#66 Maybe in a Perfect World

JD has been an avid supporter of my writings for awhile now and I appreciate very much his support. In response to last weeks post, he sent the following reply which deserves a lot of consideration.

I will state my thesis again....no doubt the guys in jail were/are criminals....and for the sake of my point I will say that even if they were lead by "perfect" leaders (not that they exist) that set "ideal command climates" (not that they exist) they would still be in jail because they were/are criminals..having said that....we need to develop leaders who have a mentality like our Navy (and many allied Navies do) has...."if the ship runs aground, the CO is relieved."

....Of course this is extreme and idealistic....but if we teach and develop leaders to internalize this level of responsibility, we will have more responsible and better leaders, better Soldiers, better units, etc....

Of course leaders can't prevent every DUI, drug taking, wife beating, fratricide, accidental discharge, rape etc etc etc...but maybe, just maybe, if we inculcate and develop this level of responsibility....we might get close to the ideal....as an artillery commander, I used to tell myself that I would "relieve myself from command" if my unit was responsible for an "unsafe" round...."I, commander, am responsible for everything the unit does and/or fails to do."

"I, commander (leader), am responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do." We have taught that mantra to generations of leaders and it has been said so many times that we often fail to recognize it's implications. What I hope to do today is take that premise apart a little bit and explore what I think it really means, and the effect it has on both leader and subordinate behavior.

First, while a laudable idea, as JD pointed out in his reply, the entire concept is a practical impossibility. Since leaders cannot "prevent every DUI, drug taking, wife beating, fratricide, accidental discharge, rape etc etc etc", then the very notion of leader responsibility for individual behavior is an unachievable goal. To then create a situation where we will hold the leader responsible and accountable for something that is ultimately unachievable is completely unfair, and creates behavioral and structural requirements for the unit and its' people that can have a negative overall effect. For example, if a leader is somehow going to be held responsible for each and every individual action of their subordinates, then the only way to 'guarantee' a proper outcome will be to micromanage and baby sit them. If I am constantly afraid that someone I lead is going to act or do something inappropriate, and that their behavior or action will have a negative consequence for me, then I will become inherently distrustful. I am consigning my future to a person who may not have the same values, understandings, or discipline that I have. The distrust created by the requirement for 'zero defect' erodes the faith and confidence that I should be demonstrating to my subordinates and that they reflect back to me. The message I'm sending is that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing, so I am required to create a condition where they cannot do the wrong thing. This is bad business in a decentralized fight where hundreds of critical decisions will be made by junior officers and non-commissioned officers every day. I need to trust that corporal or lieutenant because I can only be in one place at a time, and they will be forced to make decisions in my absence. Trust up and down the line is a baseline requirement. And trust is a by-product of both the leader and the led having been placed in decision making situations and both sides having gained an understanding of the other due to the outcome. I observe the decision you made and gain or lose trust accordingly. If you are never given the opportunity to make choices and decisions then I cannot develop the trust required. Conversely, if my decisions and choices make no sense to you then you will lose faith and trust in me as well.

Another unintended consequence of this concept is the creation of a responsibility 'welfare state.' As long as there is someone or something above me who I can blame, then I am no longer responsible for my actions. It seems sometimes that Privates and young Soldiers are not responsible for anything they do, since they have a 'leader' above them who is responsible for them. It must be the leaders fault, because Junior just doesn't know any better. This is fundamentally flawed. Soldiers are taught how to clear their weapons. People know that spouse abuse is wrong. Every teenager in America is aware of the perils of drinking and driving. My Soldiers knew that raping a 14 year old girl was wrong. They knew that murdering her and her 6 year old sister and their parents was wrong. At some point, we are each of us solely responsible for our individual decisions and their outcomes. This ability to mis-place responsibility on a titular leader makes it very easy to shift the blame. We see this all the time in the Army now, where every little decision at the staff level gets pushed into the boss's in-box. Action passed equals action taken, and more importantly, responsibility shifted. I'm not going to make the decision - especially if it involves risk - so I'll just pass it along. That way, if the outcome is bad, I can absolve myself from blame, but more importantly, the institution won't hold me responsible and I'm protected.

