Guided by Athena: Think Strategically and Be Creative to Solve Problems

Updated on April 17, 2020
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The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War
Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War

Athena is known as the goddess of strategy, war, wisdom, and courage. She was also known as the most resourceful of the Olympian gods.[1] Wherever she found a problem, she endowed the Greek hero with the wisdom and creativity necessary to create a strategy and equipped them with the necessary resources to take on the challenge. Strategic leaders of today need to be guided by Athena in order to think strategically and be creative and resourceful as they battle and attempt to overcome the complex problems of tomorrow.

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” - Democritus

General Martin Dempsey explains that leaders of the 21st century must approach the strategic environment and the challenges which unfold within it with intelligence, energy, and urgency.[2] The leaders in this century deal with problems of increased complexity intensified by the freedoms afforded by the information age and the impact of globalization across the world. The effect is more threats from more places and areas never expected before. In this landscape, strategic leaders need to have an understanding of strategic thinking; the strategic environment; the creative process; and in the end, how to solve problems.

Strategic Thinking

To make consequential and effective strategic level decisions, one has to clearly understand how to think strategically. James Dubik explains that mastering strategic thinking is not simple; it’s a life-long endeavor.[3] Well, nothing of such value should be easy to acquire; it should be earned. Dubik proposes a number of ways to help sharpen the ability to think strategically.

1. Problems Aren't Predictable

First, one has to understand that problems are no longer routine at the strategic level but are complex and adaptive meaning that perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of how the problem as a whole behaves. The proper synthesis of information that comes from understanding such problems allows the strategic leader to consider and propose appropriate courses of action. Such understanding can come from research, mentoring, counseling, and experience.

2. Think About All of the Possible Consequences

Second, strategic leaders dealing with complex and adaptive problems need to develop an open systems thinking style that opens their mental aperture to forecast the possible outcomes of all alternatives.[4]

Proper strategic thinking ensures that leaders gain a full appreciation for the consequences of their decisions in the short and long term. The ability and open-mindedness to appreciate the environment and consider all possible courses of action and outcomes can result in new opportunities. Along with opportunities, new risks will also arise as one weighs the impact of the outcomes and attempts to take advantage of new opportunities.

Strategic Environment

Strategic leaders need to intake and process concise, relevant, and timely information in order to assist themselves in making the best decisions possible for their organization and society. The most effective strategic leaders are constantly conducting scans of the environment for better understanding.[5]

Since strategic leaders operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, it is important to conduct careful strategic scans of the external and internal environments that allow the strategic leader to predict strategic inflection points, better anticipate forces of fragmentation, and therefore support the proper options to solve complex and adaptive problems.[6]

It does not come as a surprise that failure to recognize external factors will hinder a strategic leader’s decision-making capability. This is simply because everything will catch one by surprise, and guess what; one will not be leading or even advising leaders for very long this way. The best leaders can anticipate aspects of future events to build enough of a picture to act and navigate their organizations from turbulent to calm seas.

Environmental scans allow strategic thinkers to appreciate the ties that bind beyond the organization in order to create synergy from a network of partners. Strategic leaders with a network perspective understand the dynamic web of connections that have an impact on their work and their leadership. More importantly, they can identify the relationships and people in their network that will foster strategic success and identify those that will inhibit or undermine it.[7]

Leadership expert Michael Guillot explains that strategic leadership is the ability for one to exercise wisdom and vision to create clarity where it did not exist and execute the plans from the decisions.[8]

Through informed counseling, the leader can make successful consequential decisions in the VUCA environment. Since leaders have to conceptualize in the desired aspect of national power (diplomatic, informational, military or economic), they must think strategically to make decisions that are interrelated and complimentary to the environment they operate in and have a direct and indirect impact upon.

In the end, the strategic leader that yearns to make better decisions has to know how to think strategically and understand the environment they operate in so they can turn the environment, whether internal or external, into something more stable, certain, simple, and clear.

Thinking Creatively

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” -William James

A critical skill for a strategic leader is to understand and explain what the future could look like and what are the novel ways to solve the problems of the future. A solution to solve the problems of the future lies in creative leadership. Creative leaders can effectively think about the future and ignite the engine of innovation to bring about future advantages that competitors will have difficulty matching.

