#73 Risk, Trust and the Future of the Profession

As sometimes happens, I really had no idea what I wanted to comment on this week when suddenly a few things popped up out of nowhere and provided the spark. I am going to try something here that I haven't done before, which is to link to some videos and see if the feedback is worth it. I know the discussion is worthwhile, but if people won't check, (or can't depending on bandwidth) the links, then my thoughts might not make a whole lot of sense.

First, check the link below posted by LTG Robert Caslen of the Combined Arms Center, entitled 'Leading in a Complex Operating Environment':


LTG Caslen's video post has to do with the potential repercussions of the COP Wanat and COP Keating reports. It talks very plainly about the need to ensure we have command climates that create the conditions for the exchange of information that allows a subordinate to voice his/her concerns regarding tactical risk to those higher in their chain of command. LTG Caslen is principally talking to the young and mid-career Army officers attending various schools that are part of the Combined Arms Center. CAC has done an exceptional job blending new technology and social media together in a manner that allows for the very top of the Army 'corporation' to gain feedback from those whose understanding of their profession has been formed in large part by the last 9 years of conflict. He also makes plain mention of the often blurry, and always subjective line between acceptable risk and risk aversion. Are we becoming risk averse because of the potential implications both personally, and for our Soldiers? These are also some of the same ideas and questions that I was talking about in my post a few weeks back entitled, "Hondo's Parting Gift".

Then check out the second link from General Martin Dempsey, Commander of the Training and Doctrine Command.


This is part 2 of a 3 part interview with General Dempsey. Not surprisingly, you'll find a lot of similarities, concerns and questions between Gen Dempsey's video and LTG Caslen's, only on a somewhat larger scale. Whereas LTG Caslen seems focused pretty tightly around the practical application of risk acceptance and risk aversion, Gen Dempsey continues that line of thought toward the more esoteric ideas of mentoring, trust development, and the impact of leader development programs that reaffirm the ethic of the profession of arms.

There is a part near the end of the Demspey video where he states:

"Decentralization has become an almost unquestioned good. It's in all of our doctrine, it's in joint doctrine. We talk about pushing responsibility and authority to the edge, we talk about enabling the edge, and my concern is that we're also....pushing all the risk. And in pushing all the risk, at some point we begin to rub uncomfortably against one of the other aspects of our profession, one of the foundational aspects, which is trust. So that if we push all the risk to the edge, and we don't share that risk, and we hold junior leaders accountable for failures, but without sharing that failure with them...then we begin to erode trust. And when we begin to erode trust we begin to erode the profession."

These two videos fill me with a lot of hope and confidence in our Army's senior leadership. Their acknowledged realization that we are requiring increasingly junior leaders to make very complex decisions, in real-time, that can have strategic consequences, and their willingness to put that into the larger context of leader development and the Army professional ethic is important. I think it also demonstrates that the Army has recognized - in a very public manner - the need for institutional transparency; the need for dialogue over discussion. Intended or not, this reaching out to the force at large also recognizes that previous models built solely on the seniority of the leadership have been surpassed by a new model that recognizes the value of those currently experiencing a new reality. Both of these leaders seem to recognize and are affirming the value of the experiential knowledge of the bottom. They recognize that a lot of their previous knowledge gained over the course of their careers has very little practical application to a young Captain or Major trying to implement a doctrine that is still quite literally in it's infancy. What both are trying to do is find the broader implications of what this period of dramatic change means to the organization as a whole.
How do we develop trust? Where is it's beginning, and where is it's end? These questions are both intensely personal, and institutional, at the same time. On the personal level there is the idea that I trust my friends, my loved ones etc. That they will not intentionally do me harm. I trust that they will help me in my time of need and celebrate my successes. That they will share both my pain and my joy. This feeling of trust on the individual level provides all of us the sense of community that we require to find value in our world. Trust at the individual level fulfills Maslow's 3rd tier of Love, Affection and Belongingness. It begins to build community.

