Strategic Leadership

Three Best Ways to Develop Leaders

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“I am an extreme introvert,” he confessed. “I get tired at the end of a day of seeing people.  I need time alone to re-charge.  A cocktail party is my least favorite thing to do.”  We laughed.

Those who knew him recognized something profound in his statement. The speaker was one of the most charismatic leaders we had ever known.

Some believe that an extroverted personality is a leadership pre-condition.  I disagree.  More importantly, so does Susan Cain, author of the Bestselling book Quiet.

In fact, I have often found senior leaders (like the one above) to be introverts.  Of the three Secretaries of Defense, two Under Secretaries, and four Commanders of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan I have advised, seven of the nine were on the “I” side of the line.

On balance, nature provides certain traits; nurture is how those traits and other characteristics and capacities are developed. So how to cultivate leadership?

First, experience is the great teacher.  There is no substitute for time in the saddle handling difficult, stimulating missions.  Most people learn by doing.  We get various forms of feedback – results from our efforts; formal and informal communications from the boss, peers, co-workers and subordinates; our own observations. The crucible of experience challenges us to learn and adapt and grow.

Experience is also the school of hard knocks.  All leaders go through the trial and error process – that cannot be avoided.  Most would agree that reducing unnecessary pain would be helpful.  To paraphrase Bismarck, any fool can profit from one’s own mistakes, the wise person profits from those of others.

Experience alone can be limiting and potentially imprisoning.  Even the most fortunate among us are only able to cram into a lifetime a finite few experiences.  If experiences occur only in a particular set of environments and challenges, the range of our capacities to deal with the unexpected tends to be narrow. Leaders with limited experiences may be more susceptible to applying conventional wisdom to unconventional problems.  Too often such leaders give proof to the old saw that insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

Experience needs to be enriched and complemented.

Mentors and role models and coaches can be highly effective.  Mentoring is an example of “paying it forward” to the profession and to leaders one has touched along the way.  A good mentor can help us think through problems in different ways or bring to light certain factors we might not have considered completely. Feedback from the organization, even in the best of circumstances, will contain hints of bias and desires to please (or not terribly offend) the boss.  Mentors are generally free from such constraints.  The best ones tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.

We can interact with a mentor.  She can challenge our thinking and we can respond.  He can help us see our blind-spots.  Since our mentors are generally from our own profession, they can provide expert insights and feedback using commonly understood terms and concepts. A potential limitation is that their advice and insight on unique challenges could reflect past norms and conventions rather than fresh ideas.

Study is critical to enrich and expand our perspectives.  This does not simply mean book-smarts.  Study should build leader capital in highly useful ways.  I have found that three broad categories are consistently effective in accelerating a leader’s growth.

Theory and Philosophy.  Leadership deals with the human condition:  how to inspire in people the spirit and act of following; how to create effective organizations.  Various fields of theory and philosophy can help leaders bring out the best in both.  Focus first on the classics.  They are timeless for good reason.  Examine more recent, highly respected works in fields such as psychology, behavioral economics, political science, and business.

History.  Read exceptional works on great historical leaders and organizations.  Find readable, critically acclaimed works that examine both failures and success.  Puff pieces and hatchet-jobs have limited utility.  Historical fiction can offer superb insights as well.

Contemporary perspectives.  Finally, gain the thoughts and insights of contemporary leaders.  Learn from their recent, practical experiences – their mistakes and triumphs.

Building leader capital in ourselves and among the leaders in our organizations is a professional responsibility.  Build it through experience, a network of trusted mentors, and personal study.

Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

What can Ice Buckets, Boko Haram, and Monica Lewinsky teach us about turning hashtags into results?

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What can Ice Buckets, Boko Haram, and Monica Lewinsky teach us about turning hashtags into results?

Non Profits, businesses, social movements, even governments dream of using social media to inspire mass mobilizations around important issues.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance, reportedly raised over $100 million for the ALS Association during the summer of 2014.

Political movements, such as those fostering the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring, used social media to organize demonstrations.  Governments attempted to shut them down.

After terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls” campaign went viral. First Lady Michelle Obama and several celebrities publicly called for the girls’ release.

