#95 "Along the Way"

When I started this discussion a year and a half ago, I didn't really have any idea where the journey would lead. I knew going through the "Black Hearts" experience had changed the way I viewed my world and that I would be a different type of leader because of it. I just didn't know what type. I had lost the anchor points that had previously shown me the way. I started writing the blog as a way to sort out my own thoughts and see what I could learn from that time. What I did not want to do was dictate where the discussions took me. I determined early on that I would simply let things go and follow where they led. And it has certainly been a learning experience to do that. Since writing each week requires some sort of reference material to work from, I have been forced to look a little deeper at leadership - what it is, why its' needed, and in what forms it is most and least successful. Because of that search I have gained an awareness that there are four or five recurring themes that have risen to the top of my consciousness. First, the requirement for self-awareness and self-study. You cannot simply put on a title or a rank and then call yourself a leader. Or worse, let the institution term you one. Your leadership abilities encompass much more than that. Second, the idea of using the OODA cycle at the human being level. While Boyd extrapolated OODA outward from the individual to grand strategy, I have found that it is a great method of focusing inward which leads to a much greater understanding of your immediate surroundings. And, as you have routinely seen throughout these posts, the idea of Orientation as the linchpin of that process. Third, the notion of servant leadership. I see the concept of leadership now as a choice between two paths: The leader is served by the led, or the leader serves the led. I think there are pros and cons to each, but I do believe that every one of us has to choose which road they will follow. And finally, that the institution itself acts as force upon all of the above. Maybe others have an innate understanding of this concept, but I did not. The idea that the Army as an institution is a living entity that, in many ways, acts exactly like its' people do. It has almost human needs to be fed, nurtured, approved and corrected. It has wants and needs and those two work to form the ethic and the manner in which it operates. Tied closely to that is the idea that the skeletal structure of the Army, it's hierarchy, also plays a large role in determining how the institution itself receives those things. As the Army takes a look at itself over the coming months and tries to figure out what adjustments it needs to make to it's leader development programs, hopefully some of my thoughts might help to inform the discussion. And, while that might sound like a pretty arrogant statement, I do believe that I can help, if for no other reason than because my writing has forced me to do some research and to look at the problem from a variety of points of view.

Leadership is an intensely personal experience and in order to lead others, you must first have a solid understanding of yourself. Self-awareness and self-study are critical parts of leader development and encompass the entirety of your life. What are your priorities, values, weaknesses, blind spots etc? Why are you the way you are? Why do you view your world the way you do? A large portion of our earliest leader development programs should focus on this area for a couple important reasons. First, it alerts us to how we view our world and the different filters that we drop in place that color our understandings. What motivates us and what does not? Second, this awareness recognizes that others will have a much different viewpoint based upon their understandings and filters. Self study allows for those differences of view without moral judgment of those who you are opposed to. Leadership at the human being level is recognizing those differences and finding ways to either reconcile them, or to ensure that the right people are put in the right place to accomplish the mission. Sometimes the most critical decision a leader will make isn't what to do, but rather who will do it. The arguments regarding 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will probably demonstrate this very well, as will the discussions regarding mission command and decentralized operations down to the squad level. The idea of the right person will play a much greater role than people think. A leader fundamentally opposed to homosexuals openly serving in the Army will make decisions in line with their belief and value system. A leader who is not opposed will make other decisions in line with their belief and value system. The issue will not be the institution's response, the issue will be how it is interpreted and enacted at the lowest level. As a leader of others, one of my jobs is to understand my feelings about an issue and to understand how they affect my actions. And my self-awareness presupposes that the same is true in others. In periods of change the ability to determine who to place where and when is an important skill. We'll no longer be 'plug and play' with interchangeable leaders. In fact, we'll probably find ourselves moving in the opposite direction all together. We'll probably end up emphasizing the merits of one individual over another for a particular task and the leader piece will be the ability to recognize which person is more suited to that mission and why. That will require programs of instruction in our development schools that are less 'mass production' and much more personalized. I go to school in order to find out about myself, in order to understand my influences, in order to learn how I think, in order to recognize that others do not think the same way, in order to take advantage of those differences, in order to effect the outcome successfully. In short, I'm learning how to put the right person in the right place at the right time instead of just anyone who happens to have been spit out of the leader development machine. Personal leader development takes advantage of the differences between individuals and spends less time trying to make everyone homogeneous.

Once we have impressed upon people the importance of figuring out who they are and why they are that way, we can move on to another theme - that "How to think is more important than what to think". My constant references to the OODA cycle reinforce this. To me, it is the single most important teaching lesson we need in the Army right now. OODA is not a discreet process. It really has no beginning and no end. It is not a finite thing. It's a way of interacting critically with our world that, when developed, brings clarity, and the ability to see ourselves and our adversary more clearly which reveals opportunities and identifies shortfalls faster. OODA accepts the differences of filter and then presents ways to work through them dynamically. The more you do it, the faster you can act. Now, you are operating inside other people's decision (and behavior) cycles and affecting the outcome. While Boyd originally saw this concept as happening between two adversaries, I believe that it can also be used very successfully within our own formations. If leadership is defined as influencing someones behavior in pursuit of an objective, then the OODA cycle does not only happen outside of our formations. It happens inside them as well. It happens with every interaction we have with people. This is another critical viewpoint that we must develop as we try to work through some of the issues with destructive behavior and other human being problems that have surfaced after 10 years at war. The same skill sets we are developing that allow us to better understand the enemy and the populace in Afghanistan can (and should) be used to assist us in understanding our own Soldiers. The skills required are no different - the ability to define the problem, the judgment - the empathy, the willigness to set aside our own viewpoint and actively pursue another's - to understand it's causes, the determination to change an entrenched behavior and the willingness to constantly scrutinize those interactions to see whether or not they are positively or negatively affecting the outcome. It really doesn't take a year long study to find out why we are having difficulty with Soldiers who return from battle and behave differently than we expect. It takes people who are attuned to the behavioral changes in their subordinates and then act in an empathetic manner to assist them to return to a more healthy place. Without self-awareness and without the OODA cycle becoming an active concentration in our leader development schools, we will only be left with institutional answers to what are very personal situations. We are trying to find ways to increase the judgment abilities of our Soldiers both individually and tactically. OODA provides that way.