One of the skills that distinguish effective from ineffective leaders in the new millennium is the ability to successfully resolve complex challenges brought on by rapidly changing environments that do not have easy answers.[9] This requires leaders that can conduct strategy and make decisions during uncertain moments and be able to shape the future through creative problem-solving. Creative thinking becomes most relevant when involved in generating options, especially novel and original ideas.

It’s important to appreciate that at the lower levels of leadership, leaders have to be strongly action-oriented and reliant on their intuitive thinking. Conversely, complex problems cannot be thought through so quickly, so the strategic leader at the higher-level needs to develop a greater capacity to understand any and all inferences and assumptions.[10] This is not such an easy thing to do.

A creative leader becomes most valuable during the times when known solutions won’t work; as the boundaries of an issue and the range of possible approaches need expansion. While strategic thinking encompasses skills like systems thinking, reframing, second and third-order thinking, critical thinking, and reflective thinking. It uniquely demands the mental agility and discipline to step back cognitively and think about a current situation using the appropriate thinking processes.[11]

Innovate Out of Problems

In their book “The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation Effectiveness and Success” Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack explain that leaders can produce climates within their organization to develop ideas that actually take hold and grow.[12]

Creative thinking is most relevant when involved in generating options, especially novel and original ideas. Accordingly, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) published the Army Operating Concept (AOC): Win in a Complex World. In this revolutionary doctrinal concept, General David Perkins proposes a potential future of the operating environment and how the Army needs to fit into such an environment.[13] Thus, it is an exemplary example of the use of creative thinking to outline innovative operational capabilities for future warfare.

Win in a Complex World is a key document that describes how the Army will employ forces and capabilities in complex environments against increasingly capable opponents. The AOC describes the Army's contribution to globally integrated operations and addresses the need for Army forces to provide capabilities for the Joint Force and to project power across all domains whether it be in land, sea, air, or space.

The AOC also guides force development through the identification of combat capabilities that the future force must possess to accomplish missions in support of policy goals and objectives.[14] In short, it proposes a way to train the Soldiers of the future, what weapon systems they will need to fight in the future, and what kind of environment they will most likely encounter in the future.

Strategic concepts like the AOC serve as proof of how creative leaders can inspire innovation for any organization even one as large as the U.S. Army. The U.S. Army needed to respond to one basic instinct in all hyper-competitive environments: survival. So by solving the most difficult problems of tomorrow and by thinking strategically and being innovative, leaders will overcome problems today and tomorrow. That is why it is crucial for leaders to master the creative process and be able to facilitate this process in others.

Taking bold leadership action at the strategic level means accepting risks. Former Undersecretary of the US Army, Honorable Brad Carson stressed this as he stated that the “definition, to be innovative is to court failure, to be vulnerable, and we have to do that.”[15]

Athena was born out of logic and discipline and she, therefore; represents foresight, thought, reason, and sound decision-making. In the end, leaders need to receive Athena’s gifts of strategy and resourcefulness and recognize their duty and responsibilities for strategic thinking and the creative output of their organization. The future depends on it.

Endnotes

[1] Cartwright, Mark, “Athena.” Ancient History Encyclopedia (24 May 2012).

[2] General Martin Dempsey 2015 leadership lecture series at NDU.

[3]James M. Dubik, “On Becoming a Strategic Leader.” Army (Jan 2013): 16-18.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Stephen Gerras, "Chapter 2: The Strategic Leadership Environment." Strategic Leadership Primer. Third ed. Carlisle Barracks, PA: United States Army War College, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kristin Cullen et al., “Developing Network Perspective,” Center for Creative Leadership, March 2013, i.

[8]Michael W. Guillot,“Strategic Leadership: Defining the Challenge,” Air & Space Power Journal (Winter 2003): 67-75.

[9]Gerard J. Puccio et al., “Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change” (2011): Second edition, 28-38 and 56-66. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

[10]Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12]Brafman & Pollack. “The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success” (2013): 31-44.

[13] Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), http://www.arcic.army.mil/Concepts/operating.aspx (accessed 20 November, 2015).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Former Undersecretary of the US Army, Honorable Brad Carson, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) interview remarks, 1 April 2015, http://csis.org/event/tomorrows-army (accessed November 19, 2015).

© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jimenez

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