#103 Leadership, Transitions and Change

Three Questions:

1. Do you believe that all people should be treated equally?

2. Do you believe in equal opportunity for everyone?

3. Do you believe that each individual should be judged and rewarded by their contributions to their organization?

My guess is that most of us will almost reflexively answer "Yes" to all three. It is part of the our American mindset that people are due fair treatment, that no one should be denied the opportunity to succeed, and that as individuals, we want to be judged by our own contributions and abilities, not lumped together with the masses.

A question was once asked of General (Ret) Eric Shinseki, the former Chief of Staff of the Army:

"What is a General Officer's chief responsibility to the institution?"

His answer: "To manage transitions."

(Taken from an interview with General Martin Demspey. You can find the video link below:)


I've been thinking a lot about the 3 questions above and transitions this week. Over the last few months there have been two documents produced that could have an impact on the Army (and the entire Armed Forces) for decades ahead. And at the core of both of them are the 3 questions. The two documents are the "Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":


and, "From Representation to Inclusion - Diversity Leadership for the 21st Century Military" produced by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC)


Obviously, the DADT report deals with the repeal of the ban against openly gay or lesbian service members in the Armed Forces which has already been signed by the President and awaits either an attempted reversal in Congress, or an implementation strategy to be delivered to the Secretary of Defense and the President. The MLDC report looked into issues surrounding diversity and opportunity for service members and, among many other things, recommends a repeal of the combat exclusion policies that forbid women from serving in "direct ground combat" positions. While only a small portion of the overall report, any reversal of that group of restrictive policies would represent a significant change in the current operating model for many Army organizations.

Both of these reports are important, and should be read by everyone to further the dialogue regarding potential policy changes in the years ahead. Why? Because policies are only words on paper. Leadership, good or bad, turns the words into action and reality.

The purpose of this post however is not to argue one way or another on either report. Each reader will have to form their own personal point of view on whether they agree or disagree with the recommendations they contain. And that is something I want people to do. I want you to take a hard look about how you personally feel about both issues because that introspection will ultimately make you a better leader. However, the responsibility to take action rests solely with our elected representatives. As General Dempsey rightly pointed out in his interview, the Armed Forces must remain a servant of the Nation and apolitical. It is the purview of the President and the Congress to enact laws and policies that affect how we operate. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the recommendations, it is correct that our elected leaders request information and recommendations be made. However, I think it is important that leaders begin to determine and inform their own understandings of both reports. To that end, here are mine:

1. I do not care about the private sexual orientation of a Soldier. A persons' sexual orientation is their own business whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. Simply put, it's not my concern on a personal level.

2. Women are already, and have always been, in combat. The Services recognize this. Right now they are all playing in the 'gray' areas of legal interpretation that have an important negative effect on how women are viewed across the force.

So, Fenlason doesn't care about gays in the military, nor does he think that women should be involuntarily excluded from serving in units that are likely to engage in direct ground combat.

Those two statements form my Orientation. However, right now, my Orientation doesn't matter because neither policy has actually been changed, so it only serves to inform others. I include it here as a matter of literary honesty. If you're going to read my work, you might as well know where I stand. And since I write and publish, I think it would be disingenuous to talk all around these two issues without making my own ideas known. But, beyond being my personal feelings on the issues, they have no relevance. Who cares what Fenlason thinks? You can agree or disagree with me and you will be as entitled to your opinions and thoughts as I am to mine. We are equal. From Private to General at this point, we are equal.

The opposite of that however is that the two statements above are very important because I lead an organization. Therefore I have responsibilities to the Army and my unit and my Orientation will help inform and determine my Actions and my Actions will have an effect on those above and below me in the institution. While you may agree or disagree with me personally, and I may agree or disagree with a policy personally, as a leader, I have a responsibility to enforce, enact, enable, and institute whatever policies the elected and appointed leaders over me determine. I also have a responsibility to respect your viewpoint. I may not agree with it, and we may have a vigorous dialogue about it, but I must respect it. That is the essence of both service and discipline.

However, if you go back to General Shinseki's comment that leaders manage transitions then something else becomes apparent as well. There has to be an awareness of the transitional period itself. There has to be someone or something that forces the introspections, reviews, and questions the existing norms to see whether or not they remain relevant. As I was watching General Dempsy's video I kept wondering what drove him to start thinking about our institutional ethic and the profession in the first place. What skill set does he have that allowed him to perceive that we are in entering into a period where many of the things that we have previously done, or held as critical to organizational success, need to be reviewed? What attributes does he possess that allow him to 'feel' that we might be out of sync and then try to put his finger on why he feels that way? More importantly, how can we develop that mindset in our leader development programs? Because, honestly, isn't that a key function of leading any group? To point it in a particular direction and then guide it to achieve its' objective? And then remain perceptive enough to notice when the conditions have changed and require another transition? As we have seen in the private sector recently, the idea that we live in a static world is an antiquated notion of yesteryear. We have now entered a period of dynamic and rapid change. Things are happening very quickly and our ability to perceive and act upon them quickly to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves is a critical skill. We have been hearing this theme with regard to combat operations and counterinsurgency operations for years - that this is a thinking mans war and that he who can capitalize on his successes faster will ultimately prevail. A classic OODA loop.

