#85 Vision

I found the following paragraph the other day in a monograph by Dr. Anna Simons of the Naval Post Graduate School, entitled: "Got Vision? Unity of Vision in Policy and Strategy - What It is, and Why We Need It"

"Essentially, the argument to be outlined here is that far more attention should be paid to the who rather than the what of cross-cultural conflict. Bottom line up front: if we get the who right, the right what will follow.

Unfortunately, Washington, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Services lavish far more attention, money and, ironically, manpower on the what. Just witness the effort expended over the past several years hashing out Joint, never mind Service-specific, definitions for irregular and unconventional warfare. But—perhaps the ground is beginning to shift. Take Andrew Krepinevich’s and Barry Watts’s recent assertion that it is “past time to recognize that not everyone has the cognitive abilities and insight to be a competent strategist.” As they note, “strategy is about insight, creativity, and synthesis.” According to Krepinevich and Watts, “it appears that by the time most individuals reach their early twenties, they either have developed the cognitive skills for strategy or they have not.” "

The same argument holds true for leader development. All other things being equal, why is it that one person will succeed at an endeavor and another will not? If everyone has been developed in the same manner, and given the same opportunities to master their craft, and exposed to the same stimuli, then why is it that some folks can view the challenge in front of them clearly, and holistically, and others cannot see the forest through the trees? The answer seems to be that there are those who posses a certain type of thought process that allows them to express a 'vision' that others can recognize and follow. And, conversely, there are those who do not. For the time being, it is not critical to give that vision any moral weight good or bad, it is simply important to realize that some people have the ability to impart 'vision' better than others.

Leadership is the ability to influence the behavior of others in pursuit of a common goal. The methods used will vary in relation to what the goal is, but the singular purpose of leadership is to influence people.

I think this is a very important recognition because it highlights the critical importance of the traits that the leader possesses that make the subordinate want to follow his or her lead. This is why I have continually pushed for more self-awareness in our leader development programs. Instead of focusing our efforts on the outside stimuli and structural requirements of title and position, we should be focusing our efforts inwards on the behavioral, emotional, moral and influential dynamics of both the leader and the led.

We also need to move away from any leadership model that is purely positive outcome based. I had a conversation with someone at work the other day who brought up the idea that we generally only study the behaviors and actions of the guy who won or was successful. We rarely look at those attributes of the guy who lost. As if the outcome of a battle or event is, by itself, validation of the behavior of the leader. This discussion came about because of three separate events. First, a few months back there was an article in Army Times regarding a unit in Afghanistan where the Soldiers and junior leaders were very upset at their brigade chain of command because, as they perceived it, the unit was not following the COIN doctrine laid out by the U.S. high command at the time. You can find a link to that article here:


Second, was another Army Times cover story two weeks ago outlining alleged war crimes from another unit in the same brigade. Here are both the Army Times link, and one from the Washington Post that outlines the incident so far:



Finally, I was sent a document this week from a co-worker that outlined a different strategy for dealing with insurgents in Afghanistan. The document was being passed around as part of the the information sharing mechanism the Army has in place to rapidly disseminate lessons learned that might be used by other units and leaders. Interestingly, the document was produced by the same brigade mentioned in the two stories above. And with just a small bit of investigative work on my part to put things in a timeline, you can rapidly come to the following possible scenario:

First, the unit's leadership felt that they needed to conduct 'counter-guerrilla' operations in order to create space for 'counter-insurgent' operations to take place. Second, since the Army no longer has a 'counter-guerrilla' manual (it has been replaced by the counter-insurgency doctrine), the unit wrote their own. And finally, and most importantly, there was a breakdown in communication between the unit and it's subordinates as to how either policy was being implemented on the ground. Is it possible that the alleged crimes might have grown out of this? The unit took a lot of casualties during it's tour. According to the various articles, there appears to have been significant differences of opinion as to which approach (counter-guerrilla or counter-insurgency) was being implemented and followed. Having been in a similar situation with my platoon, I found all of it difficult to read.

[Note: The paragraph above should not be misconstrued by anyone as mitigation of the alleged crimes. As I have said numerous times before, nothing mitigates actions such as are alleged in these articles. Nothing. Each Soldier has a higher moral imperative to disobey any type of order or influence that might lead to crimes against innocents. That is not only morally correct, it is our doctrine.]

