Data Leadership: Performing During Strategic Shock

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Data Leadership: Performing During Strategic Shock

Unpredictable, indiscriminate, and ubiquitous, these are the three characteristics of Strategic Shock as described by the chairman of a UK based consulting firm during a business strategy presentation I attended at the British Embassy in DC. It was quite remarkable to hear the theory describing what happens after a catastrophic event. Although several dramatic geo-political events were used to illustrate, it was very apparent that this was a universal theory… bad things happen with no warning; no time for pinning the tail of responsibility on someone, no time to have a very cozy course of action analysis planning session. In the aftermath of one of these events someone needs to take action, someone needs to make a decision; someone needs to make someone do something.

Having just retired from active duty in the Army, I found that the narrative he shared could be directly applied to my experience in Mogadishu, Somalia or Yusufiyah, Iraq. From a soldiers perspective I assumed that “making somebody do something” was completely normal. On the battlefield, I had dealt with this phenomenon more times than I cared to remember. I had been cautioned at retirement that the leadership skills I had learned in the Army were quite different than the leadership methods out in the business world. But, there I was in a crowd of notable business leaders from marquee companies listening to the same need for a better understanding of relatively straightforward leadership concepts.

I thought back to the dusty streets of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 when decisions I made directly impacted decisions my commander would make, and his commander, and the effect on all the other leaders on the battlefield. The actions taken due to the environment (often out of my control) had to be instinctive: I was inserted in the wrong spot due to bad visibility and needed to deal with an immediate litter urgent casualty with no air assets available for evacuation and almost no communications platform. The levels of complexity multiplied by the second, decisions had to be made, and I had to take action.

Catastrophes will happen. But the real question is: How do we not only survive but also succeed in the aftermath of Strategic Shock? Looking back on my experiences everything always points to leadership. The ability to influence others to accomplish a task is what I recall from my old Army manuals. Someone needs to make someone do something. Someone prepares for the crisis. Someone trains someone to execute above the standard. Someone holds someone accountable. Someone decides to fix broken systems. Someone must give purpose and direction. Someone needs to rise to the next level. It is leadership.

In the world of data in particular, leadership is increasingly in high demand and low supply. Why is this? Is it because data leadership is a new role? No one wants to?

The fact is anyone can be a leader in data. It requires more than memorizing leadership manuals, a data leader needs to have an equal understanding of the business needs and the data that influences it – along with a strong ability to perform through strategic shock. Data leadership must apply those same conventional skills in this new arena. Critical thinking, communication, providing purpose and direction are all necessary for data leaders success. Much like my epiphany at the embassy, leadership is leadership is leadership, plain and simple. Data leaders must make someone do something.

The presentation ended with the blanket statement that “the next crisis is going to happen, it’s just a question of when. Are you ready?” It is easy to seduce ourselves and believe we are ready. My caution is that we all are one event away from crisis. One change in management, one change in a system, or one change in personnel can disrupt the best of us. Unpredictable, indiscriminate, and ubiquitous. Leadership. The time is now.