#111 The Phone Call

"Leaders throughout our future force must have both the authority as well as the judgment to make decisions and develop the situation through action. Critical thinking by Soldiers and their leaders will be essential to achieve the trust and wisdom implicit in such authority. The training and education of our entire force must aim to develop the mindset and requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities required to operate effectively under conditions of uncertainty and complexity."

TRADOC Pam 525-3-0 The Army's Future Force Capstone Concept - Dec 2009

"Lifelong learning and cognitive skills. Future Army forces require lifelong learners who are creative and critical thinkers with highly refined problem solving skills and the ability to process and transform data and information rapidly and accurately into usable knowledge, across a wide range of subjects, to develop strategic thinkers capable of applying operational art to the strategic requirements of national policy."

TRADOC Pam 525-3-1-2 The United States Army Operating Concept - August 2010

"While these experts note senior leaders are more prone to empower subordinate commanders than ever before in combat, these same senior leaders tended to micromanage subordinates in garrison. Senior leaders emphasized that mutual trust and confidence originates and is reinforced in garrison through day-to-day activities and procedures (figure 2-7). This evolved concept of mission command demands subordinates are entrusted with decisionmaking authority and placed in demanding and complex situations in garrison to forge the trust relationship and develop their competency for armed conflict. This is a profound cultural issue that calls upon leaders at every echelon to exercise nerve, restraint, and calculated risk."

TRADOC Pam 525-3-3 "The United States Army Functional Concept for Mission Command" - October 2010

Last night I went over to some friends of mine for dinner. They have both recently returned from a year long deployment and are now slowly easing their way back into life in the States. I am glad they are home and was really happy to have chance to get caught up. He is a Company commander and she works in an operations shop. They are both young, aware, self-confident people who have a great desire to serve and succeed in the Army. They are the next generation of Army leaders and I am proud to call them my friends and honored that they would consider me one of theirs. I always enjoy getting a chance to see them and share ideas and thoughts with them and get their input and ideas in return.

At one point in the evening, his phone rang and he suddenly got a look in his eye and his shoulders tensed up as he answered. Apparently it was a wrong number and as he hung up the phone there was a visible wave of relief and relaxation that passed over him. He had gone through an entire cycle of emotion from enjoying a quiet evening, to 'switched-on' and putting his professional brain back into gear, to relaxed again all in about 30 seconds. Kind of interesting to watch. When he hung up, I asked him about it and it started a discussion about things that had come up since the unit had returned. Soldiers in jail and other issues that happen upon redeployment and reintegration back into the much wider and much more free life back at home. He made the comment, "It's easier to command downrange because there are walls. Soldiers can only go so far." Since he has been home, he is finding out one of the limits of his authority as a commander. Whereas when the unit is deployed, he can track and control his subordinates activities due to the physical limitations of the environment, when he comes home many of those restraints are removed and his Soldiers have a much greater degree of individual decision-making autonomy. And while the vast majority will make proper and well thought out choices, there will certainly be those who do not.

As we were talking about the phone call and another incident he has been dealing with it came up that he really has no idea how to command his unit under his present circumstances (at home station) and that lack of familiarity and experience is unsettling. In many ways, because he has spent all of his command time so far in a deployed environment, his experience and knowledge, and expertise about command and leadership is almost completely formed by life downrange. He is now beginning a 2nd deployment cycle as a commander - only this time it is in the United States. He is finding out very quickly that it is a far more treacherous battlefield to navigate back home than it is downrange. I brought up an idea I have mentioned many times before that if we would treat the return back home as a deployment with all of the same preparations we give to understanding the downrange environment we would be much better off than we currently are. Is it really that much different to understand the social, structural, behavioral and cultural norms of an American Soldier than it is for the people in a province in Iraq or Afghanistan? Not really. We can do the same analysis of our Soldiers and their wants and needs and understandings as we do for indigenous populations downrange. We already have the tools to gain this insight, but we don't often use it to look at ourselves. Why not? Why not take all the tools for counterinsurgency operations we have been painstakingly learning over the past decade and put them to use in order to assist Soldiers in making the necessary behavioral changes that life in the States requires?

Look again at the opening quotations from the TRADOC publications above:

"While these experts note senior leaders are more prone to empower subordinate commanders than ever before in combat, these same senior leaders tended to micromanage subordinates in garrison."

"Leaders throughout our future force must have both the authority as well as the judgment to make decisions and develop the situation through action. Critical thinking by Soldiers and their leaders will be essential to achieve the trust and wisdom implicit in such authority."

