Leading the Cool War: Building a Sustainable Network inside the Ivory Tower

By: COL Imre Porkolab, Hungarian Army

Some people argue that a new cold war is going on, but the characteristics of this war—which Frederik Pohl has called a cool war—have totally changed.1 This cool war, which is also referred to as a shadow war, is being waged against often unseen and networked insurgents and terrorist organizations. Nations that engage in this kind of conflict are drawn to the apparent promise of operating in secret, and also to the mass disruption and irregular warfare that seem likely to be the prevailing form of conflict in the future.2 There is no shortage of targets in this war, and it is likely to be a protracted one. A less discussed benefit of this cool war, however, is the unprecedented transformation and constant adaptation that are being demanded of the military forces involved, which is quite an interesting subject if we want to get a sense of the skills required and patterns for future organizational and leadership development. 

Building capabilities that are fit for fighting this new kind of war and that will provide lasting value requires deep strategic foresight, research, and an understanding of the future operating environment. As Richard Slaughter writes in the book Thinking about the Future, "Strategic foresight is the ability to create and sustain a variety of high quality forward[-looking] views and to apply the emerging insights in organisationally useful ways; for example, to detect adverse conditions, guide policy, [and] shape strategy."3 But I believe that the safest option we can choose today is not to prepare for specific events but rather to prepare Special Operations Forces and our leaders for the inevitable complex challenges that lie ahead and then make this transformation sustainable. 

Although the challenges of irregular warfare have been with us for at least the past two hundred years, we are still looking for answers to the main questions: who will be the masters in future conflict, and what leadership skills will help us prevail as we face future security threats? In the Western world, we have some restrictions as well. We would like these masters to belong to our bureaucratic organizations, so maybe the more specific question to ask is: How can we build integrated leaders, who can successfully counter challenges in unconventional and highly complex situations, yet are able to operate as part of a larger bureaucracy? How can we build a network within the Ivory Tower?4

In this article, my main goal is to explore the leadership aspects of future warfare and show why integrating unconventional leadership is a key aspect for all organizations that deal with massive disruptions and complex problems. I also contend that embracing the concept of integrated leadership is a must for all future leaders. My case study, which focuses on the cultural shift within one particular organization of the U.S. Special Operations Forces, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), seeks to understand how a networked organizational culture operating within a bureaucracy can be a model both for operations and for developing future leaders. In the course of analyzing this case study, I have come to understand three points, in particular:

  1. An unconventional leader must have a completely different mindset from a conventional one, a mindset that focuses on the constant and relentless development of the self and the organization. An unconventional leader understands that the individuals within the organization need to be ready to decide, move, and act faster than the opposing force, or even the circumstances. 
  2. Unconventional leaders also have to have a different focus. The ability to comprehend multiple inputs enables them to integrate seemingly disparate and diverse organizational cultures and fuse them into one integrated unit to be able to operate within larger bureaucracies. 
  3. We need to develop a different understanding of sustainability. Staying in the comfort zone of what is familiar is the most dangerous option these days. It is vital to prepare the organization to be not so much robust and resilient as transformative, or "antifragile," meaning they actually improve when shocked.If an organization is willing to change its ways and adapt to the new demands of the shifting context, it will thrive, not just survive. Thriving is the new survival strategy.  

 The defining characteristic of irregular warfare is the small size of its fighting units and tactics that use these units in innovative new ways. John Arquilla describes three forms of irregular warfare: special operations, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism.I have chosen the first form as my case study, and through an analysis of the organizational culture and leadership aspects of transformation within JSOC, will identify some essential leadership skills for the future.I chose to study JSOC because the organization replaced its cumbersome, conventional linear bureaucracy with a shared informational and operational environment that has encouraged both a mindset and cultural shift within the organization, and has enabled its branches to streamline and work more efficiently toward a common purpose. 

Transforming the Organizational Culture for Sustainability 

The recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have transformed JSOC into the most truly joint command within the U.S. military.The operational tempo at present is unprecedented and provides notable results, but inevitably brings up two often overlooked questions: is it sustainable and is it adaptive?

A recent book by General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded JSOC from 2003 to 2008, and two articles about him published in open-source journals shed some light on the organizational and leadership skills used by the force to track down and eliminate a highly elusive and networked enemy. These works enable us to identify lessons learned from the transformation of JSOC into a global counterterrorism force.

