Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --
Merriam-Webster defines energy as “… the capacity for doing work.”1 There are many different forms of energy but the ones most applicable to organizations are kinetic energy, potential energy, and internal energy. Even though I am a self-proclaimed geek, I recognize the formal thermodynamic definitions of energy are probably not of interest to this audience and will be avoided at this time. However, we are going to discuss organizational energy and leaders’ role in managing it.
I think most leaders have recognized when their organization is “on a roll” or has “momentum.” Being on a roll loosely translates to kinetic energy. Being on a roll is self-explanatory, but maybe what is not widely known is an organization cannot stay on a roll forever without adding more energy into the system. Potential energy correlates to an organization’s “potential.” I think many leaders recognize, or try to assess, an organization’s potential and if the organization is achieving its “full potential.” Lastly, internal energy is more difficult for leaders to recognize, examine, and assess. Measuring internal energy requires leaders to look beyond the organization’s surface and peer down and into the individual and assess their internal energy, capacity, and capability. Internal energy is what each individual brings to the organization and how they contribute to the “capacity for doing work,” usually in the form of potential or kinetic energy.
Why is it important to know the different types of energy and how they relate to organizations? It is important because leaders are the custodians of the organizational energy. Leaders decide when and on what to spend the organizational energy. At any given moment, leaders are either adding to or using up organizational energy. Using up organizational energy is not bad or should not be frowned upon. Leaders have to use organizational energy to conduct the mission. However, leaders should be cognizant of their use of organizational energy and what the energy is applied toward.
Lucky for us, there is an entire branch of science dedicated to the study of energy and its conversion rates into work. Notice, I did not say useful work. Not all work is useful, and significant amounts of energy are wasted every day. This branch of science is referred to as thermodynamics. Now, I will not introduce any equations or complicated formulas, but there are four laws of thermodynamics that I believe are directly related to how leaders should manage their organizational energy.
For discussion purposes, we will start with the third law of thermodynamics. The third law is based on the changes of entropy and its relationship to atomic particle motion at absolute zero.2 Absolute zero is cold. . . really cold (-273.15 C for all the non-geeks out there). At absolute zero, all atomic particle motion has stopped, and this equates to all internal energy being dissipated out of an organization. In this state, the frozen organization can do nothing. . . the people have no capacity for work.
“Absolute zero” is what happens when toxic leaders suck all the energy out of an organization. The only way to fix the organization is to raise the temperature of the system, which takes energy. But where does one get the energy when all the energy is gone? The answer is usually a leadership and personnel change because energy is needed from outside the organization to revitalize it.
This brings us to the first law of thermodynamics, which is commonly referred to as the conservation of energy. This law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change from one form to another.3 This area is where leaders can shine. Good leaders will constantly assess their organization’s internal, potential, and kinetic energies. Leaders will assess their individual’s internal energy and determine how to unlock their skills and convert internal energy into potential and kinetic energy. Training and investing in your people is an energy conversion process. Training takes energy from another source and increases the individual’s capability (or potential) to share in the organizational workload. Leaders not managing this process will use up too much internal and potential energy and eventually will burn through their organizational energy and risk organizational exhaustion or collapse.
Figure 1. Good leadership. An Air Force Academy cadet listens intently to a guest speaker during the National Character and Leadership Symposium at the US Air Force Academy, 23 February 2018. The two-day symposium provided an opportunity for all Academy personnel, visiting university students and faculty, and community members to experience dynamic speakers and take part in group discussions to enhance their own understanding of the importance of sound moral character and good leadership. (US Air Force photo by TSgt Julius Delos Reyes)
Leaders should also manage their organizational energy and make sure there is a “positive energy balance” for when mission surges are needed. In the Air Force, mission surges are needed at times. Talk to any financial manager during the month of September! Leaders also need to recognize that just because the organization has high kinetic energy, being on a roll is not sustainable without additional energy input. There are losses in the system that eat away at the organizations’ kinetic energy. These losses can take the form of the ubiquitous “queep,” emergencies, base exercises, organizational inefficiencies, and many others. Unless a leader addresses these losses and adds more energy into the system, the roll will slow and eventually come to a stop. Ask the numerous pilots who have separated in the last 10 years about systematic energy losses.
