News Analysis

Let’s Do This: What Military Leaders Can Learn From ‘Leeroy Jenkins!’


These are the hilarious words uttered by Ben Schulz, the creator of the “Leeroy Jenkins” World of Warcraft character. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Jenkins, I encourage you to watch A Rough Go – Leeroy Jenkins. Leeroy Jenkins offers us a metaphorical example of why we should embrace the role of what I call a “Chaotic Leader.” I am not using the word “Chaotic” in a negative way, instead a “Chaotic Leader” understands how to operate in a VUCA environment. He or she understands how to scan the horizon for anomalies and how to adapt in a chaotic environment.

VUCA is an acronym introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the late 1980s. It describes the contemporary operating environment as:

Volatile – The nature and dynamics of change in the environment.

Uncertain – Surprise, sense of awareness, and lack of certainty or predictability in the environment.

Complex – Lack of a clear cause-and-effect and multiple interactions of a system.

Ambiguous – Mass confusion, lack of understanding, mixed meaning, and unfamiliar environment.

Professor Gregory Bunch provides a great discussion of VUCA in one of his lectures – The Strategic Leader in a VUCA World.  He informs us that great leaders can make quick decisions in mission critical situations. Bunch remarked, “The battlefield is volatile, it is an uncertain place, it’s very complex, chaotic and ambiguous.”

Bunch describes the concept of Fuzzy-trace theory (FTT). He says that FTT is the role of “verbatim” and “gist” and that they interact like that of an index for a database, where verbatim symbolizes large amounts of data, words, or numbers; whereas, gist is the one line, the essence, the key idea that summarizes the verbatim. Bunch brilliantly compares this to something as simple as trying to remember the lyrics of a song, where we can only remember a few lines. Those few lines are the gist and a simple Google search for those lines or gist now provides us the verbatim or lyrics in their entirety.

He describes it as, “You need data and detailed memory to come up with the strategy, but you have to get it down to the essential thing.” Moreover, he says that it is the index triggering the database and great leaders possess a vast database (memory) but can cut to the chase by providing their people meaningful and memorable terse communication when needed.

This is important for military leaders because the gist allows us to work in a VUCA event. Being able to move back and forth from the gist and verbatim is like possessing x-ray vision. It’s like a sniper scanning the horizon, or as Bunch describes it, “Great strategy helps you pay attention to what really matters.”

The Chaotic Leader can see anomalies. They can see things that others can’t. Essentially, they see the world differently than others. For me, Leeroy Jenkins is a good example of this. He is an anomaly and scanning for anomalies is like trying to make sense of the world. However, there are times when the Leeroy Jenkins approach simply will not work. This is where a sense-making framework is needed. Let’s now turn to the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden.

The Cynefin framework is a way for leaders to scan the horizon. The framework possesses five domains – I recommend reading Uncovering Hidden Patterns of Thought in War: Wei-Chi versus Chess for a deeper understanding of the framework. Let’s examine the domains metaphorically along with simple rules for each.

Simple or Obvious (Sense-Categorize-Respond) – Clear cause-and-effect. We know the problem and the answer. We can use simple Troop Leading Procedure’s (TLPs) to solve it. This is like playing a game of Checkers.

Complicated (Sense-Analyze-Respond) – This is the domain of experts. Here, we know what the problem is, but not the answer. We can use the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) or Lean Six Sigma (LSS) to solve the problem. This is like playing a game of Chess.

Complex (Probe-Sense-Respond) – This is where the Complex Adaptive System (CAS) lives. A Leeroy Jenkins approach might work in this domain. Here, we don’t know what the problem is, but we know there is an answer out there somewhere. The Army Design Methodology (ADM) or Systems Thinking v2.0 (DSRP) are ways to solve complex problems. This is like playing the game Wei-chi (aka Go).

Chaotic (Act-Sense-Respond) – This is the domain of Leeroy Jenkins and is one where an understanding of cause-and-effect is typically useless. Here, we don’t know the information, neither do we know what to ask. The techniques offered in the book Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life  offer ideal ways to approach chaotic problems.

Disordered – This is the domain to avoid. Organizations can easily slip into this domain from any other and it is hard to identify when you are in this domain. It’s like playing a game of Twister. A Leeroy Jenkins approach here might be the only way to identify if you are in this domain. It’s like sticking your finger into an ant hill and is similar to the Complex domain, where you have to probe to see what comes out.

An understanding of the Leeroy Jenkins or “We’ll do it live!” Bill O’Reilly approach allows leaders to act or probe to see what anomalies are present. Think of this like possessing an intuitive glance or what Carl von Clausewitz describes in On War as coup d’oeil. Leaders who possess coup d’oeil can discern, at a glance, the tactical advantages. I argue that the “Chaotic Leader” possesses the ability to see, at a glance, the anomalies present in the fog of war. They recognize and can act on opportunities emerging in chaotic situations.

Finally, you can agree or disagree with this discussion, but, as Leeroy says, at least “I have chicken!”

Maj. Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer who has served as an operations officer, planner and commander. He holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.

WATCH NOW: Gen. Petraeus Reflects On The Iraq War