Then there is institutional trust. I trust that my elected leaders will work to serve their communities as best they can. I trust that my retirement plan money will be invested wisely. I trust that my schools will provide a quality education. That my doctor knows what medicine is best for me. I trust that my mail will be delivered on time. I trust that my employer will stand behind me when I have done my best, but the outcome fell short of the mark. I trust that the organizational climate, ethos, and norms will be lived up to by everyone, all the time, and not sacrificed for expediency. These are trusts that occur when we put our faith and belief in things beyond our immediate knowledge and experience or control.

As an entire Army there are a lot of things right now that are beyond our immediate knowledge (the ethical/moral/and hierarchy situations created by counterinsurgency's requirement for decentralization), experience (we have only really been practicing the COIN doctrine for about 3 years) or control (we are learning rapidly that the 'fog' and 'friction' of war creates points where the outcome may be outside of our ability to control it).

And so we have to return to the people actually making the on-the-spot decision. Leaders have to trust that the most junior member of the unit will make his/her decision based upon the best knowledge they have available to them, their personal value system and their understanding of the ethic and priorities of the institution they serve. And the subordinate has to trust that if he/she does that, that their leadership will support them. But how? How can we take a young leader and expand their understandings as broadly as this war requires in an extremely short amount of time? It's akin to trying to get them to understand the entirety of how our government functions in less than a year. And then making them responsible for the decisions they make based upon this 'Cliff's Notes' understanding of the profession itself.

I'm not saying that I have the answers to any of these questions, but I do think that in many ways, my search for personal understanding on these pages has produced an idea of how we might actually go about ensuring that the professional military ethic remains strong, that we develop our young leaders in a manner that ensures a common understanding of the expectations of the organization, and supports active decision-making at the point of impact.

As always, I return to OODA. If you watch both videos, you can see two senior leaders who have Observed something and are trying to Orient to it as quickly and as correctly as possible. Gen Dempsey's 'gut' instinct that we may have blindly accepted and highlighted decentralization without completely understanding it's consequences equals his Observe. His willingness to spend time and resources to study it will affect his Orientation. LTG Caslen's recognition that events like COP Wanat and COP Keating have played a role in upsetting the balance between tactical gains and risk aversion, is the same. Both men have the power to Decide and Act upon their Observations, but both right now seem to be trying to ensure they are correctly Oriented before doing so. We need to teach OODA in every school house we have. It works from the very personal to grand strategic levels. In this fight both of those extremes happen on the same small piece of ground.

Second, go back to the leaders 'philosophy' I gave my organization when they first met me. My first two points were: (1) People are more important than things, and (2) How to think is more important than what to think. These two thoughts place a premium on human being development. The task is not the critical event, the impact on the person who successfully completes the task is. It equals empowerment, growth, and development. It is also moldable. The task can be anything, which means that it could be ethical behavior making exercises just as easily as marksmanship. Either way, the observed development of the person is the prize. Everything else is just the method. At the microcosmic Army level, in my little organization of 14 people this is playing out every day. I trust my subordinates. I told them day 1 that they had 100% of my trust based upon their experience in the job. I told them I would earn theirs. In some ways, I turned their understanding upside down. I gave them a lot of latitude in the beginning that had the possibility of being abused. But that latitude has come with an increased expectation of excellence. Their work, their research, their class development, and their focus provides a institutional experience where they feel valued, cared for, and are invested in. I have taken care of them when necessary, and they have repaid that by truly caring about the people they are sending to combat. Their opinion counts, their voice gets heard, and we all are equally charged in our own way with creating the best training experience we can. They are as 'bought in' as I am. Now that it is truly their 'baby', they demonstrate every day the pride of 'parenthood'.