The 'zero defect', 'leader-is-responsible-for-everything' mantra has also created the institutional monster called CYA. We fill out form after form and have Soldiers sign 'behavioral contracts', and counseling statements etc and file them away so we can say "I told you so". This further erodes the trust and faith in the unit and confuses leadership with legalese.

Having said that, I do think JD is right about the need to "internalize this level of responsibility". I just think it has a different starting place. I believe that we must start with teaching individual responsibility from day 1. The inculcation, in each Private and Cadet from the day they enter the Army, that ultimately they are responsible for their own behavior and actions is the critical first step to achieving JD's ideal. Over time, the development and maturity of the individual is enhanced; and as they absorb more and more of the Army's cultural norms and expectations, they will in fact become better leaders.

As I have mentioned before, the Millennial generation is considered one of the most sheltered and protected in history. As parents and communities we have created a condition where, in many ways, the young person has never really been held responsible for their actions. We put them into protective gear as soon as they step outside in order to not make them think about the consequences of riding their bicycle down the hill too fast. We fault the school system for them failing to learn. It has never been their fault. They do not grow up with a solid understanding of cause and effect, or that they are responsible for the decisions they make. In effect we have failed to develop a very necessary leadership skill set. And then we send them out into the Army, promote them after a couple of years for being a good follower, and one day they wake up with a new label called leader and we hang the responsibility for others actions and behaviors on their shoulders. What have we done to actually prepare them for that role?

In order to achieve the level of responsibility internalization that is JD's ideal, here is what I think needs to be done.

First, from the very moment a Soldier arrives at Basic Training, they are told that they are responsible for their successful or unsuccessful outcome in the Army. The Drill Sergeant and the institution will provide them a structure and a way to achieve success, but it is their choice alone to accept or reject it. The institution cannot and will not be held responsible for their behavior, they will. The institutions responsibility is to create the environment for development, internalization, and success. The individual must choose to accept or reject the environment.

Second, and very much in line with the thought above, we have to teach from the earliest stages of their development, cause and effect. Because new Soldiers may not possess this understanding as well as we need them to coming in, we must develop it in them. They should clearly understand the intended outcome, and the possible consequences of not achieving it. This would develop the idea of second and third order effects of actions - a skill set that is critical downrange. The method of doing this we already have. If we were to use Task, Purpose, Intent for everything from Day 1, it would help develop decision making skills that will only be enhanced over time and immersion in the Army culture.

Third, we must completely revamp how we teach the 7 Army Values. The Values themselves are the cornerstone of the Army. They are, and must forever remain, the embodiment of the contract between the Army and the Nation. They are the most important part of the internalization process. However, they must become more than vague words. We must find a concrete way to tie the individuals understanding of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage to the institution's understanding. If we accept that different generations will have different interpretations, then it becomes incumbent on the institution to recognize where the new Soldier is starting from and then provide opportunities for the their personal values to be tested and checked against the Army's. In this manner we provide opportunities for internalization.

In it's simplest form, it works like this: YOU made a choice to join the Army. YOU are responsible for that decision. The Army has a set of values, norms and behaviors that we hold dear and form our contract with the country. YOU will have to choose to accept or reject them. YOUR decisions have consequences both good and bad. The Army will provide the opportunity for YOU to learn from those decisions and learn how to recognize potential good and bad outcomes from the decisions YOU make. The 'welfare state' has been removed and replaced with an individual 'opportunity state'.

On a practical level: I teach Soldiers how to properly clear and carry their weapon. I teach them the steps and explain why they should do each step. But I clearly state that the responsibility to do the steps correctly rests with them. By emphasizing their individual requirement and expectation, they pay more attention. If they have a negligent discharge, they already know that they are responsible for causing it, not me or anyone else. They learn to accept that responsibility and internalize the proper procedures. I have trained over 3000 service members from all 4 branches in this manner and have never had anyone have a negligent discharge yet. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I truly believe that by training the Soldier, explaining why the task and steps are important, holding them accountable for their actions and trusting that they can perform the task correctly these results are almost predictable.

