#105 A Fragile First Step

"Boyd's sin was no less than a complete challenge to the way the American people and military were used to doing business. Schooled to prefer formulaic answers, checklists, and school solutions...it shuns openess, non-linearity and auftragstaktik (mission orders) in favor of technology, attrition and mass. It dislikes the political aspects of war and would prefer to apply merely military force to the targets selected. The syllogism works something like this: strategy equals targeting. The number and nature of targets destroyed best measure success. When all the targets are destroyed, the war is over. It is playing checkers, not chess. It's an attrition approach to war. It ignores the reality that it is the adversary who may determine if he will surrender, when, and on what terms. The American military in general sees war as a science and not an art, and are disposed to treat it as such. Despite using terminology stressing strategic effects, the military still tends to focus on the outputs (keeping score on targets) instead of on outcomes (the effects they seek to achieve).

Grant T. Hammond "The Mind at War - John Boyd and American Security"

I found this last night and started thinking about whether or not we have really made a true shift in how the Army thinks and does business despite all of the changes that have occurred over the last 10 years. Are we truly a changed culture? Will the requirements for adaptation firmly take hold, or will they simply be a small asterisk in our history books, "* For a 10 year period surrounding the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army dedicated itself to decentralization and agility. Sadly, with the end of those conflicts, the change did not last." In effect, this period of war has the potential to end too soon. Because change in the Army is so slow, we are only now beginning to see the human development requirements that decentralized warfare demands. If the Army comes home for good and the deployments and requirements for adaptation and development are no longer there, then I fear that a lot of the progress that has been made in leader development might simply fade away.

I lead in a very messy manner. I truly believe in subordinate empowerment and try as hard as I can to encourage and (at times) force my subordinates to provide their input and ideas to a problem. This leads to arguments and frustration and confusion on all sides. Sometimes they do not understand what I'm getting after and many times I do not understand their point of view and we must continually confront each other until we reach some form of common understanding. It can be time consuming and slow. It is inherently inefficient. It often leads to people feeling very frustrated and angry when they don't 'win' the argument, or I don't choose their preferred course of action. In the long run however, I still believe that this is the right method, not only for personal leadership at the one-on-one level, but also for the institution. I believe sincerely that the Army is going to have to fully adopt a more inclusive, a more questioning, and a more argumentative leadership model if it wants to retain any of the positive behavioral changes that the last 10 years have begun.

Why? Why would I choose to believe in a leadership model that encourages dissent, disagreement, and open questioning of authority and knowledge? The answer is actually very simple. In most cases, all of those things equal development. It teaches how to think. By allowing my subordinates to openly challenge me and my assumptions, they are being forced to think harder about the problem itself. They are being forced to question preconceived ideas about a potential solution. They are being required to think more deeply about what might, at first glance, appear to be a very surface level issue. And those same forces are at work from them to me. They make me think and question and challenge. They make me work harder to develop the best solution to the problem. They force me to continue to learn and grow. Success becomes collective, not individual. And of all the things that we need to hold on to that have been outcomes of our decade at war, the ability to think deeply and understand the variety of effects an individual action can have, is certainly the most critical.

Consider this from "The Mind of War":

"The implicit contract in maneuver warfare is mission type orders or auftragstaktik. The subordinate agrees to take near-term actions in keeping with the higher commander's intent. The superior agrees to allow his subordinate the freedom of judgment necessary to determine exactly how that should be accomplished. He is thus empowered to both recognize and take advantage of opportunities that he may encounter. The purpose is to harmonize, as Boyd would say, the actions and initiatives of the subordinate commanders with the superior's intent.....It provides a bottom-up, outside-in, real-world response in real time to transformations on the battlefield and thereby creates operational fluidity." Counterinsurgent warfare requires these things. We know that and have begun to encourage that initiative taking, but only in the last 3 years or so. It has not yet become the model for continued leader development. It is akin to an experiment that has had great results, but does not yet have developed protocols.

What that quote above doesn't say is that the development of those abilities to judge, perceive, and take advantage of situations to create advantage takes time, trust, and above all, a system that encourages initiative and growth. It is slow, inefficient, and extremely personal. The results will be a question mark, rather than empirical data. It is a system that for the Army, is in it's infancy. A system that is still very vulnerable to being discounted and written off only as a short term solution to the unique challenges of this period and type of warfare.

Why am I worried that the changes that have been implemented might not have developed a strong enough root structure yet to withstand the systemic assault that they will soon face? Because the evidence of the attack is everywhere. We are being told now that suddenly money will become scarce, so we will have to act efficiently to make the most of our resources. We are already seeing the return of the Power Point army of endless briefings and charts. We are already programming the expected training levels for units who don't even have a stated mission. I have read document after document that lays out a particular path that must be followed to achieve some arbitrary readiness state. And most disturbing of all, I have seen implementation guidance for personnel strength that extends the periods of service for those at the top of the NCO structure, but shortens the service for those at the bottom. The system is pushing back. It is trying to mount a counter-attack against the gains made by those who favor personal development as the key component in leader development in the years ahead. We have senior leaders stating that we must enhance and expand the educational opportunities of our mid-grade officers and (to a much lessor degree) NCO's, but when the bean-counters say, "Well, you can send X-thousand officers to grad school and hope they come back with expanded knowledge and judgment, or you can buy a new piece of equipment, but you can't do both.", which side do you think will win? And why are we extending the service life of those at the very top of the pile, when at the same time we are closing, compacting, and reducing the sheer number of units and formations, and organizations we have? How many senior NCO's and officers work at Joint Forces Command? If it gets closed, where will they go? If you add only 100 senior NCO's back into the Force, it has a trickle down effect on the entire structure for years to come. Advancements slow down, people become disenchanted because they cannot contribute in a meaningful manner and have their contributions pay off. A move like this almost begs for a return to a CYA, bureaucratic, keep-your-head-down-and-weather-the-storm response. We are headed in the wrong direction. What we should be doing is clearing the top out and elevating the middle while at the same time implementing these nascent leader development strategies we now have and then turning this back to the Force.