Third, look at the institution through the eyes of those just starting out. While they may not have much experience, they do have an understanding of the meaning of words. We need to look for those places where the institutional interpretation of the 7 Army Values (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage) and the user interpretation have diverged. I'm not implying that one side or the other has the correct interpretation, only that there has to be a recognition that there can be more than one. We may find that on most of the Values, the institution and the user are actually extremely close and we don't need a lot of work to close the gap. But we might find one or two where there is a large gap in understanding that requires us to work hard to close that gap. If we do not re-examine the user-level understanding of the 7 Army Values and how they are playing out on the side of a hill in Afghanistan between a young Sergeant and a scared Soldier, then we cannot fix the issues of ethos, trust, or leader development. Ultimately, any search for answers, will return to the need to enhance/change/create men and women of character who have the same personal understanding of the organization's ethics and norms as the organization itself does. If we fall short at this foundational level, the remainder of the profession will surely collapse.

A final rambling thought: The current battlefield requires folks who can make quick decisions in keeping with the institutional norms and expected behaviors of the Army.....those decisions must be based on a common understanding of the values and ethics of the organization.....the development of people into the leaders of character the profession requires IS the key.....Any training task or combat only provides experience, it is not the key event here. Leader development is.....Trust must be returned.....On both the personal and institutional level. Without it, our contract with the nation we serve is in jeopardy.

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.

#72 The Pentathelete and the Profession

This post has been kicking around in my head for a few weeks now trying to get out. I have wanted to address it for at least the last 2 posts, but other ideas or incidents would pop up and it would get pushed to the back burner. It has been sitting there, however, tickling my brain and waiting for the thoughts to form themselves coherently enough to put words on the page. I'm going to try today. We'll see how it turns out.

About 3 weeks ago I received an email from one of the readers in response to post #68, "Alone With Yourself". The email came from a person who has become a mentor and one of my greatest mental protagonists throughout my writings. I alluded to him in the post itself like this:

"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. "

When I use the word protagonist to describe him, that is not to imply that we are enemies or foes. In fact, the truth is very much the opposite. He is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect and think very highly of. The protagonist label come from his ability and willingness to challenge me and provide another considered opinion besides my own. He pushes me to grow. This type of mental challenge is something that I believe that we must all engage in as leaders if we desire to remain relevant and involved in our professions, whatever they may be. There must be a mechanism in everyone's professional life (and personal too, I would think) that challenges them and their perceptions and vision of their world in order to not become entropic and shut off from new ideas. CR does that for me, and I am grateful for it.

Anyway, shortly after post #68, we exchanged a series of emails where he essentially disagreed with the value of having the professor go to West Point and challenging the cadets to begin examining their moral ethical 'backbone' before they are even fully formed as adults. He doesn't disagree that these considerations are critical, but rather that before the young officers can truly do what the professor suggests, they have to first understand the profession itself. What does the job require of them? He stated it this way:

" But the issues I have with the PHD addressing West Point cadets on how to think for themselves is that I don’t think they are ready for that. It would be a great speech for the Pre-Command Course for Lieutenant Colonels on the command list, but hardly a topic for students who don’t yet know the profession well enough to have an opinion.

For young lieutenants to join the fight against those arrayed against our country, it is necessary for them to first embrace the arts of war, not reinvent them. They must first steep themselves in the knowledge required to wield the tools of war, and they must train their mind and body in the multitude of skills required to accomplish this successfully. Equally, they must be emotionally prepared to fight aggression, to oppose evil, to take action, and to lead men. After all that, let them (and history) take close measure of the “box” before changing it."

