Jake Wood shared hard-won leadership lessons with attendees that resonate whether you’re on the battlefield or in the boardroom.

Lead in Times of Chaos (BOMA 2023)

June 25, 2023
Jake Wood, a Marine sniper, executive chairman of Team Rubicon and founder and CEO of Groundswell, shared leadership lessons at the 2023 BOMA International Conference & Expo.

Property managers are all too familiar with the concept of chaos. From interest rates to the regulatory environment, commercial real estate has rarely felt this chaotic.

But conquering chaos is possible—and it starts with defining the challenges you face.

Marine veteran Jake Wood, the executive chairman of Team Rubicon and founder and CEO of Groundswell, delivered this message to BOMA attendees in a Sunday morning address sponsored by VendorSmart, sharing hard-won leadership lessons from the battlefield, his career in disaster response and even his time as a varsity football player for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Outgoing chair Randal Froebelius welcomed the attendees, noting that the last year was particularly action-packed for BOMA International. The organization introduced BOMA BEST, a building certification and management tool, to the U.S. market in partnership with BOMA Canada, and also acquired BOMI, which will help BOMA strengthen its educational programs in commercial real estate. Froebelius also thanked this year’s Cornerstone Partners for their ongoing support of the organization.

“We’re here to build a better commercial real estate industry, and that gets done by collaboration and sharing of knowledge,” Froebelius said.

Defining and Understanding Chaos

Wood introduced the attendees to VUCA, a framework for understanding the chaos of the battlefield. Developed by the U.S. Army War College in the 1980s, VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. “These are unique elements that have unique characteristics in chaos, and like anything, if we better understand these elements, then we can better formulate the strategies and tactics that will be critical to winning on the battlefields of tomorrow,” Wood explained.

They can also give you vital information in the boardroom and any other chaotic environment, Wood said, explaining the four elements.

Volatility: “Volatile situations are situations in which you experience a rapid deviation from the norm,” Wood said. “They’re unexpected and unstable.” This could include things like a global pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which deliver shocks to established systems like the stock market and can send it into a tailspin.

Uncertainty: “When we think about uncertain environments, we have a basic understanding of the factors at play and how the elements work together, but we lack some decision-critical piece of information,” Wood said. You may know a lot about the situation, but something important is missing.

Complexity: “Complexity is the inverse of uncertainty,” Wood said. “Complexity is defined by the overwhelming amount of information and the interconnectedness of those variables.”

Ambiguity: Ambiguity is the most terrifying of all four VUCA elements, Wood said. “Humans have a need to make sense of the world around us, and we do that by applying our past precedent to the moments we’re facing,” he explained. “That’s assuming that experience is relevant to the experience you’re facing. The problem with ambiguity is that you have not seen this before.” By not showing the humility to accept that we don’t have all the answers, we can unknowingly lead our teams into disaster.

Conquering Chaos

“How do we beat it?” Wood asked the audience. “How do we beat these moments? We’re going to talk about four things: Vision, Uniformity, Culture and Alignment. These are things we focused on extensively in the military and at Team Rubicon.”

Wood unpacked the four elements for the audience, explaining how each one is necessary for good leadership.

Vision: Your vision should be simple, bold and relatable. But, Wood noted, “Visions are really easy to craft. It’s easy to make something that’s simple, bold and relatable. It’s really hard to make the hard choices, take the tough action, demonstrate the discipline that you’re going to back it up… Lead with a vision that you are willing to back up every day in your actions and decisions and the resources you allocate to it.”

Uniformity: Wood invoked KISS—“Keep it simple, stupid”—to explain how this principle was baked into all elements of how life in the Marine Corps operated. “We carried our tourniquets on exactly the same part of our bodies, because when you need a tourniquet, moments matter and you don’t want to be searching for where this guy decided to put his,” he said. Uniformity means you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel and figuring out simple things over and over again.

“In moments of chaos, you cannot waste time or energy or emotional energy debating the simple stuff,” Wood added. “You’d better have a way of doing things that allows you to liberate your time and energy for the truly novel challenges you’re facing, which you cannot have anticipated.”

Culture: “Culture guides decisions in the absence of orders,” Wood said. “In moments of chaos, as leaders, as organizations, you can’t afford to micromanage your teams… Things are moving and evolving too rapidly for you to micromanage. You have to empower your people and trust that they’re going to make good, effective decisions consistently.”

Creating a healthy culture starts with ethical leadership, Wood said. Vision is also critical, as is smart hiring to make sure you’re bringing in people who will contribute positively to your culture. Building an organization that reflects good, positive values is hard, but it’s necessary.

“You can measure the strength of a company’s culture by how easy it is to pass a policy,” Wood said. “A policy is a prescriptive way of doing something.” If your first response when something happens is to draft a policy, you have a weak culture, he added.

Alignment: One of the hallmarks of weak cultures is that people treat information as currency, Wood said. People will ask themselves, “What do I know? Who needs to know? What is what I know worth, and how can I benefit from knowing it?”

“We all know who these people are inside our teams. They’re like information brokers. They use this information as currency and trade it for power, because information is power, ultimately,” Wood said. “This is really toxic. This is a ‘what’s in it for me?’ culture, not a culture that’s going to consistently win.”

Too often, these people are rewarded—even promoted—for using information this way. That’s particularly dangerous in chaotic times, Wood said. “Challenge your team to think about it in this way,” he added. “At the conclusion of a meeting, ask ‘What did you learn? Who needs to know? Have you told them yet? Do they understand?’ It’s remarkable how powerful these four questions are within an organization to train people to think about information as an asset, not for themselves, but for the whole.”

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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