Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Leadership from the Edge: A Matter of Balance

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Leadership from the Edge: A Matter of Balance

Article excerpt

Leadership from the edge implies that subordinates are able and authorized to take the initiatives that are necessary to deal with the situations they encounter. Although leadership from the edge is considered important in crisis response operations that the military perform, on-scene commanders are often closely supervised. The reasons behind this tendency are explored by developing and using an analytical framework consisting of nine leadership dimensions. For each dimension the requirements of leadership from the edge are elaborated and compared to actual practice in the armed forces. The conclusion is that many leadership aspects in the military do not match with the requirements of leadership from the edge.


Military organizations are currently oriented towards crisis response operations, which are considered part of their core business. In these operations military units usually operate dispersed over a relatively large area, carrying out their tasks such as patrolling, observing, manning checkpoints, collaborating with other organizations, transporting goods, etcetera. Because of the dispersion, commanders at lower levels in the hierarchy (lieutenants, sergeants) are usually the on-scene commanders who have to deal with the many uncertainties that accompany these kinds of missions. They have to operate between people with very different cultures, they may be confronted with varying levels and kinds of dangers, they may have to perform tasks which can be far from "soldierlike" (Avant & Lebovic, 2000; Miller, 1997; Segal & Tiggle, 1997), and they may have to deal with local belligerents who do not comply with the agreements of the mission. These tasks can be characterized by relatively low standardization, low outcome feedback, high variety, and much latitude, and therefore those armed forces that perform these operations should be organized in a more organic way (e.g., Carroll & Tosi, 1992).

Since the Cold War the changing nature of the environment within which armed forces operate has meant that the mechanistic and overly hierarchically based armed forces have had to transform parts of their operations into more organic organizational forms. With the required organizational design changes in the armed forces (see Kramer, 2004, 2007), changes are also required in its use of technology, such as on-line communication systems (e.g. Alberts & Hayes, 2003), changes in its educational systems (Caforio, 2001), and changes in its leadership (Essens, Vogelaar, Tanercan, & Winslow, 2001).

Leadership from the Edge

There is much literature that is devoted to the required changes in military leadership (e.g., Essens, et al., 2001; Harries-Jenkins, 1999; Reed & Segal, 2000; Shamir & Catignani, 2005). The general message is that crisis response operations require commanders at many hierarchical levels to be "thinking commanders" rather than only "rule-following commanders." The essence of the change is that on-scene commanders are the ones who have to make sense of the situations they are confronted with and act according to their assessments in trying to accomplish their part of the mission. In fact, many of the problems that have to be solved in these operations may be new, not only for the on-scene commanders, but also for their higher commanders.

This line of thinking requires an organization philosophy where responsibilities and authorities are delegated throughout the command line in order to stimulate initiatives and leadership at all levels. In other words, it requires leadership from the edge. The concept "leadership from the edge" has been derived from the concept "power to the edge" that was introduced by Alberts and Hayes (2003). The word "edge" refers to individuals (subcommanders) at the periphery of the organization, i.e. where the organization interacts with its environment to have an impact or effect on that environment. …

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