Your Leadership And The Fog Of War

The fog of war is situational ignorance. The ignorance of conditions and circumstances exist in two frames of time, both the current/present and near-term future. The fog of war also has parts—that which is purely unknown, for one, but also those things that are so partially, hazily, and uncertainly known as to qualify as likely unknowns.

Have you been in an event or lived out a story where you can feel the fog of war? What did you do as a leader when the bulk of reality wasn’t what you knew or was known but rather was that which you didn’t know? Most of what you see around you is either unknown or not well-enough known to count for much. Have you been there?

This is a vital question and topic that can produce real insights into your leadership.

The fog of war has different effects on different leaders. Some leaders will hunker down and wait until enough information appears as to clear away the fog and allow for a move forward. By definition, such an approach demands patience and reserve, two qualities that aren’t always in abundant supply in 21st century leaders. The issue of securing information uncorks a new problem: how will I know when enough information is enough information? Can I accept 80% of the information I need? 50%? 30%? And as those percentages change, am I ready to adjust my leadership accordingly?

There are many leaders who simply won’t wait. They will strike ahead. Taken on its own, the decision to strike ahead could prove quite effective. But a question will crop up: will success survive a failure? Every success they enjoy in the forward rush will further add to their eagerness to do so again and again. At some point, the success will end. Life gets a vote and the vote will be negative. The question then will be: now what?   

The informational side of the fog of war takes on further meaning for us in the 2010s. We are swimming, awash, drowning (take your pick) in information. You can’t get away from it. Perhaps our bigger problem is the ability to distinguish garbage from the real stuff. Regardless of that, however, our immersion in what purports to be information means that as leaders (and followers) we are likely to feel naked in times when we don’t have that degree of information around us. We are vulnerable—maybe most vulnerable—in situations defined by the fog of war. And in the exposed state of vulnerability we tend to commit our worst mistakes, our biggest blunders. Beware the state of vulnerability in the 2010s, the gnawing sense that we are without information and are fully engulfed in the fog of war.

So, yes, information is a worthy topic in our discussion of the fog of war. But another point beyond information deserves mention.

The fog of war hinders sight. With a reduced ability to see in the distance, leaders might sense a narrowing of support and connection to others. The edge of their sight has diminished; the border of blindness is closer than it once was. That feeling is unnerving. The nearer the border, the lonelier the leader. The same feeling of isolation and separation can spread throughout the followers of the leader. In the tightening spaces around leader and followers, nervousness and anxiety flourish. Fear and panic take a step closer. Doubt arises.

We’ve explored the fog of war as a natural reality. Now let’s consider it as a descriptive phrase. The phrase itself, “the fog of war,” has more to tell us. It is a pair of things—war and fog. There is a general state of existence—war—that is evident to people who are in its midst. They know what it is. They can prepare for it. They may have experience in it.

But the general state of war produces a set of dynamics that constitute a different overall condition. That condition is the fog. The condition isn’t a sub-set, isn’t a smaller section or portion of the general state of the thing. No, it’s an entirely distinctive phase that encompasses the thing and state completely. You can’t go around it; you can only pass through it or, perhaps have it pass over you. That’s what George Marshall meant when he said, “We are in the fog of war.”

Did he also mean that it would end? Did he imply that it was temporary?

No. I believe that Marshall knew that temporary wasn’t the point. Cyclical was the point. The fog of war was and is a recurring condition or phase. It arises, it exists, and then it dissipates. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In late 1941, Marshall had already served in what his generation had called the “World War.” That was in 1914-1918. Prior to that he had served for a short while in the insurrection in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Here he was in 1941, able to offer the benefit of his experience in dealing with and understanding the fog of war.

It is here. It is now. It will pass. And on we, and it, will go. Leader and followers, prepare and act as you should.