#56 OODA, COIN and Leadership

Since the 'Surge' in Iraq beginning in 2007, the Army has been involved in a counterinsurgency (COIN) in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgent and counter insurgent warfare is an ages old type of war that is much more holistic than the traditional force-on-force warfare of WW II, or the expected large scale war that characterized the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Insurgent warfare does not follow the same 'playbook' that conventional war does and it very clearly demonstrated a vulnerability in the vaunted American military equipping and training paradigm. This vulnerability led to huge doctrinal shifts and prioritization of assets throughout the force. As such, and in trying to quickly figure out how to best prosecute this type of conflict, there has been a proliferation of written material throughout the force on successful methods and strategies etc for achieving success in a counterinsurgency.

I found one of those articles in the August - December issue of Infantry Magazine, It was entitled, "COIN Operations in Afghanistan" written by Captain Brad Israel. As I started to read it, I came across the following paragraph which immediately caught me eye:

"A unit’s leaders build relationships through constant interaction with the local populace and Afghan Forces. The establishment of a strong relationship requires more than just an occasional village visit; it requires that leaders get to know the people as individuals. The unit leadership should know the village elders’ names, their tribe, and their unique tribal history. I would also encourage leaders to learn the names of some of the children, local shop-keepers and farmers; they will provide useful information from time to time. The more locals recognize the leader as a familiar friend – one that is committed to them and not someone they or their children should fear – then the better the chance the leader has to build a bridge between the host nation government and its people. By genuinely listening to the people and addressing their concerns, leaders can actively facilitate relationship building. It is important that the unit, not just the leadership, act in kind.”

What leaped out at me as I read that was the idea that the requirements for successful interaction on the COIN battlefield are precisely the same types of requirements we have to address with regard to leadership and Soldier welfare.

Watch what happens when you change a few simple words throughout the paragraph.

“A unit’s leaders build relationships through constant interaction with the Soldiers. The establishment of a strong relationship requires more than just an occasional barracks visit; it requires that leaders get to know the people as individuals. The unit leadership should know the Soldier’s names, their background, and their unique personal history. I would also encourage leaders to learn the names of some of their children, their local environment; both will provide useful information from time to time. The more Soldiers recognize the leader as a familiar friend – one that is committed to them and not someone they or their families should fear – then the better the chance the leader has to build a bridge between the Army organization and its people. By genuinely listening to the Soldiers and addressing their concerns, leaders can actively facilitate relationship building. It is important that the whole unit, not just the leadership, act in kind.”

Same sentiment, same concept, same successful outcome. CPT Israel's article provides other units some very solid ideas on how to successfully interact with the local population in Afghanistan. Build relationships, establish trust, demonstrate commitment etc. There is an entire field manual dedicated to that and people are reading, digesting, arguing, and tearing it apart trying to figure out exactly the right way to operate in a counterinsurgency environment. The Army is literally spending millions of dollars a year to hire very knowledgeable people to come in and teach the 'How to do COIN' classes at every level of the organization from Private to General. In essence, we are acting as if COIN is something new and unknown to the organization. Something that we must learn how to do in order to win the war.

My contention is that we already have that manual and in many ways, we already know how to do this, it just requires a different Orientation. Consider this short paragraph from FM 6-22, Army Leadership:

"Many leaders connect at a personal level with their followers so they will be able to understand the individual's circumstances and needs. As discussed previously in the chapter, building relationships is one way to gain influence and commitment from followers. Knowing others is the basis that many successful leaders use to treat people well. It includes everything from making sure a Soldier has time for an annual dental exam, to finding out about a person's preferred hobbies and pastimes."

What these 3 paragraphs demonstrate is a perfect example of how OODA works and clearly outline why the ability to quickly adjust your Orientation to your environment is an absolutely critical leader tool. By adjusting leader Orientation what becomes obvious is that the COIN concepts that we are spending huge dollar amounts and massive amounts of time on, show up again in the 2nd paragraph where I substituted the word Soldiers in place of Afghans, and again in the Army leadership manual. In fact, all three paragraphs are exactly the same except for the ethnicity and the locale of the principle people involved. If Army leaders would follow CPT Israel's COIN advice when dealing with their own subordinates, I contend that we could very quickly begin to deal with some of the social and behavioral issues that are plaguing the Army today.