Leaders believe that they need to know how to build resilient organizational cultures. But to succeed in the shaping of an organizational culture, first they have to recognize that their own values play an important role in transforming the culture of the organization they lead. Furthermore, if these leaders are to build truly enduring organizations that will stand the test of time, they have to be aware that organizations are living entities: a collective of human beings who form group structures and operate in complex, adaptive systems like any other living entity. Sustainability is therefore much more than survival or even resilience; it is about thriving.

If an organization is to become a sustainable living entity, it has to be able to adapt. In fact, adaptability is perhaps the most essential component for any entity to thrive. To understand how leadership promotes adaptability, I have chosen two specific qualities—mindset and focus—that a leader should be aware of when dealing with adaptation and cultural shifts within his or her organization. 

Develop a Growth Mindset to Skyrocket the Organization out of the Comfort Zone 

If we want to build an integrated, sustainable, and adaptive organizational culture, we need a specific mindset, which then acts as a spark and ignites the leadership transformation process. Focus is best understood as the direction, or channel, that guides the leader during this process. It is not enough, however, to initiate the changes and carry them through; the new culture must survive (even in the absence of the original leader), and sustainable paradigms can fuel the process of change even after the leader is long gone. 

The best thing about our mindset is that we have the power to shape it. Studies show that most people (leaders of large organizations among them) are terrible at estimating their abilities. If they have a growth mindset, however, and they are oriented toward leaving their comfort zone for unknown territory (where they face obstacles and where learning can take place), they need accurate information about their current abilities in order to learn effectively.10 People with this unconventional growth mindset believe that even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. Such people may appreciate endowment, but they admire effort, since they believe that effort is absolutely necessary to develop ability and turn it into accomplishment. According to this mindset, the hand dealt is just a starting point for development. 

This growth mindset was a precondition in JSOC's organizational adaptation to becoming a network, and developing such a mindset has presented JSOC with not only technological and organizational challenges but leadership challenges as well. McChrystal realized the necessity of this precondition and pointed out in an interview that "if organizations aren't ready to move faster, their decision-making processes become overwhelmed by the information flow around them."11 McChrystal understood instinctively that for JSOC to be successful it needed not just to survive, but to thrive through the development of unconventional leadership. 

Unconventional leadership is not a new phenomenon. It has been with us throughout the ages, and leaders of irregular warfare have long understood the importance of these skills. Unconventional leadership, however, is quite different from the mere exercise of authority. A compelling vision is necessary to convince key stakeholders to endorse the plan, but even this vision is not enough to make someone a leader. True leaders will attract followers and collaborators who support their vision and buy into it with their own energy and ideas. This is a key to success in the new strategic environment, where we very often have to find solutions under the pressure of time. Unconventional military leaders realize that when they are facing complex situations, operating with decentralized decision making is difficult. The conventional hierarchical military decision-making process implies that the leader at every level of the pyramid is the person in charge of deciding and directing everything below him. By implication, the highest-ranking individual is the one who always has the deepest understanding of a problem and the best solutions. This perception is entrenched in the military, but it is unsuitable for highly complex asymmetric situations, especially when we are facing adaptive challenges, because it compels people to stay inside their mental comfort zone. 

Staying in the comfort zone provides a false sense of security.12 As our modern and complex environment changes rapidly, organizations are constantly bombarded with complex problems, and they need to adapt and learn if they are to overcome these problems. Success in a highly complex and difficult environment is about changing qualities, stretching to learn something new, developing oneself and the organization, and staying in the zone of learning. People with an unconventional mindset do not just seek challenge; they thrive on it. The bigger the problem, the more they stretch, and sometimes they stretch so far that they do the impossible. 

The opposite end of the spectrum is the conventional (fixed) mindset. Success for such thinkers comes from proving themselves within a limited environment. They thrive on safety and familiarity. Because they believe that intelligence and skills are fixed traits, the thought of developing such qualities further does not even occur to them. People with a conventional mindset react to failure by seeking to repair their self-esteem (by blaming others or the circumstances) instead of trying to grow and learn. 

Conventional wisdom says that military units are most likely to succeed in the field when they follow strict command-and-control procedures. Militaries are organized and trained to operate in a hierarchical, rigid top-down structure for a reason, and they tend to stick to this system, which suggests that most military personnel are likely to be closer to the conventional end of the mindset spectrum. But in an asymmetric conflict, when facing an irregular enemy, a leader with a conventional mindset who encourages his troops to settle in the comfort zone, sticks to doctrine, and does not want to experiment with new ideas will eventually lead those troops toward failure. 