Speaking of system losses, now let us look at the second law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics is commonly summarized as entropy is always increasing.4 What does this mean in terms of organizational energy? It means that not all energy is converted into useful work! There is no such thing as a 100 percent efficient activity. Energy is used during every process, every task, and every request that leadership asks the organization to execute. Energy is used during mission execution just like energy is used to plan a wing picnic, retirement ceremony, or promotion party. Entropy increases, and energy is used when dealing with queep, preparing for DV visits, planning holiday parties, fixing staff packages, staffing staff packages, filling out flight logs, and checking the Tongue and Quill for the appropriate memo format. . . you get the idea. Not all these activities are useful work, but most of them need to be done, and it still takes energy.
Similarly, energy is used when planning for stand-down days, wingmen days, suicide prevention discussions, and all the things that leaders use and do to “help the force.” I am not saying to not have wingmen or stand-down days. I am saying to remember that these events use organizational energy. As leaders, we plan these events with the intent of transferring the energy expended by the planning and execution team to the rest of the organization. However, if these events are done incorrectly or not utilized appropriately, leaders run the risk of expending energy to plan and execute the event with little return on their “energy investment.” The primary takeaway is leaders should remember that entropy is always increasing, energy is used for everything, and leaders cannot avoid the use of energy, but they can manage it.
Not all is lost, and leaders have tools to regain or capture energy! Now this is where this article “breaks” the thermodynamic laws (sorry Dr. Cole),5 but we will attribute this unexplained phenomenon to the positive attributes of good leadership. Leaders need to be “good leaders” to slow entropy, capture energy, and infuse energy back into their people. All leaders should be aware of the energy losses in their organization and attempt to reduce or minimize these losses and “time drains.” Infusing energy back into their people is where the art of leadership gets tough because to effectively and efficiently put energy back into your people really depends on the person. Some people want time off, some people want recognition, some people want support when applying for a fellowship, some people want to be left alone, some people want a stratification, and some people just want to feel appreciated and told thank you. How you increase an individual’s internal energy really depends on the individual, but it requires leaders to be good leaders.
Now the remaining energy governance decree is the zeroth law of thermodynamics. The zeroth law is actually implied in laws one through three and states if multiple systems are in equilibrium with other systems, then all systems are in equilibrium together.6 Equilibrium is what I believe leaders should strive for when managing their organizational energy. Strive is the key word here because organizational equilibrium is rarely achieved due to the nature of workforce turnover, mission execution, and the “normal” cycles of chaos. Leaders should manage their organizational energy, strive for equilibrium and be ready to surge when asked. They should also be ready to say no, and defend their decision, if they do not have the energy to surge. Leaders should also recognize how they are using organizational energy and plan accordingly to replenish and recapture this energy at some point in the future.
So, this brings us to the end of the lesson on the relationship between energy and leadership. Regardless of your views on thermodynamics and their application to leadership, organizational energy is real, and leaders need to recognize and manage their organization’s energy. Organizational energy is critical for the unit’s capacity to do work and execute the mission. If leaders do not manage their organizational energy appropriately, they risk spending the energy on workloads that do not contribute to the mission. Also, leaders need to recognize that every task and every ask burns energy in some way. Sometimes the energy used is significant and sometimes miniscule, but the energy is used no matter what. Now let us all go break some thermodynamic laws, capture some energy, and infuse it back into the people who need it!
Maj Andrew J. Lingenfelter, USAF, PhD
Major Lingenfelter (PhD, Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT); ME, University of Florida; and BS, University of Nebraska) is an assistant professor of AFIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
2 D. Winterbone and Ali Turan, Advanced Thermodynamics for Engineers, 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2015).
3 Winterbone and Turan, Advanced Thermodynamics for Engineers; and Dr. Kevin Cole, “Engineering Thermodynamics Professor,” Fall 2006, University of Nebraska, https://engineering.unl.edu/.
4 Winterbone and Turan, Advanced Thermodynamics for Engineers; and Cole, “Engineering Thermodynamics Professor.”
5 Cole, “Engineering Thermodynamics Professor.”
6 Winterbone and Turan, “Advanced Thermodynamics for Engineers.”