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Thinking strategically in the cyber world

'Cyber acumen' is necessary to develop strategy suitable for today's environment.

Jun. 9, 2014 - 01:18PM   |  
By GERRY GINGRICH   |   Comments
Gerry Gingrich, Director of the Advanced Management Program at the iCollege of the National Defense University
Gerry Gingrich, Director of the Advanced Management Program at the iCollege of the National Defense University (Katie Lewis)

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We all live in a “cyber world” today — a world of increasingly connectedness, dynamic change, profusion of information, high ops tempo and complex technological advances. For federal government leaders, the challenges of navigating in this world increase with each passing day. What does it take to think and act strategically in the public-sector cyber world? Are the skills and abilities something new? How do they differ from attributes of leaders that were required in the past?

Today’s federal leaders must have high levels of cyber acumen. They can’t be expected to know the same level of technical detail as their IT gurus and program managers, but they must know the right questions to ask. Trade-offs between security and transparency, between privacy and openness, between need-to-know and interagency collaboration — all of these are key to navigating our cyber world effectively and strategically. For example, the drive toward big data has changed our strategies for collecting and storing information, but has the federal government gone too far in aggregating its citizens’ information and placing it in the cloud? Only a federal executive steeped in an understanding of current technologies can address this question knowledgeably.

Federal leaders must also maintain a keen interest in emerging technologies. Again, details should be left to the experts and to the technical staff, but understanding the strengths and weaknesses of new technologies are critical to leveraging their benefits. Leaders must grapple with how emerging technologies can reduce the decision cycle, reach the taxpayer faster, customize services and change the traditional public-service model. Without this understanding, leaders cannot get ahead of the curve or shape the future.

Shaping the future is another critical ability for leading and thinking strategically in the cyber environment. Earlier times — as recently as the late 20th century — accepted, and indeed reinforced, conventional behavior from its government leaders. In the industrial setting of recent years, effective management of processes was the primary key to achieving success. Reaching the citizen faster and changing the public-service model was not a requirement for the industrial age, nor was shaping the future with customized services and products. In contrast, today’s cyber environment demands a proactive and future-focused orientation from its federal leaders — an orientation steeped in curiosity, imagination, and a drive to move forward.

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“Imagine” has been the driving mantra for Apple since its inception, personified by Steve Jobs as few have done before. Federal leaders in the cyber world need a strong dose of Jobs’ mantra. The question today is not “how can we make incremental improvements” but rather “how can we create new services, processes, and strategies” that have not been imagined before. Without imagination, government leaders are limited in their ability to envision and shape the future and to use emerging technologies to customize services to the taxpayer or to shape new service delivery models. They are limited in their ability to defend against hackers and cyber threats and to get ahead of security flaws such as the Heartbleed bug.

Most of us are not Steve Jobs, and most of us do not come readily equipped with his abundance of vision and imagination. But we can aim higher than we typically do. Imagination and creativity can be strengthened through curiosity and motivation, as all empirical studies have shown. In fact, it’s not IQ that makes an individual creative, it’s that person’s drive, motivation and discipline to accomplish something new that leads to breakthroughs in strategic thinking. All of these attributes are under our own control, and therefore are goals that we can and should pursue as we reach for higher levels of leadership in the federal sphere.

Strategic thinking in the cyber world requires the attributes of cyber acumen; the ability to shape the future through imagination and creativity; and, finally, large doses of motivation, curiosity, drive and discipline. All but one of these federal leadership attributes have been identified and stressed throughout the ages — but we need to strengthen and sharpen them to navigate the cyber world. The one new attribute — cyber acumen — is a challenge for many of us, but certainly a challenge that must be undertaken and overcome. For others of us, it is a prerequisite to all that we do; it is how we frame our world of ideas; and it is a way of living and thinking in today’s world.

Gerry Gingrich, PhD, is the director of the Advanced Management Program at the iCollege of the National Defense University. She can be reached at

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