I then realized that both paragraphs also demonstrate the concept of 'winning hearts and minds' just with a different audience to be influenced. 'Hearts and minds' gained a rather negative connotation after the failure of US counterinsurgent operations during the Vietnam War, but in truth it is the only way to win against an insurgent. This type of warfare requires a short list of things that must be done in order to prevail. First, you must separate the enemy from the populace. Second, you must provide provide the populace the basic necessities of life. Third, you must create a governmental system capable of providing for and protecting the population. And finally, you must demonstrate to the population that their lives will be better without the insurgent than they are with. These things are not done quickly and require equal amounts of violence, compassion, iron-handedness, patience, understanding and care. It will often require that all of these actions be demonstrated at the same time.

Funny, but that sounds an awful lot like leadership to me....

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

#55 A Follow-Up

I have a few follow-up thoughts from both last week's post and the reply by JH. Although I wasn't really considering continuing this line of ideas regarding Post #53, two separate incidents have spurred a connecting line of thought that might be worth exploring.

The idea of the leader as an anchor has really struck a chord with me this week. I hadn't thought of the person or the position that way before. Probably because the Army definition of leadership concentrates around providing "Purpose, direction and motivation..." but doesn't spend much time talking about providing a place - and a face - for relationships, trust and a shelter from the storm.

First, from JH's post, the idea that Millennial's have very little faith in the institutions that surround them since almost from their youth they have seen nothing but scandal from their supposed heroes. Whether in government, sports, or entertainment, not a day goes by without some new form of scandalous behavior played out in an almost real-time news cycle. Couple that with the disintegration of the two parent household that became prevalent in the 1980's and you get a generation with no one to look up to, or respect. They have been let down, in many cases, by the very things that they were told are bedrock qualities of American life - namely faith in family, faith in government, faith in community and the idea that, in America, your dream to someday be a big league ball player can come true just by hard work and dedication. If only it were so. They just don't believe in Mom, Dad, apple pie, Chevrolet, and the American way. That just hasn't been their experience. Theirs has been quite the opposite.

Consider this: In their lifetimes, Millennial's have witnessed a public circumventing of the law in the Iran Contra hearings played out for weeks on television, a president impeached for lying and the public humiliation of having had an affair, the supreme court decide an election in which the guy with the most votes didn't win on a constitutional technicality that most people didn't understand, and a war started and prosecuted under faulty information and assumptions. A war in which many of their friends have either been killed or maimed. They had their faith in sports heroes dashed when the challenges to Roger Maris' single season home run record were found to be based on performance enhancing drug use. Remember when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were both chasing that record? Remember the excitement when the boys of summer were having a good time and there was excitement in waiting to see who would launch the next great shot out of the park? Remember when baseball became fun? When a ritual of the American summer made a triumphant return to glory? Turns out it was all an illusion. They had cheated and let us all down. Remember Olympic athlete Marion Jones? We were all so proud of her accomplishments.....Just another message that you cannot trust what is not right in front of you. Our hero's lives all become just as tawdry and cheap as our own.

JH summed this idea up very well when he wrote:

"There is a cultural realization that, “I can no longer trust outside of myself to help define who I am, because if I do, I will soon realize I was anchored in something false and unstable. The Millennial Generation has turned to the only thing certain to be real, themselves."

And so they trust themselves. And pretty much only themselves and others of their generation. They don't give damn about your institution, or your history, or your heraldry. They enter the world with their eyes set firmly on protecting and providing for the one thing they do trust. Themselves. And we contributed to that. As we adults watched our own lives slip into pettiness and disarray, we came together around the idea that this would not happen to our children. So we did everything we could to affirm their sense of individual identity, goodness and hope. They would be better than we were. If everything else in the world was hope less, we would make sure that they were individually hope full.

And that the outcome of that may be evidenced by something that another reader sent me this week. Check out the link below:


What the article states is that this is the most narcissistic and self absorbed generation ever. There are 3 paragraphs in the article that caught my eye. They are:

"Narcissism has increased among Americans over the past 15 years, a joint study from San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of South Alabama has concluded. The results suggest that the United States is poised to experience social problems as younger narcissists age and move into positions of power."