Now, lets take a look at what the outcome of an individual vs institutional approach might be. Accepting JD's contention that we need to get to an internalized understanding of individual responsibility, and by removing any pretense that there is anyone else responsible for my actions except me, we could create individuals with enhanced value systems and the critical decision making skills we need today. As values and ethical decisions are made at the personal level, our actions provide demonstrable results to others in the organization. As those others gain an understanding and appreciation for our ethical / moral decision making process, personal trust is enhanced or lost. If trust is enhanced, then the requirement for micromanagement, babysitting, and CYA is reduced. The titular leader spends less time worrying about which decision made by a subordinate will have career implications for him or her, and can then spend more time focusing their efforts on accomplishing their mission. At every level, the need for gnats ass, step-by-step instruction becomes less required based upon the demonstrated internalization of the the Army Values and Task, Purpose and Intent.

I fundamentally disagree with JD's assertion that "leaders are responsible for everything their unit / people do or fail to do." The people who make up the unit are. As I have said before with regard to my time as platoon sergeant, I am responsible for the decisions I made. Not my Lieutenant, not the Company Commander, not anyone else. Me. So, too, were my Soldiers responsible for their actions. The conditions, the circumstances, the climate of the unit ultimately have nothing to do with the morally bankrupt choices they made. Their moral / ethical breakdown belongs solely to them and no one else. If the institution failed, it failed to provide opportunities throughout their careers to test those morals and ethics against the stated value system in place. It assumed they had internalized them instead of ever challenging whether they had or not. Sadly, and horrifically, they had not.

As an institution and as leaders, we have a responsibility to create the condition or environment in which the development of the ethical / moral / operational decision making ability of the subordinate is the key behavioral outcome of every action both in training and deployed. The leader doesn't tell the subordinate how to think or act morally or ethically, the leader designs training and situations for the subordinate to have to make choices that demonstrate moral or ethical behavior. The very outcome of our current war may depend upon it. Somewhere in Afghanistan today, a young Soldier will face a situation where he/she will have two courses of action. Both of those will have the potential for good and bad outcomes. Those outcomes could have a very large impact on the operation. Are we providing that Soldier the tools to make a decision? More importantly have we provided them the strength to stand by the choice they made? And even more critically than that, do we trust them enough to make it?

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

#65 Black Hearts Review

In the May/June issue of Military Review there is a 4 page review of "Black Hearts" written by LTC (Ret) Paul Christipher. You can find the link here:

To date this is probably the most complete and fair-minded review of the book that I have seen. While not completely accurate, LTC Christopher does a very good job of getting at many of the issues that surround that event and the leadership and command climate that existed during our tour. I highly recommend people read it because it offers some strong insights into leadership in general, not just military. I think LTC Christopher's review also demonstrates that issues such as command climate, and willingness to consider different viewpoints are important in all walks of life. Hopefully, his review will further the discussion of the manner and method by which we train military leaders and the critical importance of creating work climates that enhance and build cohesion and a unified understanding of the purpose of the work, no matter the industry.

My real issue with any of the reviews I have seen is that they all focus on only one thing, the perceived or real leadership 'failures' throughout the command. Since I am often lumped into that category along with others, obviously that is not something that is easy to read time after time. However, what absolutely baffles me is that no one seems to place the responsibility for the atrocities committed by those Soldiers where it truly belongs - on them. Every review ends up almost excusing them and implying that they were somehow victims in this event. Consider the following from LTC Christopher's review:

"Frederick’s commitment to detail and organization are brilliant, allowing the perceptive reader to share the frustration and hardship that members of this unit experienced in a climate of dysfunctional leadership. Black Hearts invites its readers to spend long frightening nights on undermanned and isolated guard posts and to accompany squads on patrols looking for roadside bombs during the most dangerous period of the Iraqi occupation.
We, as readers, are invited not only to empathize with members of the 1-502, but to vicariously experience the exhaustion, the frustration, the sense of abandonment, the anger, the rebellion, and occasionally, the palpable fear that members of the battalion experienced daily for a year."

