Center of Gravity and Critical Vulnerability: Why Using Strengths and Exploiting Weakness is a Key L
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):
1. Effective leaders recognize bias and employ their team within the scope of their abilities.
2. Leaders must re-learn the art of exploitation.
3. Exploitation in business is necessary for long-term success.
CENTER OF GRAVITY
During one of my combat tours to Afghanistan I was abruptly tasked with a mission involving substantial risk to my Marines. We used a drone to drop a bomb on an enemy sniper and his spotter who were wreaking havoc on us and adjacent units for several weeks. They were a few kilometers outside of our lines. We needed to conduct a BDA, or Battle Damage Assessment. This is where we physically inspect the damage, collect evidence and even fingerprints (to go in our database) and gather any weapons and gear that he may have had to prevent others from acquiring them.
What really made it dangerous was the fact that the area where they were located was completely saturated with IED’s or Improvised Explosive Devices and was surrounded by trees. As I had already lost several of my Marines to these IED’s on this deployment (and many more over the years), and knew that we consistently took small arms fire from tree lines, I was hesitant to just rush out and conduct the BDA. Besides, I'd been shot by a sniper in Iraq, and wasn't fond of doing so again. We had to move quickly, however, as another enemy grabbing up his sniper rifle and turning it into a psychological game would obviously impact us negatively, as well as the local populace who we were attempting to win over to our side.
"I was not looking forward to getting shot by another sniper. Once was enough."
I had three squads of roughly 15 Marines and support personnel at my disposal. One squad was the obvious choice. They were quick, decisive, intelligent, and lead by a very competent squad leader. But they were also the farthest away by an additional kilometer. That may not seem very far, but in combat, it can be a light year. Another squad was occupied with other duties and unable to conduct the BDA in a timely manner. That left my third option, which was actually my Second Squad. I couldn’t take the entire squad, however, as each squad was guarding its own position. That meant I had to take a portion of Second Squad and leave the rest on defense. We were now going to take six of us instead of the full squad, and we were going to move fast, undermanned, into enemy controlled territory. I had to decide who was going and had to decide quickly.
One of the Fire Team Leaders in that squad was by no means stupid, but he wasn’t the brightest. He was strong, but he was also physically slower than many of my Marines. But he was aggressive, and he and his team had additional training on the evidence-collecting aspect of the mission. I chose him and we left within three minutes of receiving our order from the Company HQ. We conducted the mission successfully, acquiring a sniper rifle, bomb-making materials, documents and position locations, and additional gear and equipment. We made it back with no casualties.
PRINCIPLES PUT TO PRACTICE
One of the 11 Marine Corps Leadership Principles is “Know your Marines and look out for their welfare”. Another is “Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities”. The first principle must be applied in order to accomplish the second. I knew my Marines and chose the best Fire Team and Leader for the job at hand based on the circumstances. But all too often, leaders in an organization are content to choose only their “best” leader or team to conduct a task. This causes several problems.
First, your bias is detrimental to the overall success of the organization. Sure, the job may get done, but at what cost? The other team or person who was positioned to get the job done well was passed over in lieu of you deciding to play favorites. Congratulations, you’ve just introduced the hated “politics” that so many people complain of in corporate America straight into your organization.
Secondly, you’re denying someone else the opportunity to grow, develop, mature, and gain new skill sets that will ultimately create a stronger organization and make your job easier in the future.
Lastly, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to train, mentor, and lead another person who you may not typically lead in day-to-day operations. This is a missed opportunity to grow yourself, lead and grow someone else, and develop the future leadership of the company.
To avoid all of those issues, conduct a quick analysis of time available, capabilities of each person or team who could accomplish the task, and your own willingness to train, lead, and supervise the process. Then, make the decision for who should conduct the mission.
CRITICAL VULNERABILITY AND EXPLOITATION
The perceived critical vulnerability of our enemy is always listed as one of the many parts of a military operations order. Why? Because we would hate to attack the enemy where he is strongest, thereby resulting in a greater chance of mission failure and more casualties to our team. But even more importantly, we would prefer to hit the enemy where he is weakest because it allows for one of the best military practices in all of ancient and modern history: exploitation.
“I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.”
- General James Mattis -
Exploitation in combat is the act of not just winning the battle but pressing onward and causing such catastrophic losses to the enemy that he loses all taste for future battle with us, and will take a long time to recover, if ever. It is also desirable to cause him to take resources from his Center of Gravity and reallocate them to the now-weakened area, effectively weakening the Center of Gravity and his entire force. As Marines, we conduct the exploitation phase aggressively, but honorably.
Clearly, war is a category unto itself. But there is a reason why so many business practices are modeled after combat practices. How can we use the principle and practice of exploitation in our organizations for the success of everyone, including our clients or customers? Simple. When your team has a success in business, find a way to keep the momentum moving on it. That could look like a customer who is very happy about the services or product you’ve provided, and now you can exploit your success in several ways.
Ask for a review on whatever platform your organization uses. Get those stars!
Ask for a referral to another customer. Grow your customer base.
Upsell or cross-sell them another product or line up the next process with them while they’re still excited.
Share the results with your team and learn from them. Ask your team how they were successful and replicate that process.
Recognize the success of your people. This encourages the desired behaviors from your people to ensure future success, and builds trust between the leader and their team.