David Francis writes in Foreign Policy, however, that little effective work has been done to find and rescue the 219 girls who remain missing.  Corruption and human rights abuses in the Nigerian government as well as serious coordination challenges have undermined the cause.

Nonetheless, social media can mobilize outrage and public shame.  On several occasions, these efforts call attention to critically important issues such as gross violations of human rights, especially in places not covered by the news media.

The double-edged sword is the use of social media for character assassination and public humiliation.  Regardless of your views on Monica Lewinsky, her Ted talk sends an important cautionary note.

Analysis. Social media can be a powerful tool in raising awareness, creating forums for bespoke conversations, and prompting highly accessible actions. Social media’s mobilization effects, however, seem more limited when important or difficult obstacles to action need to be overcome.

The more pernicious effects center on public shaming.  On a wide range of issues, social media can create narratives that rapidly become conventional wisdom. As noted above, these can be very important on issues such as gross violations of human rights, corruption, and criminality.

Shaming narratives, however, may also be formed by vested interests with asymmetric information who are quick to take advantage of public ignorance.

Demonization can generate outrage, but may also restrict important policy options. As information is gathered that presents a more balanced picture, leaders may choose not to spend the political capital necessary to challenge and overcome conventional wisdom.  This can result in poor policy decisions, prolonged conflicts, and missed opportunities.

What this means for your impact:

1. Social media is highly useful in raising awareness and prompting highly accessible actions;

2. Translating hashtags into results is far more difficult when important challenges or obstacles stand in the way of coordinated action;

3. Rapid narrative formation is a double-edged sword. Leaders should “keep their powder dry” and investigate the other sides of issues before bandwagoning.  Vested interests may be the first with a narrative, but are not necessarily the first with the truth.

Impact is a NonProfit’s bottom line.  My Mission is to help you thrive.   

See the video testimonial from the Central Asia Institute.

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Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership and strategy: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO

Why Do I Support Central Asia Institute?

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CAI logoWhy do I support Central Asia Institute and their mission to advance education, especially for girls, in conflict zones and impoverished rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Because they make great impact and are careful stewards of donor funds.

See this short video: Why I am Involved

I have seen personally many of their schools and educational and vocational efforts.  They have made significant impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands in some of the world’s most remote and difficult areas.

I have worked as a consultant for CAI this past year, supporting them in developing an organizational strategy and integrated business plan that focuses on maximizing impact using the best business practices.  Thanks to the efforts of their Executive Director, Jim Thaden, the CAI staff, and the Board of Directors, Central Asia Institute is accredited by the Charity Better Business Bureau and Guidestar.

Over 100,000 children learn at Central Asia Institute supported schools.  Read more about their efforts here: “Footsteps: Building Hope

Impact is a NonProfit’s bottom line.  My Mission is to help you thrive.   

Join over 500 people wCAI girls photoho receive my email updates and the over 10,000 views of my blogs. Subscribe here.

Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership and strategy: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO



Three Ways Non-Profits Can Avoid Catastrophic Success

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Got growth?

Catastrophic success occurs when growth outstrips management capacity.

A fantastic rise is followed by a precipitous fall from which most individuals and organizations cannot recover.

This occurs all too often in politics, business, sports, military, non-profits, and other human endeavors.

A combination of Founder’s Syndrome and rapid growth can be toxic, especially for Non-profits.

The tale is sadly familiar.  A small non-profit, often managed by a visionary founder and assisted by a small and very loyal staff, with a highly supportive board of directors, begins making significant impact.  The story goes viral.  Donations pour in. The founder quickly gains celebrity status.


The organization continues focusing on mission impact while juggling all the requests for attention, interviews, and speeches. These keep the donations coming and enable the non-profit to serve more people.  Cracks begin to appear, but the management structure does not grow or change.  The Board does not ask hard questions — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  The perfect storm.

The good news story comes crashing down as positive press gives way to scrutiny and, potentially, to zealotry.  Scrutiny invariably uncovers problems; zealotry frames reasonable problems as deliberate malfeasance. The result can be a feeding frenzy of negative hype, spiraling into more and more allegations of real and imagined failings and growing accusations of wrongdoing.