"Future Army forces require lifelong learners who are creative and critical thinkers with highly refined problem solving skills....."

What do these things really mean? On their face, the fact that they are stated in the documents as a need, implies a recognition that we are not doing them now. That alone should give us all pause....

If we truly want to imbue these abilities in our junior leaders then here is what that phone call really means:

Instead of the relief- alert-action-tension-relief cycle there could be a calm understanding that the commander is trusted by his superiors that he can make the proper assessments and judgments regarding incidents with his Soldiers. He doesn't get tense answering the phone because it is not a challenge of his abilities or his judgment. Instead of nervousness he could concentrate on the problem itself. And as part of that he could recognize those times when he needs to ask others above him for advice and counsel, as confident in his knowledge of those things unfamiliar as he is with those things familiar. He would not spend time gaining approval before making a decision. He would make the best one possible using his experience and rest easy in that. After all, isn't that why he was selected to command the unit in the first place? And part of this confidence would come from a recognition throughout the command from top to bottom that after a year-long deployment there are going to be a myriad of issues, problems, and incidents - both major and minor -that will inevitably arise. Instead of trying to set the conditions for 'zero defect', all levels of leadership from the lowest to highest, should be working to create environments where there is an unwillingness on the part of the members to put themselves in those tenuous situations in the first place. Instead of, "If you do this, then I will punish you by doing that", everyone would be working to create units where we have increased Soldier judgment and esprit de corps so much that the individual does not want to let the unit down by doing something to discredit it.

There would also be the implicit understanding that when issues do arise, they are not always an indictment of the commander personally. Since there would be an acceptance that leaders cannot control every action or decision made then we would be forced to remove the personality and solve the problem. There really is no difference between solving a logistical problem regarding how to get water, food, fuel etc to Soldiers on the battlefield, and how to get a Soldier who has been arrested, arraigned, and back to post and through the remaining legal processes. The steps of the process are similar, only the conditions are different. That recognition seems to me to be the critical 'agility' and 'adaptability' steps that have become the buzzwords that describe the type of Army leader we are all looking for but don't seem to know how to develop. It is an implicit understanding of the operating environment. It's not a judgment of an individual person (Jane or Joe is a lousy commander because they lead the unit in XYZ incidents), but rather an acceptance that Jane or Joe is leading a unit in a new environment that neither they nor their Soldiers are familiar with and this spike in incidents will have to be reduced over time by the application of leadership.

Finally: "The training and education of our entire force must aim to develop the mindset and requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities required to operate effectively under conditions of uncertainty and complexity."

Yup. My friend got failed by the Army because it has done none of the above for his current environment. His command experience just became a lot more uncertain and a damn sight more complex! The Army has not provided him the knowledge he needs to have when a Soldier arrives home to a spouse who has decided to leave and take their children. It has not provided him the knowledge of why and how so many Soldiers engage in risky behaviors that can have horrible effects. It has not given him the skills necessary to navigate the many personal, human being challenges that will arise over the weeks and months ahead. We have the ability to do these things, but we have not because no one seems to realize that the critical understanding of the environment is equally as important back home as it is deployed. The problem is the same, it just needs to be Oriented to differently. Soldiers who were 'switched-on' for the better part of the last year will now have the ability to flip that switch on and off as they see fit. What have we done to prepare them for that personal responsibility?

Because we haven't done those things, the need for micromanagement will make a nasty and very swift return. And here's how it will happen. A senior leader will want to start tracking the number of incidents that occur in his or her unit. As the chart is built, inevitably it will be broken down by subordinate unit. This company or that platoon etc and then the number of DUI's or domestic violence, or speeding tickets all neatly charted in rows and columns. As soon as that happens, then the competition has begun and micromanagement has returned. As the senior leaders work to out-do each other to have the smallest number of incidents, it will require them to emplace further and further restrictions on their Soldiers actions. What gets lost in this contest however is that no one is actually doing the one thing that will, in the long run, make the most difference. No one is developing the critical judgment ability of the individual Soldier. They have not become any more self-aware or able to make sound judgments. I'm not kidding here. The thing that scares me the most for the Army as the rotation and deployment schedule slows down is the return of 'zero defect' mentalities and the frontal attack that is coming from micromanagement. It will take an amazingly strongly command climate to hold these things at bay and ensure that we concentrate our efforts of the development of trust, agility, critical thinking, and esprit de corps.

Thankfully, last night's phone call turned out to be wrong number. Imagine what might have happened had it been something serious.....

