#110 The Edge of an Understanding

I have no idea where this post is going to end up. Normally, I do. It will start with an idea formed by something I've seen or read, and then progress down a pretty clear path to a picture in my mind of the point I hope to make. The difficulty is only in getting the 3-D picture in my mind onto the page and trying to do justice with words that accurately describe the image. Today though, the picture itself isn't very clear, so I cannot see a way to describe it for you. I think the reasons for my confusion are actually pretty simple however. Too many fragmented inputs, too many questions, and not enough time to consider each of them in depth. I feel as if I'm on the edge of an understanding, but do not see the whole picture yet. Let's see where it ends up...


First, yesterday was the 5th anniversary of the crimes committed by my Soldiers. Regardless of what else happens in my life, March 12, 2006 will forever remain a definitive moment for me. In some ways, it is the defining moment. There was life - and all I understood it to be - before that day, and there is life after that day. The earth quake that hit Japan this week moved its' coastline 8 feet and changed the earth's axis. Whole systems within the universe will be changed ever so slightly because of that. March 12th did that for me. Through the looking glass we go...

Second, a former Soldier of mine died this week. She was a young woman, twenty-something years old. When I knew her she was a happy, smiling, vibrant young girl who was determined to have fun and she made your day brighter just being around her. She was also one hell of a Soldier. But she got lost somewhere along the way and ended up out of the Army and was trying so very hard to redefine and find her way in the world. She will be buried sometime next week, and the world has lost another pure soul much too soon. It just left me feeling sort of fragile. Hopefully, she is not searching anymore. The rest of us will be left asking why?

Third, a portion of an article sent to me by a friend entitled, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education", written by Professor William Deresiwicz that speaks to recognizing how elite systems work, and how they create cultures of entitlement and conformity, rather than challenge and thoughtful consideration. How the intellectual elite end up separating themselves from the world they live in and insulate themselves from humanity.

And finally, from a mentor who sent me a very simple - yet very powerful thought. He reminded me that good leaders, "Don't personalize the profession, but rather professionalize the person".


How do you lead other people? On slide #95 of "Patterns of Conflict", COL John Boyd made the following observation with regard to guerrilla warfare:

- "Guerrillas must develop implicit connections with the people or countryside."

- "Guerrillas must be able to blend into the emotional - cultural - intellectual environment of the people until they become one with the people."

- "The people's feelings and thoughts must become the guerrilla's feelings and thoughts and the guerrilla's feelings and thoughts must become the people's feelings and thoughts."

Result: "Guerrillas become indistinguishable from the people while government becomes isolated from the people."

Now remove the word guerrilla and replace it with the word leader. Seems awfully close to me to be the ideal of leadership. To become one with those we lead. To immerse ourselves in their experience to the point that who is in charge becomes less important than the mission we are collectively conducting. To become indistinguishable by any formal system from those we lead. The mission is the only thing. Who accomplishes it, who directs it, and who leads it become secondary concerns to getting it done.

With regard to yesterday's anniversary of the crimes committed by members of my platoon, the aftermath of that tragic event has sent me down a path that has fundamentally changed the way I view leadership both practically and theoretically. My concept of what leadership is has changed and as a result of that how I exercise leadership has changed as well. I have become less directive and less sure of the outcome. I have gained a much greater respect and awareness for unfolding circumstances that can affect the mission. I spend a lot more time painting the picture and a lot less proscribing the steps. In many ways, I feel as if I have become much more adaptable and much more attuned - especially to those non-quantifiable things like perspective, and emotion. I no longer ascribe to the notion that everyone can be treated the same. Each individual must be treated as a unique set of understandings and interpretations. The key to successful leadership is find out how and why others view their world the way they do and then working with that understanding to accomplish a common mission.

Which leads me to the second input - the loss of Crystal Thompson. While I do not understand why she has passed, the fact that she has means that we will never understand completely who she was, or who she had the potential to become. Because she was no longer in the Army, her loss will not be viewed by many as combat related, or as a result of the war, but in the back of my mind I cannot escape the idea that had she had senior leaders around her who accepted her, who saw her as more than an interchangeable widget, who had helped her to see herself more clearly, she might not have gotten quite so far off track. She, at one time, was a Soldier - and a damn good one. I just feel like we owed her more than that. We owed her leadership in the sense that we viewed her as one of our children. We owed her the respect of her humanity. Throughout the week many of her former Soldiers and friends have expressed their grief and their love for her on her Facebook page. Maybe had she known that earlier, we wouldn't be where we are right now.

In Professor D's paper, I came across the following paragraph that reminded me of so many Army leaders I know:

"Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The first time I blew a test, I walked out of the room feeling like I no longer knew who I was. The second time, it was easier; I had started to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world."

Leading people inherently means valuing them. Not simply as a means to an end, or from one limited understanding, but from a totality of their existence. Who they really are. The various roles they play. Why they think and act and color their world the way they do. You cannot lead others without this understanding. And yet, the Army creates many leaders who are colored a lot like Professor D's elite students above. They possess an absolute sense of their own surety and greatness. That they are the chosen few. That they are entitled to their world, their way. They cannot conceptualize or comprehend failure. A lot of last week's post outlined behaviors that fit this mold. Are we really raising our young officer corp to understand at the behavioral level those they lead, or are we continually perpetuating a class system of elites who see their subordinates as their minions? And to be completely fair, the idea of elitism is by no means limited to the officer corps alone. The NCO corps has become loaded with 'special' people who wrap themselves in titles and carry the accoutrements of position like a badge of honor. When we become disconnected like that, and begin to think we are entitled to something more, than we have already begun to fail. There is no entitlement in leadership. In its' perfect sense it happens regardless of rank, station, position, or education. And the only way to get to that place is through respect.

Finally, the quote from a friend and mentor. "Don't personalize the profession. Professionalize the person." Awesome, powerful statement because it requires the respect of the person first and the molding of them into the profession second. I have to value them individually first, recognizing their particular strengths, weaknesses, viewpoints, and filters, and then bring those attributes together inside of the profession that we share. There cannot be any nameless widgets in that phrase. It's not about the leader, it's truly about the led. As my friend does for me, the role of the leader is to help the subordinate see their environment more clearly, and to set the conditions for the subordinate to succeed in the professional arena.

March 12th will always remind me of how far I have come on my journey of understanding, and humble me when I realize how far I have to go. Crystal Thompson is a person who will remind me how quickly and permanently things can change. We must remain ever vigilant to guard against elitism in an Army system where the top could certainly be termed an 'educational elite', but the bottom can be very under-educated. We must guard against that gap becoming too large. John Boyd reminds me that to value them we must remain in tune with them. There can be no other way.

And we must ultimately respect those we work for. Not above us on the ladder, but those below us. They are the ones who matter. They are the ones who accomplish our missions, and they are the ones who look to us to provide them the opportunity to one day serve others. In order to do that, we may have to steal a page from COL Boyd and become a guerrilla....

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.