Once major news outlets get a hold of a negative story, the non-profit may be in for a very dark chapter.  Donations dry up, lawsuits emerge, stress leads to declining physical and psychological health of leadership, staff leave a sinking ship. Revenues are spent on armies of lawyers, public relations firms, accountants, and others. Until the lawsuits are resolved, which could take years, the non-profit may not be able to defend itself against the public accusations – however ill-founded or ridiculous some of those are.

Catastrophic success sometimes occurs due to malfeasance, bad ethics, narcissism, or greed.  These are important to expose. In most cases, especially for non-profits, everyone wants to do the right thing and to serve the mission.  The non-profit, however, fails to develop the capacity to manage the growth.

The major losers in all of this are the people the non-profit wants to help. Even if the accusations are unfounded or proven frivolous, the damage is done.  The organization might never recover its reputation and ability to serve its cause.

Non-profits can mitigate the risk of catastrophic success.  Here are three ways.

First, develop an adaptable strategy that is robust to unexpected negative or positive trends.

Most organizational strategies simply assume the status quo will repeat itself or that new efforts will have proportional payoffs.  These are flaws common to businesses, militaries, governments, and non-profits.  They often miss critical signs, which become apparent in hindsight.  They are ill-prepared to deal with out-sized problems or successes, and the vastly different expectations that get created.

A strategy becomes adaptable when it includes plausible alternative futures.  These can be framed based on significant changes (positive and negative) in the mission environment and in organizational capacity.  For each alternative future, the strategy should identify potential indicators, outline likely risks and opportunities, and offer a broadly framed approach for the scenario.

These strategic indicators and their trends over time should be examined and discussed at each Board of Directors meeting. This approach will help to avoid major surprises, while setting the foundations to address unexpected successes or problems.

Muddling through or making-it-up-as-you-go-along heightens the risk of snowballing problems.

Second, “See yourself” and be a learning organization.

We tend to be most unaware of the problems of our own creation.  These can be the most dangerous ones of all.  We like to see ourselves as we wish things to be, not as they truly are — warts and all.

Addressing this starts with leadership.  If the executive director or founder sets the example in providing a venue for honest feedback and willingness to discuss and address his or her own management shortcomings, the rest of organization is likely to follow suit.

Conduct a periodic reviews and assessments.  Use a disinterested party.  Discover your problem areas and risk areas (all organizations have them) before they are revealed or alleged for you.  Develop clear, concrete, steps to address them.

Transparency.  Discuss the results of periodic reviews and what you are doing to address shortcomings. Show donors how funds are collected, invested, committed, and over-watched.  Provide access to your audit reports.  Be first with the truth. These efforts will establish for you a track record of credibility.

Thirddetermine the sustainable capacity of your organization to ensure you have the staff, structures, and capabilities to handle current requirements.  This will also help you to gauge what support could be needed to handle rapid growth in revenue and expectations.

Busy people achieve a lot.  Exhausted people do a lot but achieve far less.  Unforced errors and re-work pile up.

Many non-profits take on far more than they have sustainable capacity to handle.  People do not enter the non-profit world for the money.  They focus on impact and tend to embrace a culture of personal sacrifice for the good of the mission.  The result is that many employees are way over-committed, but maintain the “can-do” attitude.

When growth occurs, requirements and expectations increase, and more-and-more things begin to fall through the cracks. Exhausted people often lack the energy to ask hard questions or think differently about growing problems.

Review actual workload against your priorities.  Should efforts be re-aligned? Have we subtly taken on loads of lower-priority or non-essential work?  If necessary, grow the capacity of your staff – this can mean attracting greater talent, increasing positions, changing structures, and/or leveraging outsourced solutions.

Consider upgrading your outsourcing of special skills such as legal, public relations, accounting, etc. as you grow.  Outside assistance that helped get you started might not no longer be up to the task.  It is generally more cost-effective to get the right outsourcing solutions before a crisis.

Growth often carries the seeds of major problems.  Maintaining an adaptable strategy, seeing yourself thru periodic reviews, and routinely checking your workload against your priorities will help you to manage success effectively.


Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO

Ten Ways Great Leaders Lead

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Are you worth following?

Are you worth following?

Can Non-Profit leaders learn from good leaders in the military?  The similarities in how you bring out the best in people and teams who are motivated by mission and not by profit might surprise you.

Here are 10 Ways Great Leaders Lead — 10 Ways they bring out the best in their people and teams and get great results along the way.

Click here: Ten Ways Great Leaders Lead


  • Tend Your Own Garden
  • Clarify Expectations and Enforce Standards
  • Set the Example
  • Celebrate Failure
  • Be Humble – Courage and Humility are Complementary
  • Pay It Forward: Be A Mentor
  • Show You Care about people as individuals
  • Treat People with Respect
  • Be Trustworthy
  • Leave a Legacy of Excellence


Read the entire article:

Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO


Leadership: How to Get Great Results

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How to leaders get great results?  By bringing out the best in their people and teams.

Leadership and Bullying

Ever been bullied in the workplace?  I have.  It is unacceptable.  Bullying is a genuine leadership problem.

Leadership, as I define it in Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, means to inspire the spirit and act of following.  Leaders do this by being trustworthy, treating people with respect and genuinely caring for their well-being.

This is a world of difference from the anything-goes, coercive model, “getting others to do what they would not otherwise do.”   That mentality has been used to justify all sorts of toxicity and petty tyranny.

To be sure, leaders need coercive power in certain circumstances to keep others safe and address serious issues of anti-social behavior or poor performance.   It is needed in direct combat or crisis if people are paralyzed by fear and uncertainty or putting lives at risk.  But these situations are exceptional.

Senior leaders need to avoid an ostrich-like indifference to what is happening to their employees.  Make a clear distinction — and enforce expectations — between leadership and authoritarianism, and you will improve business performance and address the problem of bullying.

Leadership and Results

Many management books offer leadership secrets from companies that are showing good results.  Over time, however, we find that the results were often fleeting and the highly touted companies no longer doing so well.

Leaders get results, but the presence of good results does not necessarily indicate the presence of great leadership.  Any petty tyrant can get short-term results.  In the right situations, companies with incompetent or toxic bosses perform better than competitors who may be experiencing even bigger problems.

Great leaders get results by bringing out the best in their people.

They promote supportive relationships and opportunities for people to learn, grow, and adapt.  They create a compelling sense of purpose and a clear strategy to achieve it.  They adapt and make good decisions.  They develop systems and processes that promote shared awareness and execution of key tasks with minimal frustration.  They ensure the necessary resources and capabilities are present to do the job.

To assess the quality of leadership, look how the results are obtained.


Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Non-Profits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

Is United Airlines Losing Its Edge? Learning from Its Bad Day at Dulles

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But your business is so important to us...

