Military Leadership Skills During Times of Chaotic Change

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Chaos is when events start to rapidly and completely diverge from what we expect they would be or would become. Chaos exists when there is an enormous difference between what we expect (our expectations) and what we see (our reality).  The final ingredient to chaos is that we feel either partially or completely incapable and / or unprepared to react, lead, and action effectively against this large difference that exists between our expectations and our reality.  With this definition of chaos, chaos can be a business fighting for its life, a military experience, or a parent taking care of three toddlers by themselves over a long weekend. 


The important thing to realize is that just because chaos exists does not mean you have to fall victim or even feel like a victim to a chaotic environment. Military skills help leaders at all levels adapt, adjust, and overcome chaos to achieve success.  


Here are 5 ways to use military leadership skills to manage chaos:


  1. Lead by example in all things. Leaders must be their best when the situation is at the worst. Leadership by example is a time honored military tradition where a leader sets a positive example from the lowest level to the highest level of activities. Leadership by example is central during times of chaos because people want to see a leader who is still confident, engaged, working to solve problems, and visible for others to see and interact. During the Korean War, after the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) unleashed massive and devastating attacks on American forces, General Matthew Ridgway became the US Commander in Korea. Ridgway wore a grenade on his web gear, highly unusual for a general, to show that he was willing to attack personally the enemy if needed. Leadership by example is an open style of leadership that is not behind closed doors, but open and interacting with all levels of the organization.

  2. Focus the organization on the top 2-3 greatest dangers. Leaders and organizations need to be incredibly focused on their greatest challenges and ensure the entire organization is focused on how to respond to those dangers. During the Apollo 13 lunar mission, an accident caused a life-threatening explosion that endangered the lives of three astronauts. The NASA command group based in Houston, TX immediately assessed they now had two primary missions: (1) keep the astronauts alive and (2) return them safely to earth. During chaos, organizations need to get to their 2-3 primary missions and no more. Organizational focus down to 2-3 critical missions is essential to survive a period of chaos.
  3. Lead with sharing information in an open, frequent & honest approach. There is a tendency that when things start to go wrong to reduce or stop sharing information. This is a natural leadership tendency because leaders do not want to be seen without all the necessary information. However, in times of chaos, leaders need to share more, be more open with information, and be visible and present during the information sharing process. Combat photographers for years have captured worn Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen gathered around leaders sharing information and listening when times are dire. Leaders in chaos share more and strive to be visible to their entire organization.

  4. Use the concept of Commander’s intent. Commander’s Intent is a military mission planning principle that works well in chaos. Commander’s intent is when a leader spells out precisely what success looks like and what the specific measures of success will be for the organization. Commander’s intent is vital during chaotic times because people want to know what they can do to ensure success even though chaos exists. When a leader talks about what success will be, then people know what they can do to act and initiative to guide their actions towards the organization’s success. Plans often fail, but Commander’s intent picks up when plans fail to enable action and initiative towards the final goal.

  5. Focus on people. Continuing to focus on the well-being of people is an easily forgotten aspect of leadership during times of chaos. Leaders often focus solely on the problem and forget to focus on the individuals that will carry out the solution to the problem. In any organization, in any industry, and in any part of the world, it is people, not money, computers, data or resources, that are an organization’s most important resources. Chaos eventually subsides because people and their leaders rise to confront, solve, and overcome the challenges.

Chaos can be an ending or a new beginning to leaders, a team, and an organization. Leaders and organizations that truly adopt and utilize military leadership skills during times of chaos will find themselves successful and better for the harrowing experience.


Have something to add? Share your advice on how military leadership skills can help manage chaos.


Related Information:

  1. Be a Great Leader, Be a Great Follower
  2. Demonstrate Your Military Values at Work Every Day
  3. Military Skills Are Invaluable for Mastering Work Place Change

About the Author: Chad Storlie is a Retired US Army Officer, the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and has published over 280 articles in over 170 publications on military veterans, career advancement, business, leadership, strategy, education, financial planning, and national security topics.  Chad excels as an author, mentor, speaker, and teacher showing business leaders and military veterans how military skills make lives, careers, and businesses better.  Chad is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Creighton University.  Chad has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.  Follow Chad @CombatToCorp and

das Daddy

USAA Leadership should read and apply the article on leadership skills. USAA isn't what it used to be. Off to Navy Federal!


Dear @das Daddy,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. We are disheartened to hear you are disappointed. If there is anything we can do to address your concerns, please do not hesitate to let us know. Thanks again.

Top Contributor

If you can find the USAA CEO, have him read the point about Leading by Example.


If you find the twenty something year old USAA moderators (who keep deleting our responsible comments and who shut down our NFL Petition as we got to 2,000 members), have them read the point about sharing information in an open, frequent & honest approach.


Tactics Change. Strategies Change. Core Military Values do Not Change. General Douglas MacArthur perfectly explained this in his 1962 farewell address at West Point which centered around the timeless principles of “Duty, Honor, Country”.


Stand United
Distinguished Honor Graduate, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Ft Bragg, NC
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