"These traits include an unfounded sense of entitlement and overly high self-regard. "


"What this means is that we have generations of people entering the workforce that expect special treatment, are demanding of others and making risky decisions."

I have said many times before throughout my writings, that the struggle right now in the Army is one of basic trust. Anyone who calls themselves a leader or holds any form of leadership position must make a concerted effort to gain, or regain, the trust of their subordinates. It is not a given. We will have to make a large investment of time - on a person to person level, to establish that bond between the leader and the led. It is not natural for them to trust that institution will take care of them. All their learning and experiences say otherwise. Blind faith will not come easily. In fact, if you ever can get to a point where your subordinates have blind faith in your decisions, I would contend that it will be because of the amount of time and energy you put into gaining their trust and affirmation.

Here then is the circle: The Millennial is raised with a heightened sense of self-worth and a loss of traditional anchoring points of faith. They then grow up believing in their individual sense of their world and find others of their generation who feel the same way. They are no longer tied to the older generation's definitions of success and value. They define themselves in the context of a global economy, the web, and instant processing of information. If it resonates with them locally, they grab ahold of it - as a point of self-definition. If not, they let it slide by without acknowledging it's presence. They believe they are unique and different from any generation before them. That they have value. That they are equal. And that you should accept them as such.

And then they join the Army or any other large organization. They run into the top-down, hierarchy that says that you must start at the bottom and pay your dues. They run into structure and the nuances of human behavior, ego, power, toxic leadership and position. And they become disenfranchised very very quickly. In their eyes, it is just another example of the institution letting them down. This great and wonderful thing called the United States Army that supposedly represents the absolute pinnacle of the essence of being an American, honor, integrity, and service, is filled with people no better than their parents, communities, sports stars and government.

Interestingly though, I have read somewhere that Millennials are the first generation to select their parents as their role models. I can't remember where I saw that, but consider for a second what it means. They have come to respect Mom and Dad, not for their failings, but rather for their trying to provide as well as they could for their children. They may not like everything their parents did, or how they lived their lives, but they do give them credit for trying. And that is a very common trait among them. They want credit just for trying. Not for winning, not for being the best - in fact they often don't really seem to care - they want credit just for being on the field.

As we try to lead them, it seems to me that we first need to acknowledge these central points of their Orientation. As I have said before, if we don't we will miss each other in translation. We may be using the same words, but they will have much different interpretations. Once we overcome the language problem, the next step will be to provide a local face to an institutional idea. If we want them to be loyal to the country, and the Army, we will first have to demonstrate our loyalty to them. If we want them to espouse all the Army values, they will first have to be demonstrated by us to them. Locally, person-to-person. We will have to work to prove that not only does the institution value them, but that they too can place their faith in the institution. Their development might come more slowly. They will have to learn that sometimes simply being on the field isn't good enough. Sometimes you must win. Regardless of the cost. That there are things out there that are larger and more important than their individual wants and needs. And that if you lose, you cannot say, "Well, at least I tried." That you must get better until you do win. While that may seem like an obvious statement to previous generations, it may not be that way for this one.

In order to do these things, here is what I think must happen at the senior levels of the Army.
First, there must be an acknowledgement that this generation is a pivotal one, much like any generation where social dynamics are changed dramatically by technological advancement. We simply cannot underestimate the critical importance of global communications and information expansion. Second, we have to look beyond corporate responses and develop more personal ones to help them reorient to their Army world in a way that helps connect their individualism to the larger ethic of the organization. Third, we need constantly place the values requirements in front of them. The values need to be part of every class, training event, and daily integration. That is the only way to make the larger themes have a local impact. Finally, we have to develop the strength of character that makes losing unacceptable and honorable winning the only imaginable result.

Earlier this past week I gave a presentation on OODA loops in the Human Dimension to some of the leaders of a unit on post. The briefing is designed to offer young leaders a way to reach out to their Soldiers and consider the many different option available to assist those who are struggling. When I got back to my office I received an email from one of the company commanders who had attended. This person thanked me for the brief and told me that for the first time in a long time, she didn't feel like she was on the outside looking in. That my briefing had validated a lot of her personal thoughts and feelings.....

Maybe, in some small way, I had provided her an anchor. We can build from there.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.