#112 The Need for Jacks

A few weeks back there was an article in The Army Times highlighting comments made by the in-coming Army Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. The headline read "Dempsey: Jacks of All Trades Aren't Leaders". You can find the link here:


In the article, General Dempsey is quoted as saying the following:

"The Army does not want soldiers who are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none", he said.

“If we make leaders skilled in a few areas, they’ll have the confidence to adapt when we inevitably get the future wrong,” Dempsey said. “But if you’re not a master of anything, you have no confidence in anything. I’m a passionate believer in that.”

Earlier in the article was the statement that:

"The Army needs to decide which 5 things - not 55 things - it's Soldiers are going to master, the 4-star told the audience at Unified Quest, an annual exercise held at the Booze Hamilton facility in McLean, VA."

Depending upon his actual intent and the scope of those 5 things, I found these statements a little unnerving and extremely threatening to the environment of adaptability and agility that has been painstakingly built over the past 10 years. I can only imagine whole communities throughout the Army jumping up and down with joy as they feel that his remarks validate their particular interpretation of what the purpose of the Army is.

In the bottom portion of the article there is a quote that says the following:

"Over the past nine years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has been mostly focused on one end of the spectrum: lower-intensity, counterinsurgency-type operations. Now with more time at home between deployments, the service wants to improve its other skills. The Army is beginning to conduct “full-spectrum” training exercises that encompass everything from humanitarian assistance to major combat operations. What’s happened, though, is some people have begun to equate this return to full-spectrum operations as a return to preparing for major combat, rather than re-integrating major combat into the Army’s set of skills. It’s clear this frustrates Dempsey. He said doctrine in this area will inform leader development, but it will also shape the kinds of technology and the equipment the Army decides to buy."

After all of that, it's the headline that bothers me the most. "Jacks-of-all-trades aren't Leaders". I looked, and nowhere in the piece is General Dempsey quoted as saying those words. At best they are a liberal interpretation of his intent, and at worst they will send a ripple through the force implying that all of the focus on agility, adaptability and 'how to think' and working outside of one's comfort zone of previous training is only necessary for the counterinsurgency fight we are currently in.

What the Army needs right now more than anything are Jacks-of-all-trades, and I'm struggling to make sense of the quote that mastering 5 things gives one the confidence to adapt when required. If I master a skill - no matter what it is - I will have an overwhelming tendency to see everything else in light of that one skill. If I can shoot better than I can call for fire, then I'll be more apt to shoot than call for fire. Skilled sports players don't spend much time trying to excel at anything other than their sport. And this expertise provides only one frame of reference regarding how people interact with their environment. An armored guy will view terrain one way, and a light guy another. And both are uncomfortable trying to see it from any other perspective. There is a reason that armor guys don't want to be light guys, and light guys don't want to be armor guys. Armor guys are comfortable with tanks and the motorpool and big firepower. Light guys are comfortable with the austere conditions required when you carry everything on your back. Neither side really wants to be like the other. And so each became a master of their little piece of the pie. The job of the senior leader was to bring the 'masters' beneath them together in a coherent manner to address a threat. Over the last decade however, those requirements have changed significantly, everyone became a light infantryman - Armor units, Field Artillery units, everyone. And a politician, and a supply person, and an ambassador. This war has called on every soldier to become all things, all the time. And that has done more good for the Army than many folks want to consider. Everyone has had to learn on the fly and everyone has had to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and the entire Army has been thrown out of it's comfort zone. All of which has provided the Nation with a military that is certainly more capable today than it was a decade ago. The ability of leaders to think three dimensionally, to see the environment more clearly, and to learn how to make use of all of the tools at their disposal is an absolutely critical skill-set that needs to be maintained and further developed in the years ahead. The ability to think dynamically versus dogmatically is the key ingredient to leadership.

The model of bands of experts with limited knowledge of anything outside their realm is exactly the one that needs to be broken. We need more 'jacks', not less. We need people who can view their conditions from more than one vantage point and bring to bear the right solution, in the right measure, at the right time. That is the type of adaptability and agility that we need to develop throughout the force. We need to open up the Army so that people can experience a wider variety of inputs and stimuli that ultimately enhance their understandings and provide a wider frame of reference to use when confronted by an unanticipated set of circumstances. The confidence General Dempsey spoke of above would be developed by the self-awareness that one possesses the ability to accurately assess and address any situation, not from only one limited viewpoint. Instead of saying, "I am an expert at X or Y", the leader can now say, "I am an expert at viewing the problem and it's potential solutions, quickly making use of whatever is at my disposal to solve it."