Focus to Achieve the Multiplier Effect 

Most people would think that focusing on one thing is easy, but it is actually pretty difficult. Learning to focus on one thing is possibly one of the best things a leader can do, and is one of the most overlooked areas of leadership. Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs wonderfully encapsulated this idea when he pointed out that people think focus means saying yes to the one thing that requires your attention, but in fact it means saying no to a hundred other good ideas that are clamoring for attention. From this perspective, focus has two important components: the first one is setting limits (through eliminating what is unimportant), and the second is concentrating on the priority. 

To make JSOC more effective, McChrystal first prioritized the development of partnerships with agencies to fuse intelligence and synchronize operations. Working together, the agencies redesigned the bureaucratic ways in which information traveled up the decision-making pipeline and developed a real-time information-sharing environment.13 In the next phase of organizational transformation, JSOC combined all elements of intelligence (to find the enemy), drone operators and signals intelligence specialists (to fix the target), various teams of Special Forces operators (to carry out the operations), and analysts and experts in exploitation and crime-scene investigation (to pull together and exploit real-time information and feed it back into the cycle for further analysis). This constituted the full cycle of the operations called F3EA (find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate). Such a process was a game changer in modern warfare. The network was operating at speeds that have never been seen before, as the direct result of a new leadership approach that encouraged decentralization, intelligence sharing, and decision making at each respective level of planning and operations.14

The latest studies reveal that maintaining focus is what distinguishes experts from amateurs and stars from average performers.15 Psychologist Daniel Goleman also explores this phenomenon and suggests that attention and focus are key to high achievement in many professions.16 We tend to think of attention as a switch that's either on or off (i.e., we're either focused or we're distracted), but that is a misperception. Focus comes in three varieties: The first variety is "inner focus," which is mainly self-awareness and self-management. The second is "outer focus," which is the ability to recognize broad patterns and complex systems. The third is "other focus," which is the ability to feel empathy for others. 

While outer focus is strong in people with the conventional mindset (military leaders who are depicted as great strategists, for example, often do not worry too much about the consequences of their decisions), other focus is more likely an unconventional trait. Unconventional leaders are very sensitive to people, and are motivated to develop the people for whom they are responsible. This empathetic concern is the main reason why an unconventional leader is considered to be a "multiplier." Leadership expert Liz Wiseman points out that the ability to extract and multiply the intelligence that already exists within them is the holy grail of efficiency for organizations that need to make the most of their limited resources.17 This multiplier ability, along with their natural empathy, can make Special Operations leaders ideal candidates to fully embrace unconventional leadership and cooperate jointly, not only with other military personnel but also in a broader context with all kinds of stakeholders, to successfully carry out the mission. 

Decentralizing command and control in JSOC was just the first step on a long road toward adaptation. To become a learning organization (one that is able to constantly adapt to new circumstances and information), JSOC leadership needed not only to synchronize and fuse different service cultures but also to provide a unifying vision for the entire endeavor. The techniques used at JSOC had a spectacular effect on SOF, and the United States appears willing to deploy these warriors throughout the world wherever they are needed against an irregular threat. These changes support the idea that smaller networked units can (1) have a decisive strategic effect, (2) be especially effective against irregular opponents (the disruptive, complex, adaptive challenges that lie ahead), and (3) be developed, maintained, and deployed for a fraction of the cost of a large-footprint solution because they provide a multiplier effect. 

The multiplier effect gives them the ability to fight alongside or through the local population, and to integrate and develop personnel from other organizations in support of the mission. Skillful leaders use psychological appeals, and bring genuine compassion and understanding of the opposing forces and all key stakeholders to this force development process. Through the multiplier effect of using everyone to the peak of his or her ability, unconventional leaders are able to increase the group's output without actually increasing the number of people working on the project. In today's resource-constrained environment, this is an effective approach to increasing operational tempo and mission effectiveness. 

Foster Sustainability to Thrive 

Something that is fragile, like a glass, can survive small shocks but not big ones. Something that is robust, like a rock, can survive both. But robustness is only the other end of the survivability spectrum, and can be as much of a dead-end goal for Special Forces as fragility. There are systems, however, that are antifragile: they feed on volatility. Some systems, like the ones explained by Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction, innovate, progress, and become resilient after a disruptive event.18 The implications are clear: if we want to build organizations that are sustainable over the long term, we need to make them antifragile. 

Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb revived the old theory of hormesis, which suggests that a small dose of a harmful substance can actually be beneficial to an organism.19 Rather than merely restoring system equilibrium, the organism under stress overcompensates by building resistance beyond the immediate need in anticipation of future stress; the hormesis response in effect predicts or anticipates the organism's future.20 Such an adaptation is not simply robust; it is adaptive and thus antifragile. 