But your business is so important to us…

As I write this, I should be close to landing at London’s Heathrow airport on United flight 122.  The cabin lights would have just come on; the friendly flight attendants serving a last round of food and drinks. But I am still at Dulles airport.  UA122 was canceled after the longest comedy of errors I have experienced in over a million miles of flight. Poor performance at several points of execution made for a bad day for the airline — and a very frustrating one for probably several hundred customers.  The meltdown provides important lessons on the importance of discipline and intrinsic motivation. It started off well enough.  The boarding went smoothly.  Most passengers were nestled into their seats well-before the 0930 take-off.   We waited for a few stragglers to board.  After the last of them stumbled down the aisle, plopped down and buckled up, the aircraft pushed back to the soothing sound of the safety video. Then the problems began. The aircraft remained in one spot on the tarmac for an unusually long time.  The pilot finally announced that the aircraft had a problem with a generator that required fixing at the gate.  Enough time must have elapsed for the original gate to have been shut down, so we waited for another one to open.  A text message helpfully appeared at 0957 noting that the 0930 flight was delayed. We off-loaded the plane.  A harried customer-service representative noted that two other overseas flights had maintenance issues, too.  At 10:02 another text optimistically forecasted departure at 1100 and arrival in London at 11:18PM. I considered changing my flight to the 6:35PM flight, which reportedly had lots of open seats.  The train from Heathrow into Central London stops running a few minutes before midnight.  A taxi at that hour could run close to $100.  Since I had purchased the return train ticket, missing the Heathrow Express would mean being out that $30, too. We were recalled to the plane and quickly re-boarded.  A text at 1110 noted an 1115 departure and 1133PM arrival.  Prospects were worsening to catch the Express train.  Always a step behind, another text appeared at 1120, updating the departure to 1130 and arrival at at 11:41PM. I chatted with the passenger seated next to me.  We hoped the pilot might be able to fly at a faster speed in the hope of making up some time.  As if on cue, the pilot announced he was taking on more fuel so he could do exactly that.  Good news! We pushed back from the gate, glad to finally be on our way across the pond.  The plane stopped on the tarmac again for an uncomfortably long time.  The pilot regretfully announced that the fuel door was not closed properly.   Maintenance personnel were on their way to fix it, he said. We waited a long time.  Some trucks finally arrived at the plane and then departed a few minutes later.  Surely, we thought, everything is set. The Captain came on again, frustration evident in his voice.  The maintenance people showed up with the wrong-sized ladder and needed to get a longer one.  Many minutes later the trucks showed up again.  A passenger behind me joked that they had the right ladder this time, but the wrong sized mechanic. Our exasperated Captain keyed the intercom system again.  The fuel door was broken.  We needed to return to the gate and de-plane. With no way to get to Heathrow before midnight, I decided to move to the 6:35 PM flight, arriving at 0630 in London.  At least I could use my train ticket now.  I called the United Customer Service line.  As a “1k customer” (I logged over 100,000 United miles in 2014), I get to use a designated number. A very kind representative answered promptly, apologized for the problems I had experienced, and reserved a seat for me on the 6:35 PM flight.  She asked if seat 21D was ok.  Perfect, I confirmed.  I prefer aisle seats as close to the front as possible. The flight attendants apologized as well.  The flight was being cancelled.  We needed to report to a customer service representative for a new booking.  I’m glad I called ahead and got a good seat. While we were disembarking a new text message appeared at 1230 cheerfully announcing departure at 1247. Seriously? As we queued up for the customer service reps, I decided to call United again to make sure I was all set for seat 21D.  The representative confirmed I was good to go.  I still needed to talk to the United people at Dulles to confirm my luggage would be transferred to my new flight. At 1240 the text messages caught up to reality. An impersonal “noreply” email from United arrived at 1243.  It was from the splendidly named “Proactive Recovery Operations Team.” The email sincerely apologized for my experience this morning, noted how important my business and satisfaction was to United, and invited me to click on a link for a small (very small) token of appreciation. The queue was not moving.  I checked my mobile app to see if my seat assignment had posted.  It had, except now I had 29A (window seat).  I called the United number again to ask what had happened.  The pleasant representative said my seat was 29A and that she had no record at all of me being allocated 21D.  I noted my two previous conversations.  She said United keeps no records of phone calls and associated transactions.  Sorry.  Nothing she could do. By most accounts United is a fine airline that is operating at a profit. My experiences on United have been mostly positive. Today’s performance, however, revealed potential breakdowns at the point of execution in maintenance and customer care.  Were pre-flight checks done properly?  How did three planes have maintenance problems all at once?  Is this a systemic problem with a particular team or merely coincidental?  How did the fuel door break?  Why keep texting out-of-date updates? How could the maintenance team have brought the wrong ladder?  How much fuel was wasted during these preventable problems?  Why doesn’t the “PROT” have the ability to associate a customer name on an email? Why the seating mishap? On the scale of problems, several are paltry.  But combined with the maintenance issues, these so-called little things make me wonder if United just had a bad day or is losing its edge. Organizational and personal discipline are marks of excellence,  Books such as Larry Bossidy’s Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit illustrate the impact of consistent performance to established standards and expectations. Real discipline emerges from intrinsic motivation.  Lord Moran, WWI veteran and Winston Churchill doctor and biographer, referred to this in The Anatomy of Courage as discipline from within.  Dan Pink argues powerfully in his Ted talk, “The puzzle of motivation,” that reliably high performance occurs when people have Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Thankfully, today’s problems were primarily in customer time and frustration (and a small dent in United’s bottom line). Let’s hope these are not symptoms of deeper issues. Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

Three ways senior leaders failed 1LT Lyle Bouck’s intrepid platoon on 16 December 1944

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1-4 CAV leaders at Lyle Bouck's position

1-4 CAV leaders at Lyle Bouck’s position, 2005

His heart was racing a mile a minute.  It might burst out of his chest if he dared to loosen his equipment.  Tomorrow, if he lived to see it, would be his twenty-first birthday. That was seventy years ago today.

