#72 The Pentathelete and the Profession

This post has been kicking around in my head for a few weeks now trying to get out. I have wanted to address it for at least the last 2 posts, but other ideas or incidents would pop up and it would get pushed to the back burner. It has been sitting there, however, tickling my brain and waiting for the thoughts to form themselves coherently enough to put words on the page. I'm going to try today. We'll see how it turns out.

About 3 weeks ago I received an email from one of the readers in response to post #68, "Alone With Yourself". The email came from a person who has become a mentor and one of my greatest mental protagonists throughout my writings. I alluded to him in the post itself like this:

"This particular mentor is a man of a separate breed not often found in today's world. He is a thinker. He has deeply considered his profession, it's requirements and it's demands. He has dedicated himself to ensuring that those beneath him do the same. While he does not demand it of me, he challenges me to continue to look for it. He strikes me as a man who possesses the capability to stand alone, comfortable in his own skin, simply because he has already done the things that the Professor suggests. "

When I use the word protagonist to describe him, that is not to imply that we are enemies or foes. In fact, the truth is very much the opposite. He is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect and think very highly of. The protagonist label come from his ability and willingness to challenge me and provide another considered opinion besides my own. He pushes me to grow. This type of mental challenge is something that I believe that we must all engage in as leaders if we desire to remain relevant and involved in our professions, whatever they may be. There must be a mechanism in everyone's professional life (and personal too, I would think) that challenges them and their perceptions and vision of their world in order to not become entropic and shut off from new ideas. CR does that for me, and I am grateful for it.

Anyway, shortly after post #68, we exchanged a series of emails where he essentially disagreed with the value of having the professor go to West Point and challenging the cadets to begin examining their moral ethical 'backbone' before they are even fully formed as adults. He doesn't disagree that these considerations are critical, but rather that before the young officers can truly do what the professor suggests, they have to first understand the profession itself. What does the job require of them? He stated it this way:

" But the issues I have with the PHD addressing West Point cadets on how to think for themselves is that I don’t think they are ready for that. It would be a great speech for the Pre-Command Course for Lieutenant Colonels on the command list, but hardly a topic for students who don’t yet know the profession well enough to have an opinion.

For young lieutenants to join the fight against those arrayed against our country, it is necessary for them to first embrace the arts of war, not reinvent them. They must first steep themselves in the knowledge required to wield the tools of war, and they must train their mind and body in the multitude of skills required to accomplish this successfully. Equally, they must be emotionally prepared to fight aggression, to oppose evil, to take action, and to lead men. After all that, let them (and history) take close measure of the “box” before changing it."

And to follow that up, he went back and defined what those requirements are:

"The DA (Dept of the Army) develops competent and multifaceted military who personify the Army values and the warrior ethos in all aspects from warfighting, to statesmanship, to enterprise management. The Army develops qualities in its leaders to enable them to respond effectively to what they will face. The DA describes the leaders it is creating as “Pentathletes,” whose versatility will enable them to learn and adapt in ambiguous situations in a constantly evolving environment. Pentathlete leaders are innovative, adaptive, and situationally aware professionals who demonstrate character in everything that they do, are experts in the profession of arms, boldly confront uncertainty, and solve complex problems. They are decisive and prudent risk takers who effectively manage, lead, and change organizations. Pentathletes are professionally educated and dedicated to a lifelong learning process; resilient, mentally and physically agile, empathetic, and self-aware; and confidently lead Soldiers and civilians, build teams, and achieve the Army’s over-arching strategic goals while engendering loyalty and trust.
Pentathlete - Pentathletes are multi-skilled, innovative, adaptive, and situationally aware professionals who demonstrate character in everything that they do, are experts in the profession of arms, personify the warrior ethos in all aspects from war fighting to statesmanship to enterprise management, and boldly confront uncertainty and solve complex problems.

a. A Pentathlete—

(1) Is a strategic and creative thinker.

(2) Builds leaders and teams.

(3) Is a competent full-spectrum warfighter or accomplished professional who supports the Soldier.

(4) Is effective in managing, leading, and changing large organizations.

(5) Is skilled in governance, statesmanship, and diplomacy.

(6) Understands cultural context and works effectively across it.

b. Pentathlete attributes are—

(1) To set the standard for integrity and character.

(2) To be a confident and competent decision-maker in uncertain situations:

(a) Prudent risk taker.
(b) Innovative.
(c) Adaptive.

(3) Empathetic and always positive.

(4) Professionally educated and dedicated to lifelong learning.

(5) Effective communicator. "

I very much agree with all of the above. Describing Army leaders as pentathletes is very appropriate. Much like their track and field counterparts, pentathlete Army leaders must be masters of all of the events and techniques and implements of war. There is an old saying, 'jack of all trades, master of none'. Army leaders must be 'jacks of all trades' and 'masters' of them as well.
Leading other human beings in combat with the ever-present threat of death requires that military leaders be developed in a wholly different manner than most of their civilian counterparts. The 'finality' of combat becomes an incredible weight upon the people in the contest. At some point, each Soldier has one of those moments when they suddenly realize that this is not a game and that they might actually die. That in order to survive, they may have to take the life of another human being. They also must also accept the randomness of death and come to grips with it. They must either accept these realities and continue to fight, or they succumb to their fears and become too paralyzed to move. Military leadership demands people who can recognize that and use the tools and requirements of the profession outlined above to overcome those fears, and instill the confidence in those they lead to do the same. It's probably no different in civilian business leadership, except that the cost of failure is really not quite as high. Money may be lost, and profits may decrease, but life and death are generally not on the line.