Why are we putting our young leaders in positions where they cannot wait to accept the challenge of command and then in very short order cannot wait until the mantel is passed? Could it be because we are not providing them the critical abilities they need, the trust they deserve, and the climates that truly care for them? Maybe. We'll have to wait and see if the next generation of leaders can fight back hard enough against micromanagement and competition to actually focus on what matters - developing Soldiers at all levels from Private to General capable of making sound decisions, under challenging circumstances with a wide understanding of the environment and their place in it.

Over 40 years ago, General Melvin Zais said the following:

"It is an interesting phenomenon and paradox that go to school after school and we spend 80% of our time on tactics, weapons, logistics and planning and 20% of our time on people matters and then we go to our units and what do we do? We spend 80% of our time on people matters and 20% on tactics, weapons, logistics etc."

Welcome to your second deployment as a commander. Too bad we didn't prepare you for it the way we should have.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Very insightful blog as always Jeff..The mere mentioning of the word "micro-manage" makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. The Army has built a culture and process where the lowest ranking soldier is 100% infalible, and anything negative that happens as a result of that soldier's actions is a direct reflection of the leadership that that soldier received, thus it's not their fault, it's their leader's fault.

    Under these presures, isn't the Army acually forcing leaders to micro-manage based on possible reprocusions that may arise should the soldier get in trouble?

    The mere movement from a leader to NOT micro-manage tends to lead to what the young Captain was feeling when he answered the phone. Responsibility for his soldiers did not get put on the shelf just becasue they decide to go out and make poor decisions. Higher Commanders will always be looking for a reason the incident happened, and, unfortunately poor leadership always takes the blame.

    Hence, the reason the young Captain tensed up when he received the call. He's been programed to take full responsibility for everything his soldeirs do or fail to do. Micro-management happens as a leadership defense mechanism to avoid this feeling.

    Thank you for your blog,



  2. The concern with the "phone call" is not limited to redeployment. Rear D's... Often times these commanders face micro-management tactics by both Commands, forward and back. The tactics pick up as R&R cycles begins as those on RR find themselves in trouble. This places those commanders in a catch 22 situation, which could be alleviated provided a trusting relationship with both higher occurs prior to deployments.

    General Melvin Zais' quotes possesses the answer to solving the issue. If you been through a leadership development course lately, how much time did you spend learning about looking at the holistic person, effective interpersonal communication techniques, and the myriad of other lessons that surmounts to a degree in psychology, communications, and business management.

  3. "2nd deployment"....BRILLIANT!!!!!.....

    plus...gets back to previous posts on "getting to know your Soldiers" and empathy.....

    "2nd deployment".....I LOVE IT!!!!....a new phrase and mental model....."OODA at home"

    Fen....you are really on to something here!!!!


  4. Our commanders have to be accountable for their actions, they have to shoulder responsibility. However, we live in a political culture where mistakes are not tolerated. Yes excess has to be curbed however, commanders no longer really own mistakes because they fear retribution. Therefore the inclination is to defer the tough decision up the chain of command. Commanders fear their subordinates making errors that they will be held accountable for. Until General Patraeus is left alone by the Senate, given what he asks for without question to get the job done, the problem will continue. If the government micromanages its Chiefs of Staff you should not be surprised when that culture cascades down to Battalion Commanders and below. Military cultures throughout time have echoed the cultures they are drawn from. Electorates don't trust and empower their leaders who constantly face media kangaroo courts and this resonates through societies. A society gets the politicians it deserves. Without change in society and culture things will not change. I've said in this blog before that from the abundance of our hearts we speak. All these issues can be traced back to the condition of our hearts. It's Truth we desperately need not more doctrine, training and management theories. We have had generations of those and see where it has got us.

  5. It is not a matter of more training and doctrine, but rather change to current ones. We keep adding to the current schemas.

    Adrian you are right on with the notion that the US military is nothing more than a microcosm of the overall population. We possess training that differentiate us from civilians, but we are no different at the basic levels of being. When looking at this concept on a business level, we did adopt the Six Sigma business model to assist with restructuring mid and upper level organizations that comprises largely of GS9-13's (most of whom are retirees).

  6. The release of those deplorable photos yesterday called the words in this post to mind-

    “It's easier to command downrange because there are walls. Soldiers can only go so far.” ….

    “when the unit is deployed, he can track and control his subordinates activities due to the physical limitations of the environment…”

    and I’m just curious as to whether this sentiment is generally true for leaders in similar positions, and whether it is true for you given what you have lived through…

  7. I was reading a book entitled "The Mission, the Men, and Me by Pete Blaber (Former Delta Cmdr). Within the first chapter, he describes a scenario he was faced with in Tikrit during the initial push into Iraq (Pre-Saddam Hussain's capture) where he had 5 tanks to use in such a way that the Republican Guard would think that they were surrounded.