And to follow that up, he went back and defined what those requirements are:

"The DA (Dept of the Army) develops competent and multifaceted military who personify the Army values and the warrior ethos in all aspects from warfighting, to statesmanship, to enterprise management. The Army develops qualities in its leaders to enable them to respond effectively to what they will face. The DA describes the leaders it is creating as “Pentathletes,” whose versatility will enable them to learn and adapt in ambiguous situations in a constantly evolving environment. Pentathlete leaders are innovative, adaptive, and situationally aware professionals who demonstrate character in everything that they do, are experts in the profession of arms, boldly confront uncertainty, and solve complex problems. They are decisive and prudent risk takers who effectively manage, lead, and change organizations. Pentathletes are professionally educated and dedicated to a lifelong learning process; resilient, mentally and physically agile, empathetic, and self-aware; and confidently lead Soldiers and civilians, build teams, and achieve the Army’s over-arching strategic goals while engendering loyalty and trust.
Pentathlete - Pentathletes are multi-skilled, innovative, adaptive, and situationally aware professionals who demonstrate character in everything that they do, are experts in the profession of arms, personify the warrior ethos in all aspects from war fighting to statesmanship to enterprise management, and boldly confront uncertainty and solve complex problems.

a. A Pentathlete—

(1) Is a strategic and creative thinker.

(2) Builds leaders and teams.

(3) Is a competent full-spectrum warfighter or accomplished professional who supports the Soldier.

(4) Is effective in managing, leading, and changing large organizations.

(5) Is skilled in governance, statesmanship, and diplomacy.

(6) Understands cultural context and works effectively across it.

b. Pentathlete attributes are—

(1) To set the standard for integrity and character.

(2) To be a confident and competent decision-maker in uncertain situations:

(a) Prudent risk taker.
(b) Innovative.
(c) Adaptive.

(3) Empathetic and always positive.

(4) Professionally educated and dedicated to lifelong learning.

(5) Effective communicator. "

I very much agree with all of the above. Describing Army leaders as pentathletes is very appropriate. Much like their track and field counterparts, pentathlete Army leaders must be masters of all of the events and techniques and implements of war. There is an old saying, 'jack of all trades, master of none'. Army leaders must be 'jacks of all trades' and 'masters' of them as well.
Leading other human beings in combat with the ever-present threat of death requires that military leaders be developed in a wholly different manner than most of their civilian counterparts. The 'finality' of combat becomes an incredible weight upon the people in the contest. At some point, each Soldier has one of those moments when they suddenly realize that this is not a game and that they might actually die. That in order to survive, they may have to take the life of another human being. They also must also accept the randomness of death and come to grips with it. They must either accept these realities and continue to fight, or they succumb to their fears and become too paralyzed to move. Military leadership demands people who can recognize that and use the tools and requirements of the profession outlined above to overcome those fears, and instill the confidence in those they lead to do the same. It's probably no different in civilian business leadership, except that the cost of failure is really not quite as high. Money may be lost, and profits may decrease, but life and death are generally not on the line.

Maybe CR is right. Before we can master ourselves, we must first provide a framework for that mastery to take place. We must immerse ourselves in our professional environment and learn all the tools of our trade before we can begin to understand or look for the deeper implications of our personal role in the profession. Without a sense of what a project requires, and the tools available to solve it, the deeper implications of the project itself might become too difficult to solve. Again, it becomes a matter of perfecting all of one's skills focused towards the accomplishment of the objective. An Army leader must understand the requirements of the job, the structure of the organization, and why it functions the way it does. That leader must learn about, study, and master the intricacies of all the aspects of their profession, the tools available, the people they work with/for, the requirements of the fight itself in order to have a frame of reference with which to study their place in the larger picture.

I don't disagree with any of that. I really don't. However, I think the manner we go about becoming the pentathlete-leader the Army requires doesn't really fulfill this need very well. In fact, I think if you look at the need for mastery of the individual skills and then compare it with the definition of the pentathlete-leader above, you'll find that the professional military education system is generally broken with regard to the development of pentathletes all the way around. For CR's contention that becoming a pentathlete-leader to work, it has to recognize that skill mastery must be seen in a larger context. Consider each part of the pentathlete requirement above:

1. Is a strategic and creative thinker: Are we really developing young lieutenants and captains and sergeant to understand the strategic implications of the decisions they will be forced to make? Do we really reward creativity when a novel solution to a complex problem presents itself? Quite honestly, I don't believe we do this well at the junior level. Maybe in our senior schools we are beginning to, but at the junior level, we are often still telling young leaders what to do instead of developing their capacity for strategic and creative thought.