But we have not used this process to look at ourselves until now. Both reports make mention of some critical trends that form the Observation:

"Recent statistics from the Pentagon show that three out of four young people ages 17–24 are not eligible to join the military because they do not meet entry requirements related to education level, test scores, citizenship, health status, and criminal record. Racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to meet these eligibility requirements than are non-Hispanic whites, and that gap has
been widening." (MLDC)

"When asked about how having a Service member in their immediate unit who said he or she is gay would affect the unit’s ability to “work together to get the job done,” 70% of Service members predicted it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect." (DADT)

"Despite this record of success, however, the transformation of the Armed Forces remains unfinished. Women and minorities are still underrepresented in leadership positions. Demographic changes in the United States are reshaping the pool from which the Armed Forces may enlist and promote future military leaders. Prolonged conflicts of unprecedented complexity require agile leadership that leverages all the capabilities at its disposal. Like the private sector, the U.S. military recognizes the need for a diverse workforce that includes a greater range of individual competencies, including skills, education, and professional backgrounds." (MLDC)

"Consistently, the survey results revealed a large group of around 50–55% of Service
members who thought that repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would have mixed or no effect; another 15–20% who said repeal would have a positive effect; and about 30% who said it would have a negative effect. The results of the spouse survey are consistent. When spouses were asked about whether repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would affect their preference for their Service member’s future plans to stay in the military, 74% said repeal would have no effect, while only 12% said “I would want my spouse to leave earlier." (DADT)

Both reports also accept that (1) Homosexuals are currently serving in the Armed Forces, and (2) That women have been, and are, engaged in direct combat with the enemy.

So, the type of wars we are likely to be fighting in the next decades are incredibly complex and nuanced, the pool of human resources we have to draw from is shrinking, our leadership is not reflective of the population they serve, and at least half the force doesn't really care about someone's sexual orientation.

Welcome to the world of transitions! And your next leadership challenge...

But if we step back for a moment, the key understanding here may be the phrase "Periods of transition". Periods of transition imply that there will then be a period of stasis. You go through a change to arrive at a new static environment. And that may be the key misinterpretation in all of this. What would happen if we taught not transitional periods of change, but rather transitional periods of stasis? What if everyone we put in leadership positions grew up expecting change - personal, professional, from within the organization and without? Then we would be focusing our development programs around the idea of perceiving change. We would develop people who could rapidly form new understandings in light of new circumstances and leverage dynamic thought to achieve the unit's mission.

The DADT and MLDC reports are important because they can be used to look at ourselves more clearly. On a personal level, everyone who reads them must ask whether or not they agree or disagree with the recommendations and then determine whether they wish to continue their service in light of any contrary personal beliefs. On an institutional level they are remarkable for there recognition of changing conditions and for taking a hard look at possible solutions. At the leader level they represent an opportunity to consider transitional leadership and rapid assimilation of new and emerging requirements.

We have accepted that the ability to rapidly recognize and adapt to change on the battlefield is a critical skill-set. We now have the opportunity through a series of documents to look at ourselves and determine whether or not we need to change the institution as well.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. good reads and good topics....and obviously agree/support or resign/ETS/retire are the only choices in a our civilian control of the military society....as I have said to many others, making sweeping policy changes at the Wash DC level is the easy part....execution at the Soldier level is tough....my biggest gripe with these pending policy changes is there timing....NOT NOW!....wait until the plates are cleaned off a bit....our plt sgts, co cdrs, 1SGTs etc are a bit busy and their rucks are quite full....expecially in operational environments....they don't need more right now...can they handle it?...sure, "we the few have been doing so much for so long with so little, that we can now do anything with nothing"....but that is not the point...our senior leaders need to "remember when...", practice empathic listening and understanding, and let the Soldiers fighting the fight do it without adding more cognitive and emotional baggage....when the pace has slowed down, go for it with the changes....

    break break...do not lower the standards to allow for the policies to work...


  2. From a friend of mine:

    "We have lost so many young and old Gentlemen over here. We are all upset over the losses we endure; however, just recently, we had a young female, 23years old, that we lost. She was out on the road every day in the turret of a gun truck. No one had an issue with it, as it should be; but she is killed in action doing her job,the job she was trained to do and loved doing and everyone's opinions changed. Do we want our young women out there and are we willing to take that risk? I think we want them out there, but society as a whole is not ready for the loss and we haven't been ready. I had a
    conversation with 2 Colonels on this and I had to shut my mouth. The opinion
    of these two senior leaders was that women should not be here and put in harms way. Will we ever get over this? Will we ever accept a woman
    in combat like we do a man in combat?"

  3. This is the first post that I have written that has touched such an emotional nerve. The DADT and the MLDC reports are important tools for leaders to consider. The more important role of the leader is to take serious stock of themselves and how they truly feel about an issue and then choose how they will respond. That is what I wanted to have happen. We talk about candor, ethics, tradition, and requirements, but we often ignore what they really mean. If our service is to the Nation and her needs, then neither the DADT and MLDC reports should matter or frighten us. They are not policy, only recommendations. A Soldier should be judged by their dedication to the Army and their country. If, on the other hand, we are ruled only by retaining 'our' ideal of what terms that service should be under, then reports like these only serve to scare - not to inform.

    I wonder how those Colonels will act if/when women are allowed in the combat arms? I wonder if they will resign their commissions and when asked why have the courage to say out loud, "Because I do not believe that women should be in combat." Some might call that neanderthalish, but I for one would be grateful. At very least they had the courage of their convictions.