#82 "The Key Terrain"

"The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." ~Theodore Roosevelt

Last night while looking through some old work files, I came across a slide show from the Combined Arms Center entitled "Counterinsurgency 101" produced by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center. It is only 15 slides long, but may be the best general document to explain how to approach COIN operations that I have seen. On the second slide, I found two bullets that struck me.

The first said: "Conventional war is waged on physical terrain."

The second said: "Counterinsurgency is waged on human terrain."

Further on, I found a couple more quotes and thoughts that jumped out at me and form the basis for the ideas below.

"I underestimated one factor...culture. I was looking at the wrong map - I needed to look at the tribal map, not the geographic map." Former Brigade commander, Afghanistan

Slide number 10 contained the following three points regarding how to correctly Orient oneself to the contest. The title was "Ask the Right Questions"

1. " Not....Where is the enemy?"
2. "Or even...How are they organized?..."
3. "The question we should be asking is.....Where am I and why is the enemy there?"

Counterinsurgent warfare is much more a matter of perspective and awareness than it is firepower. It relies very heavily on the Orientation of both parties. Each must understand the other's motivations, desires, methods and expected outcomes in order to prevail. It truly is a battle for the people. In a physical fight, whatever side causes enough destruction to force the enemy to give in will prevail. In that sense then, massive firepower and destructive capability is the key. Bigger, faster, more potent. This idea is what drove the Cold War and the arms race between the former Soviet Union and America for more than 40 years. In a COIN fight however, where the decisive terrain is the people, a lot of these bigger, faster, more potent weapons prove relatively useless against the will of the people. Destructive power does not necessarily have a direct influence on political or social will. As a matter of fact, the greater the destructive force, the more the political and social will can be turned against those who possess that force.

The same is true for leader development. By changing some words around, and changing our Orientation a bit, the same paradigms that were outlined above can be used to look at, and challenge, the manner by which we develop future leaders. For example, if you rewrite the first two quotes from the slide show, you can end up with the following:

"Conventional leader development is waged on the physical terrain (hierarchy) of the organization."

"Unconventional leader development is waged on the human terrain of the organization."

And, if you take the bullets from the "Asking the Right Questions" slide, you can end up with this:

"Not...where are my Soldiers?"

"Or even...how do they think?"

"The question we should be asking is...Where am I and why do (or don't) my Soldiers follow me?"

This is about repositioning ourselves to see our leadership role differently. The Army's definition of leadership is "The process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization." By that definition, the accomplishment of the mission is not the key to leadership. The key to leadership is the successful influencing of people. The mission is used as the framework for that influence to be exercised. From that sense, the mindset required to be successful at counterinsurgent warfare is exactly the same mindset needed to successfully develop future leaders. The key terrain is the people we are attempting to develop.

While a lot of people might be saying to themselves, "Well, duh." as if the above was obvious, I don't really think it is. Most people see leadership in terms of mission accomplishment. They receive their orders and go about creating a method to fulfill those directives. I am told to take the hill or secure the village or deliver the supplies etc, and I go about organizing my unit and my resources toward that aim. Over time, I will be judged by my superiors by my ability to accomplish my missions. The more I accomplish, the more successful I will be. Very quickly, I come to see accomplishing the mission as being of greater importance than anything else.

If you use the Army's definition of leadership as the starting point, however, you see that a leader's task is to use the mission to develop the people, not the people to accomplish the mission. I still have to take the hill, secure the village, or deliver the supplies, but now those things are seen as opportunities for me to influence and develop those underneath me. Ahhh, the mission is not the key. The mission only provides a framework and perspective for my true task - to influence and develop the people.

For a long time now, I have been struggling to explain this re-Orientation. It has come up a lot in other posts regarding the hierarchical nature of the Army and the effects the structure itself has on leader development. I see the Army structure as the 'physical' terrain of conventional warfare. I see the people development as the 'human' terrain of counterinsurgent warfare. Once again, it seems as if the Army has it backwards and is working at cross purposes. By placing primacy on mission accomplishment, it has driven a system that places the human being secondary to the mission's aim. This has created a sense of 'prevailing at all costs' mindset. The people become nothing more than a resource no more or less important than food, fuel, or bullets.

