Charles Jacoby on Agility: An interview by Bob Morris

Charles Jacoby is a retired United States Army general who served as the fifth Commander of United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the 22nd Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Jacoby was the first army officer to assume command of Northern Command. He previously served as the Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, The Joint Staff. He assumed command of USNORTHCOM and NORAD on August 3, 2011, and was succeeded by Admiral William E. Gortney on December 5, 2014. Jacoby is notable as the first non-command pilot to serve as commander of either NORAD/USNORTHCOM, as both commands have traditionally been dominated by Air Force officers and NORAD carries a heavy air interdiction mission.

He is the co-author of Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption with Leo M. Tilman, published by MissionDay (October 2019).

A 1978 graduate of the United States Military Academy, Jacoby attended the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced courses, the Army Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies, and the National War College. Jacoby has a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan.

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Before discussing Agility, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My Father. His service in WW II and that of his brothers inspired me. He taught me how to work. He set an example of excellence and service in what he did. He put others first before himself. He was a hard man and had rough edges but never let us doubt he loved us. He had an uncanny ability to be kind at just the right moment.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

My first Platoon Sergeant, SFC Harold Simmons. He was a professional. He led with humility and strength. He showed me how to lead, taught me how to lead, and allowed me to lead. He showed me that our diversity as individuals composing our platoon was not compromised by the more important identity, one we all shared, and an identity that unified and empowered us: we were American Soldiers.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Toward the end of the Vietnam War I was a student in ROTC at a small private college. Student demonstrators were upset about one of our resumptions of bombing of the North so they set fire to our ROTC building. I applied to West Point one more time, was accepted, and never looked back.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My formal education included more than West Point. Also Army-funded graduate studies at University of Michigan and a specialized school for advanced military planning (School of Advanced Military Studies) as well as the National War College. In particular the time I spend at a public university was critical to developing a broader set of critical thinking skills. Many of my early assumptions were challenged, I was exposed to different people with different perspectives, and I became more thoughtful about myself and my profession. I was a better officer in every way as a result of all my formal education.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

You generally don’t stand out in the rain all day and get shot at. (Joke). Often military officers believe the grass is greener on the civilian business side of the fence. What I have learned since retiring is that it is a similarly competitive environment and that most of the challenges and opportunities of both have close resemblance to each other.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

I have not seen many business movies but from a leadership perspective Saving Private Ryan made an impression. The main character, Captain Miller, is an average man in civilian life with extraordinary leadership ability. He was a man of character. He cared deeply about his subordinates, he believed in the mission and talked about it with any and all of his men. He was humble and selfless and ferocious all in the same package. He had an innate understanding of two-way accountability, “Officers bitch up, they don’t bitch down.” His Company clearly exhibited a culture of trust and accountability. He and his Company were equipped for uncertainty, disruption and violence that awaited for them on Omaha Beach….and they won.

I would want Captain Miller to lead my sons in desperate circumstances.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

True. Power, speed, information, and knowledge exist at the edge of your organization. People are at the edge of the organization…your people. Share accountability for outcomes with them.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Maybe…. sometimes. In my mind strategy is more about balancing risks over time. In every strategic challenge there is an opportunity.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Agreed. He just described the antithesis of an agile leader

From H.L. Mencken “To every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

Agreed. At senior levels and maybe for leaders in all competitive and disrupted environments there are no simple problems. If a senior leader finds himself/herself firing off solutions that are simple and neat they are not doing their jobs they are doing other people’s work. More often than not complex problems involve a senior leader in “making the case” for an approach.

From  Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In the Army, we always said the most important time of a soldier’s experience in the unit was his/her first day and last day. We wanted to make certain that every soldier was welcomed and embraced upon arrival…. and was recognized and thanked when they left.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

I generally agree. However, there are times when a vision can inspire and excite even if the outcome is different than intended — and it can be even better.

From Charles Darwin: “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.”

