I recently reviewed a U.S. Army War College White Board response: “How Well Does The Army Develop Strategic Leaders?” My response is: not well at all.
I question whether the Army even values strategic thinkers. I did not participate in the whiteboard exercise because I was not aware of it, but if had, I would give the US Army a “D-”. The military leadership we need is one that can deal with the strategic issues of the First World and the asymmetric challenges of the Third World. Our future success in large wars and in small wars will be dependent on leadership and their ability to think strategically, adjust and change the institution, improve interoperability among services and Special Operations, and discontinue petty differences for the greater good.
The second reading I did that influences this paper is the article informing us that Congress is poised to pass the most sweeping reforms to the military’s officer promotion system in almost four decades. The bill aims to make military promotion boards place more emphasis on merit and job performance which is needed, but the recommended changes will not change education, develop senior leader strategic thinkers, improve talent management, improve senior leader selection, and address the mediocrity problem. There is change needed and it will have to be legislated because the services will not change without it.
Tom Ricks, the keeper for this column, wrote a few years ago that, “Just three decades before the United States found itself bogged down in an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war in Vietnam, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon the nation’s leading military men to transform a small and admittedly third-rate armed force into the world’s most powerful. To do so required determined leaders who put mission above all else, who were unafraid to speak truth to power, and to whom failure by commanders was not accepted. Among them was George C. Marshall, who brought forward a stable of legendary generals who remain the hallmarks of American military leadership, the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Omar Bradley. By the time of Vietnam, however, the qualities ingrained in this cohort of men—and thus the expectations they held for their subordinate commanders—had greatly diminished, having profound consequences.”
I believe the following are the impediments to developing effective senior strategic thinkers that we need now and in the future:
- The training, education, assignment, and promotion system must change. Today, it is designed around producing superior tactical level performers and thinkers. The Army focuses on developing tactical experts not senior level strategic thinkers. Hence, our senior leaders are comfortable at the tactical level and focus at that level because that is where they feel most knowledgeable. The impact of this is significant as tactical successes in AFG, Iraq, Syria, and Africa have been wasted because the GOs have not developed the proper operational approach and strategic plans to resource and capitalize on tactical level operations success and turn them into strategic success.
- To fix this we need to educate our officers to think strategically earlier in their career. We have relied on our tactical unit success to fix bad strategy and this has not worked. Our education system must be reorganized and realigned. Trying to teach and educate colonels at the War College to think strategically is too late. We need to start when they are senior captains and majors and reinforce this with appropriate assignments. To better align education, experience, and assignments I propose that the War College curriculum should replace the ILE/CGSC curriculum and should be taught to captains at the career course. Our colonels should go off to fellowships at universities, think tanks, and in the interagency. The commissioning system must focus on producing lieutenants that can lead and after commissioning focus on training our new lieutenants for their occupational specialty.
- A vital change in thinking that must occur will be the acceptance of contrarians and iconoclasts. Acceptance of contrarians and iconoclasts is a requirement in the education and development of strategic thinkers. In the Army and in SOF, contrarians and iconoclasts are seen as non-team players. We need team players who can suppress their ego to those of the group, but we also need people who know when to defer to collective desires and when not to conform but rather challenge the status quo, current beliefs, and institutions for the good of the organization. Unfortunately, in the Army a contrarian, iconoclast, and a team player cannot exist in one person. We need people who are prepared to rock the boat and to challenge our senior leaders to think broadly when it is required without fear of retribution, being labeled unpatriotic, and shown the door.
- Strategic thinkers create continuity. Continuity is a rare commodity in the military. It is about making your mark and moving ahead. It is rare for senior leaders to publish documents that drive the organization in purpose, direction, and motivation. It is even rarer for this to be part of a larger plan and adopted by subsequent commanders. As a result, we have a strategy based on command tenure, a commander’s personality, ad hoc commands and staffs, and not on a well thought out plan that creates continuity.
- Speaking truth to power is one thing. Disagreeing with the powerful is different and dangerous. We will never build strategic thinkers if we are situational truth seekers. Truly educated, confident strategic thinkers are not afraid of the truth and know that it takes a combination of mistakes, failures, and getting it right to achieve success. The key to being successful in this area is admitting you do not know everything, listening to everyone, and controlling your temper.
