#101 The Qualifying Words and the Profession

I was reading through the Army White Paper entitled "The Profession of Arms" yesterday morning and came across the following paragraph:

"If leaders allow disconnects between word and deed, gaps can be created between espoused values, and values in use—when Soldiers or leaders do not ―'walk the talk' in line with espoused Army beliefs and values. This creates confusion across the ranks and leads to dysfunctional and demoralizing behavior. For example, [emphasis added by me] if the Army espouses the importance of Soldier and leader education and professional development yet does not invest in it adequately, or has selection practices that make leaders who pursue broadening developmental experiences less competitive for advancement, the Army appears hypocritical. However, if the espoused beliefs and values are reasonably congruent with the Army‘s deeper underlying assumptions, then the articulation of those values into a philosophy of operating can be a powerful source to help create cohesion, unity of effort, and identity."


In that entire paragraph, one little two letter word makes all the difference. If. "If the Army espouses the importance of Soldier and leader education..." The inclusion of the qualifying word if implies that it is possible that the Army does not actually do this it just says it does. And the world is full of qualifying words such as these and those words have immediate and long-term impacts on the organization. Not can have impacts. Does.

Leaders need to consider qualifying words very carefully. They have a huge impact on every aspect of how their actions and decisions will be interpreted by their subordinates. Qualifying words crack the door open to the disconnects mentioned in the opening sentence. They invite re-interpretation at every level above and below them. They inherently recognize and allow for different Orientations. When was the last time we ever considered a word like 'if' or 'should' in a class on leader development? The more you think about it, the qualifying words truly are the operational difference between success and failure. They are the binding thread of the commanders intent.

Re-write first sentence of that paragraph slightly differently and watch what happens:

"When leaders allow disconnects between word and deed, gaps are created between espoused values and values in use..."

In reality, the paragraph above should have removed the word if and simply acknowledged that the Army has not done a very good job on concentrating on Soldier education and leader development over the last two decades or so. We send Soldiers to schools, but they do not return educated. Especially in our NCO schoolhouses. Rote memorization does not equal learning. It only equals a surface level rudimentary skill of being able to regurgitate a fact or statement without the understanding of the deeper requirements of the statement itself. "I will always place the mission first." is a statement of fact. I can memorize it in 2 seconds. However, it takes a lifetime to understand its' meaning. It takes a lifetime to internalize it to such a degree that it can withstand the vaguaries of interpretation and challenges that it makes upon a leader. It takes but a second to understand that "I will always place the mission first" means that I - as an individual Soldier - am prepared to give my life to accomplish the mission, and more importantly, that I, as a leader, am prepared to sacrifice lives in order to accomplish the mission. But it takes much more time to ask "Are you really willing to die for a piece of ground in some far away place?" "Are you really prepared to sacrifice other young men and women on that piece of ground which has been contested for millennium?" In these considerations and understandings the burden of leading Soldiers weighs most heavily. Education confronts those burdens, rote memorization does not. In answering those questions we confront one of the most powerful requirements of the profession and the professional.

The idea for this post came to me the other evening when I received a link to an Atlantic Monthly magazine article written by Tim Kane entitled: "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving". You can find the link below:


In the article, Mr. Kane makes the following point:

"From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy."

Now, compare that to the following idea in the White Paper:

"Strategic leaders‘ actions also signal to Soldiers and junior leaders whether they are serving in a profession where, for example, individual merits of competence and character are the sole measures of certification or, instead, in an occupational or bureaucratic system where other measures apply. Such actions determine whether Soldiers see themselves as professionals serving a calling or as time-servers filing a government job.... Some of these systems are now out of balance after nine years of war, making the current challenge more urgent [emphasis added]. In short, strategic leaders ensure that they produce the necessary conditions for the Army to be a profession."

These two sources, one from outside the organization and one from within, both recognize the same truth. In many ways, we have moved away from being a profession seen as a calling or vocation, and have moved towards a bureaucratic system demanding conformity and institutionalized thinking. And that movement has had consequences. Quite honestly, there are no qualifying words needed. We know it to be true. Any hard look at the profession requires the acceptance of facts - an acceptance of current reality. To open the door for inaction by using qualifying words like 'if' does not further the discussion at all.

Why all this time on little words like 'if' and 'should'? Because when any leader is forced to look hard at the outcomes of the multiple courses of action that derive from them, they can then start the education and judgment process which is critical to being a professional. It does not matter what the field is. A young lawyer learns the rules of the law. A young doctor learns the steps to performing a surgical procedure. But they gain an education in could, if, and might. Could, if, and might require the application of judgment and a constant awareness of changing conditions. The education and learning that are critical requirements of any profession begin with the qualifying words. The rest is just rote memorization. Leadership begins with the acknowledgment of the significance of the little words, the recognition of their power to re-orient the intent, and the requirement to speak and act in such a manner that the entire organization has a clear understanding of their operational outcomes.

