Sunday, November 4, 2012

Generals and Leadership

Mr. Thomas E. Ricks has just written a book on leadership among our generals and how it has changed over the course of the last 70 years.  I have read an except from the book, though not the book itself (just released on 30 October I believe), and from what I have read I find I am ‘violent agreement.’

It is often said (at least by me) that the senior officers of the pre-McNamara era were better than those since.  That is by no means universal, the list of really lousy FOGOs (Flag Officers and General Officers) from the 40s, 30s, 30s, teens, all the way back to Gen. McClellan during the Civil War, is long and painful to review.  But there are several points to be made when looking at those lists and that history, and one item might help illuminate it.  (By the way, it is always helpful to look at Lincoln's list of army commanders - Scott, McClellan, Halleck, Meade, .... seven guys before he got to Grant in 1864 - and the war only three years old at that time.)

On my shelf is a book (found in an antique furniture store, go figure) "On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor" by Admiral J.O. Richardson (he who was fired in early 1941 (for objecting to FDR that the placing of the fleet in Hawaii was dangerous beyond all acceptable risk and needed to be pulled back to California) and relieved by Admiral Husband Kimmel).  While the book is interesting reading, the most fascinating thing in it is an appendix, a list of the ships and squadrons and stations in the US Navy as of January 1941 (when Richardson was relieved).  The CO of each command is also listed. Shortly after I got the book I was sitting and reading the appendix when something struck me: how few of the names on the list rang any bells whatsoever.  And some, who were fairly junior who did.  In short, most of the officers who were in command were moved to staff billets, replaced (and often replaced again) until competent commanders were found.  A few, like Lockwood, were captains who three years later were wearing 3 stars.

In short, the system knew how to retain folks who could keep a seat warm, but when it needed to, it knew how to push them aside and bring in folks who could lead.  Admiral ‘Betty’ Stark is a good example.  As CNO – Chief of Naval Operations - before the war Stark worked beautifully with the White House and Congress to lay out the shipbuilding and aircraft and personnel and weapons needs for the war.  He was however not a war leader and was relieved in March of 42 and sent to England to work the liaison and preps for the invasion.  He worked well with the Brits, but never took part in any combat planning despite his title (he was Commander Naval Forces Europe); Admiral Ernie King – the officer who replaced him as CNO (and was also Commander-in-Chief US Fleet) made certain of that.

The Army was no different, and watching how General Marshall – Chief of Staff of the Army - went through the list of colonels and generals, like death swinging his scythe, is alien to us today.

The question that needs to be answered is how did the system know how to find good officers who might or might not be decent in peace time, but who would be excellent candidates for war time, and keep hold of them until needed, while at the same time grinding on with the bureaucratic process?  Two points come to mind: 1) the senior officer corps was smaller - everyone knew each other - well.  

It is fascinating to read accounts of Ernie King - nearly everyone hated him, and nearly everyone, when asked "who is the smartest guy in the Navy?" would answer "Ernie King."  He was mean, unpleasant professionally and socially, regularly ‘remembered’ people who crossed him, and was tactically, operationally and strategically brilliant.  The lack of 'padding' in the ranks of captains and admirals, and colonels and generals is, I believe, one key to the system being able to recognize talent - the proliferation today of shore billets for senior officers, joint billets, where people go and once there can hide their marginal knowledge of naval warfare (or ground warfare for the Army, etc.) is a major problem.  Simply put, the 'system' was small enough that everyone knew of the real professional strengths and weaknesses of senior officers, recognized excellence in warcraft and prized it.  Some few of these folks would be promoted, but many more were left to 'hang on.'  (General George Patton made brigadier general in 1940 - he was class of 09, and spent 10 years as a colonel.  Thirty-one years to make general today is unheard of – he would have been asked to retire by 1939.)  Marginal officers were promoted to run things administratively, in effect providing fodder to be thrown out as soon as it was time to promote the truly competent.

This system really had developed since the late 1800s with the rise of the war colleges and the rise of professional forces (special thanks to Presidents Garfield and Arthur who really got it moving) and congealed in the few years right after WWI.  But, arguably the nature of the system was always such that it had always kept hold of the truly competent by giving them meaningful jobs, recognizing their competence, but refusing to promote them.  Again, I think this is possible when you have a small officer corps that is heavily focused on warfighting.

