#69 On the Mark?

This week an article on AKO was highlighted on Leader Net entitled, "Achieving Excellence in Small Unit Performance" written by Lieutenant General Michael Vain and COL Robert Toguchi. You can find the link here:


While I am in no way comparing myself, or my writing ability, to that of the authors, it does seem to me that they are forwarding - in a much more literate fashion - some of the ideas I have been discussing here for the past year or so. Themes such as trust development, decentralization, common ethics and value sets, and decision making ability etc, are in many ways the central focus of their article.

I also find it interesting that the very top layer of Army leadership seems to have a pretty clear understanding of the challenges, changes and adjustments that need to be addressed in our training centers and leader development programs. Instead of the entrenched bureaucracy that we are all accustomed to, as I search and find more material to look at and write about, I continually run into three and four star officers who seem to be adapting to, and embracing, dynamic change and fresh insight and feedback. Consider the interview that LTG Hertling gave to a media round table of bloggers I mentioned awhile back. Or his acceptance that Millennials are a unique generational subset that require new approaches to immersion in the Army. Consider that Gen McChrystal has a Facebook class on COIN operations with a video link to You Tube. Consider that Gen Chiarrelli started a blog to dialogue with students at the Command and General Staff College. Everywhere I look, I am finding senior leaders who are looking for new ways to communicate, who are actively seeking feedback from the rank and file, and who have recognized that we are in a period of dynamic change with regard to both people and technology that requires a hard look at our current method of operating and training. What I do not see is that same desire for feedback and input at the local level. Many units, and Soldiers I talk to relate that it's still 'business as usual' at the battalion level and below. Even after 9 years of war and rotation in and out of a combat zone. Trust at the local level seems at times non-existent they say, staff's have become too bureaucratic and over-loaded, and risk aversion has become the norm. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the top and the bottom, even organizationally.

In light of those thoughts, consider the following paragraph from the article:

"The more decentralized operations are, the greater the reliance on effective leadership and small unit performance. Recent research has revealed that we can best counter a decentralized, network-enabled enemy if our forces too are decentralized and network-enabled. Moreover, the tactics of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to target civilians, schools, and crowded markets have placed a premium on discernment, perspective, and excellence in decision making at the small unit level. The responsibility required of leaders and units at lower levels of command is clearly increasing, as is the potential that small units will continue to bear the brunt of close combat in the years to come. Units will fight separately and operate more independently with a greater need to be self-sustaining. Has the U.S. military done all that it can to improve small-unit performance and to develop small-unit excellence?"

This simple question raises the idea of 'how' we are likely to fight in the near-to-mid future, acknowledges that the human being at the center of the village square is going to be the decision maker at the point of contact, and that leader development will require a much more comprehensive and holistic approach than the current model suggests.

The article then goes on to point out some of the characteristics of high performing units. They are:

1. Effective Leadership
2. Effective use of Information
3. Fostering Innovation
4. Superior Execution
5. Thorough Preparation and Pre-Combat Inspections
6. Thorough Assessment of Performance
7. Executing Full Spectrum Operations
8. Posses a Dynamic Process of Change
9. Peer-to-Peer Integration and development

I will discuss the ones that seemed to jump out at me, or sparked a divergent thought.

Effective Leadership: "Effective leadership is not a journey in pursuit of perfection, but a continuous development process." "Leadership deals with a broad range of skills. While not all-inclusive, leadership involves everything from demonstrating tactical and technical proficiency to motivating and building trust—from exemplifying the Warrior Ethos to fostering teamwork and cohesion. “Be, Know, Do” is a more simplified version of an extremely complex set of characteristics."

These quotes seem very important to me for two distinct reasons. First, the acknowledgement that the formalized officer and non-commissioned officer schooling system is not the end of the game. Leader development is, and must be, a continuous pursuit. I have often thought about that in light of the blog and events in my life. There has always been the assumption that after 20 years of service, I should know what leadership is, how it functions, and the role it plays in developing subordinates. The truth is, that while I may be late to the game, I'm beginning now to have a much more concrete realization that leader development is a actually a life-long process. I only wish I had started this pursuit when I was a corporal. We must develop a system that encourages, and requires, life long adaptation, and personal growth. I am not the same person I was 20 years ago when I joined the Army, so why should my ideas on leadership be the same as they were back then? Hierarchical organizations have an inclination to work this way because we assume that the amount of time required to achieve a certain status equals continued growth and reflection. Many times this isn't the case. The way that we achieved the position of status becomes the modus operandi for the way we think, regardless of changing circumstances or immersion into unfamiliar territory.

Effective Use of Information: "Exceptional small units actively seek and acquire information and use it effectively, an imperative in complex environments today. The rigorous demands of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations require that small units have access to national level databases, especially human intelligence databases. These databases expand the venues for leaders to learn from the edge, since many receive direct feeds from liaison elements on the tactical front. The Distributed Common Ground System-Army is available, but we need to train our Soldiers to leverage these assets.The notion that leveraging is limited to higher-level headquarters units is no longer valid."