- To move forward the Army leadership needs to admit to itself it has trust and honesty issues and until it does there will be no change. These problems can be directly attributed to a lack of strategic thinkers, inadequate leadership engagement, poor talent management, requirement overload, risk averse leadership, and a lack of moral courage. Individuals and units are overwhelmed by the number of requirements and directives placed upon them. Therefore, they cannot properly focus on their core war fighting tasks and send up false reports. The Army profession rests upon the bedrock of good order, discipline, and trust. Unfortunately, an alternative reality where leading honestly, speaking truthfully, and reporting accurately has officers believing that they must be someone they are not, play along to get ahead, and be beholden to the person above you regardless of the consequences to the organization.
- Unfortunately, schadenfreude is alive and well in the military. If we are going to move forward and make the changes required to improve education, talent management, merit-based senior leader promotions the Army will need to change this behavior in its senior leaders and eliminate the favoritism and pettiness that exists. This is not about competition, competence, or performance. It is about fairness and doing the right thing for our Army and our Nation in developing and selecting its future leaders.
The way the promotion and command selection system has evolved since the Vietnam War era has brought the best and worst out in our senior leaders. A parallel system of selection and promotion has been created due to the current up or out personnel policy, early promotions, as well as how 1 and 2 star GO boards are conducted. Additionally, limited senior leadership positions, organizational nepotism, a poor talent management model, and the U.S. Army GO peer evaluations have also contributed to this parallel system. Moreover, talented officers are released due to time in grade or not making the next promotion regardless of their competence and ability to continue to serve.
It is imprudent that one person can prevent a promotion to GO. It should never be the case that evaluation reports do not matter when selecting general officers for promotion. The anonymous GO peer evaluation system has become dysfunctional and allows GO’s to hide behind comments about other GO’s without having to be held accountable for the comments they make. This is not the case with other military services who have refused to adopt this dysfunctional system. Instead, Army senior leaders have created an unhealthy environment due to limited command positions because senior GOs have created a parallel system designed to get their protégé promoted through cliques, organizational nepotism, advocacy, coattail riding, and group think.
- We promote our GOs too fast and they miss the jobs, development, and education they require. Early promotions at all ranks should be discontinued. Let’s look at ARSOF as a microcosm, but let’s not forget the rest of the Army. Past and current senior leadership decision-making is hurting ARSOF and is rarely talked about, but it remains hugely important to the future of ARSOF. Organizational nepotism, advocacy-based promotion, and a go along to move along style perpetuate the senior leadership club. If you are not a Joint Special Operations Command senior leader or sheep-dipped in a JSOC assignment, you are automatically limited in your progress as a leader.
We are promoting our senior leaders from a self-limiting pool and promoting them too fast. The promotion of those in their own image rules the process. Recent promotions in Army Special Operation Forces are examples: they are not getting the right assignments or staying in their assignments long enough to gain the necessary experience before they take command, and this can also be seen in recent Theater Special Operations Command assignments. In some cases, at the TSOC level, being effective is not a criterion for promotion. Neither is experience in the theater you are being assigned.
The most absurd thing in this process is that senior leaders get together and sit around a table in a process described in SOF as Game of Thrones and reason among themselves who stays, who goes, who gets selected, and who does not. This is an advocacy-based and personality-driven event, not a merit-based process. They further reason among themselves that they have a great process which is free from bias, fair, and equitable. Most of us are more surprised by who does not get selected than who does. Please do not misunderstand me, SOF has some great senior leaders. But the selection, assignment process, and talent management of our general officers in SOF and the Army must be fixed. This is evident in what I hear from many 0-6s-0-3s, warrants, NCOs, and civilians. It is also echoed by those that work the personnel and assignment side of the house. They know the reality, drawbacks, and unfairness of this process
Here are some common quotes and themes from the field: (1) GOs never get promoted on merit for the most part, unfortunately, (2) the GO mafia and the inability of many senior leaders in our community (SOF) to make their own decisions and ignore rumor mill nonsense and therefore we end up losing those that produce results, (3) the current GO environment is like “High School” little cliques, (4) the SF high school is worse than all the other SOF elements, they still get evaluated on merit and they don’t have nearly as much Man-drama, (5) Due to the environment created by GOs in SF back stabbing and getting pleasure from someone’s mistakes is rampant, due to poor senior leader management by USASOC commanders JSOC now has CDRs running everything: AFG, SOJTF, CC, SOCOM, TSOCs, Green Berets will continue to be considered tier II until we identify, nurture and promote the right GOs.
