#87 Candor

"Then we begin to erode trust, and when we begin to erode trust we begin to erode the profession." General Martin Dempsey

In post #73 "Risk, Trust and the Future of the Profession", I spent some time looking at the results from the COP Keating and COP Wanat incidents, and included links to two videos. The first was an interview with General Martin Dempsey, and the second was from Lieutenant General Robert Caslen. The Dempsey video was taken from an interview he conducted with the Army Center for the Professional Military Ethic and described his views on what the Army needs to spend some time looking at as it reviews the profession of arms after a decade of conflict. The Caslen video centered more closely around the events at Wanat and Keating and raised the idea of risk - both its' acceptance and its' aversion - and trust throughout the ranks.

This week, I was watching some of the video presentations from the 2010 Infantry Warfighting Conference and came across another video from LTG Caslen that caught my eye. You can find the link below:


What struck me was the following comment:

"If I could add an eighth Army Value, it would be candor."

That jumped out at me because I remember as a young Corporal preparing to go to the promotion board memorizing a list of 4 'C's' that were a requirement to be a non-commissioned officer - Courage, Candor, Competence, Commitment. That was 16 years ago...LTG Caslen's statement begs the question where did those things go? When did we as a profession stop valuing candor as an equal part to our courage and commitment? And, quite honestly, isn't candor a form of courage anyway?

Dictionary.com defines candor as: "The state or quality of being frank, open and sincere in speech or expression; candidness."

Put plainly, a person uses candor when they 'call it like they see it'. And that is a very important statement...calling it like THEY see it. Back we go to Observation.

I find it interesting though that at the end of Gen Dempsey's interview he states the following:

"..And I guess maybe that I could end this session by telling you that's my current anxiety, I suppose, is that I have this, I'm hearing what I would describe to you as weak signals. My instincts borne over 36 years are clamoring about telling me it's time, that we've got some challenges. So what I have to do is understand it." Back we go to Orientation.

In LTG Caslen's video from the Infantry Conference he said this:

"But in order for that conversation to take place there has to be a command climate in that enables candor to occur within the organization. Some of you may wonder what candor is. Candor is nothing more than telling the boss that he doesn't have any clothes on. That "Hey Sir, what you are thinking about doing does not make a lot of sense and I think I'm accepting unacceptable risk." As a result of that discussion, the command climates got to allow a subordinate leader to come up to a senior leader and have that level of discussion. I think if we were going to go relook our Army values and if we had to add an eighth value to the Army Values, my recommendation is we should add candor. And that where subordinate commanders can come up to a more senior commander and say this is something that I think is critically important and we oughta think about it and have a discussion about it."


These 4 things all go hand in hand. We must create a situation where the subordinate can approach his/her boss and plainly tell them when their personal observation and orientation are vastly different than the one put forth by their superior. Without this critical piece - without this dialogue - you end up with the two groups having a vastly different understanding of the situation and the expected outcome. As LTG Caslen rightly asserts, we must return to valuing candor. Leaders at all levels must start to seek out Gen Dempsey's 'weak signals' in their formations and attune themselves to where they are coming from and why they are steadily growing stronger. In effect, we must start listening.

In order for this important dialogue to take place, we will need a return to trust first. A subordinate has to trust that they can speak their mind and that their observations will be treated openly and fairly. That is not to say that they will get what they want, or even be agreed with. Far from it. But allowing a subordinate to disagree with a senior does two things. First, it allows the senior to see whether or not the subordinate understands the mission, the requirements and the expected outcome. If the senior is listening hard enough they will see whether the two visions are the same. This provides an opportunity before the action to identify those points of disparity. This will ultimately enhance trust. More importantly though, if the senior is looking for the discordant sounds - those things that don't match up, then the organization will grow a lot more. The discord leads to dialogue and the dialogue leads to a more common understanding. We cannot simply surrender to becoming a homogeneous Army. It should come about by the friction of many viewpoints rubbing against each other until a consensus is achieved. We must start listening - as General Dempsey indicates - to the other signals.

