#66 Maybe in a Perfect World

JD has been an avid supporter of my writings for awhile now and I appreciate very much his support. In response to last weeks post, he sent the following reply which deserves a lot of consideration.

I will state my thesis again....no doubt the guys in jail were/are criminals....and for the sake of my point I will say that even if they were lead by "perfect" leaders (not that they exist) that set "ideal command climates" (not that they exist) they would still be in jail because they were/are criminals..having said that....we need to develop leaders who have a mentality like our Navy (and many allied Navies do) has...."if the ship runs aground, the CO is relieved."

....Of course this is extreme and idealistic....but if we teach and develop leaders to internalize this level of responsibility, we will have more responsible and better leaders, better Soldiers, better units, etc....

Of course leaders can't prevent every DUI, drug taking, wife beating, fratricide, accidental discharge, rape etc etc etc...but maybe, just maybe, if we inculcate and develop this level of responsibility....we might get close to the ideal....as an artillery commander, I used to tell myself that I would "relieve myself from command" if my unit was responsible for an "unsafe" round...."I, commander, am responsible for everything the unit does and/or fails to do."

"I, commander (leader), am responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do." We have taught that mantra to generations of leaders and it has been said so many times that we often fail to recognize it's implications. What I hope to do today is take that premise apart a little bit and explore what I think it really means, and the effect it has on both leader and subordinate behavior.

First, while a laudable idea, as JD pointed out in his reply, the entire concept is a practical impossibility. Since leaders cannot "prevent every DUI, drug taking, wife beating, fratricide, accidental discharge, rape etc etc etc", then the very notion of leader responsibility for individual behavior is an unachievable goal. To then create a situation where we will hold the leader responsible and accountable for something that is ultimately unachievable is completely unfair, and creates behavioral and structural requirements for the unit and its' people that can have a negative overall effect. For example, if a leader is somehow going to be held responsible for each and every individual action of their subordinates, then the only way to 'guarantee' a proper outcome will be to micromanage and baby sit them. If I am constantly afraid that someone I lead is going to act or do something inappropriate, and that their behavior or action will have a negative consequence for me, then I will become inherently distrustful. I am consigning my future to a person who may not have the same values, understandings, or discipline that I have. The distrust created by the requirement for 'zero defect' erodes the faith and confidence that I should be demonstrating to my subordinates and that they reflect back to me. The message I'm sending is that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing, so I am required to create a condition where they cannot do the wrong thing. This is bad business in a decentralized fight where hundreds of critical decisions will be made by junior officers and non-commissioned officers every day. I need to trust that corporal or lieutenant because I can only be in one place at a time, and they will be forced to make decisions in my absence. Trust up and down the line is a baseline requirement. And trust is a by-product of both the leader and the led having been placed in decision making situations and both sides having gained an understanding of the other due to the outcome. I observe the decision you made and gain or lose trust accordingly. If you are never given the opportunity to make choices and decisions then I cannot develop the trust required. Conversely, if my decisions and choices make no sense to you then you will lose faith and trust in me as well.

Another unintended consequence of this concept is the creation of a responsibility 'welfare state.' As long as there is someone or something above me who I can blame, then I am no longer responsible for my actions. It seems sometimes that Privates and young Soldiers are not responsible for anything they do, since they have a 'leader' above them who is responsible for them. It must be the leaders fault, because Junior just doesn't know any better. This is fundamentally flawed. Soldiers are taught how to clear their weapons. People know that spouse abuse is wrong. Every teenager in America is aware of the perils of drinking and driving. My Soldiers knew that raping a 14 year old girl was wrong. They knew that murdering her and her 6 year old sister and their parents was wrong. At some point, we are each of us solely responsible for our individual decisions and their outcomes. This ability to mis-place responsibility on a titular leader makes it very easy to shift the blame. We see this all the time in the Army now, where every little decision at the staff level gets pushed into the boss's in-box. Action passed equals action taken, and more importantly, responsibility shifted. I'm not going to make the decision - especially if it involves risk - so I'll just pass it along. That way, if the outcome is bad, I can absolve myself from blame, but more importantly, the institution won't hold me responsible and I'm protected.

The 'zero defect', 'leader-is-responsible-for-everything' mantra has also created the institutional monster called CYA. We fill out form after form and have Soldiers sign 'behavioral contracts', and counseling statements etc and file them away so we can say "I told you so". This further erodes the trust and faith in the unit and confuses leadership with legalese.

Having said that, I do think JD is right about the need to "internalize this level of responsibility". I just think it has a different starting place. I believe that we must start with teaching individual responsibility from day 1. The inculcation, in each Private and Cadet from the day they enter the Army, that ultimately they are responsible for their own behavior and actions is the critical first step to achieving JD's ideal. Over time, the development and maturity of the individual is enhanced; and as they absorb more and more of the Army's cultural norms and expectations, they will in fact become better leaders.

As I have mentioned before, the Millennial generation is considered one of the most sheltered and protected in history. As parents and communities we have created a condition where, in many ways, the young person has never really been held responsible for their actions. We put them into protective gear as soon as they step outside in order to not make them think about the consequences of riding their bicycle down the hill too fast. We fault the school system for them failing to learn. It has never been their fault. They do not grow up with a solid understanding of cause and effect, or that they are responsible for the decisions they make. In effect we have failed to develop a very necessary leadership skill set. And then we send them out into the Army, promote them after a couple of years for being a good follower, and one day they wake up with a new label called leader and we hang the responsibility for others actions and behaviors on their shoulders. What have we done to actually prepare them for that role?

In order to achieve the level of responsibility internalization that is JD's ideal, here is what I think needs to be done.