Leaders can build up their skills to be antifragile themselves, and can develop this quality in their organizations as well. Just as our muscles get stronger when subjected to the stresses of walking long distances and lifting heavy things, our minds become sharper and more flexible when we deal with mental difficulties. Our hearts are strengthened and our self-confidence grows when we face problems in life and find a way to succeed. 

The prototypical model of antifragility, according to Taleb, is not simply hormesis, but evolution. Evolutionary antifragility operates at the group informational level. Unlike with hormesis, those units that undergo disruption develop attributes that improve the collective of units, and so the entire collective—in our case, JSOC—evolves to withstand such disruption in the future. Thus the antifragility of concern here is the organizational culture, which must be able to survive any given leader. From an organizational perspective, it is imperative to understand that while individual organisms such as group leaders are relatively fragile, the gene pool—the organizational culture they have created—takes advantage of shocks. Just as for a species, stress and harm are necessary for an organization because they trigger evolutionary adaptation in the surviving leadership and guarantee that the future form of the organization will be stronger.21 

Sustainability is necessary to win the protracted cool war, and not just the battles in this war. Thus JSOC—and all forces operating in this environment—needs to adapt constantly, to transform itself into an effective organization that is capable of supporting tactics such as sustained swarming attacks, as well as integrating and institutionalizing its networked organizational culture within the larger bureaucratic military system.22 

Final Thoughts 

Successful leadership through turbulent times and complex challenges not only results in organizational and procedural changes but also changes people's mindsets and the organizational culture as a whole. Leaders like General McChrystal typically operate in such a way that their subordinates do not experience anything remotely similar to the conventional model of "following."23 These leaders recognize that all people in the organization can be unconventional leaders if (1) they are trusted, (2) they have a level of independence to make decisions, and (3) they play an integral part in the transformation process. Unconventional leaders are also constantly reaching outside of their organizations to find new ways to adapt to a changing environment, and they work to fit the new organizational culture into the larger bureaucratic system of which they are already a part. 

Most of us would assume that to adapt, a leader needs to choose from two distinctly different options: conventional thinking and unconventional thinking. The conventional way to do business is based on refining and streamlining operational processes, which improves the system's capacity and encourages people to use the existing business model. The unconventional option requires experimenting with innovative alternatives to what people are already doing, going beyond the traditional boundaries and moving out of the comfort zone to search for new possibilities and explore new options. 

Shifting an organization's culture is a mental balancing act, and effective leaders will continually explore new, innovative avenues while retaining and streamlining what is already working.24 This balancing act does not come naturally. Good leaders constantly move between the two approaches and test which option brings better results. Leaders therefore need to master both approaches, especially the less well-understood methods of unconventional leadership. 

Complex problems and culture shifts present not only stress, but possibilities as well. By the time conventional leaders understand that the world has actually changed, they have often squandered most of the time and energy they had to adapt. Unconventional leaders who have a growth mindset and the ability to focus on multiple factors know that off-the-shelf strategies, although they can streamline the organization's operations, will not change the game! These leaders want to make their organizations antifragile, and they are the best asset organizations have to achieve what is necessary for the organizational culture shifts that lie ahead in the age of the cool war. 

About the Author(s): COL Imre Porkoláb is presently the Hungarian National Liaison representative at NATO Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia.


1. Frederik Pohl, The Cool War (New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1981). 

2. Ibid. See also John Arquilla, Insurgents, Raiders and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (Lanham, Md.: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), 279. 

3. Richard A. Slaughter, preface to Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, ed. Andy Hines and Peter Bishop (Washington, D.C.: Social Technologies, 2006): http://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/ uploads/2008/06/thinking_abt_fut_preface.pdf 

4. The "Ivory Tower" I refer to is the larger bureaucratic context (a nation's defense forces) within which all SOF forces exist. This article focuses on the leadership and organizational culture of the SOF, which is best described as a networked structure, or a matrix. This culture is quite different from the larger hierarchical, bureaucratic environment of the military that supports SOF. 

5. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012), 17: http://www. riosmauricio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Taleb_ Antifragile.pdf 

6. Arquilla, Insurgents, Raiders and Bandits. 

7. A recent book by General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded JSOC from 2003 to 2008, along with two articles about him published in open source journals, shed some light on the organizational and leadership skills used by the force to track down and eliminate a highly elusive and networked enemy. These works enable us to identify lessons learned from the transformation of JSOC into a global counterterrorism force. See General Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2013). 