If this post seems a little disjointed to you, relax. It seems the same to me too. The ideas are there, they are just not quite as articulately presented as I am comfortable with. But maybe that's the point. In struggling to get these thoughts on the page, I am really dealing with the struggles of being a professional. Chronologically, I read the Atlantic Monthly article the other night, and then came across the paragraphs from the White Paper yesterday. What struck me was the difference in tone. Mr. Kane's article speaks definitely while the White Paper equivocates. And since I have received a half a dozen emails or Facebook responses agreeing with most of Kane's piece, I started thinking where is the disconnect? Turns out, it's in all those little qualifying words. Maybe I need to spend more time thinking them. Suddenly, they seem rather important to me.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Great post Fen...If I'm interpreting your words correctly, it seems as if you're speaking of "tacit" knowledge. How can we teach the "grey areas" pertaining to Leader Development?

    In October, 2009, I attended a Knowledge Management conference sponsored by the Battle Command Knowledge Systems (BCKS) where one of the speakers gave a perfect example.

    He used the example of a newly trained F16 pilot. Once this pilot read and memorized the F16 manual, knew the aircraft inside and out, and could actually recite procedures from memory,what would happen if we just stuck him in the cockpit and launched him off of the ship's deck? Obviously he would nose dive right into the ocean, why is that?

    Because he hasn't had the chance to gain that experiential "tacit" knowledge, he has only encountered what has been codified in manuals.

    This eludes to your comment about how our NCOs are being taught in NCOES. It's easy to memorize things, and it makes you sound like you really know what your talking about when you can recite the NCO creed, but it's that knowledge of "On-the-job" training that needs to be incorporated and improved on in every class...Use what you have learned, but find a way to express ut so that others can benefit.

    It's a never ending, always improving loop of education. We've been doing it for years, but doctrine works much slower than we learn. And in some cases, we've learned new improvements before the last ones were codified.

    How do we harness "tacit" knowledge? Can we? And after it's codified, it becomes explict, but that doesn't mean that it's not still being developed. I feel that we need to harness the way that the loop is being fed; it's not as easy to do as it is to theorize about it.

  2. Fen...you did it!!!!...this blog is actually a brilliant and perfect example of "the Army as a bureacracy".....the White Paper, an Army document, uses "if" and equivicates....bureacractic words and processes....the Atlantic article is not bureacratic as it is definitive....nicely done!

    break break.....I like Robert's comments about tacit knowledge....certainly tacit knowledge is gained in operational environments where mistakes can be deadly....but tacit knowledge is also gained in training where mistakes (of course as long as no one is hurt) need to be overlooked and even applauded....that is how we develop adaptive and thinking leaders....but commanders need to set the conditions, create the culture, where mistakes are "OK"....that is one way they can develop their subordinates....some leaders historically have not allowed this....ruining many a career....(full circle back to the Atlantic article)


  3. Bob and JD -

    A few thoughts...We can "feed the loop" by including more junior NCO's and company grade officers in the 'Lesson's Learned Weeks' that follow each units return from deployment. They are currently centered around the warfighting functions, and generally,only involve somewhat senior leaders. What would happen if CAPE or another learning organization were invited to the table and focused their efforts exclusively on the disconnects between our education systems and reality? Or, between the stated norms and expectations of the organization and their day-to-day implementation? Why don't we study situations like mine where things went horribly wrong?

    As for the culture change, I'm beginning to think that we need our most senior leaders to not simply hope that their ideas will happen through osmosis. If we are committed to changing the 'risk-averse' culture they might have to actually drive the point home with a hammer and anvil.

    As for the length of time it takes to codify the 'tacit' knowledge, maybe we ought to not spend so much time on specific X's and O's, and generalize the larger thematic lesson instead.


  4. Fen,

    Just a few questions, as I've been out of the loop for a while: What ever happened to patrol debriefs? Couldn't this be a way to codify some of the lessons learned from junior NCOs and officers? Weren't debriefs designed to identify shortfalls at the lowest level so that they can be improved upon for follow-on missions? How are these lessons being captured so that the rest of the Army can benefit from them? Or is the competetive culture of our organization causing us to keep the bad things to ourselves because we don't want to air our dirty laundry?

    From my experience, and I'm sure it hasn't changed much, patrol reports are merely an EXSUM delivered to the next higher level stating how well the mission went.

    As far as studying situations like yours, where things went horribly wrong, is why all of these professional and ethics surveys are being conducted. They're trying to figure out why soldiers do what they do after being exposed to 9-years of combat. How has it affected the soldier as a professional.

    Focusing on a single, albeit tragic, incident will not identify all of the leadership issues in the Army, they have to be compared, and trend analysis needs to be done to identify underlying causes, but they can't be done without including the good, as well as the bad, and the longer we keep the bad to ourselves for fear of being exposed, the longer it's going to take to figure out which direction to go.

    Just my opinionated two-cents, thanks for listening.