The third theme that has routinely appeared in my thoughts, sometimes less clearly than others, is the idea of servant leadership. I no longer see my Soldiers as the tools by which I affirm my place in the organization. I used to, and I think many people go through a period like this, but I don't anymore. I exist to serve downward to my subordinates. The most important parts of my job are to serve their needs, increase their knowledge, and provide the opportunity for them to develop themselves in their own personal manner. I will not allow myself to use them for my own self-enhancement. More importantly, I will not allow them to let me do so. They are the reason I continue to serve. Any success that we achieve is shared. I do my part, they do theirs and we work through the friction as equal parts of the system. We both have roles to play. Without them doing their part, I will fail to achieve the organizations goals. Without me doing mine, they will not be able to operate to achieve them. The recognition that there is an equality between us is an important one. Rank and stature based systems do not generally accept this notion and therefore the led become nothing more than the workforce upon which the leader stakes his/her reputation. As we continue to look at 'toxic' leadership, I think we're going to find that it is most prevalent in places where the leader believes in his/her own sense of rightness to such a degree that they cannot view their world in any other manner. They are right and everyone else is wrong.

Servant leadership also has another linked requirement that bottom-up leadership doesn't which is it's requirement for a dissent mechanism. I have brought this up before, but it hasn't really gotten all that much attention which surprises me. If I accept that my subordinates are an equal and critical part of the organization - if I really embrace that - then it will force me to accept that there must be a way for them to tell me I'm wrong. In effect, they do get a vote. In situations where their lives depend upon having a clear understanding of the possible outcomes, there must be a way to ensure that that understanding is shared by all. The different parts of the system are equal. A dissent mechanism is the ultimate equalizer in servant based leadership.

The last theme is how the institution - it's history, it's lineage, it's customs and traditions and method of operating affect the people inside it. We often say that the Army is people, but in truth, the skeletal structure of the Army is a force unto itself. The hierarchical structure acts in a manner than requires the flow of information up and down simultaneously. It is predicated on the idea that the top has a better understanding than the bottom. However, we have found that that type of structure can be slow to act and opportunities are lost in the time it takes to move information to the proper decision-making level. We need to take a hard look at how the institution itself is affecting the conduct of operations. Is it possible that Soldiers have died and opportunities have been lost not because of negligence or fault or lack of ability, but rather because the requirements of the institution have failed to keep pace with the speed of decision-making on the ground?

A few weeks back I was talking with my Dad and he mentioned that it appeared as if some of my posts were beginning to repeat themselves. I was simply finding new source material to back up a previously stated thesis. I think to a certain degree he is correct. As I come across something that fits one of the 4 main theme areas of the blog, I'll try to bring it to people's attention and see if it helps clarify my previous thoughts any better. I also do it because in some cases, while the reference might be new, the theme is something I've talked about previously and want to bring back up to people's attention. Having thought about his comment for a few weeks, I'm not sure that's likely to change. A year ago or more I was talking about values and ethics. A year or more ago I brought up the sticky issues regarding decentralization and personal judgment. Due to the events of my life, what happened in Iraq between February and September 2006 has changed how I view leadership and how I lead others. For better or worse, some of these ideas seem to be making their way into discussions at the larger level. I would encourage the reader to go back and read through some of my earlier posts and begin to form their own ideas and opinions on some of these issues. What's on these pages is just some of the things I've discovered along the way.


  1. I think you are right....there are a few universal fundamentals of leadership.....(dealing with and understanding human beings)..I like your focus on self-awareness....I just don't think we do a good enough job of focusing on it in terms of developing leaders...key part of it is to understand why you think the way you think....why do you like the New England Patriots? why do you dislike Sara Palin? why do you like the Army? why aren't you in the Navy?....mundance questions?...yes, but they help people think about their thinking....once we have mastered that we can move on to self-discipline/regulation/management....monitoring your feelings and emotions and regulating them...ties right into thinking about your thinking....

    another biggie is mutual respect...not just the buzz words...but living it....gets back to a previous blog about using first names....
    which ties nicely into empathy...understanding others (not necessarily agreeing with them)....

    leadership is a soft science.....the rest of life in the Army is hard science...


  2. I believe few and far between leaders really internalize themselves and try to figure out why they are the way they are and why they lead the way they lead. We are far too focused on the "urgent" task at hand to dig deep into fundamental thinking. We deal with the now... however we deal with it... and then go on to the next task. I think people would be surprised and who they are and how they lead if they took the time to look at themselves.