Leadership: The Impossible Dream

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October 29, 2013: Senior leaders of the U.S. Army recently went public with their belief that future army leaders would have to be more adaptive and innovative to succeed. This was not a new idea but has been one obvious lesson about leadership the army has learned in the last decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The adaptive leaders succeeded, while the ones who kept enforcing the existing rules and resisted change did far less well.

This lesson was difficult to ignore and over the last few years’ senior army commanders admitted that they had a leadership problem, and it turned out that the solution was obvious but not easily implemented. The problem here is an old one because peacetime military forces thrive on order and routine. Officers who are best at that tend to get promoted. The officers who seek out chaotic situations, the better to solve problems with novel solutions that upset routine, get far less encouragement. Thus, the problem is not recognizing the need for adaptive officers but figuring out how to recognize and encourage them in peace time. That is a problem that has long defied solution.

The army leadership before September 11, 2001 was full of people who were into order and routine. After a few years of wartime operations the senior leaders began to notice that, despite many battlefield successes, junior officers (captains and majors) were not staying in the service. So opinion surveys were ordered, and these indicated that junior army and marine officers felt a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of senior leadership. This disconnect between junior officers and their commanders has now been around for more than a decade. It's gotten worse with a war on because, unlike past wars, there has not been widespread removal of battalion and brigade commanders who did not perform well. Alas, that is not new either. Even in Vietnam there was a similar situation. There were some divisions in Vietnam where division commanders did remove battalion and brigade commanders who were not doing a good job. But this was frowned upon. In World War II and Korea, it was much more common for commanders who did not deliver to get replaced. So junior army officers felt that with a war going on junior officers were facing life and death situations because their commanders were not being sufficiently aggressive, or innovative, and those failures were not being recognized and acted on by the top commanders. The junior officers would complain and when their complaints were not addressed they responded by not staying in the military. That got noticed.

By 2005, the army was losing its lieutenants and captains at the rate of 8.7 percent a year. All indications were that this rate would increase. Subsequent opinion surveys confirmed this. There were several reasons for the losses in addition to the complaints about senior leadership. One was the prospect of constant overseas assignments, without their families, for the duration of the war on terror. Then there was the pull of better job prospects in a then robust economy. The prospect of losing over ten percent of your junior officers a year was compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of these were those with the most combat experience.

A third factor in the exodus was the dislike of the army’s “force protection” fixation. The army put a lot of emphasis on keeping casualties down. But a lot of the combat commanders interpreted this as doing as little as possible. Yet it was obvious that commanders who got outside their camps a lot had a positive impact. Being active reduced enemy activity in the area as well as overall American casualties. But these aggressive tactics came with some risk, and many battalion and brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) were more risk averse than the captains and lieutenants (company and platoon commanders). Once you become a lieutenant colonel, you are making the army a career and are less inclined to take chances. But majors, captains, and lieutenants can afford to take chances and are put off when their bosses are not, especially when it’s a matter of life or death.

Nevertheless, the frequent overseas service, and better opportunities in civilian life, were designated as the major causes of junior officers leaving and army leaders concluded there was not much they could do about that at the time. By 2009, young officers were not leaving as frequently because of the recession and army efforts to increase the percentage of time (“dwell time”) units spend in their U.S. bases, with their families. Eventually the senior army leadership began to come around to recognizing that rigid and non-adaptive commanders were the key problem. That led to the recent calls for encouraging adaptive leaders. While that sounds great, implementing change in this area during peacetime is very difficult to do and historically has rarely been done.

The army also discovered what a lot of large corporations already know, the current generation of young officers is quite different than previous ones. Being raised with PCs, video games, and the Internet has created a new kind of officer (and corporate manager). The 21st century officer wants more information, more autonomy, and more responsibility. They are more adaptive because they grew up in a time of more technical and social innovation and coping with all that meant you either adapted or fell behind. During the last decade, these 21st century officers have proved that they can succeed with this new approach. Now the senior army leadership wants to hang on to as many of these young combat experienced officers as they can. This won’t be easy, as the senior leadership recognizes that middle management (lieutenant colonels and colonels) still tends to have a stultifying effect on their subordinates. These officers came in during the late 1990s and were captains and majors during the early days of the Iraq war. The senior leadership, which came into the army at the end of the Cold War, is trying to change the army so that more experience is captured and used. This would be unusual because the usual drill after a war is to freeze thinking in the belief (often not admitted) that the next war will be like the last one. The army leadership now believes that changes will continue and that it’s crucial for the army to keep moving forward, its ideas updated, and adapting to a changing world. That, in itself, is a unique challenge.

 

 


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