    To make a long story short, he had basically accomplished his mission, but was beginning to be overwhelmed by resistance, so he made the order to pull back. Engaging and destroying the enemy was not his mission, nor what his unit was designed to do; besides, he didn't have enough man or fire-power to do it without risking everyone's lives.

    As he gave the order, a General came up on the radio ordering this Delta unit and 5 tanks to close with and destroy the enemy. The Delta commander attempted to reason with the general telling him what would happen to his men should he carry out those orders. The general was insistant, but the Delta commander stood by his convictions. His team had obviously heard the transmission and had placed themselves on standby until the call was over.

    He told his men to proceed with the withdrawl, which infuriated the general, but Mr. Blaber recalled the "3Ms"; a lesson he'd been taught by a very experienced, and knowledgable soldier:


    "The 3Ms are the keys to be successful in life. They stand for the mission, the men, and me. Write these down, one M on top of the other, then draw a line from top to bottom, through each M so that they’re all connected. If you neglect one, you’ll screw up all of the others. The first m stands for mission; it’s the purpose for which you’re doing what you’re doing. Whether in your personal or professional life, make sure you understand it, and that it makes legal, moral, and ethical sense, then use it to guid all of your decisions. The second M stands for the men. Joshua Chamberlain, a medal of honor – receiving school teacher in the Civil War, once said that there are two things an officer must do to lead men; he must care for his men’s welfare, and he must show courage. Welfare of the troops and courage are inextricably linked. When it comes to your men you can’t be good at one without being good at the other. Take care of your men’s welfare by listening and leading them with sound tactics and techniques that accomplish your mission, and by always having the courage of your convictions to do the right thing by them. The final M stands for me. Me comes last for a reason. You have to take care of yourself, but you should only do so after you have taken care of the mission, and the men. Never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men".

    I share this paragraph only to illustrate that some leaders aren't seeing the "ground truth" when they try to dictate exactly what their elements on the ground are there for...Many times, all they see are a few blue blips on a screen that tells them that they have forces in that area.

    The point is, soldiers and true ground mission have got to come before any reprocussions from making sound decisions in the favor of the former.



  8. I'm going to try to answer or add my thoughts to many of these points below:

    First, micromanagement is a response to a real or perceived threat that there will be some kind of negative repercussion to an action. For the Army, this started when a former Chief of Staff stated that, "There are no accidents, only a lack of leadership." That statement sent an entire Army generation (or more) down a path that ended up with the "Zero defect" Army that many of us grew up in. It became so pervasive that it was taken on as an unquestioned part of our culture. People began to believe that you really could change behavior simply by talking about the repercussions on a counseling statement or at a Safety Briefing before the weekend. Once that belief took hold, entire policy sets were put in place to back it up. The only problem was that no one really saw the fallacy in the underlying idea that we were not actually teaching Soldiers how to make proper critical decisions, all we were doing was threatening them if they chose incorrectly and got caught. That generation of young leaders are now the Army's senior officers and NCO's and we still suffer greatly from that pervasive idea that we can control every decision that Soldiers make. Most junior level officers realize intuitively the fallacy of the premise, but accept the risk because there are too many other variables which will generally mitigate their direct responsibility for Soldier misjudgement.

    As for the idea of treating home station as a "2nd deployment", it seems to me that we sell the command tour as the downrange exercise of leadership instead of seeing it holistically as the 24 month command it more accurately is. What bothers me about the 'garrison leadership' model is that it implies that leadership itself is different, which it is not. The purpose of leadership is still to provide purpose, direction and motivation while accomplishing the mission and improving the organization. The only difference are the conditions under which it is exercised. If we saw the command environment this way, then young leaders would not view redeployment as the 'end' of their tour, but rather the half-way point. It would be akin to being task-organized to a new unit half-way through your downrange deployment. This type of thinking would force higher level commanders to provide the support and environmental understanding for operating here in the States, the same way they do downrange.

  9. On a large scale, Adrian is correct: you get what you settle for. When the institution allowed it's most powerful, pervasive influence to state, "There are no accidents...." unchallenged, it accepted from that point the notion of passing the buck. This is exactly how the institution effects the force. In all likelihood, no one challenged him BECAUSE he was the chief instead of challenging him precisely BECAUSE he was the chief. The weight and authority of the position gave more power to his words than he might have intended, but the effects were not apparent until the dye had already been cast.

