“How to Think, Not What to Think:” Adaptive Leadership Handbook Should be in Every Leader’s Desk or Locker

The core concept of the new book, Adaptive Leadership Handbook,  by Fred Leland and Don Vandergriff, brings to mind a quote from the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Like the more famous author, Fred and Don have built a leadership philosophy on a belief in the basic values, intelligence and creativity of human beings.  They believe in cops and soldiers. They believe that the key to building effective practitioners of the art and science of law enforcement lies in proper training and guidance, not in micro-management.  Tactical commanders must be helped to learn how to think effectively amid the chaos of conflict and their own physiological reactions to high-risk situations.

The authors promise on the cover to “Offer something different: a practical, proven way to become more adaptive, to improve both the speed and accuracy of your responses in the challenging worlds of law enforcement and security.”  The 280-page book, self-published by the two authors and available at Amazon.com, delivers on the promise.  The special value of this book is the practical and insightful advice on how to improve decision-making on the street.

The authors’ definition of “adaptive leadership” differs from the way Ron Heifetz, for example, and others use the term.  Leland and Vandergriff are interested in helping individuals improve their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  They are both effective tacticians and the weight of the book’s consideration of leadership is in the tactical setting.  In this, it will be especially helpful to the operational leader.  When a person adapts quickly and well, he or she naturally leads well.  Heifetz in his Adaptive Leadership is concerned with persuading leaders that their core activity should be mobilizing others — followers — to adapt to change.  Leland’s and Vandergriff’s work focuses on helping the operational commander make superior decisions.  Their take on individual and tactical adaptation emerges from the authors’ long and intensive study of the decision theory of John Boyd.

The basic technique they teach is Boyd’s method for improving the quality of decisions in fast-changing tactical situations.  Boyd came to his ideas in one of the fastest-moving tactical situations one can find: as a wingman in F-86 Sabres in aerial combat operations in the Korean War.  Boyd would bet anyone who would take the action that he could maneuver himself in less than a minute from disadvantage to advantage in a fight by using a decision-making method now known as the OODA Loop.

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one’s current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one’s current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

In 29 short, highly readable chapters they frequently use scenarios to teach practitioners how to train their brains to use the OODA method.

My favorite is Chapter 9: “Interaction, Insight. Imagination and Initiative…The Building Blocks of Police Operational Art.”  To roughly quote General Patton, every plan is perfect until the first shot is fired.  When conflict emerges the OODA method is most useful. Good planning is essential; Patton didn’t mean for people to just go helter-skelter through the door.  But once engaged, “you must always keep in mind that it is impossible to control how the adversary will respond to your actions.  So the goal is to control the adversary’s mindset with direct and/or indirect action, which take thinking and adaptability.”  That’s where the art and the OODA loop come in.

The authors argue, from Boyd, that even in close tactical conflict the advantage goes to the person who has trained his or her brain to make good decisions in rapid succession.  They offer practical suggestions on how to do just that.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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