Artillery crashed on top of his position.  His mind screamed with the concussions.  Shrapnel ripped the air apart, relentlessly threatening to shred limbs and bodies.

First Lieutenant Lyle Bouck and his 18-man platoon had been in position only six days.  His Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon was part of the 99th Division, a new and untested unit recently arrived from the States.  The 99th was given a quiet part of the front so they could gain some experience.

The Germans, on the eve of their counteroffensive in the West that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, must have been delighted with their stroke of luck.

Stay calmMaybe they are just shooting artillery, he thought, as he peered through the morning mist covering the village of Lanzerath, the tiny Belgian town a few hundred meters away.

Lyle Bouck and his men felt alone in a snow-covered wood line, staring into Germany.

Whew!  The blasts of artillery began to move off further west.

And that is when the problems really began.

His scouts reported German paratroopers, lots of them, coming into Lanzerath.  “Go back and verify” was the skeptical response from his higher headquarters.  It would not be the last frustrating transmission from the other end of the radio.

Lyle verified the report.  German paratroopers in battalion strength had occupied the village. “What are my orders?”

“Hold at all costs!” The panic at the other end was evident.  A fight against roughly 30:1 or greater odds.

Mass confusion had taken hold of the Division and Regimental leadership.  This was a crisis they were insufficiently prepared to handle.  The Division Commander was seen playing his piano.

The fog had begun to recede. “Get ready to fire!” Lyle ordered, as Germans moved along the road to his East – take as many as you can with you.

View from Bouck's position into Lanzerath

View from Bouck’s position into Lanzerath

A young girl ran out of a house and pointed the Germans to Bouck’s position.  He was compromised.

The German battalion began a frontal assault over open ground.  Lyle’s platoon fended off three such attacks.  The Germans suffered hundreds of killed and wounded.

Lyle requested artillery support.  None would come.  The order was repeated to hold at all costs.  Shrapnel destroyed his radio, severing the only link with the Regiment.

Dusk approached.  Two of his men were dead and several wounded.  The platoon was nearly out of ammunition.  Lyle struggled with the decision whether to withdraw and possibly face a court martial for failing to obey his last orders, or to keep fighting.

The Germans made the decision for him.  An experienced German NCO named Vince Kühlbach convinced his battalion commander to allow him to lead a flank attack.  They were on top of the American platoon before the latter knew what was happening.

Lyle and his men would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.  When people would ask about his experiences, Lyle would note that he was told to hold at all costs, he fought until nearly out of ammunition, then was surrounded and captured.  For years he felt like a failure and guilty for the lives lost and shattered.

Roughly forty years later, John D. Eisenhower was doing research for his book, Bitter Woods.  He noted what a close-run thing the Battle of the Bulge had become, and wanted to uncover the key actions that led to the delays and demise of the German attack.

One of those key events was the American stand at Lanzerath.

Lyle and his platoon had delayed the German main attack for several critical hours.  The armored column known as Kampfgruppe Peiper was to wait until the Parachute Regiment had seized key crossroads by mid-day on the 16th.  Peiper did not move until the morning of the 17th.  By December 21, he was trapped near La Gleize, Belgium, defeated.

Many works rightly cite 1LT Bouck’s skill and bravery.  But what can we glean from the failures of his senior leaders?

1. Crisis Management Rehearsals.  The panicked order to “Hold at all costs,” reflected insufficient preparation for crisis.  Wargames and rehearsals for how to handle a German attack should have been among the first orders of business for the Division, and would have reduced the tendency toward ill-conceived guidance.   An order to delay, for instance, may have had the same overall effect on the situation at less cost.

How well has your business rehearsed crisis management plans?

