#61 Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives

If you spend enough time outside somebodies office in the Army, you will inevitably come across a stack of military journals and other professional reading material. It is our version of the 'coffee table' book. Something to flip through while waiting for your appointment.

Earlier this week I came upon the Jan-Feb 2009 edition of Military Review, a journal produced by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. In it I found an article by MAJ Jason Pape entitled "Reassessing Army Leadership in the 21st Century". The article won 2nd place in the MacArthur Writing Contest and can be found at the link below:


In the very first paragraph I came across the following which, given the purpose of this blog, and my own thoughts, caught my eye.

"Despite efforts by leaders like retired General Eric Shinseki to evaluate leader development programs and then examine organizational culture as it affects leadership and leader development, our doctrine and practices remain deeply rooted in historical traditions and heavily biased by relatively sophomoric assumptions about what leadership is and how it is best practiced. We lack critical reflection on the subject—an appreciation of other ways to look at leadership and leader development. We need to understand why our leadership doctrine is the way it is rather than simply what it is. "

I couldn't agree more with those statements. For many reasons, most of which I have outlined in other posts, I believe that we are at a defining period in the manner in which the Army thinks about itself, it's place in the greater national dialogue, and the methods we will use to prepare leaders for a rapidly paced and uncertain future. Maj Pape's opening assertions that our current organizational, historical, and educational approaches to leader development are lacking, and that the Army needs to look at what 21st century leader requirements are is a critical first step for preparing for the multi-faceted challenges we will face.

A little later in the introduction, MAJ Pape lays out what he believes the Army currently lacks in it's leader development programs:

"Furthermore, descriptions that really define management characterize FM 6-22’s discussion of leadership. Fundamentally, the Army lacks the following:

(1) Critical reflection on our assumptions about leadership.

(2) Appropriate emphasis on leadership as a skill and subject that needs to be continually discussed and developed throughout the Army.

(3) Consistency of what we espouse for leadership when looking at our practice, systems, and doctrine across the Army at large."

In another posting on AKO, I opened a discussion by stating that leadership is intensely personal and we each exercise it in our own manner. Because the Army calls every sergeant and higher a 'leader', in essence we have assigned each person a very important title, but have not necessarily provided them the appropriate tools, skills, or understandings required by the title itself.

I think that in order to have a discussion like this, one almost has to look at the word 'leader' as three separate things. A noun, an adjective, and a verb. As a noun, it becomes the person who is in charge (the title). As an adjective it expands it's scope and feel a little bit to include the viewpoint of others (a set of qualities and behaviors observable by others). He or she will be defined by others as a good or bad leader. As a verb, it becomes the vehicle through which the mission and vision get accomplished (The engine).

Part of the Army's problem with leader development is that it often confuses or juxtaposes the word leader with the word manager. MAJ Pape alludes to this when he states that, "Descriptions that really define management characterize FM 6-22's discussion of leadership." In reality, very few people in the Army are actually serving as leaders. even those who might have what we term 'leadership positions'. Most are managers of assets. For example, in my current position, I am 'in charge' of 12 subordinates. I am termed the 'leader' of the organization. However, most of what I really do is the management of Soldiers through a proscribed system. I make decisions, but they are mostly in the realm of resource allocation (people, time or equipment) to ensure a professional outcome for the Soldier who goes through the program. These are skills that I have been taught over the course of my career. Because most of my formative Army education happened during the mid to late 90's when the Army was going through the 'zero defect' phase, I learned to become an extremely effective manager of assets. The right people and equipment, in the right place, at the right time. Make a list of what you need, put together an effective schedule and supervise the different parts until all the dominoes were in line. What that leaves out however is what happens after you hit the switch and the assets are put in motion. It is an efficiency model better suited to business than an army at war.

One of the outcomes of that development process was an emphasis on timeliness. Because the wars we were preparing to fight would rely on the synchronization of assets, the ability to bring differing parts together all at once became critical. Time became the big player. I still work that way. There is an old phrase that I grew up with that has stuck with me my whole career, "Ten minutes early beats two minutes late." I view time as a commodity just as much as bullets, water or food. The effectiveness of it's use is a measurable way to view my skills as the 'leader'.

My subordinates do not see it this way. They don't see the criticality of timeliness the same way I do. Their Army experience has been characterized by a slow paced, 'ground hog day' reality. COIN operations and the deployment experience is inherently inefficient. It's effectiveness cannot be measured using the western understanding of time as a commodity. If you get held up coming out of the motorpool on the day of a mission, you just slip the mission until the vehicle gets fixed, or pause the whole thing for 24 hours. No problem, the war will still be here tomorrow. They do not see this as a failure like I do. And no matter how efficient you are, or how prepared, you don't get to go home if you get everything done faster than the next guy. In fact, you'll probably end up having more stuff put on your plate. COIN operations require a much longer - almost glacial -view of time. It is not the critical factor that it once was. It has been replaced by the idea of slow, steady, progress characterized by pressure and perseverance rather than one highly focused shot. It is the equivalent of Muhammed Ali's famed 'rope a dope' versus a Mike Tyson knock out punch. Tyson was efficient. Especially if you viewed his fights in a dollars per minute manner. Ali was not as efficient, but is still considered by many to be the best fighter ever.