Almost by definition, a leader must be a jack-of-all-trades. He or she must possess the technical skills required by their particular craft to be sure, but also must be enough of a generalist to be able to see the forest through the trees. In fact, while it is simple enough to learn the skills associated with most trades (and infantry, armor, or field artillery - basically any branch of the Army could all be considered trades) it is much more complex to learn the human aspects of leadership. How to motivate, how to empathize, how to understand the human conditions affecting those above and below you, how to see yourself clearly enough to understand the effect the environment has on you and how that effects those you interact with. These are the critical understandings we need to develop, and the adaptability and agility that surround them are much more important than most people want to recognize.

For example, two weeks ago, in post #110 I mentioned the loss of one of my former Soldiers who happened to be a woman. It was only one third of the 'inputs' that helped form that weeks post, but it has garnered more than it's share of attention since then. First, one reader suggested that while my support for women in the combat arms trades might be politically laudable or supportable, it might also be extremely naive since we truly do not understand some of the basic human being interactions between men and women and why they act the way they do towards each other. And then yesterday, another person replied to that post with a very powerful story of her experience embedded with an infantry platoon. How she had served among the men, been beaten by the men, been degraded by the men and ultimately how she came to be seen as a peer among the men. How she was aware that if she had reported her attack that she might have reinforced a commonly held belief that women do not belong in the infantry. In the crucible of contact however, her actions garnered her their respect for her gender ceased to matter. A painful and hard fought price to pay.

Let me see if I can bring this together coherently...

I am a light infantryman and have been my whole career. I am comfortable in that world and do not wish to serve in any other part of the Army. I am a master of my craft. Ten years ago however, I was selected to be a Drill Sergeant and chose to serve at Ft. Jackson, SC., the home of the nation's largest Army training post where almost all Soldiers - male and female - complete Basic Combat Training. This was my first interaction on a large scale with female Soldiers. It was a very limited and controlled environment, but it did provide me the opportunity to train, observe, and watch them as they progressed through the 9 week program. What I saw was that women generally went through a much larger growth in BCT than their male counterparts. While men generally improved most significantly in physical ability, women tended to make large strides in both physical and behavioral ways. They often gained much more self-assurance as they found that not only could they push their bodies harder than they believed possible, but they could push their minds harder as well. More often than not, my platoon would end up having a female platoon guide because they would stand out and demonstrate to a higher degree the qualities of leadership we are looking for in our young Soldiers. Opening myself up to that experience was eye-opening for me and I learned a lot from my 2 years there. Three or four years later I was asked to start a Forward Support Company comprised mostly of truck drivers, mechanics, and cooks, another foray into the world outside of the infantryman. It is also a mixed-gender world and my having worked with female Soldiers previously made integrating them into the company a much easier task. That is where I met Crystal Thompson. She was one of my Soldiers from that period.

But where would I be without having had these experiences? What if I had only stayed in my own little male-only world of the infantry? How would I know how capable women are? How would I know how vital all those cooks, mechanics, and truck drivers are? How could I gain a measure of respect for the Soldier separate from the job title if I never spent any time getting to know their world. While I have no doubt that my lack of mastery of how a motorpool operates probably allowed things to happen that shouldn't have, or corners to be cut that I wasn't aware of, I will be forever grateful for the chance to experience a world different from the one I had known for the previous 12 years - that of the infantryman who believed that everyone else was beneath them because they are the tip of the spear. You may be good at what you do, but you are not an infantryman, so it doesn't really matter how good you are at your job. You are not one of us.

And so I became a supporter of woman in combat arms roles because I saw what they were capable of. I saw the same grit and determination, the same wanting to contribute to the team, the same desire to serve that I saw among men. But then yesterday's post showed up and caused me to stop for a second and re-evaluate the situation. Political stances don't get your ass kicked. Supporting a minority shouldn't get you attacked in the dark. I have been forced to broaden my perspective even further. Now, it might not be whether or not women are capable of serving in the combat arms, it might be whether some baseline male behaviors will make that too dangerous a course to consider. No Soldier should have their service beaten out of them by another Soldier. And so, the reader who contended that maybe I was being a little too naive in my glib suggestion that we remove the restrictions on women in combat, may be correct. Or maybe not. Maybe all she provided was another piece of the puzzle that will have to be addressed. Another viewpoint to be considered.