2. Builds leaders and teams: We used to have a great little manual entitled "Soldier Team Development" that helped developing leader figure out the behavioral and social dynamics of team building, but it is long out of print and is hard to find nowadays. Maybe we need to spend some time in our classrooms getting Soldiers to understand how and why successful teams and organizations work in order to enhance the over-all capability of the unit. This would allow a young leader to understand that the people of their profession are as an important part of mission success as any implement of war or strategy.

3. Is a competent full-spectrum warfighter or accomplished professional who supports the Soldier: Are we really doing that in our professional schooling? Are we making young leaders think hard about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the second and third order effects of their decisions? I think we might be starting to in some places, such as West Point, and the Sergeants Major Academy, but overall, I'm still not certain that the place near enough emphasis on the difficulties and considerations of the COIN environment at the lower levels.

4. Is effective in managing, leading and changing large organizations: This bullet seems to me to place the pentathlete label only on those leaders who are in charge of large organizations. It implies that the pentathlete starts at the senior level. My opinion is that these particular skills begin immediately at the lowest level as well, and do not only belong to those leaders who have ascended to the upper echelons of the Army.

5. Is skilled in governance, statesmanship and diplomacy: This is another example where simply by the language used, the implication is that it doesn't really apply at the bottom of the leader spectrum and I fundamentally disagree with that premise. Since we have to accept that in a COIN environment, the smallest of decisions made at the lowest level can have extremely large outcomes that can support or detract from the mission in impactful ways, there must be a requirement for all levels the critical nature of diplomacy and statesmanship can impact the outcome.

6. Understands the cultural context and works effectively across it: We have immersed the Army in cultural considerations for the past 3 or 4 years. You cannot turn around these days without running into another cultural awareness class that explains the history and culture of the Afghan people. All of this is meant to provide out Soldiers with an awareness of the similarities and disparities between our 2 cultures. Awesome. I have no argument that this recognition is important. The question becomes, how do we use it? How do we take advantage of the similarities of our cultures to work towards mission accomplishment, and how to we learn to recognize when a dissimilarity will present an opportunity for us to achieve our mission as well?

Overall, I think that the requirements of the pentathlete-leader are quite correct. I just think that when the writers envisioned who this person is, they didn't have in mind those who are just beginning the leader development journey. You can almost see the face of a General Petreaus or other very senior leader is the definition, but can you see the face of a 20 year old farm kid from Iowa?

The attributes portion above caught my eye even more than the requirements portion. Think about what attributes the pentathlete-leader must posses: people of character and integrity, confidence, innovative, adaptive, empathetic and positively focused, professionally educated and good communicators.

Where will that character and integrity be developed? Where does it come from? Are we to assume that everyone has the same understanding of their character, and that theirs and the Army's are the same? Where will the ability to adapt be tested? Where will be let young leaders develop without the fear of strategic failure? Where will empathy and a basic respect for humanity find a place in the discussion of such a brutal contest as war? Where will the ability to communicate effectively be developed? Without a place to develop these attributes we cannot fulfill the higher mission of this war. Without placing the development of the person above the technical requirements of the profession, we cannot achieve the requirements of the pentathlete-leader. In my opinion, it is never too early to start challenging the people who make up the organization with questions like these. Knowing the technical aspects of one's craft will not teach you when or when not to use that tool. Knowing who you are, what you value and the implications for selecting one tool over another will always be the critical difference between 2 leaders.

Generically, CR and I believe in the same requirements of the pentathlete-leader. My point is that without knowing where we come from, what our our values are, possessing a deep and abiding sense of our personal strengths, weaknesses and abilities, we cannot fulfill those requirements because the most basic understanding has not been developed. Who is the unique individual behind the pentathlete-leader.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.