This paragraph is the ultimate flattening of the organization I have spoken about often. However, critical to the access to information are two component parts: (1) Knowing what you need and why you need it, and (2) Knowing what to do with it. There may also be a third consideration which is being able to articulate why some information is of little or no value to you and why. If the top or the bottom determines something is 'important' and either one does not agree, not only does there need to be a mechanism to say so, but there also has to be the ability of the both to tell the other why that piece is not relevant to their situation. By doing this, we open the lines of communication and help ensure a common understanding of the commander's intent and purpose.

Competent Decision Making: " Small units demonstrate competence in the art and science of decision making. However, all small units do not necessarily excel in making effective decisions. Certainly core skill sets for decision making involve understanding, visualizing, and assessing the environment and situation. Effective decision makers, however, are also flexible, quick, resilient, adaptive, risk-taking, and accurate. These skill sets require higher-order training in critical thinking, and we must inculcate them into our training. The first core skill set is understanding—it is vital to decision making. Understanding needs to be measured and is related to the small-unit leader’s education, intellect, experience, perception, and the information he receives."

This is precisely the purpose of the OODA Loop, the Adaptive Leader Methodology, and Outcome Based Training and Education. The process of decision making is important, but understanding why and how you are making it is even more critical. How recognizes you, and why recognizes both need and context. All of which are critical. We have concentrated for too many years on the process, and not put enough emphasis on understanding the why and how. Of all the component parts of this article, I believe this one to be the most important. The insurgent/counter insurgent battlefield is too complex to allow any leader to rely on simplistic black or white answers to problems that are extremely nuanced and have implications that range from local to geopolitical. We must teach dynamic thinking and interaction. To do that we must foster trust, give Soldiers the opportunity to make decisions and learn from them and create feedback mechanisms that demand honesty over political survival at every level.

Thorough Assessment of Performance: "Successful small units habitually use after action reviews to provide a candid assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.
The best units are open to embracing change, have open discussions on how to improve, and
support active learning in all ranks. Over time, the technique of “red teaming” has proven to be highly effective at improving practices in higher headquarters. Similar techniques may
prove beneficial at lower echelons with minimal force structure additions."

I have participated in numerous After Action Reviews in my career, and the only contention I have with them is that while total inclusion of all ranks is critical to their success, we often do not use them correctly. While reviewing the outcome of an operation is important, I have long felt that using the AAR process to gain an understanding of an individuals perception of the circumstance and environment may be even more critical than whether or not the operation had a good or bad result. Both results will be the outcome of the choices made by all levels of the organization. As I have mentioned before, it is possible to have bad outcomes from good decisions, and good outcomes from bad decisions. That is why perception, understanding and self-awareness are the critical components that we should be addressing in the AAR process. Red teaming (the idea of having someone in the organization designed to look at you from the adversaries perspective) is a great concept, provided that the Red Team is kept separate from the chain of command with regard to promotion, thereby removing the threat of professional retaliation when harsh judgements of the chain of command are made.

Peer to Peer Integration and Development: "The emergent qualities of high-performing small units have a number of notable attributes—the synergistic capacity to work together; the ability to develop superior leaders (beyond the appointed leadership); the capacity to adapt; the flexibility to handle fast changing situations; and the resilience to maintain these characteristics in the face of adversity, including the death of team members....There is a shared cognition or common understanding that evolves in training together that is closely coupled with trust and interdependence. These attributes are forged and shaped through the development of teamwork and the emotional fulfillment of being a part of a team or a greater whole. The success of the team reflects back on individual success and a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and achievement. The bond created when team members train together and build unit cohesion is valuable, and something we may not replicate otherwise. Small units achieve greatness through this when competence breeds the confidence that cements cohesion. Distributed operations and decentralized command may force small units to excel while being isolated, but it also requires a special strength to avoid creating their own rules in the absence of higher headquarters supervision."

There is a lot to this paragraph that deserves consideration. For me, the last part strikes a particularly painful note. "Decentralized command may force small units to excel while being isolated, but it also requires a special strength to avoid creating their own rules in the absence of higher headquarters supervision" A strength that my platoon did not posses. They certainly did posses a cohesion - one that was strong enough to cover up a horrendous crime for 3 months. They also possessed a sense of belonging, however, that was probably more related to the feeling that they were the 'outcasts' of the battalion. What's important for people to recognize in this final thought, is the the many of the same attributes that the authors consider to be critical components of high performance units can also be found in less well-functioning ones and certainly, in my case, even in criminal ones.

This article is very important and should be read and considered carefully. LTG Vain and COL Toguchi have clearly articulated the recognitions, climates, and behaviors that show up in very successful organizations, be they military, civilian, or corporate. The challenge for us is to take these thematic ideas and find ways to inculcate them into our current activities and units in order to grow more thoughtful, and adaptive leaders than we were when we were coming up. And just maybe, to get some of us old dogs to recognize the value in learning a few new tricks.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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