- Unfortunately, senior leaders are not seen as underwriters of mistakes by their subordinates. What senior leaders are really doing is managing mistakes and failures of their subordinates to minimize the impact on themselves. This has a negative effect on the initiative, creativity, and imagination of the subordinate by undermining trust. Underwriting your subordinate’s honest mistakes is key to building trust and gaining a shared understanding between leaders and subordinates. Underwriting mistakes is key to organizational learning, success, problem solving, and successful empowerment of your subordinates to promote growth and avoid micromanagement. The way it appears now to subordinates is that they are on their own and left to take the blame. Junior leader careers are negatively affected, and the general goes off to an interim assignment and then emerges with another star on his chest.
- Senior leaders are risk averse and have created a system that punishes risk takers and rewards those that do not take risk. Leaders must be in the business of underwriting risk and that goes hand in hand with underwriting mistakes and failure. The Army bureaucracy is so worried about protecting itself that it has lost touch with what is important to maintain resilient and ready Soldiers and units. Handwringing is the common phrase heard when leaders chose not to take risks. Any risk to them means potential danger, embarrassment, and failure, so it’s to be avoided at all costs. Being overly cautious and indecisive when action is required will often get us into more trouble. Senior leaders who are slow to act will cause immeasurable damage, stifle initiative, and create loss of opportunity. Usually it is the risk of doing nothing that is most costly in military operations.
- To be blunt, the current GO training is a waste of time and is not about generalship. It is about reinforcing the status quo, toeing the line inside the GO club, and providing top cover to the bureaucracy when a GO steps out of line. The most important aspect of generalship is moral courage and it is the one that is seen the least. You do not get stars to pay homage to the hierarchical GO club or remain silent when policy makers get it wrong. Rather, you get them to take care of people, employ, organize, train, and properly equip the current force and visualize the conditions of future combat and explain to civilian policymakers the demands of future combat. You get them to explain the risks entailed in failing to meet those demands and to ensure the public understands the price in blood and treasure to reach the end state. You get them to provide policy makers with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities and provide an estimate for the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy as part of a solution and to win.
Retired Colonel Paul Yingling wrote in 2007, “these debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.”
- GOs are not taking care of themselves physically and mentally. Optimal performance requires optimal health. They are ignoring and not admitting their health issues as well as those of their subordinates . They are not removing stigmas associated with PTS, TBI, pain management, sleep disorders, and neurotoxicity that is needed to support our service members and their families to seek the help they need. The “suck it up” attitude that saves lives in combat can kill you in garrison and at home. It is the responsibility of the leader to maintain the fighting spirit and balance this with the wellness of our service members and their families. We take care of our equipment better than our people. If GOs cannot take care of themselves they have no business taking care of others. We must pull a page out of General Marshall’s book, Gerald Pops noted “Marshall’s regard for the welfare and morale of the troops is legendary. He described morale as the “spiritual side” of a soldier’s preparedness, and defined its scope to include the well-being of the soldier’s family.”
Leadership is the most important aspect of military service. Leadership sets conditions for the success of everything in the military. Leadership is the only way to ensure mission success, to take care of people, and their families. It is the responsibility of all officers to master strategic thinking, study leadership, practice leadership, learn leadership, teach it, and live it for the entirety of their military service. I am a huge fan of the book American generalship and several of the points in the book are articulated in this paper.
I am a also a huge fan of Gen. George C. Marshall. In many ways we got away from his organizational leadership and model on educating strategic thinkers, selecting our senior leaders, learning from mistakes, and recovering from being relieved of duty. General Marshall’s approach and success is articulated well and highlights many of the problems that plagued today’s senior leaders as seen in Tom Ricks’ book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.
Another great piece I drew from to back up my observations on dishonesty and trust was the monograph written by Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, called Lying To Ourselves: Dishonesty In The Army Profession. In this monograph the authors research points to untruthfulness being surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.
After 32 years of active duty service to his country in which he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Star medals, 2 Purple Hearts, led ten deployments, and survived both a bomb blast, numerous fire fights, and a helicopter crash, General Donald C. Bolduc, former Commander, Special Operations Command Africa, has hung up his fatigues to take on perhaps his most important and challenging mission of advocating for veterans and their families, the treatment and shedding the stigma of PTS, TBI, pain management, sleep disorders, and neurotoxicity both from within the US military as well as the general public. His second passion is teaching, coaching, and mentoring leadership from entry level to the senior executive level.