What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

Leaders create order out of chaos. This ability to calm the storm can be seen across professions and functions, but it is acutely observed in military men and women leaders.

Key to managing through ambiguity is learning agility. In fact, today learning agility is often seen as the No. 1 predictor of leadership success, more accurate than IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence), education level, or even leadership competencies.

The assertion that military members and Veterans are taught to be agile and deal with ambiguity may seem counter-intuitive to those who have little exposure to members of the military. Many business leaders have the perception that military members are highly regimented and lack creativity in their approach to decision-making. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is how military leaders have been able to take their training and experiences and adapt them to the new and different, often under very harsh conditions and time restrictions. Their creativity and drive helps keep their fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen alive.

Take, for example, a fellow Veteran and Korn Ferry colleague, Kate Kohler. Kohler spent several years on active duty, serving as commander in the 557th Military Police Company in Korea as well as being deployed to Kuwait and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“There’s no playbook that teaches you how to manage through an ethnic cleansing, serve as a female military leader in the Middle East, or lead drafted Korean soldiers in the US Military Police,” said Kohler. “What helped me be effective was to take each experience, learn from it, and apply those learnings to new experiences.”

That’s learning agility.

Kohler applies her agility and key military learnings and brings them to her civilian role as founder and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Impact Investing Practice, a partnership between the company’s financial services and philanthropy teams.

“Just like in the military, impact investing leaders have to be incredibly agile,” said Kohler. “For example, if you are trying to fund and build a clean water system in Uganda, you have to know how and when to speak multiple languages:  the languages of finance, culture, third-world government and NGOs.”

Kate Kohler

Veteran Kate Kohler. Photo courtesy of Korn Ferry .

Kohler says she often finds herself in meeting rooms with asset managers, asset owners and Peace Corps alumni. “I often feel like I have more in common with the Peace Corps alums. The people within impact investing with hybrid backgrounds, including experiences on the ground with the Peace Corps, government, or at an NGO, know how to navigate extreme complexity, just like we did in the military. Being in this position within human capital allows me to understand how people with challenging on-the-ground development experiences, alongside asset managers and owners, can come together to do amazing things like funding clean water projects in a third-world country. This ultimately helps enable girls to go to school and break the cycle of poverty, or scale a fuel system that makes cooking safer for millions of people, or develop an evaluation system to measure impact that ultimately draws more investors.”

Agility is not just seen in the military or in those who work with the under-served. Even members of highly technical professions – think surgeons or astronauts – have to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. If something goes wrong, they have to rely on their vast knowledge to quickly act.

What separates the “remarkable” from the “good” leader is the ability to perform well under unique and challenging circumstances.  Research shows that individuals high in learning agility excel in these four areas:

  1. Mental Agility. They are excellent critical thinkers who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully, and make fresh connections.
  2. People Agility. They know themselves very well and can readily deal with a wide variety of people and tough situations.
  3. Change Agility. They are curious, like to experiment, and can effectively deal with the discomfort of change.
  4. Results Agility. They deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams and exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.

In late 2014, Korn Ferry analyzed agility assessments from transitioning members of the military who went through our pro bono intensive Leveraging Military Leadership Program. It found that two thirds of participants were more learning agile than their civilian counterparts, many of whom were classified as “high potentials” and senior executives.

The highest agility factor for Veterans is results agility, suggesting these individuals are skilled in executing strategy and getting the job done. They also ranked higher than the mean population in self-awareness. Due to their military training, this group of individuals may be readily open to direct and candid feedback; and are more inclined to take action on that feedback.

Can leaders within impact investing recognize this capability within their own ranks and cultivate it?  We think so.  Agility is core to virtually all sectors, and those in the private sector can take some key learnings from their Veteran and multi-disciplined colleagues and apply those learnings to enhance their own leadership success.

Randy MannerMajor General, United States Army (Retired), is a Senior Partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group. He is a passionate supporter of US Veterans and works with clients to develop or improve their Veteran Recruiting & Retention programs. Prior to retiring from the Army, he served as the Deputy Commanding General of the United States 3rd Army in Kuwait, as the Acting Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau, and as the Acting and Deputy Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.