I wonder how many other units in Iraq during 2005-2006 had Soldiers who spent "long frightening nights in undermanned and isolated guard posts"? My guess is most. I wonder, how many other units experienced "the exhaustion, the frustration, the sense of abandonment, the anger" etc etc during that time. Again, the answer is most - if not all. How many of those Soldiers and units committed unspeakable acts of depravity? Few, if any. Search as we may for some way to come to grips with what those Soldiers decided to do, the truth still remains that even if the command climate was the most dysfunctional in the entire Army, nothing mitigates, excuses, or minimizes the responsibility of those individuals for their personal actions. Nothing.

LTC Christopher's review does touch on some very important issues that do need to be discussed however, some of which I have mentioned throughout this blog. For example, he states that:

"An obvious question readers may have upon completing Frederick’s book concerns whether members of the chain of command, especially some of the officers and senior officers from brigade on down, should also bear some culpability for the actions of the four men who were convicted. I don’t believe so. While some members of the chain of command were grossly incompetent, they were not unethical, and this is more of an indictment of our military training and certification programs than the character of the leaders in question. Unlike the murderers and rapists they led, these leaders were not bad people, just deplorable leaders."

"..they were not unethical, and this is more an indictment of our military training and certification programs than the character of the leaders in question." A critical point. Our leader development programs currently do not place anywhere near enough emphasis on ethical decision making, nor the behavioral dynamics of unit/team design. We simply label anyone with rank and a title a leader and then send them on their way. Without understanding how teams and units are built (or destroyed), and the absolutely fundamental part that human being interaction plays in that creation or destruction, we are continually putting people in the position of having to command something that they have no understanding of.

As a member of that chain of command, I have tried to look at the events and my decisions fairly and openly over the past year. I have not hidden from this, nor have I tried to shy away from asking hard questions. Some might even say that the blog is my way of holding on to that time and to continually punish myself for what happened. For the record, that is not true. I continue to talk about the events that happened to my platoon for one reason only - to get people to understand that what happened to us can very easily happen to others and that the system of leader development that is currently in place has a lot to do with why that is so. I have been supported and demonized equally throughout and that has been hard. Some people have understood that there are some very important lessons to be learned from the Black Hearts story that should fundamentally change the manner and method by which we grow leaders in the Army. Some fall back on the easy label of leadership failure. In effect saying, "We don't have to study this because that was just a group of shitty leaders, and because I'm not one of them, then I don't have to worry about it." And, certainly, no matter what I write here, some people will never get past the idea that all I'm trying to do is make myself feel better. There have been a lot of responses like that lately. That somehow, even if I'm correct that there are very important leader development skills and ideas that need to be studied, because I am a member of the 'failed leadership' group, that my points are somehow diminished because of it. On the contrary, having studied and thought about it almost every day for the past 4 years, I contend that my thoughts and ideas might be an important starting point. There are many times throughout this blog, where the very questions that I have raised, are also being raised by others. For example, this review - as with every other - paints a picture of an extremely toxic leadership climate. No argument. It was extremely toxic. Every Soldier in the battalion knew it and felt it. The question really is, did the leadership know how toxic it's actions were? The answer is no. Why not? Why could they not see what behavioral conditions were being created? And, importantly, even if they could have seen or were aware of how the Soldiers really felt, what could have been done? As a subordinate, there was only so much I could do to try to mitigate that toxicity when it was directed at my Soldiers. Since I've rarely heard from anyone else, the question becomes, what would you have done differently?

LTC Christopher brings up another important point that I have tried to look at in past postings as well. Consider the following:

"The commander of the 1-502 is a central figure in Black Hearts, and it is incontrovertible that his behavior was especially dysfunctional. Leaders who refuse to listen to suggestions from their subordinates unhinge any hope of unit cohesion. Even if the commander’s selected courses of action are always the best ones—which
is a preposterous supposition—the arrogance of not listening to team members denigrates them. Leader arrogance is the mortal enemy of unit cohesion, and the disenchantment of subordinates can sometimes do more to destroy a unit than enemy weapons. In this case, the battalion commander did not simply refuse to listen to his company commanders or senior noncommissioned officers, but he berated,abused, and publicly ridiculed them whenever they spoke up. His actions completely destroyed any notion of team."

