#73 Risk, Trust and the Future of the Profession

As sometimes happens, I really had no idea what I wanted to comment on this week when suddenly a few things popped up out of nowhere and provided the spark. I am going to try something here that I haven't done before, which is to link to some videos and see if the feedback is worth it. I know the discussion is worthwhile, but if people won't check, (or can't depending on bandwidth) the links, then my thoughts might not make a whole lot of sense.

First, check the link below posted by LTG Robert Caslen of the Combined Arms Center, entitled 'Leading in a Complex Operating Environment':


LTG Caslen's video post has to do with the potential repercussions of the COP Wanat and COP Keating reports. It talks very plainly about the need to ensure we have command climates that create the conditions for the exchange of information that allows a subordinate to voice his/her concerns regarding tactical risk to those higher in their chain of command. LTG Caslen is principally talking to the young and mid-career Army officers attending various schools that are part of the Combined Arms Center. CAC has done an exceptional job blending new technology and social media together in a manner that allows for the very top of the Army 'corporation' to gain feedback from those whose understanding of their profession has been formed in large part by the last 9 years of conflict. He also makes plain mention of the often blurry, and always subjective line between acceptable risk and risk aversion. Are we becoming risk averse because of the potential implications both personally, and for our Soldiers? These are also some of the same ideas and questions that I was talking about in my post a few weeks back entitled, "Hondo's Parting Gift".

Then check out the second link from General Martin Dempsey, Commander of the Training and Doctrine Command.


This is part 2 of a 3 part interview with General Dempsey. Not surprisingly, you'll find a lot of similarities, concerns and questions between Gen Dempsey's video and LTG Caslen's, only on a somewhat larger scale. Whereas LTG Caslen seems focused pretty tightly around the practical application of risk acceptance and risk aversion, Gen Dempsey continues that line of thought toward the more esoteric ideas of mentoring, trust development, and the impact of leader development programs that reaffirm the ethic of the profession of arms.

There is a part near the end of the Demspey video where he states:

"Decentralization has become an almost unquestioned good. It's in all of our doctrine, it's in joint doctrine. We talk about pushing responsibility and authority to the edge, we talk about enabling the edge, and my concern is that we're also....pushing all the risk. And in pushing all the risk, at some point we begin to rub uncomfortably against one of the other aspects of our profession, one of the foundational aspects, which is trust. So that if we push all the risk to the edge, and we don't share that risk, and we hold junior leaders accountable for failures, but without sharing that failure with them...then we begin to erode trust. And when we begin to erode trust we begin to erode the profession."

These two videos fill me with a lot of hope and confidence in our Army's senior leadership. Their acknowledged realization that we are requiring increasingly junior leaders to make very complex decisions, in real-time, that can have strategic consequences, and their willingness to put that into the larger context of leader development and the Army professional ethic is important. I think it also demonstrates that the Army has recognized - in a very public manner - the need for institutional transparency; the need for dialogue over discussion. Intended or not, this reaching out to the force at large also recognizes that previous models built solely on the seniority of the leadership have been surpassed by a new model that recognizes the value of those currently experiencing a new reality. Both of these leaders seem to recognize and are affirming the value of the experiential knowledge of the bottom. They recognize that a lot of their previous knowledge gained over the course of their careers has very little practical application to a young Captain or Major trying to implement a doctrine that is still quite literally in it's infancy. What both are trying to do is find the broader implications of what this period of dramatic change means to the organization as a whole.
How do we develop trust? Where is it's beginning, and where is it's end? These questions are both intensely personal, and institutional, at the same time. On the personal level there is the idea that I trust my friends, my loved ones etc. That they will not intentionally do me harm. I trust that they will help me in my time of need and celebrate my successes. That they will share both my pain and my joy. This feeling of trust on the individual level provides all of us the sense of community that we require to find value in our world. Trust at the individual level fulfills Maslow's 3rd tier of Love, Affection and Belongingness. It begins to build community.

Then there is institutional trust. I trust that my elected leaders will work to serve their communities as best they can. I trust that my retirement plan money will be invested wisely. I trust that my schools will provide a quality education. That my doctor knows what medicine is best for me. I trust that my mail will be delivered on time. I trust that my employer will stand behind me when I have done my best, but the outcome fell short of the mark. I trust that the organizational climate, ethos, and norms will be lived up to by everyone, all the time, and not sacrificed for expediency. These are trusts that occur when we put our faith and belief in things beyond our immediate knowledge and experience or control.

As an entire Army there are a lot of things right now that are beyond our immediate knowledge (the ethical/moral/and hierarchy situations created by counterinsurgency's requirement for decentralization), experience (we have only really been practicing the COIN doctrine for about 3 years) or control (we are learning rapidly that the 'fog' and 'friction' of war creates points where the outcome may be outside of our ability to control it).

