OODA and Leadership in Cyberspace

by Carl W. Hunt, Walter E. Natemeyer and Chuck E. Hunt

Part III of The Future of Leadership in Cyberspace Series[1]

In 1976, USAF Colonel John Boyd published a paper entitled “Destruction and Creation” in which he described the general nature of decision-making in and out of a jet cockpit.[2] He proposed a novel approach to success in complex information-intensive environments such as aerial combat in an early attempt to find ways to deal with the growing complexity of combat-sensor information and increasingly short decision cycles. His thinking in that paper led to the development of Boyd’s now famous OODA Loop model, shown in Figure 1.[3]

OODA Graphic

Figure 1, John Boyd’s OODA Loop


Boyd demonstrated the value of routinely practicing four core processes: observing the environment, orienting to it, deciding on a course of action, and then executing that action. At the top level, it’s a simple graphic, but when combined with the feedback loops and interactions of experiences and observations Boyd demonstrated in his model, the results are highly dynamic and provide rich insights into constantly changing situations, a characteristic of operations in cyberspace today.

In this sense, OODA is ideal for helping to orient to which of the Leadership Orientation Domains (LOD) a leader encounters. When integrated with adaptive leadership models, OODA is a critical linkage to success in secure cyberspace operations.[4] It’s useful to think about these four processes as an interacting leadership support system rather than four discrete elements that leaders apply in cyberspace or aerial combat operations. While we emphasize Orientation as the key driver for LODs, all four of Boyd’s OODA Loop components inform leadership for secure cyberspace operations.

Observation, based on objective insights gleaned from the environment, feeds the rest of the process and forms a collection area for feedback, as shown in Boyd’s loop. This feedback ensures that observation and the subsequent processes coevolve with the reality of what’s happening. Military and intelligence operators call this ground truth.

Next in Boyd’s model is Orientation, the primary subject of this post. In the graphic, notice the sub-components Boyd identifies which affect how we as leaders orient to the environment and situation (see also the expansion of this topic in the accompanying blog post). The orientation portion of the OODA model involves self-understanding of the observer/decision-makers’ heritage, culture, analysis and synthesis abilities, previous experiences and new information inputs (looking clockwise around the star of Boyd’s model).

These subcomponents make up the frame of reference for leadership functions. If we combine OODA with an appreciation of the LOD (simple, complicated, complex, chaotic), we can see a much richer potential for success in challenging operating environments such as cyberspace. Orientation is also the collection point for the feed-forward data loop from the Observation component.

The leader’s self-understanding is absolutely fundamental to orienting to both the LOD and the situational factors that are present. It demands true objectivity. It also provides the baseline for decision-making and informs the tactical implementation, or action, of decision-making. This self-understanding and orientation to the environment energizes successful and secure operations within networked environments. Orientation is thus key to the function of adaptive leadership and power for secure cyberspace operations.

Joshua Cooper Ramo also comments on orientation in relation to what he calls Network Power: “No matter what, our global networks are going to be used in pursuit of power. So we had better consider how to become fluent with their real nature, how turn them to our advantage, and, ideally, how to rewrite the rules of conflict so our enemies will only be able to react.”[5] A “rewrite” of the rules is exactly what Boyd had in mind when it comes to using the OODA Loop to overcome adversary advantages.

Continuing with Boyd’s model, the act of Decision is much more than a simple either/or process. Decisions are based on making and testing relevant and appropriate leadership hypotheses about what has been observed, the orientation achieved by the decision-maker, and an estimate of the effects leadership decisions will have on the actions taken.

The component of Acting within the OODA Loop reflects all the interactions up to this point and is where leadership behavior is manifested to the organization. Acting is a coevolutionary process that takes place in the context of the environment. The consequent results of actions are measured through the feedback loops Boyd stipulates in his model.

Based on the previous discussions about LODs, the Orientation process of OODA is key; it sets up the environment for decision-making and action. As depicted in his model, Boyd spent a great deal of effort explaining orientation within OODA. It’s quite likely that Boyd would expand even further on the critical role of orientation for leadership in cyberspace had that environment been prominent in his time. There are recognizable parallels and even convergences for operations in the cockpit and secure cyberspace operations; leaders must come to grips with this “ground truth.”

Secure Cyberspace Operations demands proper orientation and a framework for the eventual action emerging from decisions. Just as successful aerial combat operations requires leadership, collaboration and teamwork to succeed, so does secure cyberspace operations. Ramo emphasizes this in his recent treatise on Network Power. With OODA, Boyd had much to teach us on both fronts.

In summary, OODA is a framework to position leaders and their perspectives to which of the four LODs we confront and eventually must act upon: OODA orients us. The integration of OODA and LODs within an adaptive leadership framework gives leaders a greatly enhanced potential to decide and act within cyberspace. Equally important, this integration will help us avoid mismatches of approaches to problem states such as simple solutions for complex problems. We will continue to stress the value of avoiding these mismatches throughout this series.

The next post will begin to address how we adapt as leaders and followers within the LODs.

Originally posted on 8/15/2016.

[1] This series is part of an ongoing effort to better understand the challenges of providing Adaptive Leadership for Secure Cyberspace Operations for the United States and our international partners.

[2] Boyd, J, (September 3, 1976), Destruction and Creation, US Army Command and General Staff College. Boyd wrote that the goal of destruction and creation is to “to improve our capacity for independent action,” another environmental factor we can influence as leaders.

[3] This graphic is courtesy of the Wikipedia article, “OODA loop” accessed 8-9-2016.

[4] We’ll begin to describe these models of adaptive leadership in Part IV of the series.

[5] Ramo, J, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks Little, Brown and Company, NY, Kindle Edition, 2016, (p. 90). How we “consider how to become fluent with their real nature” is the essence of Orientation.

2 thoughts on “OODA and Leadership in Cyberspace

  1. Nice piece. Glad to see you all continuing to push the intellectual thinking and approach to cyber practices.

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