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“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Have you noticed how the most effective leaders exhibit a sense, not of glamour, but of responsibility? They are much less concerned with the opinions of others as they are with staying true to their personal sense of truth, inspiring others by their example, and encouraging others to join them in working toward a worthy common goal.
Such bold, selfless leadership implies a willingness to accept responsibility as much for failure as for success. It reflects an openness to taking risks and pushing forward into unchartered territory. And perhaps most importantly, it reveals to us what it looks like to refrain from allowing ambition to outpace virtue; arrogance to cloud out judgment; or convenience to override character.
Does this description seem too good to be true? After all, I certainly understand it’s much easier to highlight a list of admirable qualities and desirable traits than it is to actually emulate them ourselves. And I’ll be the first to admit identifying a leader with the moral courage to act with such focus, commitment, unshakeable conviction, and respectful candor is rare. But I also know it’s possible. Take my personal leadership role model, Theodore Roosevelt, for example.
By any measure Theodore Roosevelt was an incredible man. By his fiftieth birthday he had completed two terms as President of the United States as well as Vice-president under William McKinley. He also served as a New York state legislator, the under-secretary of the Navy, police commissioner for New York City, Governor of the state of New York and achieved the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army.
As President, he was the visionary behind building the Panama Canal, the impetus behind placing 230 million acres of land into federal protection as national parks, the architect of America’s world-class naval fleet, and the energy behind several pieces of legislation that protected the rights of America’s workers across a broad range of industries.
If that were not enough, he also ran a cattle ranch in the Dakota territories, served as a reporter and editor for a host of newspapers, journals, and periodicals and wrote nearly fifty books on a wide-array of subjects, all while reading no less than five books a week every day of his life. To this day he remains the only president to be awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor, our military’s highest decoration for heroism and valor. However, to his dying day he cited his greatest accomplishments as raising six children and a life–long romance with his wife.
During his storied career, Roosevelt was hailed by supporters and rivals alike as the greatest man of the age—perhaps one of the greatest of all ages. Even his life-long political opponent William Jennings Bryan, conceded that Roosevelt was a leader like no other. “Search the annals of history if you will,” he said. “Never will you find a man more remarkable in every way.”
Despite his widely recognized talent, however, perhaps his most remarkable trait was his willingness to march to the beat of a different drum–to work and live differently from the many professional politicians of his era (or any era for that matter). Seemingly intent to live his life by the now famous Nike slogan, “Do Hard Things,” he was a leader unafraid to think differently, act boldly and do something every day to become the best possible version of himself.
Admittedly, Roosevelt’s style was viewed by many as unconventional. This was largely because many people of his time felt he didn’t neatly fit their belief of how he should act–especially as the President of the United States. And what I find most appealing about this inconvenient truth is that he liked it that way.
Why, you ask? I don’t believe it was because he necessarily wanted to be difficult or particularly disruptive. Rather, I think he innately understood what every successful leader in history has figured out. Namely, it is impossible to truly serve the legitimate needs of others if your unchecked personal ambition causes you to do what is safe rather than what is right. Roosevelt understood that when leaders get caught up calculating every move they make based on how their actions will impact the next election, influence their popularity or risk tarnishing their reputation, they often avoid challenging the status quo. Even when doing so is exactly what is needed by those the leaders serve.
Where would our nation be today if Roosevelt had not bucked the system and pushed to build the Panama Canal, establish the host of conservation programs we enjoy today (including designation of the Grand Canyon as a national park), invest in building a powerful Navy, and the scores of other significant accomplishments on his watch? Though no one can say for certain, I think it’s fair to say we are an immensely better for Roosevelt’s keen sense of imagination and clear vision of the future.
All this said, I think Roosevelt’s true leadership success stemmed from following two basic principles–both of which equipped and empowered him to lead boldly and brilliantly.
The first is that he chose to keep his eye on the exit, meaning, he intentionally approached each leadership position as though it would be his last. Unlike many politicians past and present who view their current role as a platform to propel them to even greater heights, Roosevelt viewed his present vocation as the most important position he ever held. It was a perspective grounded in his understanding of his own fallibility and liberating him to leverage his unique genius while not falling victim to unchecked ambition, runaway pride or self-centered promotion.
The second principle stemmed from his understanding that a system’s natural inclination is to encourage leaders to manage to the middle. That is, to use their power, position and authority to maximize predictability and reduce deviance. The problem with this approach however, is the middle of the deviance curve is the realm of mediocrity. It’s the safe zone that begets a way of leading that prefers to guard the comfortable and the convenient rather than risk doing something different–despite each of us knowing that it is only when we bravely push ourselves toward new horizons that we discover all we are capable of being and doing.
The questions I have for you then are, do you treat your current leadership role, be it as a spouse, parent, teacher, platoon leader, or floor manager as the most important position you will ever hold? Are you acting with the courage and conviction that comes from knowing you are willing to do hard things, even when it may be uncomfortable or unpopular? Are you keeping an eye on the exit or are you managing to the middle?
Regardless of how you answer these questions, please remember this: The leaders who succeed in moving things forward in their surroundings keep an eye on the exit. They abhor mediocrity, avoid hubris and embrace excellence by remaining as indifferent to praise as they are criticism—more interested in measuring their effectiveness by their willingness to accept responsibility for finding creative solutions to persistent problems, even when they have every excuse to find none. Proving by the example of their lives they understand that in any moment of decision, the best thing to do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing is nothing.
As I close out this post I would like to add that one of the many reasons I’m excited to be associated with the Defense Entrepreneurial Forum (DEF) is that it represents a grassroots movement founded and funded by bold, courageous young leaders uninterested in propagating the status quo. Instead of merely joining the ranks of those across our society who seem content lamenting the current state of affairs, these proven professionals have chosen to do something to improve conditions in their surroundings. Their positive example encouraging, empowering and inspiring each of us to get busy accepting responsibility for leading the change we want to see.
My hope is that this will be but the first in a long series of DEF’s to come.
Brigadier General John Michel is the Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; NATO Training Mission/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan; and Commander, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing in Kabul, Afghanistan. In fleeting moments of spare time, he posts thoughts on leadership at GeneralLeadership.com and on Facebook.
Much has been done in the military to improve and adjust our Professional Military Education system. This can be seen in documents like the Army’s Learning Concept 2015, which go a long way to addressing how courses are taught and what the focus of them should be. Whether such documents influence the overall bureaucracy that is the military education system remains to be seen. Anecdotally, great strides have been made at the lower levels (the courses that teach largely the technical and tactical aspects of the military), while much remains to be done at the mid-grade and senior level schooling. We hope to further this change with our ideation group this weekend.
Content and method of teaching aside, there are really three mechanisms that would greatly strengthen our schools: improving instructor selection, creating a more rigorous form for professional accountability, and increasing course standards.
Today, as the ALC 2015 details, institutions within the military “often assign instructors arbitrarily, rather than through a selection process that accounts for subject matter expertise or aptitude to facilitate adult learning. Some instructors have skill gaps due to multiple deployments in non-military occupational specialty (MOS) and/or branch assignments. With few exceptions, instructor positions are not perceived to be career-enhancing assignments.”[i] If we truly desire our PME schools to develop our future (and current) leaders, then we must expect their instructors/facilitators are up to the task. This is not a process that has to be invented. Institutions like the US Military Academy and the US Naval War College have very rigorous selection criteria for their faculty. We should do the same for all our PME schools. This would not only ensure we are getting the people we need for each position, but would allow an opportunity for future instructors to get an advanced degree in the subject they are to teach (as USMA instructors do), while simultaneously increasing the desirability of instructor positions and the impact they will have on their career. We should institute a boarding process within the PME institutions that select men and women for each position, fund them to study in preparation for instruction, then put them to work.
We all know, however, that no matter how proficient the instructor, the student must be prepared and willing to receive the instruction. If the student is not properly prepared before they arrive or held accountable for the material, they not only waste precious education slots, they hamper those around them…and ultimately the profession. We must ensure our units, and the officers themselves, are preparing for PME schools. An example of a possible solution exists to this issue, as well, though it a little more removed than a military academy on the Hudson. The Interwar Prussian/German Kriegsakademie, founded by Scharnhorst and ultimately headed by Clausewitz and discussed in Jorg Muth’s Command Culture, was designed to pull the operational force up intellectually to a higher level. There were strict educational and testing standards to even enter schooling, and the performance required was even more rigorous. This paradigm made field units focus their efforts on preparing leaders for these schools, putting much of the onus of leader development with commanders. This freed up the schools to focus on intellectually stretching students, not simply bringing them to the lowest common denominator level.