They are leaders with a severe handicap which is rarely overcome…only by emergent leaders at the edge of the organization.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Agreed. Genuine care for people and for the work is unmistakable and trumps almost everything else.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Leo and I call that working dumb as opposed to working smart. In the book we hope to never stray too far from the idea that knowing what business you are in and what is your True North (values, priorities, objectives) are key. Senior leaders must focus on what they can do for the organization.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in an extended conversation? Why?

U.S. Grant. That’s a very tough question for me because I am a history buff and love biographies. I just finished Ron Chernow’s latest biography of Grant. I loved it and became fascinated with Grant and Chernow’s resurrection of a man who, as a commander of Union forces, was reviled as a “butcher” and later as a President was a bit of a flop.

In fact, as Abraham Lincoln finally realized, Grant was essential to preserving the Union, first on the battlefield in combat and then in the White House where Constitutional issues engulfed him every day from 1869 to 1877. Yet he was in many ways just an ordinary man but with the grit, determination, and beliefs needed to serve his country as as best he could during extraordinary times. I easily could have selected another great leader such as Alexander, Washington, Napoleon, Wilson, …..Jesus, for that matter. But Grant was on my mind when you posed the question.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

You have to package change in a way that inspires people rather than scares them. There are different mechanisms for achieving buy-in but it is an early and critical path for transformation. When the majority of the team and key leaders trust you and thus the changes you propose they will own the changes, embrace the opportunity in the change, and become an army of agents for change. That is how you overcome the bias for inaction that resides deep inside most organizations. You have to win them over at the edge.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Leaders live the values and the priorities of the organization and they talk about them broadly. Leader development is invested in and becomes a core competency throughout the organization. Evaluations become focused on potential not just performance. Leaders take the first step in creating a culture of trust and that is how momentum is built and sustained….and innovation flourishes.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Leaders have done a poor job letting each employee know the importance of their work to the overall objectives and priorities of the organization. Accountability is powerful, and leaders should make sure it is seen as a two-way street. When the majority of the employees see and feel some accountability for the organization’s mission then you are rocking.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

You and other members of your team articulate the values, mission and priorities and go to the edge and preach. Identify the very few who want to fail or can’t be turned and relocate them.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Radical accountability. Push decision making out as far and as deep in the as you can (a risk) and focus on the things that are truly CEO business…. own them and enlist the power of your organization for the rest. Check what is a priority not where you don’t trust.

Now please shift your attention to Agility. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you and Leo decide to write it?

Agility has became a buzzword to organization that struggle to solve the problems associated with DOD drawdowns…budget and force structure cuts, gutting readiness and acquisition. It was all about doing the same or more with less masked with poorly defined and inexecutable calls for more efficiencies, becoming leaner, nimbler, and yes more agile. As a senior leader I wanted to take on the buzzword with Leo and discover what it really meant and what was the value in agility.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

There is a universal need for agility and mankind is in a constant cycle of having to brave the unknown. Those that discover sufficient agility win and those who do not fail.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

We branched out from just providing a theory of agility to including fundamental elements of the practice of agility. In this way we are closer to what Clausewitz provided in On War than we might have thought at the start.

How do you define agility in a business world context? What is the “agility mission”?

We provided a definition we feel fits most if not all competitive environments. The agility mission should evoke the sense of a journey. A non-linear effort to be sure.

In your opinion, what is agility’s greatest benefit within each of the four dimensions of a VUCA marketplace? First, volatility.

Agility offers a setting and a process for purposefully responding to rapid change. Change that is accelerating and creating cascading effects.

Next, uncertainty

We believe agility drives leaders and organizations to ask “what if and what next” as part of its nature. It becomes a mindset to explore the uncertain space and to look for the opportunities as well as the threats. Anticipate surprises and plan to exploit them.

Then, complexity

Agility requires you to accept complexity and to master the depth of the environment to include relationships and to master the capabilities of the organization to deal with complexities.

