Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Donahoe isn't like other generals. At least not in the way you'd think.
He has a relaxed presence about him — not too casual, but casual enough that you aren't stressed to chat with him over coffee. He seems to have a self-awareness about what the Army could be doing better, something other general officers aren't quite as candid about.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Donahoe and many other Army leaders are his tweets: He does them himself, and they're actually good.
Just days ago, for example, the deputy commanding general of operations for the Eighth Army — found at @PatDonahoeArmy — displayed the unbridled courage that only a senior Army leader has in posting a photo of discount sushi he got from the commissary. ("Score!")
This summer, he kicked off conversation about how Army leadership in South Korea are working to change the bureaucratic churn so often found in the military with none other than a Big Lebowski reference.
He actively engages in conversation with soldiers and civilians alike, on topics and conversations across the spectrum — including hot takes on Cincinnati's famed Skyline Chili ("huh, still open. Wow."); the pros and cons of the Army's new fitness test; his somewhat-questionable fist-bump skills; and yes, even Vanilla Ice ("Word to your mother").
As he explained in a social media panel at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in early October, Donahoe uses Twitter as a form of "professional reading," a way to gauge what the conversation is around the world by seeing what other people and blogs are talking about.
His approach is interesting because it's so rare, since the military community's relationship with social media is scarcely so comfortable, especially at senior levels.
There's the ever-growing anonymous military Twitter, allowing soldiers a bit more wiggle room to speak their minds without fear of being reprimanded — something not everyone is totally on-board with.
And then there are the tweets coming from the organization itself, which don't always quite hit the mark — like when DoD joked about bombing millennials if they stormed Area 51; or that time U.S. Strategic Command joked about dropping nukes on New Year's; and lest we forget when the Army asked its audience how serving had impacted them, and was confronted with stories of assault, suicide, PTSD, and more.
The point being that the military's relationship with Twitter can be strained at times, to say the least. But the attitude is shifting — or at least trying to.
In early October, just before AUSA, Gen. Robert Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. Forces-Korea, wrote on The Green Notebook that it's "imperative" that senior leaders get into social media, citing a number of reasons but ultimately coming to the conclusion that it lets people know "you are human just like everyone else."
One of the reasons Donahoe — who commissioned in 1989 through the ROTC program at Villanova University, and most recently served as the Deputy Commanding General of Operations for the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York — says he engages in Twitter is because it exposes him to viewpoints he otherwise could miss out on. Because of his rank, he's insulated from the views, complaints, and opinions from lower ranking soldiers. But with Twitter, he's able to get unfiltered perspectives, straight from the source.
"What I enjoy following [@LadyLovesTaft] is she's got a perspective that I don't have," Donahoe said at AUSA. "I've never been a female lieutenant in the United States Army, I've never had that experience … those really are valuable insights for us. What is it that a female lieutenant in uniform in a combat arms unit faces on a daily basis? I got nothing, other than what's being reported through 42 filters. This is unfiltered, unvarnished.
"Sometimes it's rosy, sometimes it's ugly, but it's real and there's value in getting reality."
Finding a way out of the "bubble," as he put it at AUSA, isn't just something Donahoe looks to do in the digital space, but in his physical office as well — he told Task & Purpose he has to have "constant interaction with folks," and has worked to institute an open-door policy, which isn't typical in an organization that thrives on schedules and appointments.
"You can insulate yourself very, very quickly if you're not careful. I think it's the same on social media, right? If you're like, 'Hey, I'm not going to engage,' or 'I'm going to have my gifted PAO work my engagement for me,' it'll be exactly what you'd expect — it will be stilted, they'll spell your name wrong … and it won't be authentic, right?" Donahoe told Task & Purpose.
"And so what I try to do with my social media interactions is … whether you're a junior soldier, or a civilian academic, a junior officer or senior officer — it's an even playing field."