That quotation is the exact reason that I have been pushing so hard for the last few months for an inclusive leadership design model. However, if I go back to my earliest leader development school, and find the models of leadership outlined in the old leadership manual, I will find 3 types of leaders, (1) Authoritative (2) Delagative (3) Participative. The 1-502 commander was most certainly an authoritative leader. He was following an Army leadership model that had been laid out for him throughout his career and which suits his personality and inclination. What no one had ever pointed out to him before were the positive and negative effects of such a style. The same can be said for me. I believe that I tend to be a more delagative and participative leader, however, just last week someone accused me of being so arrogant that I could not be taught anything. That would imply that either (1) their perception of me is incorrect, or (2) my self-awareness is not as complete as it should be. Either way, there is the beginning of a misunderstanding by either my followers or myself that could potentially have devastating effects.

Some other examples of why this incident demands such serious study by anyone who would ever aspire to leadership positions:

1. The unit was undermanned - Regardless of how we got there, the truth is that an Army must fight with what it has available be it people or equipment. The political situation that called for the manning in 2005-2006 is beyond my purview. However, as a Soldier, I do the best I can with what I have. In post number 10 I included the following quotation:

"In the Korean War...I was a 2nd Lieutenant, commanding a company. I had a Corporal as a platoon leader, a Sergeant as a platoon leader and one other Sergeant in the company. That's not the way you want to go to war, but that's the way you have to go to war. So we have to train our people the best we can so we're able to perform in whatever manner we're called upon. I've always been amazed at what individuals can do when they have to, when called upon, particularly in combat. Understrength units, properly trained, can fight like hell."

General Edward C. Meyer

The battalion and brigade commanders certainly would have been glad to accept more Soldiers into their battlespace during that time, but there weren't any to be had. We were all doing the best we could with the manpower we had available. It wouldn't be until the 'Surge' that an additional 30,000 troops would be pushed into theater. The land that we controlled as a company in 2005 was later controlled by a battalion in 2007.

2. Empathy - Although I did a poor job last week in sorting out my thoughts regarding empathy, it is the critical link to creating climates of understanding and awareness. While it is possible that the battalion commander was correct that the Soldiers who got killed had become lax, to not recognize the effect that his words would have on the remainder of the unit does demonstrate a lack of understanding of the empathy required whenever we ask someone to do something extremely difficult.

3. What makes COIN hard - It should also be remembered that he had demanded that we extend a hand of friendship to the Iraqi people. He was trying to do COIN before COIN was cool. These were the early days of counterinsurgent operations and people didn't really have a good understanding of what was required and the inherent risks involved. Consider that in current operations in Afghanistan, it is encouraged for Soldiers to take off their protective equipment (once security has been emplaced) when meeting with local elders. This demonstrates trust and respect - both crucial aspects of successful COIN operations.

4. A bottom-up approach - As LTC Christopher points out in his review

"Appropriately, Frederick begins his research“from the bottom up.” He conducts extensive
interviews with the members of the platoon, company,and battalion, and without adding his own evaluative commentary, allowing these Soldiers to report actions, outcomes, and feelings in their own words."

I simply cannot state enough that the Army as an institution must keep an ear tuned to the interpretations and understandings of the myriad levels of people throughout the organization and ensure that each group has the same generalized understanding of the intended outcome. As Black Hearts clearly demonstrates at the microcosmic level, when even one small group becomes disenfranchised or does not have the same understanding as their superiors, then the results can be devastating.

5. Comparisons to My Lai - Finally, for those of you who are members of Facebook, there is a 'Black Hearts' group site that has an interview with the Mr. Frederick regarding comparisons between this incident and the one at My Lai that was filmed for inclusion in a PBS documentary. Although there are some similarities between the two events, there are also some major differences as well. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the parts of this tragedy that needs to be considered are the behavioral dynamics that would create a situation where 4 people who might normally not consider actions like this, would suddenly take actions well outside any normal human behavior.

At the end of the day, there will be people who see the 'Black Hearts' incident in the simplest form possible - leadership failure. The issue however, is very much more complex than that. From individual human behaviors, emotions, and feelings to geopolitical military strategy, from a scared kid on a patrol to a leader formed by a different time and circumstance, from a lack of individual ethical and moral underpinning to the honorable behavior of so many others, this event demands careful study at all levels.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.