Maybe CR is right. Before we can master ourselves, we must first provide a framework for that mastery to take place. We must immerse ourselves in our professional environment and learn all the tools of our trade before we can begin to understand or look for the deeper implications of our personal role in the profession. Without a sense of what a project requires, and the tools available to solve it, the deeper implications of the project itself might become too difficult to solve. Again, it becomes a matter of perfecting all of one's skills focused towards the accomplishment of the objective. An Army leader must understand the requirements of the job, the structure of the organization, and why it functions the way it does. That leader must learn about, study, and master the intricacies of all the aspects of their profession, the tools available, the people they work with/for, the requirements of the fight itself in order to have a frame of reference with which to study their place in the larger picture.

I don't disagree with any of that. I really don't. However, I think the manner we go about becoming the pentathlete-leader the Army requires doesn't really fulfill this need very well. In fact, I think if you look at the need for mastery of the individual skills and then compare it with the definition of the pentathlete-leader above, you'll find that the professional military education system is generally broken with regard to the development of pentathletes all the way around. For CR's contention that becoming a pentathlete-leader to work, it has to recognize that skill mastery must be seen in a larger context. Consider each part of the pentathlete requirement above:

1. Is a strategic and creative thinker: Are we really developing young lieutenants and captains and sergeant to understand the strategic implications of the decisions they will be forced to make? Do we really reward creativity when a novel solution to a complex problem presents itself? Quite honestly, I don't believe we do this well at the junior level. Maybe in our senior schools we are beginning to, but at the junior level, we are often still telling young leaders what to do instead of developing their capacity for strategic and creative thought.

2. Builds leaders and teams: We used to have a great little manual entitled "Soldier Team Development" that helped developing leader figure out the behavioral and social dynamics of team building, but it is long out of print and is hard to find nowadays. Maybe we need to spend some time in our classrooms getting Soldiers to understand how and why successful teams and organizations work in order to enhance the over-all capability of the unit. This would allow a young leader to understand that the people of their profession are as an important part of mission success as any implement of war or strategy.

3. Is a competent full-spectrum warfighter or accomplished professional who supports the Soldier: Are we really doing that in our professional schooling? Are we making young leaders think hard about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the second and third order effects of their decisions? I think we might be starting to in some places, such as West Point, and the Sergeants Major Academy, but overall, I'm still not certain that the place near enough emphasis on the difficulties and considerations of the COIN environment at the lower levels.

4. Is effective in managing, leading and changing large organizations: This bullet seems to me to place the pentathlete label only on those leaders who are in charge of large organizations. It implies that the pentathlete starts at the senior level. My opinion is that these particular skills begin immediately at the lowest level as well, and do not only belong to those leaders who have ascended to the upper echelons of the Army.

5. Is skilled in governance, statesmanship and diplomacy: This is another example where simply by the language used, the implication is that it doesn't really apply at the bottom of the leader spectrum and I fundamentally disagree with that premise. Since we have to accept that in a COIN environment, the smallest of decisions made at the lowest level can have extremely large outcomes that can support or detract from the mission in impactful ways, there must be a requirement for all levels the critical nature of diplomacy and statesmanship can impact the outcome.

6. Understands the cultural context and works effectively across it: We have immersed the Army in cultural considerations for the past 3 or 4 years. You cannot turn around these days without running into another cultural awareness class that explains the history and culture of the Afghan people. All of this is meant to provide out Soldiers with an awareness of the similarities and disparities between our 2 cultures. Awesome. I have no argument that this recognition is important. The question becomes, how do we use it? How do we take advantage of the similarities of our cultures to work towards mission accomplishment, and how to we learn to recognize when a dissimilarity will present an opportunity for us to achieve our mission as well?

Overall, I think that the requirements of the pentathlete-leader are quite correct. I just think that when the writers envisioned who this person is, they didn't have in mind those who are just beginning the leader development journey. You can almost see the face of a General Petreaus or other very senior leader is the definition, but can you see the face of a 20 year old farm kid from Iowa?

The attributes portion above caught my eye even more than the requirements portion. Think about what attributes the pentathlete-leader must posses: people of character and integrity, confidence, innovative, adaptive, empathetic and positively focused, professionally educated and good communicators.

Where will that character and integrity be developed? Where does it come from? Are we to assume that everyone has the same understanding of their character, and that theirs and the Army's are the same? Where will the ability to adapt be tested? Where will be let young leaders develop without the fear of strategic failure? Where will empathy and a basic respect for humanity find a place in the discussion of such a brutal contest as war? Where will the ability to communicate effectively be developed? Without a place to develop these attributes we cannot fulfill the higher mission of this war. Without placing the development of the person above the technical requirements of the profession, we cannot achieve the requirements of the pentathlete-leader. In my opinion, it is never too early to start challenging the people who make up the organization with questions like these. Knowing the technical aspects of one's craft will not teach you when or when not to use that tool. Knowing who you are, what you value and the implications for selecting one tool over another will always be the critical difference between 2 leaders.

Generically, CR and I believe in the same requirements of the pentathlete-leader. My point is that without knowing where we come from, what our our values are, possessing a deep and abiding sense of our personal strengths, weaknesses and abilities, we cannot fulfill those requirements because the most basic understanding has not been developed. Who is the unique individual behind the pentathlete-leader.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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