    To Kristin's point about the release of photos yesterday depicting Soldiers glorying in the death of an innocent civilian and the apparent contrast to my friends comments regarding control last Saturday evening: In may ways, there ARE two worlds. Those who spend most (if not all) of their tour on a FOB and never go outside the wire are certainly easier to 'control'. Their lapses in judgment and stupid decisions will mostly be violations of some administrative rule designed to maintain order and discipline. Outside the wire, the basic respect for human life and dignity becomes an overwhelming requirement. Soldiers facing choices that are the most basic - to kill or be killed etc - must have some manner to retain their respect for life itself. Not just theirs, but a respect for the desire of all people to live as peacefully as possible. Killing must be seen as a necessary evil - something that is always regrettable, but sometimes required. Once that basic respect is removed, then 'killing for sport' or bloodlust becomes too easy. My Soldiers acted the way they did most likely due to a feeling of powerlessness. From all appearances, the current Soldiers from 5/2 acted out of a feeling of superiority and invincibility. But the 5/2 story is very complex and has a lot more to do with command climate and messaging than has been reported to date. It is potentially possible that this group convinced themselves to believe that (1) their actions were militarily justifiable, and (2) that the command might support them. The level of their alleged crimes raises the idea of control to a much higher level than my friend was inferring last weekend.

    My point in the post was that we owe our young commanders and leaders a better understanding of their "2nd deployment" than we currently provide them. As Tim said, what we are asking them to do is truly graduate level work across more than one domain without having taken class one in how to achieve success.

    I hope this gets me caught up with the discussion! Thanks to all.

  10. As a former company commander, I can relate to that tensed, nervous feeling your friend experienced when answering his phone. The story of your friend’s phone call stirs up a story about a friend of my own who had to deal with an unfortunate situation that began as one of those ‘phone calls’.

    While my friend and I were both commanders preparing to deploy, one of the Soldiers in her company was involved in a motorcycle accident. After being notified about the accident, my friend, like any good commander, did her duty and submitted a serious incident report to her chain of command. Soon after, in response to her report, she was asked to produce the training records that ‘proved’ the Soldier had completed all of the required motorcycle safety training and the latest commander’s safety briefing. This request for information created unnecessary angst and wasted valuable energy. She questioned if she had done everything in her power to prevent the accident, and worried that if she could not produce the training records her chain of command would lose faith in her ability to command. Throughout it all, my friend dealt with the situation magnificently. She cared for the Soldier and his family, successfully navigated her unit through this tumultuous time, and was able to produce all the necessary documentation without fail. This truly was just an accident. But, I felt something during that situation that your post this week has awoken – fear created by organizational mistrust.

    Trust is powerful. With it, good organizations can accomplish the impossible; without it, great organizations are prone to create self-inflicted, intractable problems that degrade, stop, or reverse progression. Trust is one of the most salient social emotions that influence an organization’s behavior. Trust is: complex - intertwined with other emotions such as love and respect; learned- its mode and method of activation is modeled by leaders and passed to followers; and most importantly, it’s shared and reciprocal- trust begets trust. Good organizations understand this. It’s one of the reasons why the Army has aggressively developed and forcibly adopted the tenants of Mission Command over the past decade. It’s the proven way to effectively and efficiently fight and win the ‘Three Block War’.

    Reintegration, as with all operations in the ARFORGEN cycle, should be approached from this mindset. Leaders at all levels must resist the urge to manage close to the vest, overstep the hierarchal boundaries of the chain-of-command, and be overly involved and controlling just because in garrison subordinates are closer, more available and easily accessible. This behavior denigrates trust and unintentionally promotes fear. An enemy of trust is fear. When fear is evoked, trust is degraded, and groups can fall into social ‘traps’. These negative prejudices, inclinations and tendencies, e.g. - the halo / horn effect, scapegoating, personalization of failure, illusion of control, formation of cliques, abuse of power, and other toxic interpersonal and group biases - corrode relationships. Conversely, the promotion and fostering of relational trust fuels empowerment, creativity, well-being, positivity, and teamwork within an organization which subsequently leads to mission accomplishment in complex operations and environments. The use of mission orders that emphasize the commander’s vision, intent, and endstate which allow subordinate leaders the freedom to apply their practical wisdom to think critically and act creatively should continue to be used throughout the entire spectrum of operations – to include reintegration. This empowerment promotes trust and allows subordinate leaders the ability to exercise discretionary judgment and optimally navigate the milieu of the reintegration process.