The most critical skill or attribute that anyone who would lead Soldiers in battle must possess is judgment. The ability to perceive, and then examine, and then create a course of action that will lead to the desired outcome. As long as war will be fought by men, this requirement is paramount. Without it, the amount of firepower a nation or group possesses won't matter. The key to prevailing in a struggle is knowing when, where, how much, and why you want to use it. And sometimes having the courage to decide not to.

We have taken a fragile first step toward enhancing the personal development of our younger leaders. We must be extremely careful not to have it washed away because we will not be able to accurately measure it's success or failure until the next war comes along.

A final thought: Earlier this week, I came across the following quote from Steven Covey:

"I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that leavens the entire loaf. Ir requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage and faith to be a transforming leader.

To understand the power the system can have as it fights back to against change, consider this. Last week I had a conversation with someone who has been a supporter of my writing from almost the beginning. When I asked if there was a place for me and my ideas on leader development in the Army, he replied, "Not really. What you need to do is go be a First Sergeant. That way you become (my words not his) eligible to stay in the game." 105 straight weeks, hundreds or written pages, and tons of emails telling me to keep thinking, and pushing and writing, and the system has no place for me? That is how the system exerts it's pressure. That is the pressure we all must resist. Messy leadership, defined by mutual respect, a desire to learn, dialogue and the development of increased judgment is the road ahead. Those who think it is only relevant to counterinsurgency operations are simply wrong. If we truly prize adaptability, then we have to develop leaders who possess the ability to discern both sides of an issue, can see emerging trends, and take advantage of opportunities when presented. All in keeping with the trust they have been given by their superiors. This period of leader development is like a new-born baby. There will be a lot of messy nights along the way, but someday we can all look back with pride at a future leader and say, "I helped create that." We owe it to those at the bottom. We most often pay the price for failure at their level.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Perhaps that person, having had insights to your thoughts and character, feels that as a first sergeant your divergent thinking can impact the most lives. That's where you can model what a servant leader; obedient, imaginative, dilligent and persevering, looks like. Remember that the wounds of a friend are to be trusted.

    "You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth." Amos 5,10.

  2. ummm...where to start...I have to disagree with Adrian....I have no doubt that the person who told you to go be a 1SGT meant it in the truest vain from the Army buearcracy....God forbid and the rivers will cease to flow if you don't become a 1SGT....as you said, the Army is so big and cumbersome that it will take years to change...

    plus, change equals risks and taking people out of their comfort zone....who wants to do that?!?! a garrison/CONUS Army does not like risk or being uncomfortable....which is exactly what is required to produce the type of leader you describe in this blog....you have so many good points here that I will cut and paste many of them....they are spot on and so well written to describle the requirements to develop adaptive leaders for future contingencies that we can't even think about....unknowable unknowns....

    nicely done!


  3. Adrian and JD - First, thanks to both of you for replying, I appreciate your continued support of my ideas etc.

    The point of the last paragraph actually has less to do with me than it might appear at first blush. As JD suggested, the issue here is the potential return to the very structured and by-the-book career models that I grew up with versus the need to continue to find new and emerging ways to promote adaptability and growth throughout the system. I found the reply from my friend to be a 'blinking yellow light' of caution that we might not have come far enough in breaking old habits to truly form new models for leader development. As a Company 1SG, I might effect 100 folks over the course of time, but if I could get to a place where the ideas, methods, and emerging thoughts about leadership - CAPE, the Center for Army Lessons Learned, the Center for Army Leadership etc, then I could potentially effect those who effect thousands. IF people find my thoughts to be (1) useful (2) grounded in the Army's overall leadership philosophy (3) ethically sound and (4) possessing insight into the way ahead, then why couldn't I go work in that environment? My guess is that it has a lot to do with expected roles and norms of behavior and status within the organization. There are very few NCO's doing what I am doing here, and that creates a new group of possibilities for growth. I also think that if all of the officer or NCO development is being done only by officers coaching officers and NCO's coaching NCO's, then we lose the potential to gain a much deeper understanding of how both sides operate - their pressures, expectations, worries etc.

    As the references from Boyd pointed out, at the base level, auftragstaktik works because both sides - the commander and the subordinate - share a common understanding of the outcome and have had the opportunity to develop the trust and Orientation requirements for it to work. I don't think we can do that if we return to the 'efficiency' model or if we continue a sort of 'inbred' idea of leader development. All organizations require outside challenges and stimuli to continue growth. Why can't I serve that role?