Finally, ambiguity

In Agility, we call for a “forum of truth.” Part of the agility setting that welcomes dissent, information and opinions from all angles and that we assess the inputs through the lens of our portfolios of risk and our strategic end states. There will always be different interpretations, but we are seeking anchor points around which they can coalesce and keep us on the right path.

What are the defining characteristics of agile leadership?

We call it a special brand of leadership, based on leader beliefs and actions that build teams that are disciplined, accountable, respectful, and possess a culture of trust. Inclusive humble leaders must create an environment for purposeful decisive decisions based in a will to win.

The chapter titles are superb. Please share your thoughts about each of these. First, Chapter 2: “Fog Friction, and the Edge of Chaos”

Taken from Clausewitz to describe the environment that he describes as part of the nature of war and we believe of all competitive environments and updated to reflect the persistence of conflict and speed of change we feel has many current leaders in a state of vertigo at the edge of chaos.

Chapter 4: “Risk Intelligence”

Leo’s term reflects what we in the military call the intelligence process. It is forward looking, aggressive, and resourced activity to turn information about the environment into actionable intelligence that drives how we act and take risk to achieve agile outcomes….it is not a post mortem of a failed quarterly report.

Chapter 5: “What Business Are You In?”

Chasing short term opportunities that stray from your purpose or reacting to pop up threats in a fight or flight mode can pile one bad decision on top of another and you stop being the organization you intended to be. We give several examples in the book. A critical error can be the antithesis of agility…no matter how fast you made those bad decisions.

Chapter 7: “Command, Control and Radical Empowerment”

This is somewhat of a push-back on the indiscriminate flatteners of organizations. Command and control are critical functions whatever your line and block diagram looks like. There must be accountability at critical points for decisive action. The questions concern where decisions are being made, who is making them, and within  which boundaries they will be operating.

We examine the military philosophy of Mission Command which calls for centralized planning and decentralized execution. We expect uncertainty…fog and friction…and we empower as far down and out as we can with sufficient guidance, authority, resources, and trust to ensure the organizations purpose is still being pursued (bias for action) even in an information denied environment. We push the envelope and call for radical empowerment. Where to take risk. Also why.

In your opinion, how best to identify the most relevant of the “unknown unknowns” in an organization’s competitive environment?

A forum of truth also creates curiosity, exploration of the environment and critical thinking that can sometimes find that 1 + 1 = 3.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when planning the reinvention of an organization?

Be in favor of what’s going to happen when you start down that path, adapt your portfolios of risks for the anticipated outcome, make sure you can visualize and articulate the vision of the new baby or it will be assumed to be Frankenstein.

And then when implementing that plan?

Listen closely during execution. Be patiently persistent in most cases as you feel the friction grow and fog billows up around you. Anticipate the points when and where you may need to veer left or right and don’t be afraid and know the points where you must insist on moving forward. If you have built up a level of trust others will follow.

To what extent (if any) did your perspectives on “navigating the unknown and seizing opportunity in a world of disruption” change while collaborating on this book? Please explain.

That is more, much more than just a military issue. There is universality to it. It is a human endeavor requiring critical thinking and engagement. It is a winning formula. It is a choice…. hard work. But if you are asking the question “How can I be more agile?” then you are ahead.  Unless everything is broken, it is achievable. The leader matters.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Agility will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

The conversations about leadership and trust

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

The conversation about risk and trust

To C-level executives? Please explain.

The type of leadership we call for is undervalued and leader development, planning, and risk intelligence should become core competency of the modern agile business. The first steps in forming a culture of trust start in the C-Suite.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Same…some of the tradeoffs because of size may need outsourcing help but there is danger there. Probably not what you are looking for if you are a quick turn buyout type of organization. The type of leadership we call for is undervalued and leader development, planning, and risk intelligence should become core competency of the modern agile business. Not overhead.

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Charles cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.



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