8. Created in 1980 after a disastrous hostage-rescue mission in Iran, Joint Special Operations Command ( JSOC) is part of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the various special operations commands of the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. JSOC successfully coordinated and combined Tier 1 Special Forces while supporting conventional forces and intelligence agencies to eviscerate al Qaeda's network in Iraq and kill Osama bin Laden. 

9. As described in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, this organizational strategy was very effective against a networked enemy. See Gideon Rose, "Generation Kill: A Conversation with Stanley McChrystal," Foreign Affairs 92, no. 2 (March/April 2013): http://www.foreignaffairs.com/discussions/interviews/ generation-kill?page=show ; and Stanley A. McChrystal, "It Takes a Network," Foreign Policy (22 February 2011): http://www. foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/it_takes_a_network 

10. The phrase growth mindset was popularized by Carol S. Dweck, who distinguished two different types of thinking: fixed mindset and growth mindset. See Carol S. Dweck, Mindset (New York: Random House, 2006). In his book Extraordinary Minds, Howard Gardner concludes that exceptional individuals have a special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. See Howard Gardner, Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of Our Own Extraordinariness (New York: Basic Books, 1998). In my opinion, we need to take an inventory of our skills and weaknesses before deciding what to learn and what skills to develop. We then need to concentrate on improving our weakest qualities to an acceptable level, but we should put most of our effort toward our talents. Tom Rath's Strengths test is a good scientific method to evaluate one's strengths and weaknesses: http://www.strengthstest.com/ strengths-tests/strengthsfinder-20-access-code.html . The same idea is shared by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979). Wolfe's book is about the pilots who engaged in U.S. post-war experiments with rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft and documents the stories of the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space program. 

11. Rose, "Generation Kill." 

12. Imre Porkoláb, "When the Goldfish Meets the Anaconda: A Modern Fable on Unconventional Leadership," CTX 3, no. 3 (August 2013): https://globalecco.org/when-the-goldfish-meets-the-anaconda-a-modern-fable-on-unconventional-leadership 

13. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, beginning in late spring 2007, JSOC and CIA Special Activities Division teams launched a new series of highly effective covert operations that coincided with the Iraq war troop surge of 2007. They did this by killing or capturing many key al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. See Bob Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006–2008 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008). 

14. With the help of some technological adjustments—but mainly by reorganizing and changing the organizational culture—these teams were able to turn the F3EA cycle around three times a night. In August 2004, the task force carried out just 18 raids throughout all of Iraq; two years later, by August 2006, they were up to 300 raids a month. Peter Bergen credits McChrystal with transforming and modernizing JSOC into a "force of unprecedented agility and lethality," which was a key factor in the success of JSOC's subsequent efforts in Iraq. Peter L. Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown, 2012), 152–58. Robert H. Scales wrote that "as head of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal oversaw the development of a precision killing machine unprecedented in the history of modern warfare." Robert H. Scales, "The Quality of Command: The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Make Better Generals," Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6 (November/December 2012): http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138233/robert-h-scales/ the-quality-of-command 

15. One of the most well-known of these studies is by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszemtmihályi. According to Csíkszentmihályi, "flow" is completely focused motivation. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channelled, but are positive, energized, and perfectly aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990). 

16. Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). 

17. Liz Wiseman describes the leadership paradigm necessary for accessing the intelligence and potential of people in organizations everywhere. See Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). 

18. Read more about the Schumpeterian perspectives here: https:// notendur.hi.is/~lobbi/ut1/a_a/SCUMPETER.pdf 

19. A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength in anticipation for the possibility of a worse outcome, in response to information about the possibility of a hazard. This is a very sophisticated form of discovering probabilities via stressors. See Taleb, Antifragile. 

20. For more on hormesis, see E.J. Calabrese and LA Baldwin, "Defining Hormesis," Human and Experimental Toxicology 21, no. 2 (February 2002): 91–97: http://dose-response.org/wp-content/ uploads/2014/05/HETDEFININGHORMESIS.pdf 

21. Taleb, Antifragile, 82-3. 

22. "Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to perform military strikes from all directions. It employs a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire that is directed from both close-in and stand-off positions." John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict (Santa Monica: RAND, 2000), vii: http://www.rand. org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2005/ RAND_DB311.pdf 

23. Frances Hesselbein and Marshall Goldsmith, eds., The Leader of the Future 2: Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the New Era (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 74. 

24. Charles A. O'Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman, "The Ambidextrous Organization," Harvard Business Review 82, no. 4 (April 2004): 74–81.

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Madhusudan Aggarwal
Posted on 12/16/14 3:44 PM.