First, from the very moment a Soldier arrives at Basic Training, they are told that they are responsible for their successful or unsuccessful outcome in the Army. The Drill Sergeant and the institution will provide them a structure and a way to achieve success, but it is their choice alone to accept or reject it. The institution cannot and will not be held responsible for their behavior, they will. The institutions responsibility is to create the environment for development, internalization, and success. The individual must choose to accept or reject the environment.

Second, and very much in line with the thought above, we have to teach from the earliest stages of their development, cause and effect. Because new Soldiers may not possess this understanding as well as we need them to coming in, we must develop it in them. They should clearly understand the intended outcome, and the possible consequences of not achieving it. This would develop the idea of second and third order effects of actions - a skill set that is critical downrange. The method of doing this we already have. If we were to use Task, Purpose, Intent for everything from Day 1, it would help develop decision making skills that will only be enhanced over time and immersion in the Army culture.

Third, we must completely revamp how we teach the 7 Army Values. The Values themselves are the cornerstone of the Army. They are, and must forever remain, the embodiment of the contract between the Army and the Nation. They are the most important part of the internalization process. However, they must become more than vague words. We must find a concrete way to tie the individuals understanding of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage to the institution's understanding. If we accept that different generations will have different interpretations, then it becomes incumbent on the institution to recognize where the new Soldier is starting from and then provide opportunities for the their personal values to be tested and checked against the Army's. In this manner we provide opportunities for internalization.

In it's simplest form, it works like this: YOU made a choice to join the Army. YOU are responsible for that decision. The Army has a set of values, norms and behaviors that we hold dear and form our contract with the country. YOU will have to choose to accept or reject them. YOUR decisions have consequences both good and bad. The Army will provide the opportunity for YOU to learn from those decisions and learn how to recognize potential good and bad outcomes from the decisions YOU make. The 'welfare state' has been removed and replaced with an individual 'opportunity state'.

On a practical level: I teach Soldiers how to properly clear and carry their weapon. I teach them the steps and explain why they should do each step. But I clearly state that the responsibility to do the steps correctly rests with them. By emphasizing their individual requirement and expectation, they pay more attention. If they have a negligent discharge, they already know that they are responsible for causing it, not me or anyone else. They learn to accept that responsibility and internalize the proper procedures. I have trained over 3000 service members from all 4 branches in this manner and have never had anyone have a negligent discharge yet. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I truly believe that by training the Soldier, explaining why the task and steps are important, holding them accountable for their actions and trusting that they can perform the task correctly these results are almost predictable.

Now, lets take a look at what the outcome of an individual vs institutional approach might be. Accepting JD's contention that we need to get to an internalized understanding of individual responsibility, and by removing any pretense that there is anyone else responsible for my actions except me, we could create individuals with enhanced value systems and the critical decision making skills we need today. As values and ethical decisions are made at the personal level, our actions provide demonstrable results to others in the organization. As those others gain an understanding and appreciation for our ethical / moral decision making process, personal trust is enhanced or lost. If trust is enhanced, then the requirement for micromanagement, babysitting, and CYA is reduced. The titular leader spends less time worrying about which decision made by a subordinate will have career implications for him or her, and can then spend more time focusing their efforts on accomplishing their mission. At every level, the need for gnats ass, step-by-step instruction becomes less required based upon the demonstrated internalization of the the Army Values and Task, Purpose and Intent.

I fundamentally disagree with JD's assertion that "leaders are responsible for everything their unit / people do or fail to do." The people who make up the unit are. As I have said before with regard to my time as platoon sergeant, I am responsible for the decisions I made. Not my Lieutenant, not the Company Commander, not anyone else. Me. So, too, were my Soldiers responsible for their actions. The conditions, the circumstances, the climate of the unit ultimately have nothing to do with the morally bankrupt choices they made. Their moral / ethical breakdown belongs solely to them and no one else. If the institution failed, it failed to provide opportunities throughout their careers to test those morals and ethics against the stated value system in place. It assumed they had internalized them instead of ever challenging whether they had or not. Sadly, and horrifically, they had not.

As an institution and as leaders, we have a responsibility to create the condition or environment in which the development of the ethical / moral / operational decision making ability of the subordinate is the key behavioral outcome of every action both in training and deployed. The leader doesn't tell the subordinate how to think or act morally or ethically, the leader designs training and situations for the subordinate to have to make choices that demonstrate moral or ethical behavior. The very outcome of our current war may depend upon it. Somewhere in Afghanistan today, a young Soldier will face a situation where he/she will have two courses of action. Both of those will have the potential for good and bad outcomes. Those outcomes could have a very large impact on the operation. Are we providing that Soldier the tools to make a decision? More importantly have we provided them the strength to stand by the choice they made? And even more critically than that, do we trust them enough to make it?

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff...well thought out and well said...I agree with "all of the above"....I especially like your idea to start developing individual responsiblity at Basic Trng....your "In it simplest form" para is wonderful and should be adopted yesterday...(send it to LTG Hertling!)....

    in terms of teaching the 7 Army Values....spot on again....any time or place the Army "teaches" the Army Values simply needs to be, at a minimum...a dialogue (or discussion)...a conversation about what the words mean...what they look like "in action"...what they don't look like "in action".....what they look like in social settings, business setting, in theater, in garrison, in a pub, in a sports setting etc etc....one thing I do now when I am talking to younger folks is ask them how many times they "pay for one movie but watch 2-3"....(everyone does it)....got it....so lets talk about that....I DO NOT preach to them...I do not say WRONG WRONG WRONG....I simply lead them in a discussion....a reflective discussion....

    more on "reflection" later.....

    Happy Memorial Day to you and all of our Soldiers

    PS...you should be teaching leadership somewhere!