2.  Get to the Scene.  There is no evidence that any leadership or staff made any effort to get to the scene to re-establish communications and to see the situation personally.  Had they done so, they could have better assessed the situation and perhaps pulled Bouck’s unit back a couple of kilometers to strengthen the defensive position at a critical crossroads called Buchholz Station.  The Americans there were quickly swept aside by the Germans the next morning.

What are your plans to gain situational awareness at the critical points and times?

3. Every Person and Organization is Critical.  If your enterprise is properly organized, every team and individual is a key part of your success or failure.  In every critical situation, the people and teams at the point of contact, like Bouck’s platoon, will have an outsized effect – for good or for ill.  Do they feel appreciated or hung out to dry when things go wrong?

What are you doing to make your people and teams feel supported and appreciated?

After the history was written, Bouck’s platoon received the Presidential Unit Citation.  His was the most highly decorated platoon for a single action in the European Theater of Operations.

To read more about Lyle Bouck and his platoon see:

John D. Eisenhower, Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge;

Charles B. MacDonald, Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge;

Cole C. Kingseed, Old Glory Stories: American Combat Leadership in World War Two;

Cole C. Kingseed, “Heroism Under Fire,” in Kolenda, ed. Leadership: The Warrior’s Art.


Three Ways to be Inspired by Malala Yousafzai

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Malala Yousafzai (

Malala Yousafzai (

By age 11, Malala Yousafzai developed what so many adults fail to muster over a life-time — the courage to take a stand.

In 2009 she began writing under a pseudonym about life in the Swat Valley under the Pakistani Taliban’s violent occupation and relentless abuse.  Her advocacy for girl’s education gained prominence with Adam B. Ellick’s New York Times documentary Class Dismissed: Malala’s Story.

Not long thereafter, the Pakistani Taliban threatened Malala’s life.  She had the choice to be silent or to speak out and risk being killed.  She spoke out.  Two years ago, on October 9, 2012, she was shot in the head by deranged gunmen.

Today, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her struggle for survival, undaunted courage, and commitment to human rights and girl’s education is inspirational.  I hope her example will inspire action.

First, I hope her courage inspires people young and old to stand up for mutual respect and common decency.  Most of us will never face the kind of life and death choices Malala did.  We face more subtle ones each day — to stand up against sexual harassment, to challenge bigotry, to take action against bullying, to respect one another — or to look the other way.  These choices made by millions of us each day shape our environment.  We are the front lines.

Second, I hope her determination inspires the Pakistani government and others to invest seriously in education.  Pakistan spends a pathetic 2.1% of their GDP on education — the lowest in the country’s history and one of the lowest in the world.  At just over 54%, it also ranks among the world’s lowest adult literacy rates.  It’s 70% rating on youth literacy is better, but still compares unfavorably within the region.  Many of the world’s most corrupt and violence-ridden places — and places in which women are at highest risk — are among the least literate.

We can help, too, by supporting organizations that promote education in conflict zones, like the Central Asia Institute (I consult for them), Aid Afghanistan for Education, Sonia Shah Foundation, and others.

Third, I hope her grace and wisdom inspire the U.S. to become more than just a one-trick-pony when dealing with groups such as ISIL, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and others.  Let’s be more than the world’s leader in airstrikes.

To be sure, military action is often required in crisis, and the U.S. does much  more than airstrikes.  But our focus on bombs dwarfs our attention to other efforts — an orientation that is not unnoticed around the globe.

So let’s do more about crisis prevention.  Let’s do more about addressing the underlying drivers that enable such terrorist and militant groups to thrive.  Part of that is about seriously promoting peace, dignity, education, good governance, respect for human rights, and international law.

Let’s lead in those ways, too.  Sadly, we are not perceived by others as generously as we perceive ourselves. Everyone knows we can put steel on target.  Let’s ramp up these other, longer lasting efforts, and amplify our attention to them.

If we are truly leaders, others will follow.

Malala is inspirational.  Whether or not we are inspired to action depends on entirely upon us.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC ( which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones.  A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers  and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.