There is a political and organization philosophy that describes this, and it come from Hobbes.  There is a very Hobbesian element to this, in the sense that Hobbes' identifies the prime driver of a government (or in this case, a major bureaucratic element of a government - a Navy, an Army, etc.) as survival of the entity itself.  Thus, a government will fight not for the survival of the country, but for the survival of the government - survival of the country is a necessary pre-condition but it is not what the government is really fighting for.  For a Navy or Army there is no difference: the organization - particularly as embodied by the OPNAV staff (the OPNAV staff is the large staff that runs the Navy in Washington) or the Army staff - fights for the survival of the Navy or Army.  How that manifests itself in Washington is in the form of budgets and billets - and the more senior billets the better.  War fighting skills become necessary 'dress' for the real battles inside the halls of Congress (or in the forum - Caesar was as familiar with the problem as we).  

The key here is that the major mechanism for any 'Leviathan' to succeed is through the reward of those who support it.  Hobbes makes his famous point that 'life is solitary, nasty, brutish and short' but then goes on to explain how the Leviathan makes it less so for those who support it.  And for those who work harder, the Leviathan rewards them more.  If you take care of the Navy, you get promoted.  If you REALLY take care of the Navy, you make flag.  And some will make 4-star - if they go the extra mile.  And then, in the end, used up, the Leviathan discards them and finds another.

Thus, it is not Naval or Maritime competency, or leadership competency or ground combat skills, or courage under fire or even intellect that make you an attractive candidate for flag; it is your ability to suit the needs of Leviathan, the beast.  Does it help to look the part, to sound good, to wear your uniform well?  Sure.  But, remember, you are here to serve Leviathan.  Real leaders lead, they take a thing and move it in a certain direction - usually THEIR direction.  But Leviathan already has a direction.  Changing that direction equals risk, and Leviathan – by its very nature - is risk averse.  (All bureaucracies oppose risk and change, because risk and change can mean the bureaucracy loses strength and funding.)  So, real leaders are not welcome. And the key is that the selection process needs to weed out the risks before they get someplace where they can threaten the system.  And that is what the flag and general officer selection process really does.  By continually crafting ever more refined 'requirements' for flag, ones that include ever more joint and staff requirements, we get the opportunity to further refine the candidates.  And the key candidates are the ones with real budget authority: 3 and 4 star officers - who aren't selected by a board but are nominated by the services - a self-fulfilling process that ensures no one really is a hard charging leader who makes 4 stars. (There are still exceptions - they are usually mistakes, and they never end up as Chiefs of services where they might be given an opportunity to do something major.)

How did we get here then?  And have the services always been risk averse?  I think it is fair to say that the system was always trending in this direction.  The services were small enough throughout the 1800s that up until the Civil War it wasn't that much of an issue. Again, small organizations where the leadership knows each other from their youth forward in part helps to prevent this.  The Civil War of course revealed a large number of incompetents but thankfully we had Lincoln and he saw through it all.  After that we stumbled for nearly two decades until Garfield and Secretary of the Navy Hunt decided to build a modern, sophisticated navy (and Arthur continued it after Garfield's murder, with the assistance of Secretary of the Navy Chandler).  The Army was slow to follow, but with the end of the Indian Wars started to focus on a professional force by the end of the century - which yielded dividends in WWI.  The services were able to handle the rapid growth of WWI because of this, and manage the drawdown, the interwar years and WWII.  

But WWII left so much overhead and non-warfighting establishment in place that the services immediately began to unravel.  Anyone who has any doubts of this needs to read some of the accounts of the officers in the Army and Navy who entered service in the 50s and read in their words just how ‘adrift’ the services were.  Colin Powel’s and Norm Schwarzkopf’s biographies are both good places to start, but there are many more.  Secretary of Defense McNamara then came in and in effect decided to kill the one thing that was holding it all together, the 'warfighting' or 'brothers in arms' ethos that acted as professional glue to the service.  McNamara wanted the DOD to think like a business and by the 1990s, with every officer having grown up in a system that was all post McNamara, it did.  The cold war, with large amounts of money being spent, but the 'warfare' mostly being conducted inside the beltway, made Hobbesian notions of survival central to staff behavior.  And thus, we find that the officers selected for FOGO now function well in Washington, and whether they function well outside it, it really doesn't matter.

But what about Junior Officers (JOs)?  The JO – to senior officer transition represents the great cognitive disconnect.  The JOs (and many non-commissioned officers – the senior enlisted (NCOs)) look around and see what needs to be done to make things work.  I vividly recall a conversation I had (Feb of 2003) with a friend's wife the night before we headed off to OIF; she asked me if we would win?  The answer was "Sure.  We have the finest companies and battalions in the world, far better than most people think they are, and everyone thinks they are pretty awesome."  What I left unsaid was that our Brigades and Regiments are very good, divisions good or fair, and corps - who cares? But that wouldn't matter in the actual major combat.  Of course, what came after it.......

The platoons and companies and battalions are lead by officers (and NCOs) who came into the military for reasons mostly separate from the ones that keep most of the colonels and FOGOs in the service.  They train hard, they are very professional, and at the platoon and company level, they are unforgiving; if you are no good, you are gone. Unfortunately, you are ‘gone’ to Brigade, where you get a decent meal, a tent and eventually, a promotion.  And the JOs look around and more often then not see the wrong officers promoted to colonel, the wrong officers receiving a Brigade command, the wrong officers being promoted to brigadier general.  (Not universally, but fewer and fewer good guys get through the higher you go).  Simply put, the real leaders don't make it because the system can't and won't risk them.  (In a simple but telling reflection of this you will often see ‘Sgt. Percival’ being interviewed and he says all the right things, things that resonate with the average US citizen - even if occasionally a bit unpolished.  Then you get ‘Major General Percival’ being interviewed and he says things that annoy, frustrate, even anger the average US citizen.  That's not an accident.)

How do we fix this?

- Size and professionalism are starters.
- Reduce the size of the flag community – massively; at least 50%, probably 65% would be better.  
- Take every billet that is listed as a 1 or 2 star billet and make it a 1 star, for starters.  
- 4 star officers only for Combatant Commanders and the Chiefs of services.  
- Every flag and general officer staff billet - in every staff  - should be reduced one rank.
- Move the promotion period for colonels and captains 2 years ‘to the right’ and make it hard and fast except in combat.  
- Move flag and general officer promotion periods 3 years to the right.
- Reduce the number of captain and colonel billets by 50%.  
- Cut every staff by 25% in size.
- Pass a law that non-deployable (for Navy), non-combat elements for Army, etc., forces can constitute no more than 40% of the force.
- Insist that all flag nominees must be graduates of their respective service war college.

That would be a good place to start.

The second thing is that there needs to be some sort of plan that the services are working off of about which Congress is aware.  Before WWI the Army and the Navy were building and training to fight against the European powers, there were real measuring sticks, even if poorly used some times.  Between WWI and WWII there were similar metrics.  In the Cold War that sort of worked and sort of didn't, for a lot of reasons: the Army mess of the 50s, the rush for nuclear forces, Vietnam, the mess that was the 70s, small elements of professionalism (nuclear submarines, fighter aviation in the Air Force and Navy, the building of the National Training Center by the Army, etc.)  But this current lack of a real, cohesive strategy is a major element of the 'freedom' the staffs (Leviathan) enjoy in leadership selection, personnel management, procurement decisions, etc., etc.  

The fact that two CNOs in a row could publicly lament that the Navy needed a maritime strategy, without anyone saying something to the effect: "You're the CNO, aren't you supposed to produce one?" and then firing them is incredible.  That is why discussions about the difficulty of a strategy in Afghanistan falls on my deaf ears: strategies must start first with a clear goal: what do we want?  If one hasn't been enunciated, the President is the leader, so give us a goal - any goal.  Then insist on a plan to achieve it, whatever it is.  If the President fails to do so, then it rumbles down the chain of command.  But, from what I have read this is still an open debate.  I have read - as I know all of you have - scores of papers from and about Afghanistan and I can list probably a half dozen grand strategic goals of the US vis-à-vis Afghanistan.  The only problem is I don't know which is 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.  And not knowing means all are and none are. Which makes meaningful planning impossible.  As President Reagan said, an organization with 6 goals is an organization with no goal.

In short, the only way to fix the mess is to recognize that the cognitive disconnect that the average JO and NCO sees (and it is driving them from the service) can only be fixed from the outside, through some hard-nosed leadership that wants to fix the services before we find ourselves in a real hurt-locker.  (And the Intelligence Community isn't really separate from all this).  That means a President and a SecDef who recognize the problem and want to do something about it.  It will require firing a bunch of officers (and senior civilians), setting new personnel policies, focusing on war fighting, establishing some really painful metrics, and doing some hard thinking about what we want our military to be capable of.  
What does this mean to everyone else?

First, for everyone who cares about our nation and our military, learn to take the comments of our senior officers with a large grain of salt.  While there are some good admirals and generals, there are also many who are incompetent or simply self-serving.  It isn’t the act of some evil god that results in ships not being ready, of programs costing too much, of troops being poorly treated, or bad decisions on battlefields; these are from failures of leadership.  And the ability of admirals and generals to get what they want, even when Congressmen and Senators think otherwise is remarkable.  There are few people on Capital Hill who will not ‘give in’ to the Pentagon when the ‘Brass’ really wants something.

Second, there is a key lesson here for any organization: large bureaucracies are destructive or real performance.  Bureaucracies are necessary, but their size must be carefully managed and constantly watched, and the organization must have clear goals – not the goals of the bureaucracy but the goals of the real leadership.  In the US, that’s ‘We the People,’ in a company, that’s the owners – not the executive board.


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