The German military education system was not perfect. They lost two world wars, after all. But they did know how to prepare their personnel for the next level of education, select them to attend, and hold them accountable for performance when they were there. We should emulate this approach. Signs in the Army are that they institutionally understand this; education at the major level is going back to board selection. It remains to be seen if they also improve on the second half of the equation – a rigorous and challenging curriculum that holds its students (and faculty, to be honest) accountable.
Finally, we need to increase course standards to ensure that accountability. The U.S. Army Ranger School expects students to be physically fit and proficient in tasks like land navigation prior to coming to the course. Students that are unable to meet these standards are either recycled or sent home, usually within the first two weeks of the course. Because of the high standards set by the school, units spend a considerable amount of time preparing their soldiers and leaders to successfully graduate this physically and mentally demanding course. There is currently no such intellectual preparation for professional military education.
According to ADRP 6-22 Army Leadership, leaders develop within three domains: The Operational Domain (the field forces), The Institutional Domain (military education system), and the Self Development Domain (the individual). By improving the instructor selection process, increasing the intellectual rigor of our professional military education system, and holding students accountable for what they should already know, the institutional domain has the potential to increase the development in the other two domains. Over the past decade, our professional military education system served as a factory and the demand to rapidly produce graduates was high and warranted. As we take this opportunity to reset our systems, we believe that the time is now for our professional military education to not merely produce graduates, but cultivate a culture of learning, producing professional officers and NCOs who are prepared to lead our military into the uncertainties of the 21st century.
Nathan Finney is a member of the DEF Board. Nathan is also major in the US Army. He is the founder of the Strategy Development Foundation, a member of the Infinity Journal’s Special Advisory Group and an avid writer.
Joe Byerly is a captain in the U.S. Army and is currently serving at an instructor.
[i] TRADOC PAM 525-8-2, “The U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015,” 20 January 2012, 7.
DoD’s acquisition process exists for one reason: To provide technologically advanced tools to the war-fighter. An honest analysis of DoD acquisition over the last 20 years can only conclude that successful acquisition programs are rare. If, that is, you define success as meeting the war-fighter’s needs on time and within budget.
The April 2012 Defense Business Board’s study, “Linking and Streamlining the Defense Requirements, Acquisition and Budget Processes”  highlights the problems in DOD balkanized acquisition structure. To quote from the study: “The Department of Defense’s (DoD) acquisition system continues to take longer, cost more, and deliver fewer quantities and capabilities than originally planned.” We are living with an acquisition process designed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with every reform since from the Packard Commission, Goldwater-Nichols act, SecDef Perry’s Acquisition reform initiatives, and Better Buying Power (BBP) 2.0 simply piled on top of an increasingly dysfunctional system. Again, to quote from the Defense Business board’s study “Despite multiple efforts by Congress and the Department to improve the system, the end result is still three stovepipes, each of which is a multi-layered bureaucratic process that is not linked to the others.” This quote confirms that each service, with its own acquisition bureaucracy, has multiple duplicating functions both internally and across services. The net result: infighting, lack of accountability, and a waste of resources. I challenge anyone to write the organization chart for the services acquisition functions. If it doesn’t end up looking like a plate of spaghetti, you haven’t done it right. And, organizational spaghetti isn’t conducive to providing cutting edge products on time and within budget.
Speaking of spaghetti, look at the defense acquisition lifecycle wallchart. Can anyone profess to understand it? What is the likelihood world-class companies like Apple or Toyota would use such a process?
It is a paradox but true, that as our weapon systems get more complex, the organizations and processes to manage those systems must get simpler. Radically simpler.
The DoD acquisition process must be completely disbanded and re-established from a clean start.
This is what the DOD acquisition process should be. Five (5) phases, seven (7) technical reviews, three (3) decision points. That’s it, three decision points. ACAT whatever-whatever, it doesn’t matter. Three decision points. At each decision point, a single paper, less than one hundred pages, is required. Not the 40-odd documents required now. A single paper to answer three questions.
1. How will it help the mission?
2. Is it technically feasible?
3. Is it worth what it will cost?
The answer to those questions is all the Milestone Decision Authority needs. ACAT whatever, whatever, it doesn’t matter; that’s all the information the decision authority needs. Answer those three questions satisfactorily, the program moves on. If not, not.
Ok, I know what you are thinking…but, regulatory requirements, but, statutory requirements, but, but, but. Yes, I know. But those regulatory and statutory requirements didn’t come down with Moses from the mountain. They can be changed. We have congressional liaison people on the payroll, put them to work. This is a fight we can win.
Next up, eliminate all service specific acquisition functions and reconstitute under a single DOD organization. The notional acquisition organization shown below is organized around joint capability, not service specific functions. For purposes of this chart I call that the Defense Acquisition Command. Under the Defense Acquisition Command there are major commands focused on a particular area of capability. For example, Land Warfare Systems Command, Sea Systems Command, Air Systems Command, Information systems Command, etc. These Commands provide a capability in their area of responsibility to all services. No more organizational spaghetti. The net result, better interoperability, less duplication, lower cost.
Our war-fighters deserve an acquisition organization and process backing them up that looks like it was designed on purpose.
 Defense Business Board, Linking and Streamlining the Defense Requirements, Acquisition, and Budget Process, April 19, 2012
Jeff Windham has over 25 years experience as a systems engineer and configuration manager for the US Army, Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. He holds several patents for small arms designs. He is the author of the current military standard on configuration management and teaches configuration management throughout the Army. He holds a BS degree in Aerospace Engineering from Mississippi State University and an MS in Business Administration from East Texas State University.
Over the next few days, we will present some of the ideation topics that will be discussed, refined and presented at the conference. Feedback on each proposal is welcomed and encouraged.
Our military instills the core values of excellence, courage, integrity and even innovation. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to develop the skills necessary to become an innovator with the current system of professional military education. Squadron Officer School (along with other service schools) does energize young leaders to lead, but after 8 weeks, it doesn’t provide any guidance whatsoever on how to implement change in a system so full of institutional inertia. My proposal to remedy this weakness is by establishing a program for short-term externships as an option for some military officers and NCOs in lieu of some traditional professional development programs.
One powerful and concrete way to diversify experiences is to expose 0-3’s & 0-4’s (and/or senior NCOs) to new models of innovation and problem solving through a two to four month-long externship, outside of the military. The basic idea is to expose them to short term, solution oriented projects and organizations where innovation is encouraged. Imagine if we actively sought to place emerging leaders in unfamiliar environments where they gained comfort in anticipating the unexpected while also learning to counter whatever obstacles they face. Expanding externships could fundamentally shift the “normal” way of doing business in the military. Externships can also inculcate an enhanced tool-set and grow a resource-rich external network that will benefit these leaders throughout their military careers.
I originally researched solutions to the lack of innovation because of my own frustrations with trying to bring about change in a culture resistant to innovation. The organizations on most bases (or posts/garrison) operate in an environment laden with institutional inertia. Processes and bureaucracy are a big part of the ecosystem. “Process” is, by nature, designed to minimize disruptions (or “variations”). Unfortunately this type of bureaucracy stomps out many innovative ideas by junior officers or senior NCOs because it could disrupt the status quo. Even if a great idea is proposed, the chances are very real that it will be snuffed out by a culture whose mantra is “this is the way things have always been done.” It became my goal to be a part of a solution to end the use of that phrase and propose a better method of building future leaders and in turn will affect military culture.
My experience at the StartingBloc Institute exposed me to many organizations that strive to tackle problems in innovative ways. Pave.com, for example, fundamentally changed the way I viewed personnel development. There were many other organizations where leaders could benefit by embedding in a short-term externship. CGOs and NCOs would be exposed to innovative leadership that is currently very difficult to find in the military sector. These organizations thrive on a culture of innovative leadership. Innovation at their organization is valued, expected, and required because their bottom line depends on it. After attending an amazing mentorship conference put on by these groups, I became determined to think of ways to bring about aspects of this type of to the military. I believe that the knowledge necessary to positively affect our culture can only be gained by an immersive experience, not just a series of briefings or readings.
Esteban is a pilot in the Air Force reserve. He is also pursuing an MBA and recently completed a selective mentorship program at StartingBloc Institute.
The emergence of the Millenial Generation among our armed forces has had a significant impact on the way current generations communicate with each other. While all ages have their generational conflicts, the advent of Social Media and the internet has introduced new variables into the equation.
There are two forces at play regarding the emergence of Millennials in the military. One is the well worn friction between generations, while the other is the somewhat-novel approach that Millennials take from contemporary communication.
This distinction is important, as many discussions regarding the current generational dynamic within the military is easily bogged down in trying to define the current dynamic as either being unique or not. Generations tend to be at odds with each other, and as this dynamic repeats itself at regular intervals, there isn’t much to add.
However, to the second part, concerning how Millennials communicate, there is much to say. It’s a fair statement that Millennials are much more used to ‘running conversations’ that are light in specific instances of substance, but over a week or longer, accumulates substance that becomes robust and content heavy (it’s actually interesting to additionally note the growing similarities between Arabic and millennial communication style across social media).
This sense of communication among Millennials contradicts the notion of quarters, all hands calls, formations, orders, and other fundamental aspects of Naval communication. Obviously a tactical environment does not lend itself to the ‘text message’ style of communication. However, if we look at what the text message style of communication does, we can begin to approximate its effects elsewhere. A word that is not often used enough in describing the effects of millennial communication is “familiarity.”
Constant interaction through various forms of communication (namely via SMS and social media) enables a level of familiarity that is robust in consistency and shallow in the depth of the conversation. It’s easy to keep abreast of what friends and family are doing, which in turn gives the impression that there is a higher level of intimacy in the relationship than there actually is.
This familiarity with the happenings of large social groups, despite any distance separating the group, has an interesting effect. The way Millennials define ‘knowing’ someone has a fundamentally different foundation than previous generations. In terms of the military, the Chain of Command does not easily allow for such familiarity, and such familiarity can even be considered an anathema to a professional senior-subordinate relationship.
Additionally, constant communication can change the way in which people learn. The nature of information today is contextual to an extent not inherent in forms of media that predate social media. I, myself, learn best through conversation, and my fellow classmates suffer through the seemingly endless amount of questions I raise during class.
As such, when issuing orders, it should likely be expected that they would question what was being said to them — not because they are immature, but because that is how they interact with the world. This, in my opinion, is the genesis of the sense of insubordination senior leaders get from my generation. This isn’t to say that orders should always be questioned. Rather, it indicates that the act of questioning orders isn’t insubordinate in and of itself. Tone, body language, and demeanor all indicate the intent of the question.
The need for prompt execution of orders in combat situations will never change – and subordinates need to understand this. However, answering questions, when time and circumstance allow, to provide context in which an order is given can alleviate the need for subordinates to ask questions in more directed environment.
At Corry Station, I approached leading my class of 10 Army and 4 Navy boots by talking with them about what was expected. This wasn’t accomplished immediately, and I had to approach the timeline as being literally the entire length of the class–all four months (an acceptable timeline, as this was a training environment). Whenever I would demand something of them, I would (try to) end it with “does this make sense” and honestly allow them to tell me if it didn’t. At that point, I would re-explain or rephrase what I had said to them. I’d even go into the weeds regarding the reasoning behind what was demanded of them. I got my class to the point of having a sense familiarity with the reasoning, values, and thinking of the military that was otherwise an abstract notion that did not linearly add up to what was demanded of them day-to-day.
A lot of talking was required between me and the boots, and a fair amount of one-on-one conversations too. I wasn’t just ‘nice’ to them either, I did my fair share of yelling, and telling them that they had failed to accomplish what I had asked of them (usually cleaning) and thus having them do it correctly a second time. But, by the end of the class, all but two graduated with honors from a difficult signals intelligence course.
Leadership of Millennials demands a deeper level of understanding of the context in which the military operates. You have to be able to articulate the reasons and context behind what is demanded of them. This is not based out of a sense of entitlement, but rather based out of a sense of being ‘hyper-familiar’ with their social groups. The military can adjust to this without a massive reorganization of itself. It just needs to provide a similar type of familiarity between senior-subordinate, as well as with the context in which the millennial is given orders.
H. Lucien Gauthier III is an Enlisted Sailor in the United States Navy, specializing in cryptography. You can read more of his writing at the United States Naval Institute’s blog.
Trust. In principle it sounds great, but in practice it often looks like a scary concept to some leaders. When leadership discussions turn to trust, usually it is about seniors trusting their subordinates. Earlier this summer at Forbes.com I wrote about that relationship. The short article looked at the work of the great strategist and naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan and took lessons from his study of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson which could be applied both in the military and business worlds. But there is another critical role which trust plays when we’re talking about military innovation, and specifically innovation by junior personnel: Trust in ourselves.
Mahan was a founding member of the faculty at the U.S. Naval War College, and the second President of that institution which was our nation’s very first War College. He believed that teaching leadership and command was as important as strategy and policy. His lessons about the interplay between risk and trust were an important part of his writing and teaching. In his 1902 essay Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies he reminded us that “it is necessary first and for all to disabuse the mind of the idea that a scheme can be devised, a disposition imagined, by which all risk is eliminated.”
Mahan admired Britain’s Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson because Nelson embraced risk as a means to achieve great reward. But how could Nelson face the risks, which sometimes meant decisions or actions which could be career ending? Mahan wrote “as Nelson trusted his fellows, so he trusted his voice within.” It was this conviction in his own decisions, trust in himself, that allowed Nelson to face risk. Nelson himself once wrote that “so far from being infallible, like the Pope, I believe my opinions to be very fallible, and therefore I may be mistaken,” but as a combat leader he knew that he had to make decisions and accept the risks in order to be effective.
Mahan recognized some failing in himself. He remembered examples when he had worked through a problem reasonably and had come to a course of action, “but had not the nerve to take [it] because of the remaining doubt. Here reason, the goddess of to-day, halts and fails.” At a certain point, belief in your idea may simply come down to faith. If you want to make a difference, and you have an innovation you believe in, it is rarely an easy path. You’re going to have to trust yourself.
Whether we’re talking about William Sims leading the gunnery revolution in the U.S. Navy a century ago, or Frank Gregory working with Igor Sikorsky to convince the Army of the utility of the flying contraptions called helicopters, we find officers who refused to quit. Psychologists like Angela Duckworth call this grit. Mahan recognized the same thing and wrote that we must recognize “the shilly-shally vacillations of the multitude of clever men, who never find in themselves the power to act upon their opinions, if action involves risk, because opinion receives not that inward light which we called conviction, confidence, trust.”
How do we get that level of grit, confidence, or trust? Where does Mahan’s “inward light” come from? It certainly isn’t easy. One way, which we see time and time again in examples of military innovation, is that you have to know your “stuff.” (This is a family friendly blog, but we all know how military folks will read that statement). You have to become an expert in your field, maybe even THE expert. That means hard work. That means studying, and researching, and homework. It will probably take years. It rarely takes weeks or even months. A single blog post with an idea simply won’t cut it, even in the digital age.
One of the favorite examples of DEF’s founders when talking about military innovation is Colonel John Boyd. His life story is an incredible series of ideas and innovations which have had dramatic impacts on the last fifty years of military history. But Boyd didn’t just spout off interesting thoughts. His path to the aerial attack study, energy maneuverability theory, and strategic design, included many long nights at a desk strewn with books, or hunched over a typewriter. He labored over the briefings he gave at the Pentagon and to Air Force leaders. He always did his homework. The questions of the staff-pukes he briefed were usually intended to try and derail him or embarrass him. But, he used his research to set traps for them, using their own questions and lack of homework against them to help push his ideas through the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Trust in ourselves doesn’t come from the number of hits on a website, it doesn’t come from the grades on your FITREP, Eval, or OER, and it doesn’t come from simple ego. It comes from hard work, long nights of research and study. That is why Major General McMaster told us to study war and warfare, it is why Jake Harriman discussed the fear involved in any act which disrupts the status quo, and why Nate Finney pointed out that innovation doesn’t have to mean a new gadget or social media.
Successful military leadership and innovation requires many attributes, but Alfred Thayer Mahan studied command and leadership throughout history and came to a very important conclusion. Leaders like Admiral Nelson reach greatness because of “the inborn natural power to trust; to trust himself and others.” To find your own success, as a leader or innovator, you must learn to develop that “inner light” and learn to trust.
BJ Armstrong is a naval aviator currently working in the Pentagon, and a speaker on the first day of DEF 2013. His book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era,” with Mahan’s lessons on leadership, trust, strategy, and more, was released this summer by The Naval Institute Press. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.
The Pacific Campaign of World War II was the greatest naval war ever seen. The names of Chester Nimitz, “Bull” Halsey, Arleigh Burke, and nearly countless others will ring through history for generations. These naval leaders were so great in part because they were incredibly aggressive and willing to take the risks necessary to sail directly into harm’s way and face a peer – if not superior – adversary at sea. Since winning WWII, the Navy has not been seriously challenged at sea, so there has been no need to take great risk for the potential of great gain. This has resulted in the aggressive and tenacious culture necessary to confront a peer or near peer adversary gradually dwindling. That void has been filled with the need to continuously mitigate risk, and this culture has expanded far beyond tactical risk taking to include taking risks which could adversely affect someone’s career.
The result has been developing a stagnating case of atychiphobia – the fear of failure. This affliction has been taking hold culturally since the conclusion of WWII and has now spread to virtually uncontrollable levels. The current system does not give any permission to fail. Not even a little. This removes a valuable learning mechanism from the professional development of leaders. The emphasis placed on leadership development from the earliest stages of training focuses on preventing mistakes and risk mitigation. Risk is too often associated with recklessness. While aggressiveness and calculated risk taking can be necessary to win a conflict, recklessness has no place on the battlefield. Reckless leaders may succeed in the short term through sheer chance, but recklessness will ultimately bring failure throughout sustained operations. Properly mitigating risk is essential to good operations, but when it becomes the mantra of an entire career, or worse, that of an entire organization, it quenches virtually any chance of professional invention or innovation.
Learning Instead of Failing
History has many examples of failure being essential to learning. Thomas Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” referencing his repeated attempts to invent the light bulb, is quoted much more extensively. But when discussing leadership development, Mark Twain probably described it better when he said that “good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” So many great minds have proclaimed that they have learned more through failure than success. The most robust professional development does not come through repeated success but through the proper recovery after failure. Organizations and individuals who fear failure to debilitating levels cannot learn or learn at rates so slow that they effectively stagnate and are surpassed by ones who are willing to fail, learn, and adapt.
What does failing even mean? Is it not getting the specific results that were expected? Is it results which have an adverse effect on an individual or an organization? Is it adverse effects which result in the termination of an individual or organization? There are many degrees of what people refer to as failure, but the professional view within the Navy tends toward the extreme that anything which is not perfect must be a failure. A false claim has been made that this impossibly high standard drives everyone to strive for perfection, and as a result moves the organization forward. This is illogical. True perfection is impossible, so the only alternative to avoiding failure and adversely affecting a career is to generate the illusion of perfection. To have the illusion of perfection, one does not have to accomplish great or even good tasks. All they must do is avoid negative marks on their record. This directly drives an apprehension to doing anything and is a perfect recipe for stagnation. This removes all chance of the inventiveness and creativity necessary to move an organization forward.
Sorting Instead of Failing
Failure is viewed as a very strong word with clearly negative connotations. No one wants to be a failure, but is not being selected for the next milestone on a certain career path always truly failing? Can this not simply be finding one of the things that do not work? Hopefully it does not take 10,000 attempts to find the career that someone is best suited for, but failing can be a healthy part of the process. Everyone cannot be good at everything, but virtually everyone is good at something. The only way to know is to try something and see if it works out. If it does not then it is time to try something else. Someone who is not suited for a particular job within the Navy is most likely not a bad person, they have just not found what they excel at. Instead of a failure, it should be viewed as an opportunity to try and find what fits.
If no one takes risks and everyone just shoots for the average, it becomes virtually impossible to determine who is good at what. The sorting function is unable to perform as necessary. Through the selection process bad commanders will slip through and potentially good commanders will not be recognized. There is also the added disadvantage of robbing a potentially good commander of the valuable lessons they may require from some healthy failures in their professional development. These are lessons that they could bring with them to command and as a result make the entire force stronger.
The cultural shift toward atychiphobia was gradual and unintentional. It was not the conscious decision of a few within leadership, but instead the natural tendency of an organization on the top of its field. For over half of a century the United States has had the privilege of possessing the greatest Navy that the world has ever seen, but history has proven time and time again that all glory is fleeting. Aggressive and tenacious leaders wielded a fleet which was fueled by American technological innovation. The present day fleet is full of many technological innovations. One can only hope a lack of aggressive tenacity bred from a fear of failure will not bring a fall from glory.
Jason H. Chuma is a Navy submarine officer. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Naval War College Intermediate Command and Staff Course. His current assignment is to the Navy Warfare Development Command where he serves as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.
Tactical is the new strategic.