Introducing Sebastian Junger and his new film “Korengal”

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Korengal_smallOn September 17, I introduced Sebastian Junger for a screening of his latest documentary “Korengal.”  Accompanying him at the Pentagon were former Battle Company First Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major Lamonta Caldwell, and Producer Nick Quested.

“Korengal” builds on Junger’s previous film Restrepo.  It is a deeply touching, realistic, and dignified portrayal of the Paratroopers who served in the Korengal valley for 15 months in 2007-8.

These documentaries and books such as Sebastian Junger’s War and Jake Tapper’s The Outpost are critical in helping Americans understand what our men and women experience in the most intense combat environments.

Frankly, I believe it is our civic duty to learn these realities when we commit our forces to war.

Here are my introductory remarks, as delivered:

Seven years ago, while deployed to Afghanistan, I would often curse the suits and brass in the Pentagon. … some of you know that never really changed.

In May 2007 the 173d Airborne arrived in Kunar and Nuristan, one of the most difficult and violent areas of Afghanistan.  Two units served in those provinces, 2nd Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry, where Lamonta Caldwell served as First Sergeant for Battle Company, and, further north, 1st Squadron – 91st Cavalry, which I commanded.

We came armed with America’s treasure, our men and women.  We were well trained, hungry, ready to fight and win.

But the U.S. had no credible strategy or campaign plan to win the war.   We deployed and fought without the resources that could have made a real difference to the mission … and that could have saved lives and limbs.

I was convinced that no one in the halls of power had any idea what was really happening on the ground.  When I got to the Pentagon in early 2009, I found some things to be worse than I imagined.

I also found highly dedicated people, some of whom are here today, who were trying to make things right.

With a new Administration came new leadership … new energy … a new strategy … and more resources to make it work.

As we wind down the war in Afghanistan and potentially begin another one in Iraq and Syria, this event today could not have come at a more important time.

Understanding war requires three very important frames:

— the view from above – the policy and strategy;

— the view from the field commanders;

— and the view from the ground – from the soldiers and leaders who carry out the bloody and dangerous, highly personal and sometimes exhilarating task of fighting a capable and determined enemy.

Each frame is critical; neither is complete on its own.

The Pentagon gets the view from above and from the field commanders.

Rarely do policy-makers get the view from the ground.

That is what makes today so special.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested, and Command Sergeant Major Lamonta Caldwell.

Sebastian JungerSebastian Junger needs no introduction.  He is the author of The Perfect Storm and WAR, and is one of America’s most acclaimed writers. His documentary film Restrepo, was nominated for an Oscar.  Korengal, the film we will see today, delves further into the psychology of the same men in Restrepo.

Sebastian has made two HBO films. “Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?” chronicles the life and career of frequent collaborator and close friend Tim Hetherington, who passed away in the war zones of Libya.  His forthcoming film, “The Last Patrol,” follows Sebastian, two veterans, and a fellow journalist on a 400 mile hike along railroad lines as they reflect upon the transition back to civilian life.

Sebastian, as many of you know, spent a significant amount of time in the Korengal valley with Lamonta Caldwell and the paratroopers of Battle Company.

Thank you, Sebastian, for telling the stories of these brave paratroopers, for telling, so powerfully, the stories of those whose voices would not otherwise be heard … or can no longer be heard.

Nick Quested is the Executive Director of Goldcrest Films and has over 40 films to his name. Four of them deal with themes of war:  Restrepo, Gold Star Children, Which Way Is The Front Line From Here, and Korengal.

Sergeant Major Lamonta Caldwell was the First Sergeant of Battle Company during their 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley.  That valley, as you know, was the scene of the most intense fighting in theatre in 2007-8.

He and Battle Company had just returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan 16 months earlier.

As many of you know, the First Sergeant takes care of the 150-man Company.  Together with his commander then-Captain Dan Kearney, no one knew more what the Paratroopers of Battle Company achieved and endured … and how the experience affected them.

There is no one better to talk about the realities of war.


Colonel (Ret.) Christopher D. Kolenda is a small business owner who helps NGOs and businesses maximize their impact.  He  is a highly decorated combat commander and veteran who served four tours in Afghanistan.  He has advised three Secretaries of Defense.  See his two books on leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.


Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC