#69 On the Mark?

This week an article on AKO was highlighted on Leader Net entitled, "Achieving Excellence in Small Unit Performance" written by Lieutenant General Michael Vain and COL Robert Toguchi. You can find the link here:


While I am in no way comparing myself, or my writing ability, to that of the authors, it does seem to me that they are forwarding - in a much more literate fashion - some of the ideas I have been discussing here for the past year or so. Themes such as trust development, decentralization, common ethics and value sets, and decision making ability etc, are in many ways the central focus of their article.

I also find it interesting that the very top layer of Army leadership seems to have a pretty clear understanding of the challenges, changes and adjustments that need to be addressed in our training centers and leader development programs. Instead of the entrenched bureaucracy that we are all accustomed to, as I search and find more material to look at and write about, I continually run into three and four star officers who seem to be adapting to, and embracing, dynamic change and fresh insight and feedback. Consider the interview that LTG Hertling gave to a media round table of bloggers I mentioned awhile back. Or his acceptance that Millennials are a unique generational subset that require new approaches to immersion in the Army. Consider that Gen McChrystal has a Facebook class on COIN operations with a video link to You Tube. Consider that Gen Chiarrelli started a blog to dialogue with students at the Command and General Staff College. Everywhere I look, I am finding senior leaders who are looking for new ways to communicate, who are actively seeking feedback from the rank and file, and who have recognized that we are in a period of dynamic change with regard to both people and technology that requires a hard look at our current method of operating and training. What I do not see is that same desire for feedback and input at the local level. Many units, and Soldiers I talk to relate that it's still 'business as usual' at the battalion level and below. Even after 9 years of war and rotation in and out of a combat zone. Trust at the local level seems at times non-existent they say, staff's have become too bureaucratic and over-loaded, and risk aversion has become the norm. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the top and the bottom, even organizationally.

In light of those thoughts, consider the following paragraph from the article:

"The more decentralized operations are, the greater the reliance on effective leadership and small unit performance. Recent research has revealed that we can best counter a decentralized, network-enabled enemy if our forces too are decentralized and network-enabled. Moreover, the tactics of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to target civilians, schools, and crowded markets have placed a premium on discernment, perspective, and excellence in decision making at the small unit level. The responsibility required of leaders and units at lower levels of command is clearly increasing, as is the potential that small units will continue to bear the brunt of close combat in the years to come. Units will fight separately and operate more independently with a greater need to be self-sustaining. Has the U.S. military done all that it can to improve small-unit performance and to develop small-unit excellence?"

This simple question raises the idea of 'how' we are likely to fight in the near-to-mid future, acknowledges that the human being at the center of the village square is going to be the decision maker at the point of contact, and that leader development will require a much more comprehensive and holistic approach than the current model suggests.

The article then goes on to point out some of the characteristics of high performing units. They are:

1. Effective Leadership
2. Effective use of Information
3. Fostering Innovation
4. Superior Execution
5. Thorough Preparation and Pre-Combat Inspections
6. Thorough Assessment of Performance
7. Executing Full Spectrum Operations
8. Posses a Dynamic Process of Change
9. Peer-to-Peer Integration and development

I will discuss the ones that seemed to jump out at me, or sparked a divergent thought.

Effective Leadership: "Effective leadership is not a journey in pursuit of perfection, but a continuous development process." "Leadership deals with a broad range of skills. While not all-inclusive, leadership involves everything from demonstrating tactical and technical proficiency to motivating and building trust—from exemplifying the Warrior Ethos to fostering teamwork and cohesion. “Be, Know, Do” is a more simplified version of an extremely complex set of characteristics."

These quotes seem very important to me for two distinct reasons. First, the acknowledgement that the formalized officer and non-commissioned officer schooling system is not the end of the game. Leader development is, and must be, a continuous pursuit. I have often thought about that in light of the blog and events in my life. There has always been the assumption that after 20 years of service, I should know what leadership is, how it functions, and the role it plays in developing subordinates. The truth is, that while I may be late to the game, I'm beginning now to have a much more concrete realization that leader development is a actually a life-long process. I only wish I had started this pursuit when I was a corporal. We must develop a system that encourages, and requires, life long adaptation, and personal growth. I am not the same person I was 20 years ago when I joined the Army, so why should my ideas on leadership be the same as they were back then? Hierarchical organizations have an inclination to work this way because we assume that the amount of time required to achieve a certain status equals continued growth and reflection. Many times this isn't the case. The way that we achieved the position of status becomes the modus operandi for the way we think, regardless of changing circumstances or immersion into unfamiliar territory.

Effective Use of Information: "Exceptional small units actively seek and acquire information and use it effectively, an imperative in complex environments today. The rigorous demands of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations require that small units have access to national level databases, especially human intelligence databases. These databases expand the venues for leaders to learn from the edge, since many receive direct feeds from liaison elements on the tactical front. The Distributed Common Ground System-Army is available, but we need to train our Soldiers to leverage these assets.The notion that leveraging is limited to higher-level headquarters units is no longer valid."

This paragraph is the ultimate flattening of the organization I have spoken about often. However, critical to the access to information are two component parts: (1) Knowing what you need and why you need it, and (2) Knowing what to do with it. There may also be a third consideration which is being able to articulate why some information is of little or no value to you and why. If the top or the bottom determines something is 'important' and either one does not agree, not only does there need to be a mechanism to say so, but there also has to be the ability of the both to tell the other why that piece is not relevant to their situation. By doing this, we open the lines of communication and help ensure a common understanding of the commander's intent and purpose.

Competent Decision Making: " Small units demonstrate competence in the art and science of decision making. However, all small units do not necessarily excel in making effective decisions. Certainly core skill sets for decision making involve understanding, visualizing, and assessing the environment and situation. Effective decision makers, however, are also flexible, quick, resilient, adaptive, risk-taking, and accurate. These skill sets require higher-order training in critical thinking, and we must inculcate them into our training. The first core skill set is understanding—it is vital to decision making. Understanding needs to be measured and is related to the small-unit leader’s education, intellect, experience, perception, and the information he receives."

This is precisely the purpose of the OODA Loop, the Adaptive Leader Methodology, and Outcome Based Training and Education. The process of decision making is important, but understanding why and how you are making it is even more critical. How recognizes you, and why recognizes both need and context. All of which are critical. We have concentrated for too many years on the process, and not put enough emphasis on understanding the why and how. Of all the component parts of this article, I believe this one to be the most important. The insurgent/counter insurgent battlefield is too complex to allow any leader to rely on simplistic black or white answers to problems that are extremely nuanced and have implications that range from local to geopolitical. We must teach dynamic thinking and interaction. To do that we must foster trust, give Soldiers the opportunity to make decisions and learn from them and create feedback mechanisms that demand honesty over political survival at every level.

Thorough Assessment of Performance: "Successful small units habitually use after action reviews to provide a candid assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.
The best units are open to embracing change, have open discussions on how to improve, and
support active learning in all ranks. Over time, the technique of “red teaming” has proven to be highly effective at improving practices in higher headquarters. Similar techniques may
prove beneficial at lower echelons with minimal force structure additions."

I have participated in numerous After Action Reviews in my career, and the only contention I have with them is that while total inclusion of all ranks is critical to their success, we often do not use them correctly. While reviewing the outcome of an operation is important, I have long felt that using the AAR process to gain an understanding of an individuals perception of the circumstance and environment may be even more critical than whether or not the operation had a good or bad result. Both results will be the outcome of the choices made by all levels of the organization. As I have mentioned before, it is possible to have bad outcomes from good decisions, and good outcomes from bad decisions. That is why perception, understanding and self-awareness are the critical components that we should be addressing in the AAR process. Red teaming (the idea of having someone in the organization designed to look at you from the adversaries perspective) is a great concept, provided that the Red Team is kept separate from the chain of command with regard to promotion, thereby removing the threat of professional retaliation when harsh judgements of the chain of command are made.

Peer to Peer Integration and Development: "The emergent qualities of high-performing small units have a number of notable attributes—the synergistic capacity to work together; the ability to develop superior leaders (beyond the appointed leadership); the capacity to adapt; the flexibility to handle fast changing situations; and the resilience to maintain these characteristics in the face of adversity, including the death of team members....There is a shared cognition or common understanding that evolves in training together that is closely coupled with trust and interdependence. These attributes are forged and shaped through the development of teamwork and the emotional fulfillment of being a part of a team or a greater whole. The success of the team reflects back on individual success and a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and achievement. The bond created when team members train together and build unit cohesion is valuable, and something we may not replicate otherwise. Small units achieve greatness through this when competence breeds the confidence that cements cohesion. Distributed operations and decentralized command may force small units to excel while being isolated, but it also requires a special strength to avoid creating their own rules in the absence of higher headquarters supervision."

There is a lot to this paragraph that deserves consideration. For me, the last part strikes a particularly painful note. "Decentralized command may force small units to excel while being isolated, but it also requires a special strength to avoid creating their own rules in the absence of higher headquarters supervision" A strength that my platoon did not posses. They certainly did posses a cohesion - one that was strong enough to cover up a horrendous crime for 3 months. They also possessed a sense of belonging, however, that was probably more related to the feeling that they were the 'outcasts' of the battalion. What's important for people to recognize in this final thought, is the the many of the same attributes that the authors consider to be critical components of high performance units can also be found in less well-functioning ones and certainly, in my case, even in criminal ones.

This article is very important and should be read and considered carefully. LTG Vain and COL Toguchi have clearly articulated the recognitions, climates, and behaviors that show up in very successful organizations, be they military, civilian, or corporate. The challenge for us is to take these thematic ideas and find ways to inculcate them into our current activities and units in order to grow more thoughtful, and adaptive leaders than we were when we were coming up. And just maybe, to get some of us old dogs to recognize the value in learning a few new tricks.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

#68 Alone with Yourself

One of the themes that I have talked about a lot on these pages is that anyone who would call themselves, or be termed, a leader had better have a solid understanding of who they are, and what they value before they accept the leadership position or role. They will need to posses a sense of their own history, who and what formed them, and the possible impacts of that formation on how they choose to lead others. In essence, what are their priorities and what will they stand for? These things cannot be dictated to you, they must be discovered through self study and contemplation. Without conceit, ego, or mindless self affirmation, we must all be willing and able to look squarely at ourselves and determine who we are. As I used to tell new Soldiers when I was a Drill Sergeant, at the end of the day, all you have is your name. What do you want it to stand for?

There must also be an awareness that there will be others who vehemently oppose your ideas, values, thoughts and priorities who will have a different set of values and understandings than you. This is OK. You cannot surround yourself will only like-minded people. By definition, doing so is entropic and eventually leads to self-delusion and implosion. There must be the constant friction of two or more ideas or ideologies crashing against each other for growth to occur. Otherwise we all will come to believe our own bullshit.

[As an aside, the paragraph above is why I do not worry about the current state of political affairs in Washington. It should be that way. Every time that one side or the other has become too powerful and able to drown out the voice of the opposition, the institution and the country has failed. Our current political system requires that those with differing views scream at the top of their lungs. It may be distasteful at times, but it is far better than silent supplication to only one thought process.]

In light of this, please check out the link below:


I found this on Don Vandergriff's blog site yesterday (
http://www.donvandergriff.com/), and there is a lot to be learned from Professor Deresiewicz's thoughts. Importantly, he gave these remarks to a class of West Point Cadets in October 2009.

The thrust of Professor Deresiewicz's speech is that we live in a world where we reward mediocrity and 'hoop jumping' rather than the development of one's own thoughts and ideas. That the very way we are conditioning young people to be successful in the world prizes a 'Go along to get along' mentality and that truly creative and introspective thinkers often do not reach the top of the leadership ladder. His call for introspection and the formation of one's own considered point of view struck a chord with me.

I write for a various reasons. First, it satisfies my need for independent time and space to think about my world, construct my thoughts, and then see if I can articulate them to others. In effect, it is a Internet based conversation with a close friend. Like everyone else, I live in a busy world of competing demands that can become overwhelmed at times with outside noise. I must make time to think and contemplate. Many weeks, I am forming a lot of my ideas that end up here in somewhat real time. I may have an idea that has been scratching at my brain, but rarely are the thoughts fully formed. Writing allows me to explore them a little bit more deeply. Secondly, it is personally cathartic. I have made no apologies that my experiences in Iraq have changed me and that some of those changes have been painful. When my professional life and value was questioned and my known universe shifted, it was very hard. Writing helps me heal. While some may find that distasteful, or a sign of weakness, especially in men, others recognize that expression of my emotions and struggles for understanding on these pages have become part of the recovery process. Finally, I write to inform others. Not from a teacher / student perspective, but rather from an individual one. I do not, and cannot, determine anyone else's answers or solutions for them, but I can advise them that they should spend some time considering them for themselves. Someday they will need them. And, possibly more importantly, their subordinates deserve them. Your subordinates deserve to know that their leader really knows what their value system is. Really knows why they do what they do. Has a real consideration for what's at stake. Those things cannot be easily come by. When something in your life fundamentally changes your perspective about your world, it might be helpful to have already spent some time alone figuring out your values system, your strengths, weaknesses and how you work. As part of that, I forward my thoughts and opinions here and hope they stimulate the reader to start considering their own point of view. Mine are not necessarily better or worse than anyone else's, but they are mine. What are yours?

Consider the following from the end of Professor Deresiewicz's speech:

" You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself."

There is much more to the speech than that paragraph, and I would ask that readers very seriously take a moment to consider Professor Deresiewicz's words.

Earlier this week, one of my readers sent me a document that he thought I might be interested in, as it follows very nicely with other writings concerning Boyd and the OODA loop. I was very pleased to receive it. This particular person has become a mentor in some ways even though I have never worked for or with him, and our personal interaction occurred over a very short period of time a few years back. When I sent him a thank you note for the document, I asked him for his opinion on the blog. He was kind enough to write me back last evening. While we agree on many points, we also disagree on others. The absolute key to the relationship isn't either of those. The key is that we have the relationship that allows for those. This particular mentor is a man of a separate breed not often found in today's world. He is a thinker. He has deeply considered his profession, it's requirements and it's demands. He has dedicated himself to ensuring that those beneath him do the same. While he does not demand it of me, he challenges me to continue to look for it. He strikes me as a man who possesses the capability to stand alone, comfortable in his own skin, simply because he has already done the things that the Professor suggests.

To return to Professor D's words, I was particularly struck by the notion that waiting to consider your moral and ethical decision making process until you need it is akin to learning to fire your rifle during your first firefight - it's way too late by then. You need to know how to do it when you arrive on the battlefield. As my mentor pointed out to me in his email, if you are waiting for, or counting on the institution to provide your character for you, then you will fail. To truly develop, and to earn the privilege of being considered a leader, you have to spend some time with yourself, figuring out who you are. If the journey is worth taking, you'll probably come to the conclusion that you have just started on a lifelong pursuit that will not ever be complete.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.