We need Jacks-of-all-trades who can make sense of all of the varied inputs we face. The gaining of leadership awareness has to come from a variety of sources and previous assumptions need to be challenged on a routine basis. We do not live in a homogenous world anymore and this is certainly no time to return to a homogenous Army. The Times article above does a great disservice to General Dempsey by using that headline. The truth is that we need people skilled, comfortable and confident that they can work anywhere along the operational spectrum from nation building to major offensive operations. They are comfortable with ambiguity and change. And we need to expose more people to Soldiers like Crystal and the woman who replied yesterday so that we move the discussion from merely a political one to one focused on real challenges and real solutions. Only by widening our awareness of the environment can we do this. Becoming a master of only one small piece will not enhance that one bit.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. I agree with GEN Dempsey. The three factors for motivating your subordinates is Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. Linking those three together in leader development with produce the desired results Dempsey aims for. What is implied and not mentioned is change.

    For those familiar with Dr. Spencer's book, "Who Moved My Cheese," the individual needs to remain mindful to their environment. So while you develop a mastery in a few areas, you still must pay attention to the usefulness of a mastery and move on as the purpose changes.Failure to move on will end your career.

    For career development, I would create a leadership mastery track that will allow leaders the opportunity to learn about all the necessary skills we discussed before for properly managing and developing subordinates. This would then place an additional requirement in order to lead/command. It is the minority that intuitively possesses the necessary skills to build leaders from.

    To many crappy leaders receive the privilege to command over the recent years, and that must end s we start the RIF. We will need leaders who have mastered leadership principals and can draw upon their subordinates with their specialities to create effective mission plans and objectives.

    Placing a number of items to master is a bit naive. You cannot quantify the number each individual may master, as this stems from the individual's capacity. You can say that as a basis, all leaders wishing to obtain the highest ranks must master A, B, C, D, and E. However during their careers, they also master G, K, and M, as dictated by career progression tracks.

    The author did screw up the title, but I am guessing the author is either anti Dempsey or Obama.

  2. Tim - I think what bothers me about your thoughts is nothing more than something Boyd said along time ago. "As soon as you put it to paper, " he said, "the very next day, doctrine becomes dogma." A jack-of-all-trades develops an ability over time to retain the lessons of past experiences and see them in light of present circumstances. That seems to me to be the crux of the problem. Until the day comes when we can comfortably work in any 'immediate reality' without the weight of dogma, but possessing the intent of doctrine, then we will never really get anywhere. If the Army continues to push a list of required anythings - doesn't matter what it is - then memorizing the list and checking the blocks becomes the dogmatic approach to both personal success and institutional conformity. Those two things will most likely continue to enhance the 'I'm an expert' or 'I'm a specialist' mentality that pervades the organization today.


  3. Love this comment from a recent Military Review article titled "The reflective military practitioner - how military professionals think in action."

    "The more complex and uncertain the contemporary operating environment, the more the body of professional military knowledge must remain in a state of purposeful instability.“

    a real "thinker".....


  4. Could we then agree that the future of leader development will require a mixture of both Jacks and Masters? The old saying, the truth lies in the middle of two opposing views, will most likely be the correct one.

    Leader development and career progression should allot for individuals to choose either mastery or jack-ness. This maybe where the functional areas or special identifiers comes into play. As we are a check the block society, opening up the menu of options for what to check should create JD's quote about "purposeful instability."

  5. Tim - I absolutely agree with the idea of opening up the menu of options for people to become either masters or jacks. In fact, this is something Gen Dempsey has alluded to before, the notion that we need to create, provide, and then value career progression models that are 'outside' the norm - internships with corporate America, inter-agency opportunities, interaction with academia etc. That's what struck me about this article. It seems to fly in the face of a lot of his previous comments which speak directly to the value of broadening experiences. I don't know why we would see the value of that for individuals, but not see the value of it for organizations. Another piece of this that, while not publicly stated, is right below the surface, is that this is rather sharply focused on the Officer Corps. As a NCO, I would like to see 'broadening' opportunities for us as well. After all, if I (as an NCO) apply only mastery of one thing in my day-to-day interactions with Soldiers, then it won't matter how expansive my Officer's experience has been, if there is no way for him/her to get me to understand the bigger picture.

  6. Your comment of, "we need to create, provide, and then value career progression models that are 'outside' the norm," can be best implemented and tested within us COAD Soldiers. The COL Gadson's and CPT Smiley's will not have normal careers their basic branches require. Yet both have proven their abilities to function well above the leadership standards.

    I agree with you about opening up the options for NCO's. Most of the ACS programs and training with industry opportunities limit applicants to officers and maybe some warrants. It seems that the policies support officers taking a year or two off from the normal military to better themselves, but chokes when it comes to letting NCO's do the same.