Develop Leadership By Structuring Thoughts Around The OODA Loop

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How does one lead in competitive, difficult, and uncertain situations? In boot camp I was leading my peers on a patrol when we were suddenly ambushed. We panicked. I froze. My instructor roared at me, “what the !@#$ are you gonna do about this, Choi?! Make up your mind and do something!”I failed that mission when I gave the order to conduct a frontal assault. The reason wasn’t because the frontal assault failed. I failed because I had forgotten that my objective, given to me by the commander, was to collect information about the enemy and report this information up the chain of command.

By facing the enemy, I risked the possibility that my team would be killed and no intelligence would have been passed back up the chain of command. I would have failed to meet the objective. From this experience, I learned that good leaders need to know how to flexibly and confidently structure their thinking around objectives, even while under duress.

The OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop is a military thought structuring tool that helps you lead with confidence. Structured thinking helps leaders to deal with surprises by providing a foundation from which leaders can make decisions and ask the right questions. The OODA Loop is a military concept: observe the situation, orient towards a new paradigm, decide how to proceed, take action, and repeat. Central to all of this is the objective. One cannot effectively conduct the OODA loop without an objective.

In the boot camp example from the introduction, my objective was to collect intelligence on enemy positions. Typically, this type of mission simply involves sneaking up on the enemy, making observations, and silently returning to report on the enemy. Therefore, my plan was to do exactly that. However, I observed that we were being ambushed. It meant that I needed to orient towards a completely different way of thinking: I needed to gather as much intelligence on the enemy as I could during the ambush and withdraw in order to relay information back to headquarters. In other words, I had to re-frame my thinking so that I could maintain the objective of collecting intelligence on the enemy! Knowing this, I should have decided to withdraw my troops and retreat to a safe position to relay information about the enemy back to the headquarters. I should have taken action based on this decision.

Recall the magic phrase:

Good leaders are better at influencing a variety of people in a variety of situations to achieve great outcomes.

By knowing when and how to employ the OODA Loop, you are adding to your ability to influence a variety of people in a variety of situations to achieve great outcomes. Here’s how to use the OODA Loop to develop your leadership skills as related to the four parts of leadership:

Self – Know your objective. If someone were to randomly ask you throughout the day why you are doing what you are doing, you should be able to explain the significance of what it is you do clearly and concisely. If you fully understand why you do what you do, you will be able to reframe and “orient” as necessary based on the situation and your observations. This new orientation helps you make a decision on how to act, and then to ultimately take action. If you don’t understand the purpose behind what you do, when something unexpected happens you won’t know how to orient yourself.

People – Ensure they understand the objective. The people you lead will be equally lost if something unexpected happens and they don’t have a good understanding of why they do what they do (the objective). I remember once in boot camp that my task was to set-up defences around our base. I then told one of my troops to set up barbed wire around the base. I then went away to manage other tasks. When I had returned to check on the progress, the troop told me that he had run out of barbed wire and didn’t know what to do. I asked him whether or not he understood why he was supposed to install the wire, and it turned out that he didn’t think about it. When I reminded him that the objective was to create a protective barrier against the enemy, he realized that he could have laid other kinds of defences or traps along the path that I wanted the barbed wire.

People – Value their observations. People have different perspectives and experiences. Being able to receive information from them while reserving judgement allows you to have an open mind that helps you to figure out how and why their observations relate to your objective, and what that means in terms of your effort to orient towards the objective.

Situations – Understand when to OODA. Using the OODA Loop is great when you are leading in a highly competitive arena in which there is an abundance of uncertainty that requires you to focus on observing the situation as it evolves, orienting towards a new paradigm as required, deciding on a course of action, and finally acting. If you’re using the OODA Loop in an environment in which there are no threats, everything is clear, and change is not necessary, the OODA Loop may not be the optimal way to structure your thinking.

Outcomes – Enable people to work independently and creatively. Being able to utilize the OODA Loop and enabling others to OODA too requires that:

  1. you understand the purpose of what you do;
  2. ensure that your followers also understand the purpose behind what they do;
  3. you listen to your followers and seek their observations; and
  4. you know when to use the OODA Loop to structure your thinking and decision making.

The main benefit to all of this is that people are driven by a purpose and can think for themselves. Moreover, it enables you to make decisions when others are unsure of how to proceed.

How are you going to use the OODA Loop?

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