And so we have to return to the people actually making the on-the-spot decision. Leaders have to trust that the most junior member of the unit will make his/her decision based upon the best knowledge they have available to them, their personal value system and their understanding of the ethic and priorities of the institution they serve. And the subordinate has to trust that if he/she does that, that their leadership will support them. But how? How can we take a young leader and expand their understandings as broadly as this war requires in an extremely short amount of time? It's akin to trying to get them to understand the entirety of how our government functions in less than a year. And then making them responsible for the decisions they make based upon this 'Cliff's Notes' understanding of the profession itself.

I'm not saying that I have the answers to any of these questions, but I do think that in many ways, my search for personal understanding on these pages has produced an idea of how we might actually go about ensuring that the professional military ethic remains strong, that we develop our young leaders in a manner that ensures a common understanding of the expectations of the organization, and supports active decision-making at the point of impact.

As always, I return to OODA. If you watch both videos, you can see two senior leaders who have Observed something and are trying to Orient to it as quickly and as correctly as possible. Gen Dempsey's 'gut' instinct that we may have blindly accepted and highlighted decentralization without completely understanding it's consequences equals his Observe. His willingness to spend time and resources to study it will affect his Orientation. LTG Caslen's recognition that events like COP Wanat and COP Keating have played a role in upsetting the balance between tactical gains and risk aversion, is the same. Both men have the power to Decide and Act upon their Observations, but both right now seem to be trying to ensure they are correctly Oriented before doing so. We need to teach OODA in every school house we have. It works from the very personal to grand strategic levels. In this fight both of those extremes happen on the same small piece of ground.

Second, go back to the leaders 'philosophy' I gave my organization when they first met me. My first two points were: (1) People are more important than things, and (2) How to think is more important than what to think. These two thoughts place a premium on human being development. The task is not the critical event, the impact on the person who successfully completes the task is. It equals empowerment, growth, and development. It is also moldable. The task can be anything, which means that it could be ethical behavior making exercises just as easily as marksmanship. Either way, the observed development of the person is the prize. Everything else is just the method. At the microcosmic Army level, in my little organization of 14 people this is playing out every day. I trust my subordinates. I told them day 1 that they had 100% of my trust based upon their experience in the job. I told them I would earn theirs. In some ways, I turned their understanding upside down. I gave them a lot of latitude in the beginning that had the possibility of being abused. But that latitude has come with an increased expectation of excellence. Their work, their research, their class development, and their focus provides a institutional experience where they feel valued, cared for, and are invested in. I have taken care of them when necessary, and they have repaid that by truly caring about the people they are sending to combat. Their opinion counts, their voice gets heard, and we all are equally charged in our own way with creating the best training experience we can. They are as 'bought in' as I am. Now that it is truly their 'baby', they demonstrate every day the pride of 'parenthood'.

Third, look at the institution through the eyes of those just starting out. While they may not have much experience, they do have an understanding of the meaning of words. We need to look for those places where the institutional interpretation of the 7 Army Values (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage) and the user interpretation have diverged. I'm not implying that one side or the other has the correct interpretation, only that there has to be a recognition that there can be more than one. We may find that on most of the Values, the institution and the user are actually extremely close and we don't need a lot of work to close the gap. But we might find one or two where there is a large gap in understanding that requires us to work hard to close that gap. If we do not re-examine the user-level understanding of the 7 Army Values and how they are playing out on the side of a hill in Afghanistan between a young Sergeant and a scared Soldier, then we cannot fix the issues of ethos, trust, or leader development. Ultimately, any search for answers, will return to the need to enhance/change/create men and women of character who have the same personal understanding of the organization's ethics and norms as the organization itself does. If we fall short at this foundational level, the remainder of the profession will surely collapse.

A final rambling thought: The current battlefield requires folks who can make quick decisions in keeping with the institutional norms and expected behaviors of the Army.....those decisions must be based on a common understanding of the values and ethics of the organization.....the development of people into the leaders of character the profession requires IS the key.....Any training task or combat only provides experience, it is not the key event here. Leader development is.....Trust must be returned.....On both the personal and institutional level. Without it, our contract with the nation we serve is in jeopardy.

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


  1. Interesting!! First time I have checked it out, but I'll be back. Today is not a good day for me to provide comments on trust and leader development. So in a typical smart-ass fashion, Fen you are smarter than you look:-) Joe

  2. we need to do a much better job of growing/producing leaders who allow subordinates to tactifully disagree.....the hierarchial nature of the military does not but its very nature allow for this...

    "I out rank you therefore I know more than you and am smarter than you"

  3. It would be helpful if someone could provide a specific example of how when we have held "junior leaders accountable for failures" and "shared that failure with them"....

    what exactly does that look like in the real world?...do we really do it?...thanks....


  4. Fen- you do ramble on!!!! Good to see no changes though in your passion for our profession.

    Great read and the videos are awesome. It is good to see senior leaders and organizations using media that reaches a lot of the junior leaders they want to talk to and get feedback from- so good one on the leadership. I also like the dialog versus discussion- there is a give and take in that method and it doesn't have to end.
    Keep up the good work in this blog- I will be back to read on.

    Tim Wall