One of the toughest things to teach leaders is how to lead when the context and variables are constantly changing. One man who is helping leaders make better decisions is Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, lecturer and author. Vandergriff has developed the Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM) that helps individuals learn to lead in situations of escalating complexity.
The principles of ALM are universal and applicable to anyone who must manage and lead others. As Vandergriff explained to me, ALM immerses students in “complex scenario, and facilitate(s) them as they attempt to solve it.” As Vandergriff sees it, ALM “places people in roles of responsibility so they understand the context their unit or organization operates in… In ALM, they are placed two or three levels higher [than their ranks] in many of the scenarios.”
ALM is uniquely suited to teach military officers how to lead in “asymmetrical warfare,” where the unknown variables outweigh the known ones. “Instead of repeating a given scenario, you continue on and do a different one, with different conditions.” As Vandergriff explains, “By varying the scenarios, the conditions, and then… giving a good “reflection” session from peers, the teacher, and [observers], the learning process becomes continuous.”
This is break from the Army’s traditional approach to education which emphasizes competency. A shortcoming of that model is boredom and barriers. Says Vandergriff, “Good and great students got bored very easy. Plus, they did not discover their unit’s place in the larger picture because they were only allowed to go as high as that unit in their learning environments.”
A twenty-four year veteran of the Army and Marines, Vandergriff taught ROTC at Georgetown University and routinely received top marks for his instruction. Today his students are lieutenants and captains in the field leading combat troops. Lessons they learned from ALM are “what prepared them (the most) for what they face now.” Specifically, ALM provides a tool kit approach that fosters innovative thinking, new approaches to problem-solving and rapid decision-making, Vangergriff’s influence extends beyond the Army; he has taught Marines, Navy SEALs as well as units in the British and French military.
Vandergriff also teaches in the corporate and public sectors, applying the same principles. Part of his instruction includes tactical decision games that can be very challenging. Participants “were frustrated, confused and challenged. As they day went on, they got into it, and then remarked at the end of the day and follow-on emails, how much that made them better leaders. When developing adaptability, you want to put your students in uncomfortable situations doing scenarios they are not familiar with,” he says.
“The number one objective in my developing leaders is strength of character,” says Vandergriff. “I believe in what I am doing… What keeps me going is a belief in what I am doing is right. I was raised to see a problem, fix it.” That’s good advice for anyone leading in a complex environment. Leaders lead by doing, and so often they must do the fixing and solving so that the organization can move forward.
First posted on HBR.org on 7/21/2008