lived, ate, and breathed them. According to Bloomberg News, «99% of Golden West’s mortgage loans were option ARMs.» You wonder, then, how it’s possible that Wall Street didn’t recognize how risky these loans were until, um, today (April 2008). Leaders must learn to take heed in the lesson that others have paid the ultimate sacrifice. The key to winning this strategy lies in a keen ability to «achieve the data and optimize its resource — and, understanding that there’s more than what meets the eye!»

7. Prepare to Re-Examine your Reasoning. Robert S. McNamara, the Eighth Secretary of Defense for the United States serving under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, is quoted as saying: «Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let’s look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don’t have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don’t remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.» He is also quoted as saying: «What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.»

What an amazing leadership lesson for us to learn from. These words are profound in a way that stipulates the reason to develop GREAT teams across an organization — and, hold them accountable for their actions and their leaders for the decisions being made when executing strategy. The greatest mistake that leaders can make is not reexamining their reasoning for moving forward with a decision. Responsible leaders develop a framework, or adopt a proven model that provides their people with a toolkit to think strategically, assess financial implications of their decisions, mobilize change within the organization and communicate with other business leaders. These actions help their managers and team leaders to chart the future of their departments, as well as manage for bottom-line performance in real-time. When a leader is able to perform in this manner, he/she provides engaging opportunities for others to specialize in a specific area of career interest. Having the confidence to remove yourself from popular culture, the «Art of Detachment,» and reexamine your reasoning, eliminates opportunities for mistakes to be repeated — by ALL parties.

8. Learn to Win Good by Engaging the Devil. Again, quoting Robert S. McNamara, he stated: «How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.» This statement is in relation to the many awful things that took place in Vietnam. But, it still rings true today for the battles that are engaged by leaders in the business battle space. Sometimes, doing the right things means «not» doing what is right. Small business owners are faced with this dilemma day after day. However you look at it, it comes down to a decision having to be made. What do you do when you have to make a decision to speak an untruth because the circumstances are not right and the outcomes from the truth will do more harm? Here’s a way to deal with this dilemma.

In most cases, the Fog of War in business are the prime causes of loss and wastage in organizational settings — waste of money, time, effort, manpower, and resources of every kind. They turn opportunities into fiascos and cause excellent plans to fail. The world is already a turbulent place; there’s not much that you can do to change that. It makes no sense to add to your problems through self-inflicted and unnecessary pressure. So, the best way to avoid the effects of the Fog of War and ineffectiveness within the organization is this: slow down and operate from a clear Memorandum of Understanding that provides a common architecture, a common set of applications and a requirement of teams to complete the necessary tasks to win.

It is important that you, as a leader, have the necessary time to be proactive in order to limit any risk while moving forward (the difference between making a «compromise» vs. being «compromised»). When things go wrong, as they often do, do not switch into a panic mode, yet operate as if all is OK. The only way to pull this off is to learn how to remove yourself emotionally from the scenario you found yourself in, get reliable feedback from your peers, ensure the information (data) is accurate and uncompromised, make decisions with the future picture in mind (don’t win the small battles ONLY to lose the big war), and flawlessly execute to win.

And, if you’re wise, you’ll have expected failures along the way, prepared your contingency script and continue with non-missteps and limited surprises. Take time to let the fog clear and the dust settle. Most situations are less pressing and critical than you think. Success in business rarely depends on split-second decisions; but, in some cases, success may require you to come into the devil’s living room. When this happens and you are faced with asking yourself the question posed earlier in the segment, or a question that is unfavorable, keep the future picture and mission within sight. Engaging the devil may have to occur; when you must, do so with stunning insight and perspective. The cleanup when it’s all over must be as limited with work as possible and its cause cannot be revisited by you.

9. Never say Never — Never say I Can’t! Winning this strategy is simple: one of the lessons I learned early on during my service as a United States Marine is this: Never say never — never say I can’t! Never, never, never, never… say never or I can’t. And more importantly, never answer a question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you and do it honestly. Quite frankly, it is my opinion that if leaders follow these two rules, they’ll find themselves in a pretty successful position and be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience. These rules offer a simple approach. These rules are very easy to follow.

10. You Can’t Beat a Man at his Own Game — Human Nature. Here’s one last quote from Robert S. McNamara: «We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, is not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.» There’s an old adage that says «everything that’s gold don’t shine and people waiting in a long line do not constitute that they are waiting for something that is good.» Any military commander or business leader who is honest with him/herself, or with those they are speaking, will admit that he/she has made mistakes in the application of military power or in making sound business decisions. In order for leaders to win this strategy, human nature must be paid attention to at all times.

The Summation

The final lesson as we close this article is one that explains how leaders don’t just become prisoners of their perceived success. They also become prisoners of their errors. Avoid the Devil’s Paint Brush, even when you refuse to see it headed in your direction.

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