If you re-Orient yourself toward focusing on influencing the people however, and you place them - and their development - as the central point, then the mission becomes the experience by which that development occurs. I believe this is a very key understanding. It's not about getting the job done, it's is about using the job to develop the judgment, abilities, and increasing the value of the people within the organization. By doing that, it is far more likely that the job will be accomplished more effectively and your influence on the subordinate will be greater.

Now take the quote from the brigade commander and re-look it in this new light. It could sound like this:

"I underestimated one factor...my people. I was looking at the wrong map - I needed to look at the influence map, not the hierarchical structure map." Not, where am I and how can I move further up the structural ladder, but rather, where am I and how do I increase the skills, abilities, and judgment of my subordinates?

The people are the prize in both counterinsurgent warfare and leader development. Everything else, firepower, money, mission, etc is nothing more than a means of influencing them one way or another.

In a counterinsurgency this understanding means that we must gain insight into the values, orientations, understandings, customs, traditions and history of the local villager. In leader development it means we must gain insight into the orientations, understandings, customs, traditions and history of our Soldiers. Our purpose in both cases is to influence them. Only by understanding them and seeing their world from their point of view will we be able to do that. We have to know where they started from in order to develop a plan for where we need them to go. We spends millions of dollars a year explaining the culture and orientation of Afghans to American Soldiers in hopes of providing some insight to a young Soldier on why the Afghan is the way he is. What he values, what he does not. What his history, customs and traditions are. All aimed at providing us a way to exert positive influence on him during our interactions. By developing our understanding we hope to gain insight into how we can better achieve our goal of having him reject the enemy and embrace the central government and nationhood.

Our leader development programs however, do not do this. We still provide formulaic answers that fit into a hierarchical design. We send Soldiers to leader development schools and provide them an 'education' on something that really has nothing to do with leadership. We 'educate' them on how to work their way through the structure; we do not necessarily focus them on the key terrain which is their people.

The critical component of this re-Orientation is the idea that it starts with you. It is the "Where am I and why do my people follow me?" part. In order for counterinsurgent leader development to work, the leader (the one doing the influencing) has to first clearly understand where they are and understand the reasons their subordinates follow them. You have to see you clearly. You have to know what your purpose as a leader is. If, for example, your purpose is centered on you and enhancing your place in the organization, then your Soldiers follow for one reason (probably because they have to). If the purpose is focused on them, then they might follow for a different reason (maybe because they want to). Both might accomplish the mission, but will be perceived by the followers in wholly different manners. This is the same as conducting a cordon and search of a village. While your purpose may be to enhance security by capturing or killing the enemy, the villager may interpret your actions as trying to occupy the terrain and restrict their freedom of movement. Your cordon mission may be a military success, but it might be a counterinsurgent failure. On the other hand, if your purpose is to enhance the safety of the villager and increase their freedom of movement, then you can choose a variety of methods to accomplish this. In both cases however, your Orientation and definition of the outcome for those who you hope to influence will be the most important consideration.

I consider myself a counterinsurgent type of leader. My position and stature in the hierarchy is only important in that it allows me to use my 'people first' method with a little more freedom of movement than I could at lower levels of the structure. However, the self awareness requirement constantly reminds me that it is not so much important what I say or do, but rather how what I say or do is understood by my subordinates. I frame my communication from their interpretation. The mission becomes the way to put in into action.

This week, my group will be responsible to conduct, or oversee the training of more than 700 Soldiers. This is twice our normal student load. The key outcome will not be the number of students trained however. The key outcome will be the increased development of my subordinates as they train, move, assist, and account for the accomplishment of the mission. And, along the way, we will have done much more for leader development than many might think. As Roosevelt said above, I have done my best to put the right people in the right place. Now, all I have to do is not meddle in it and screw it up. I have emphasized to them to think, anticipate, and react. They now have to use those skills on their own. 700 people is the size of an average battalion. We're going to accomplish our mission with 8 Staff Sergeants and 4 Sergeants. That is insurgent leadership at it's best.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.