The contemporary threat environment (both physical and digital) has exploded with complexity. Questions that could be more or less taken for granted in the Cold War (e.g. where and when to look, what to look for, who to look at, etc.) can no longer be ignored. And as the top-down, Low Density / High Demand concepts of intelligence collection, dissemination, and synthesis have gradually given way to more democratized forms of network-based, “tactical” intelligence that reflect the vagaries of contemporary military problems, it has become more and more difficult to separate the nuggets of intelligence gold from the tailings. Enter the Big Data problem…
The Big Idea
From an intel perspective, the three of the most important lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism include:
1) Look Everywhere. If you don’t know where to look, you better be looking everywhere;
2) Look Often. Knowing when to look is just as important as knowing where to look; and
3) Look Around. Nothing beats the power of the Mark 2 eyeball (and the individual operator that comes with it) for identifying meaning and intent in complex situations.
Unfortunately, the way that these lessons have been internalized leaves a lot to be desired, which is to say that DoD’s relentless drive to satisfy lessons 1) and 2) is producing a glut of imagery and Full Motion Video (FMV) content that can’t be exploited by analysts or decision makers in relevant timeframes, with 3) taken for granted as merely a byproduct of dismounted operations as opposed to a foundational component of the overall military intelligence enterprise.
What does NASA know that DoD doesn’t?
Rethinking the current approach to formalizing these lessons within the context of emerging commercial mobile and social technologies offers tremendous potential to the military. Getting a lot of independent eyes on a problem is an efficient means to distribute the analysis burden, an idea that NASA has explored in the hunt for asteroids and other stellar objects. Moreover, as collectors, individuals immersed in an environment express an uncanny ability to spot the items of significance and value in a scene, separating signal from noise. And first person observations provide a powerful contextual framework for filtering and organizing unstructured data and information content to create situational meaning.
The term “wayfinding” refers to the way that people (and animals) orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place, and it is based, in part, on the fact that people maintain an implicit sense of the local environments where they predominantly live and work. Today with the proliferation of mobile and social technologies on the battlefield, DoD has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage wayfinding techniques by aggregating distributed route knowledge (how to get from A to B) to create survey knowledge (understanding of an area). Such composite, synoptic views of the AO from the operator perspective up will provide an invaluable tool for addressing the three intelligence imperatives to Look Everywhere, by conflating multiple overlapping and non-overlapping perspectives, Look Often, by creating persistent representations of place through time, and Look Around, by leveraging geo-referenced first person observations as a filter for Big Data.
Jay Harrison is a Defense industry entrepreneur and change agent. During his 10-year career as a uniformed and civilian employee of the Department of Defense, he achieved the distinction of being awarded an unprecedented three consecutive Army Greatest Invention awards for his contributions to technology innovation in the public sector.
In 2006, Jay teamed up with U.S. Army combat leader Major General Buford C. Blount, USA (Ret.), to create a new kind of Defense technology company optimized for the emerging realities of the global security environment. From this initial vision, Mav6, LLC – a company that employs design-based principles and open source innovation to solve the “wicked” problems in Defense and national security – was born.
DEF2013 is about putting innovation into action. That’s why all attendees will roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, tackling real problems in collaborative Ideation groups. You will receive hands-on training in running the Ideation process, while simultaneously designing and refining innovative new concepts for the Department of Defense. DEF2013 will offer three separate tracks for innovation:
1. Design an Innovation Framework for the Department of Defense – DEF’s goal is to promote a culture of innovation across the entire military. In this track, you will help design the infrastructure to make that possible. The most innovative companies do not relegate R&D to one small department; they embed innovation across the entire organization, encouraging and empowering every single employee to innovate using carefully-designed processes, incentive structures, and tools. In this track, you will design an Innovation Framework for the DOD: a toolkit that any aspiring defense entrepreneur can use to make innovation happen in his or her home unit.
2. Solutions for Today - Many of you will arrive at DEF2013 with a passion for a particular issue: a problem you want to solve, or an idea you want to execute. In the tradition of hackathons and business plan competitions, we will give you the opportunity to build a team, advance your proposal, and set it before a panel of senior military leaders.
3. Imagined Futures - In addition to solving today’s problems, entrepreneurs must look to the future with creativity and vision. In this track, we invite our members to question the way we’ve always done business, and to imagine entirely new futures based on evolving technology and changing social contexts. These teams are not aiming at immediate execution; they are unveiling possible futures that few others can see.