- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Utility of Liaison Officers
Midway through my year with General Stanley McChrystal, I found myself in the back seat of a well-worn and dented SUV. We were driving from a landing zone outside Baghdad through the coalition-secured “Green Zone” of Iraq’s capital, and I was thinking about the next steps for McChrystal and the rest of the leaders on this trip.
McChrystal and a teammate of ours behind the wheel talked about what was on the agenda for the day. This latter figure, who drove through the blackened streets with the familiarity of a local, had been waiting by this vehicle as the Task Force’s helicopters landed on an airstrip outside of the city.
He was a highly respected member of our organization, well known to many of the task force’s personnel from his previous battlefield tours — but pertinent to tonight’s events, he was the Task Force’s liaison to Multi-National Coalition–Iraq (MNC-I), an external military command whose headquarters were in the capital. An experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he was representative of the type and quality of individuals who had been placed in these positions — he was a giver, an influencer figure in his home unit. He and one other liaison would spend the next year rotating in and out of this critical position, with one forward-deployed and another back in the United States at all times.
As we drove, the Task Force’s tactical units were in a window of empowered execution — our O&I had ended a few hours prior, so now the teams were moving, networking, and driving operations freely with one another, aligned on strategy and narrative.
Hence our strategic leadership was free to focus on external relationships with our peer organizations. This trip would focus on the one we held with the key conventional military leadership of the Iraq war, MNC-I, while simultaneously supporting the reputation and activity of our liaison who was integrated with them.
Like all of the other liaisons the Task Force had emplaced within different commands and organizations around the world, the officer behind the wheel filled two critical functions for our organization.
First, he was a critical lifeline into MNC-I and a facilitator of trust with them: If any activity involving the Task Force was impacting the operations of regular Coalition troops in the country, or vice versa, this officer would keep the senior leadership teams of both the Task Force and MNC-I informed. He, like other great liaisons around the world, ensured that no actions of either organization caught the other unawares, proactively identified opportunities for mutual collaboration or information sharing between them, and, most important, was familiar enough with the tribal norms of his host organization to interpret our actions from their perspective — and vice versa.
During a pre-meeting drive like this, a great liaison (which this officer certainly was) would often be saying to McChrystal, Okay, boss, when we did X, they were really pissed. That made no sense to them, because here’s how they see that problem…. In doing so, the liaison was demonstrating his ability to speak the languages of both organizations and quickly translate back and forth between them in a way that a telephone- tree bureaucracy would not be able to accurately or efficiently match.
Then, freshly armed with our host’s perspective on a recent action or incident, McChrystal could enter a conversation with our partners, with the liaison in tow, saying, Okay, let’s talk about X. I’ve had a long talk with our liaison about how you interpreted that action, which I completely understand. He gave me a great sense of your perspective, so I can see why that action would create tension. What we were trying to accomplish was Y and Z … and this is why. We understand your thoughts on this type of action better now, and in the future I guarantee you that it will inform our decision making, and you’ll know before we take any action.
A brushfire extinguished before the forest is ablaze.
Again, only seasoned members of the organization could become truly effective liaisons with our most critical partners. Moreover, only a liaison with a well-grounded understanding of our complex battlefield could provide this type of information contextualization between our most senior leaders around the world. This was the reason that our organization had begun to place such an emphasis on their careful selection and why — as exemplified by this visit — our strategic leadership spent so much time engaging directly with them.
Combat operations were already ongoing for the night, yet the Task Force’s highest-ranked leader had made the conscious choice to focus on a point-by-point discussion with this liaison officer, confident that it was the best use of his energy. This understanding of priorities also sent a deliberate message to our tactical teams during periods of shared consciousness: You fight the war on the ground, and we’ll manage the relationships needed to support your efforts.
This is adapted from ONE MISSION: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Chris Fussell, 2017.
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