LTG Caslen's point that we need a return to candor should not be overlooked. And critical to it's importance is answering the question where did it go? When did we become an Army of 'yes men'? How did we get here? What conditions created the environment where no one would or could stand up and tell the boss, "Sir, you are incorrect. That is not what's going on in my sector. This is what my reality is?" When did we lose that? Or did we?

That answer might be found in the fact that this last decade of war has had a profound effect on the Army. Old models have given way to new realities. Old styles have been replaced by new requirements. The very structure of the Army has been altered, both in how we are actually built, and in how we fight. And along the way, something else changed too. I think a lot of our senior leaders were caught as flat-footed in 2001 as the rest of us were. And that meant that everyone was fighting for the proper orientation at the same time. We were all learning together, and that is something that does not happen much in the Army or many other large organizations. Group learning. We have historically been a top-down, established body of knowledge and experience type organization that is slow to change and built upon the supposed 'knowledge' of those at the top of the hierarchy. However, when a new reality presents itself, the entire organization is effected equally. The new reality confronts the entire width and breadth at the same time. Even today there is the same conversation regarding the efficacy of COIN doctrine and decentralization going on from Private to General. The only thing that changes are the polish of the words themselves. Some people have accepted COIN doctrine as the way ahead for the Army and others have not. Some people have embraced it and others have not. And that discussion has raised the idea of dissent and that dissent inevitably raises confusion and confusion implies a lack of understanding which results in a loss of faith and trust. And our fear of losing faith and trust has resulted in some very homogeneous thinking throughout the force. As General Dempsey stated in his interview, "Decentralization has become kind of an unquestioned good. It's in all of our doctrine."

If I am not willing to listen to my subordinates view of our shared mission and will not listen to their dissent and different observation/orientation, then I will never learn where those things differ between us. I will never be pushed to view my reality in any other fashion than the one I have developed. And if I use my position and power to impress that reality on my subordinates and don't allow them an opportunity to develop and put forth their own ideas, then I also fail as a mentor and coach and leader developer. I should not be trying to give them my 'way' of thinking, I should be encouraging them to discover their own.

But what does it take to make candor work? I think it takes a lot more than people realize. First, there must be an understanding that a culture that values candor will act in a particular manner. For example: If we suddenly said to the entire Army, "From here on out I want you to be entirely truthful with your leaders whenever you have a disagreement with them, without any regard to the consequences", there would suddenly be a whole bunch of very scared people running around. Does he/she mean it? Am I really allowed to express my opinion? Maybe I'll let someone else go first and see if it's a trick. Wait, do I even have an opinion? Is it truly mine, or just one that I've been conditioned to accept? Have I spent any time actually considering it? These questions and more will race through many people's head as they encounter a boss who actually wants to know their thoughts, ideas, observations and orientations. Second, it will take awhile for that fear to be removed, and the responsibility to remove it rests squarely with the leader. They have to choose to do it and then accept that it will take some time before people believe it. Many many officers and noncomissioned officers are not going to risk their livelihood and future potential for promotion by expressing an unpopular decision. Even if they feel it to the core of their being. Until we remove the threat to someones ability to provide for themselves and their families we cannot expect that there will ever be a completely honest discussions. If my next opportunity depends squarely on whether or not I agree with my boss, then what the hell....go along to get along. I'll get promoted, I'll move on and I won't have to serve with him or her again. I'm not going to jeopardize tomorrow by having an opinion today. Again, as General Dempsey pointed out in his interview, "Well, first and foremost, Soldiers and leaders emulate what they see, the behaviors that they see in those who are senior to them." If my leader is the type who only wants to hear from themselves or like-minded people, then I'll likely emulate that behavior. If he/she is the type of leader who actively solicits dissenting and differing viewpoints, then I'll likely emulate that type of behavior. It is what any development organization would term as role-modeling. So if two of the top senior officers in the Army are worrying about the lack of dialogue and candor - and are both demonstrating a willingness to have some of the tough conversations necessary to effect the entire organization, they are role-modeling for the rest of us a new way of conducting business. Maybe we should be listening.

