KAI and Strategic Leadership

– Dr. Herb Barber

As a member of the faculty of the U.S. Army War College (USAWC), my primary focus is on leadership at the highest (or”Strategic”) levels of the organisation. We have been using KAI for over six years in our curriculum. I am impressed by the variety of applications of A-I Theory to leadership.

USAWC is the senior institution in the Army educational system and is charged with the responsibility of preparing carefully selected students from all military services and the civil service for senior positions within the military and national government. A major objective of the College is to produce graduates who understand how to operate in a strategic environment. While our concept of strategic leadership continues to evolve, it is most obvious at the highest levels of large complex organisations. This is where the leaders must influence most members of the organisation indirectly, but at the same time, has the responsibility for structuring the organisation, making policy, setting the strategic vision, and interacting with the external environment. Leaders at this level also provide an interface between the organisation and the external environment, garner resources, provide structure within a complex, ambiguous and volatile atmosphere, and deal with varied and interdependent issues. To be effective within these conditions, strategic leaders must possess or develop certain requisite competencies and characteristics. Of pivotal importance is a broad “frame of reference”. This paradigm (in KAI terms) provides the foundation for understanding the world in which they live. A high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, a willingness to reopen previous decisions, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes are necessary characteristics. Effective strategic leaders need, on demand, to master detail with precision; to think multi-dimensionally, to differentiate among issues and problems, and to integrate related issues. This awareness of the requisite competencies and characteristics has caused me to explore such areas as problem solving, critical reasoning, creativity, conceptual thinking, and systems thinking, and consequently has enhanced my interest in the KAI and A-I Theory.

I have found A-I theory to be valuable in providing a model with which to analyse and discuss several individual, interpersonal, and organisational leadership issues.

Three specific examples of areas where the Theory has been useful and insightful involve (1) managing within a changing environment and dealing with paradigm shifts, (2) understanding and appreciating diversity, and (3) coping behaviour. Like most institutions today, the U.S. Military is undergoing tremendous change. The end of the Cold War has been the major paradigm shift of the last half century for us. The ripple effect of this shift has caused a re-examination of other related paradigms.

Today’s strategic military leader is confronted with a key question – Which paradigms have changed and which are still applicable? A-I theory provides a language with which to examine this issue and a means to understand our personal reactions to the environment and the inevitable disagreements that arise within a transforming organisation.

Strategic leaders must often deal with the more complex and difficult issues confronting the organisation. The easier questions and problems are usually handled by subordinates at the lower levels of the organisation. In addition to more obvious insights about problem solving style, A-I theory provides some other practical wisdom around diversity. Diversity and the value of different perspectives (e.g., adaptors and innovators) to ensure a well analysed and reasoned solution becomes even more necessary. The complexity and challenge of the problems result in an increased tolerance and appreciation for different views and approaches along with an increased awareness of the value of collaboration and consensus.

Like most institutions we have a wide range of KAI cognitive styles, and like most large organisations, the military tends to reward and stress certain kinds of behaviours. At the same time, the military is a large organisation with smaller sub-units that value and reward different kinds of behaviour, skills and styles of thinking. The concept of “coping” is useful as we examine this phenomenon. Within the military, it is not unusual for an individual to move several times in a career, increasing the opportunity for matches and mismatches. The idea of coping behaviour raises several important questions for discussion – How do individuals cope when they find that the organisational demands are in conflict with their cognitive style? What kinds of coping behaviours have been successful? Does coping behaviour result in personal growth and learning? Does moving from one job to another help or hinder coping behaviour? What is the role of the leader in this process?

The ideas and concepts addressed in A-I theory have provided a valuable framework to explore issues around leadership at the strategic level. The examination and application of this theory in conjunction with other theories and models are a integral part of the education process at the USAWC. We are continuing to investigate how the theory can help stimulate and expand our understanding of the dynamics of strategic leadership.

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