The efficiency model, institutionalized in the 90's and the cornerstone of my development, makes no sense to my Soldiers. There is no reason for them to count time as a resource, because tomorrow will look the same as today. They are not lazy, they just haven't developed in the same manner I did. And in many ways, their viewpoint is precisely the correct one to fully understand the current manner of waging war.

I also think that MAJ Pape's very first bullet above, "Critical reflections on our assumptions about leadership" is important. Most of you are probably getting tired of my continual emphasis on the world of the Millennial, but Pape's call for a reflection on our assumptions is in large part determined by the perceptions and requirements of our subordinates. I'm not sure why so many people don't seem to understand that how a leader is viewed through his/her subordinates understanding is absolutely critical to the success or failure of the unit. This promotes the idea of the leader as an adjective. Without presupposing that they do, assume for a second that my soldiers now term me a 'good' leader. What does that mean? It means that seen through their eyes, I posses skills, abilities, characteristics and judgement that they see merit in and may want to follow, learn from or emulate. Compare that with my platoon in Iraq who may not have (the majority did not) viewed me that way. Most saw me as a 'bad' leader. That means that they did not see any value in the skills, abilities, characteristics and judgements I possessed. Therefore, they did not want to follow, learn from or emulate me in any manner. The leader as the adjective is much more reliant upon the views and understandings of his/her subordinates than is the leader as the noun. The noun is the title, the adjective becomes the person.

The third part is the leader as the verb. As the vehicle through which the vision of the organization is executed. Again, and especially in the non-commissioned officer corps, we spend little to no time studying this. This is where OODA is so vitally important. If the Noun leader cannot understand, process, communicate or demonstrate the Verb because of built in filters and orientation, then the organization cannot advance. In the article, MAJ Pape is challenging our current orientation and attempting to outline how the institutional filters are getting in the way of successful leader development.

Pape's second point that leadership requires continual study and emphasis cannot be overstated. I believe that studying it and reflecting on it should be the major portion of the time spent in all leader development schools. Instead, we continue to teach 'check list' type items without opening the student to the understanding of those items and their importance and relevance to the leader as a noun, adjective, and verb. Further on in the article he points out that the Army's way of teaching leadership is often through biographical studies of former successful leaders. By studying them, or reading heroic vignettes, we hope by osmosis that the student will then attempt to emulate the former leader and potentially gain similar results. This is a completely flawed argument for several reasons. First context. All great leaders became that way at a particular point in time. Can we definitively state that George Washington would be a great leader today? Would Eisenhower, Patton, or Schwartzkoff? What allows great leaders to be great is their understanding and orientation at a particular place in time. Although exciting to read about in a biography, it has little relevance to the developing leader today. For example, consider COL Joshua Chamberlain in the battle of Little Round Top. Chamberlain exhorts his almost over-run 20th Maine Regiment into a bayonet charge to break the Rebel advance and secure the flank of the Union line at Gettysburg. I can promise you that he would never make that decision, nor would his troops follow that order, today. Time, circumstance, behaviors, and understandings are much too different. COL Chamberlain saved the Union army with his bold move, but beyond it's demonstration of bravery and tactical success, it has little relevance for study on today's battlefield. What does deserve study however, are the characteristics that Chamberlain possessed that earned him the respect of his soldiers. What did a professor from tiny Bowdoin college have that made men want to follow him, and believe in him? Chamberlain the noun may or may not have been any good. Chamberlain the verb possessed the vision to foresee what needed to be done. But it was Chamberlain the adjective that accomplished it.

Finally, Pape's last thought that there must be some common consensus regarding what we consider the necessary institutional requirements for successful leader development across the Army. In many ways, this has been the what a lot of my posts here have centered on. I believe we need a less 'institutional' approach in favor of a more 'personal' one. I think we need to make people who aspire to become leaders more of the Noun, Verb, Adjective portions of the word and how absolutely important their personal orientations will be to the outcomes. Obviously, there are others who will feel differently; that if we do that we are creating thousands upon thousands of individualized views of leadership and the organization requires a common operating system to ensure it's readiness. My contention here is that those thousands upon thousands of viewpoints already exist and are at play every day. What is not recognized is their impact on organizational health and viability.

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.

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