Note #2. Strategy Leadership: Rearranging Ends, Ways and Means

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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Operations are difficult and dangerous, but too easy. It’s too easy to get distracted from thinking about how to lead strategic operations. Let’s focus on two fundamentals of strategy.


First, two definitional assumptions about strategy and leadership: (1) strategy is a process that links ends, ways and means at multiple levels of activity; (2) leadership is getting others to do what they otherwise would not do.

Second, a third assumption: (3) leaders think strategically in order to anticipate threats, opportunities and challenges.

Strategy as Process

Back to the process of strategy. Ends are goals or purposes. For example: defeating violent extremism; diversifying economic growth; creating future market advantages; preventing catastrophic attack; and countering insurgency.

Ways are how we use resources to achieve these ends. Often described as approaches to strategy, ways often are what the strategy becomes known as, or named: direct or indirect; knowledge-based or energy-based; upstream or downstream; assured destruction or flexible response; and population-centric or enemy-centric.

Means are the resources we use, the diversity of which should suit ways and ends. Examples include: police, educators and civic leaders; financial competition, skilled labor and risk-tolerant entrepreneurs; military forces and intelligence analysis, public diplomacy and trusted courts.


Now for leadership. Leaders promote flexibility more than rigidity, especially in dynamic information and operational environments. This is a fundamental of strategy, too. Doing what we do today may be uncompetitive tomorrow. So, in order to promote flexibility of thinking, consider possibilities in which ends, ways and means are interchangeable, rather than categorizing something as only an end, only a way or only a means. This may be hard to do in an organization that structures framing and execution of strategy in a certain way. Such as organizing an operations center along a timeline that divides roles among strategy, plans, and operations cells. Who unifies these processes to ensure networked communication?

To fight organizational tendencies of reductionism, consider the goal of “diversifying economic growth.” This may be viewed as: an end in itself (diversity is good); a different way (how diverse and in which sectors?); and as a means to achieve other ends (reduce dependency). A leader can ensure that various parts of a team think outside legacy roles to create new opportunities.

Besides striving to develop and share new concepts of strategy, we also need to think as competitors lest we be surprised by their novel rearrangements of ends, ways and means.

For instance, due to a widespread shared belief in Carl von Clausewitz’s assertion that war is a continuation of politics, some strategists actively think differently. For some groups, war may be a continuation of economic primacy. Or, politics may be a way of social warfare, the primary means of which is the destruction and creation of relationships.

What about a cyber event that destroys virtual relationships and real connections, reducing living standards and denying people basic necessities? This attack does not fit the expectation that war involves military means. Violence (as a third-order effect, for instance) may result from a cyber attack on a critical infrastructure (such as a hospital’s power supply). If deaths do not result from such an attack and instead the hospital is less able to provide life-saving services to social groups in the area, is the attack a military one? Is it warfare? Who will deter, defend and eliminate sources of the attack? My main point is, leaders need to be able to think outside individual and organizational mindsets of ends, ways and means.

A holistic leader thinks about aligning various ways and means to achieve strategic ends. Ends can change, depending on the context at hand, so that we plan different activities to create conditions to achieve objectives. An operational approach describes desired conditions to achieve objectives, and lines of activity that create them. Desired conditions may be outlined as end-states, which have two important features. First, maintaining an end-state is a dynamic process requiring various resources. Second, the new political, economic and social conditions of the end-state provide actors opportunities to rearrange their strategies. Who is thinking about such possibilities as practitioners focus on achieving a mandated end-state?

Competitive Strategy

To have a competitive strategy, leaders at all levels need to think about the constant interaction of contending ends, ways and means.

With these fundamentals of strategy in mind, ICSL Notes # 3 and # 4 illustrate and introduce a broadly competitive approach to complex warfare: combined effects strategy.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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