These examples do, however, speak to a whole lot of critical considerations of leadership and that the realization that the who of leadership is much more important than the what. It is not important what the results of the commander's decision were - the outcomes. What is more important is his vision and an awareness of how that vision, coupled with his place in the organization, and his ability to influence others can have many possible outcomes. I have no doubt that the commander personally is a successful, honorable, courageous, and adaptive thinker. I also have absolutely no doubt that he would not, and did not, have knowledge of, underwrite, or condone any of the alleged actions of his subordinates. What does matter though is that he had a vision - an understanding of what needed to be accomplished and more importantly, a responsibility to ensure that his subordinates clearly understood it. The question is whether or not his subordinates saw his vision in the same manner he did.

As I mentioned earlier, leadership is the ability to influence others. Initially, this influence may be nothing more than positional - the legal authorities given to the person in charge. Over time, however, this influence can become much more. It takes on a life of it's own. And it is generally speaking, personality driven. The personality of the leader - how they act, their manner and method, gets co-opted and is taken on by their subordinates. Rash and brash leaders build rash and brash units. Quiet and professional leaders create quiet and methodical units. The who of the organization becomes critical. We don't spend a whole lot of time on questions like these in our leader development schools, choosing rather to focus on battles won or lost, the tactics involved and the impact of the outcomes on future events. We don't often take a look at the makeup of the people in charge. Why 'rash and brash' worked for one unit while 'quiet and professional' might not have worked for another.

Everyone who is considered a leader has to possess a vision for their organization - no matter how small or how large. They have to have an idea of where they want it to go, how they want it to act, and what they expect it to be able to do. They also must realize that their vision is going to be 'Oriented' to differently by their subordinates, and that their unit will likely become an extension of their personality. If this is the case, then as an Army, we need to spend a lot more time on developing the self-awareness of our leaders in order to ensure that they have a very refined understanding why who they are is much more important to the life of the organization, than what they do.

The title of Dr. Simon's monograph caught my eye. The idea that unity of vision is critical to strategic success. The right person, who is able to see both the forest and the trees is the first cut. His or her vision of the outcome is the second. The ability to successfully communicate it to his/her subordinates in a manner that they can understand and relate to is even more important. Even with all that though, the actual outcome still has too many variables to count. Ultimately, success or failure can really come down to the 'who' of the leader, not the 'what' of their actions.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from events that do not turn out as expected. It is too shallow to simply say that somewhere along the way a "leader" failed. More likely is that the "leader" had no idea how their actions, behaviors, and ideas were being interpreted by others. They had influence, but didn't understand it's power to sway. They had vision but did not communicate it clearly. They had personality and position, but did not understand that the unit would adopt it and make it their own.

Do you have a vision for those you lead? If so, do they know what it is? And how do you know they share the same vision as you do? These are things that we need to take long hard looks at as an institution. Without this self-awareness, there are too many things that can go wrong. And, we must accept, that even if our vision is crystal clear and shared by all, it is always possible that the outcome will not be what was intended. And those are the lessons we should be studying.

For me, I will pray for all involved. No matter the legal outcome of the allegations, there will be a lot of pain for a lot of people. I pray that they may find peace and strength for the journey ahead. They will need it.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. what bothers me (perhaps due to my ignorance) is that we have too many people in leadership positions, leading American Soldiers, who simply don't get "it"...."it" being that their actions (word and deed) set a "command climate" in their unit....and that climate influences behaviors....

    do we really have a number (more than 20%? 30%?, I really don't know) who don't get "it"?!?!?

    I love this quote Fen..."The personality of the leader - how they act, their manner and method, gets co-opted and is taken on by their subordinates. Rash and brash leaders build rash and brash units. Quiet and professional leaders create quiet and methodical units. The who of the organization becomes critical"

    says it all....


  2. ....also, we don't need bn and bde cdrs being squad leaders....or just "one of the boys".....yes they need to share in the hard ships and be empathetic, and be tactically and technically competenent....etc etc....but at an absolute minimum they MUST set the ethical climate in the unit....the absolute do's and dont's....

    "US Army Soldiers don't......"
    "US Army Soldiers do ......"

    these conversations have to happen before and during operational deployments....