Knowledge to Performance
© 2004 FrontLine Defence (Vol 1, No 3)

A consultant once expressed admiration for the corporate vision and leadership of a well known, highly respected Chief Executive Officer, a major telecommunications company. The consultant marveled at the dynamic turn the CEO implemented within his corporation to maintain its competitive edge. But what he didn’t acknowledge were the consequences this “turn” left in its wake. Social devastation occurred in the local economy as a result of massive job losses and social and ­individual psychological consequences occurred due to decisions to expand the company into areas that were arguably outside of its core competencies. It raises the question of what is leadership in the construct of making tough decisions such as those faced by this CEO.

The Decision-Making Process
Is corporate leadership any different from the leadership displayed by U.S. president John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis? Can leadership be measured by financial success? Quick results? Is it someone who gets things done? Perhaps it is. While personal magnetism may be an important attribute it can only take a leader so far before the “emperor’s new clothes fall off.” Personal attributes and personality traits, characteristics and qualities such as determination, confidence, competence, courage, resolve, integrity, ethics, loyalty, morality, purpose, persistence, vision would all seem to be part of a good leader’s makeup. But who can measure themselves up to those kinds of values and standards?

Good leadership is part and parcel of many things. Combined with sound judgment and knowledge (synonymous with experience and training), leadership implies hard work and solid preparation and planning. Its soundness is hinged upon resolve and the ability and flexibility to recognize risks, learn from mistakes, observe, reflect, adapt and act decisively when the going gets tough.

Irving Janis, in his account of the Cuban missile crisis, notes Kennedy’s successful leadership during the crisis could be attributed in some measure to his failure in the Bay of Pigs operation. The lessons learned from that experience were not lost on Kennedy and he went to great lengths to ensure he didn’t repeat the same mistakes.

During the crisis, Kennedy exemplified leadership built upon a strong foundation of responsible and “vigilant” planning and preparation, objective analysis, resolve and a knowledgeable group of advisors who were not afraid to take calculated risks and disagree with one another’s analysis of the situation. If Kennedy and his advisors had thought of the antagonists in the usual military stereotypical way it is conceivable the military advice provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs would have won the day. Luckily for the United States and the world, Kennedy and his executive group adopted a mixed strategy of “coercive diplomacy.” That strategy – know the enemy – hinged upon role reversal such that ­necessary restraint de-escalated the ­situation along the lines of specific and calculated rules of engagement.

Knowledge: A Leader’s Key Resource
Some researchers view knowledge as integral to a continuous cycle of learning, skill and performance in which knowledge is captured from performance as it is happening then applied again as the conditions and situation merit.

The analogy, used by Lloyd Baird and John Henderson in their book, The Knowledge Engine, of a two-stroke engine is an appropriate one in which a “knowledge to performance, performance to knowledge” continuum leverages know-how as an important corporate, organizational and individual asset.

From performance comes new knowledge as lessons learned, which can then be applied to improve future performance. Accordingly, this two-cycle approach could be viewed as an essential resource for leadership in the form of a “knowledge engine” that is integral for situational awareness, survivability and growth – but within a commonly understood operational environment.

Knowledge becomes both a strategic and tactical asset that when captured, transferred and applied, has the potential of being a “force multiplier” in the decision-maker’s tool kit. In some respects corporate knowledge could be viewed as a leader’s ultimate resource system in achieving his objectives.

The Decision-Making Process
Is there anything different between the fundamentals that went into Kennedy’s decision-making process and those required by the new information age? At the strategic level – when hard work is involved, when the risks are great and the consequences serious – probably not. The only thing that may have changed is the operational environment and the ­situational awareness required of the decision maker.

Author John Dingle explains in his book, Project Management: Orientation for Decision Makers, that in order to decide an issue, we need to define the situation in which the issue arises: analyze it (what is the aim, what are the causes and risks, what options do we have); choose the preferred option; and act on it.

This sounds somewhat simplistic but what isn’t revealed is the enormous amount of work that goes into such a process. The process of coming to a decision, be it in project management, military action or any other endeavour, may appear cumbersome but is normally a process built from years of experience, best practices and lessons learned.

Problems often arise when the process is circumvented. But not all issues are so complex as to require considerable detail in the preparation and planning of a course of action. A decision could be intuitive or it could require analysis or discussion based upon available information. The fundamentals, however, are the same. The complexity of the situation and degree of risk will determine the nature of the decision, its approach and the amount of work that has to be undertaken in finding an acceptable course of action.

Decision attributes of action, observation, reflection and adaptation are also important at all levels as they will provide critical information necessary for flexibility and adaptability to adopt an alternative course of action if necessary. If a course of action is faltering, the leader must be able to adapt his plans then act again but under strict “rules of engagement.” These rules are designed to ensure a situation does not inadvertently escalate out of control.

Leadership is a complex notion. Some have a predisposition for it and others never will. The fundamentals of good leadership however, may be masked by a culture that equates leadership with financial reward, quick results, style and charisma and not necessarily to good performance, hard work, behaviour, competence and the quality of the ­decision-making process.

Knowledge and the quality of decision-making are crucial elements for the success of any venture or initiative for leader and manager alike, especially when taken in the context of a manageable resource. But one thing stands out very clearly: the preconditions for a ­successful outcome, as reflected by the successful “coercive diplomacy” of the Cuban missile crisis, were similar to the preconditions identified by John Dingle for successful management of a project.

Preconditions of proper planning and preparation, identification of the various courses of action, associated risk, contingencies and backup plans are integral to successful decision-making. Situational awareness, knowledge of the operational environment and competency of the decision maker and his team could also be viewed as attributes equally important to the hard work required in any decision-making process.

Lieutenant Commander John Morrison is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Knowledge Management program at Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C. This article is excerpted from his thesis: “Against Better Judgment – Escalation of Commitment and its Effect on Leadership, Knowledge and the Decision Making Process.” Morrison works in the Directorate Maritime Requirements Sea; Command, Control Communications and Information Systems, at National Defence Headquarters.
© FrontLine Defence 2004