But it's a tricky business. Take this blog. What does it represent? To me, I am exercising candor. I am expressing my opinion - my observations and orientations on things that I think are critically important and that I think we ought to have a discussion about, namely the state of leadership within the profession. That dialogue is designed to get the reader to consider another point of view besides their own or the homogeneous ones that have been spit out time after time. I'm not saying I'm correct, only that this is how I view my world at this moment. I might be considered one of General Dempsey's 'weak signals'. Others would certainly call my work an act of incredible egotism and hubris. Who do I think I am to write these things week after week? Certainly there are those in the Army much smarter and more articulate than I am, so why do I think I have something important to say? And others might feel a little threatened by this because it I am challenging some of our past practices and making recommendations for improvement. Maybe those are things they think they should be doing and feel uneasy that someone else is doing them. I don't know, but I do know that there can be three different interpretations of what the blog is and what it represents: My attempt at candor and dialogue. A reflection of my ego and arrogance. A threatening pointy stick for those who are comfortable playing the 'get along to go along' game.

As an example, this last month has seen the largest rise in readership and membership since I started writing a year and a half ago. A lot of that has to do with it's inclusion on BCKS, but there are others outside of the Army who are also checking in on a weekly basis. But, that increased readership has not led to increased dialogue. The same people who have been posting replies all along still continue to do so, but the new readers do not. However, since I know and work with many of these folks, they will engage in a private conversations with me regarding a particular post. And, quite honestly, many of them agree with me, they just won't say so in an attributable manner. I might get an email from someone saying they think my arguments are great, or that they feel the same way I do, but they won't say it publicly. So the question arises, what prevents them from responding? What are they afraid of? And, while we're at it, why am I not afraid any more? Why am I willing to do this and others are not? It's actually easier to answer the second part first. First, I am doing this because I love the Army, I love my profession and I think we are in a very vulnerable area with regard to leadership. That is the emotional reason. But there is a practical one as well. I can do this because I have nothing left to lose. I have had my professional abilities and personal actions questioned in a public manner and have seen a side of the Army that many others have not. I have also served for over 20 years. While I would love to serve until I am forced to retire, I am not chasing another promotion. I am somewhat at a point where I can choose what I would like to do. If I want to be a First Sergeant, then I can throw my name in the hat. If I do not, then I won't. I am aware that if I do not serve as a First Sergeant then I will not be able to compete to be selected for Sergeant Major, but that is my choice to make. By removing the competition for the brass ring, and by accepting that I do have some control over my future, then I am free to choose how I express my love and concern for the Army. I am also free to choose when and how I disagree. I have brought this idea up before when speaking of very senior officers. There is a freedom when you have reached the top of the totem pole. What are they going to do, make you retire? Many of the people who read my work are not in that place. They are still working their way up the ladder. There is still too much risk. For me, the blog is not an act of courage because it cannot really effect me. For others, responding to it would be an act of courage because it carries implications that affect them and their families.

LTG Caslen's recognition that we need a return to candor within the profession is troubling. It never should have gone away. However, before we blithely say, "Ok, tomorrow we'll start using candor again, so everyone feel free to express their opinion", we had better look at a few things first. What conditions caused candor to be replaced with fealty in the first place, and what are the short term consequences of opening the flood gates? Both Gen. Dempsey and LTG Caslen are taking that hard look and sounding the warning bell to other senior leaders. It is up to us to start thinking hard about whether or not we want to only surround ourselves with similar thinkers, or are we truly going to open the dialogue box and take advantage of what 10 years of hard combat has provided us in terms of lessons, wisdom and leader development? Since all indications are that this type of warfare will not go away soon, we probably need to learn to value the inputs from everyone in order to develop those who will surely follow us into the fight.
We owe them that much.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.