Are You a Wartime or a Peacetime Chief of Staff?

I recently attended the Chief of Staff Summit hosted by the Chief of Staff Network and the idea of a wartime vs. peacetime Chief of Staff was brought up by one of the speakers.

It’s a concept that I was first introduced to several years ago by Ben Horowitz while reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. I had originally framed the concept around my Principal and what it must be like for him to operate as a wartime vs. peacetime CEO, after all, that was how Horowitz had positioned it. However, the idea of a wartime vs. peacetime leader is just as applicable to Chiefs of Staff. They are the ones riding shotgun next to a leader into battle or helping to maintain the peace when needed.

Peacetime vs. Wartime in Business

Peacetime in business is generally when a business has a competitive advantage and its market is growing. Wartime in business is when the business is facing an immediate threat from a competitor, the economic climate, or a major market shift. For the past two years, many organizations had to shift into wartime mode. And, very often, startups need to put on their wartime hat to get their company off the ground and into growth mode. At other times, a company may be experiencing peacetime and a leader or Chief of Staff needs to know when to put on their wartime CEO hat and push the company to disrupt itself before they are forced to by their competition. It’s a delicate dance, but Chiefs of Staff, like any leader, need to understand how to navigate these various phases of the business and adjust their leadership accordingly.

Here’s a really great explanation of the Peacetime CEO vs Wartime CEO from Ben Horowitz:

  • Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win.
  • Peacetime CEO focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions. Wartime CEO cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive.
  • Peacetime CEO builds scalable, high volume recruiting machines. Wartime CEO does that, but also builds HR organizations that can execute layoffs.
  • Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.
  • Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six.
  • Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
  • Peacetime CEO strives not to use profanity. Wartime CEO sometimes uses profanity purposefully.
  • Peacetime CEO thinks of the competition as other ships in a big ocean that may never engage. Wartime CEO thinks the competition is sneaking into her house and trying to kidnap her children.
  • Peacetime CEO aims to expand the market. Wartime CEO aims to win the market.
  • Peacetime CEO strives to tolerate deviations from the plan when coupled with effort and creativity. Wartime CEO is completely intolerant.
  • Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone.
  • Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.
  • Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.
  • Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
  • Peacetime CEO trains her employees to ensure satisfaction and career development. Wartime CEO trains her employees so they don’t get their ass shot off in the battle.
  • Peacetime CEO has rules like “we’re going to exit all businesses where we’re not number 1 or 2.” Wartime CEO often has no businesses that are number 1 or 2 and therefore does not have the luxury of following that rule.

Which Style of Leadership is More You?

Many Chiefs of Staff and leaders naturally tend to favor one leadership style over another. Personally, I’m more of a wartime leader. And I bet you lean to one side or the other too. Neither one is better than the other; it simply comes down to self-awareness. Own who you are and understand that your natural leadership style may need to be adjusted based on your company’s needs. A natural wartime leader needs to recalibrate during peacetime, just as a natural peacetime leader needs to adjust during wartime. Or, if you’re not willing to do so, you may need to change companies and align yourself with an organization that can use your skillset based on the phase they are in.

A peacetime Chief of Staff may spend their time optimizing policies and procedures, holding lengthy roundtables about culture and employee career development, creating strategies to expand their current market, and developing complex plans (with several contingency plans in place).

A wartime Chief of Staff may spend their time asking for forgiveness rather than permission, allowing the work and the mission to attract the right talent and define the culture, creating strategies to win the market, developing short-term plans, and then adjusting on the fly to drive results.

It’s valuable to know which phase your organization is in and which leadership style you need to employ. Neither peacetime nor wartime lasts forever. Great Chiefs of Staff understand how to navigate each.

Is your company experiencing wartime or peacetime right now? Are you more naturally a wartime or a peacetime leader? How do you need to adjust your leadership style to best serve the organization?

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