We need leaders who think like gardeners
By Maj. Joseph Bruhl Best Defense department of leadership studies Growing up, if I wasn’t playing sports, I was building model airplanes or gardening with my father. Both were captivating exercises, but for different reasons. Building models was a drill in precision and attention to detail. Gardening was a complex experiment in give and take. ...
By Maj. Joseph Bruhl
By Maj. Joseph Bruhl
Best Defense department of leadership studies
Growing up, if I wasn’t playing sports, I was building model airplanes or gardening with my father. Both were captivating exercises, but for different reasons. Building models was a drill in precision and attention to detail. Gardening was a complex experiment in give and take. Both developed important skills, but as a leader I return most frequently to the lessons of my father’s garden. Leaders who think like gardeners are better equipped to adapt, reason creatively, and approach challenges with humility than those who think like model airplane builders. Unfortunately, many in the army prefer fabricating P-51 Mustangs to nursing tomatoes.
Model airplane building supports an "A+B=C" mentality that is familiar to many in the military. Assemble the right tools, carefully study directions (read doctrine), and work with exactitude. For the model airplane builder, nothing is beyond his control. The only measure of success is: Does the model mirror the standard?
Gardeners, however, do not possess complete control. Their craft is affected by a host of things beyond their control. Gardeners’ crop output is graded, not on exactitude, but on an ability to adapt, think creatively, and remain humble enough to try new methods.
Like the gardener, today’s combat leaders understand that progress can be affected by a host of things beyond one’s control: historic feuds, dysfunctional institutions, and even past mistakes by U.S. forces. Here again, adaptability, creativity and humility are keys to success.
Adaptive leadership, however, is not limited to the counterinsurgency fight. It is a timeless military model. To support the development of "gardener-leaders," the army should do three things: develop a profession of arms that values thinking, writing, and education; adapt its personnel system to support diverse experience; and renew mentorship as a foundation to the profession of arms.
1. Developing a Profession of Arms that values education, thinking, and writing:
Access to civilian education for both officers and NCOs must be dramatically increased. Education develops a leader’s identity, mental agility, cross-cultural savvy, and interpersonal maturity. This is why universities are often analogized to gardens, where minds are cultivated and ideas are the harvest.
Increase the importance of non-divisional assignments in an officer’s professional development. Assignments to the Army Staff, the Combined Arms Center, and branch school houses are not "take a knee" assignments; they are investments in the institutions that support our profession and broaden a leader’s vision.
Encourage officers and NCOs to write and publish. In a recent article, Admiral Stavridis offers some "common sense guidelines" to consider when writing. Army leadership, following these guidelines, should be pushing folks to write and share; there is a wealth of untapped wisdom that will add richness to the army’s intellectual debates.
2. Adapting personnel systems to support diverse experience:
The army must transition its personnel systems from an industrial-aged model that views leaders as interchangeable parts to one that manages talent on an individual basis. In the absence of complete personnel system overhaul, the army should allow officers who self-select for civilian education, teaching, or internships to "slip-back" a year group or two in order to avoid missing key developmental jobs in their operational specialty.
By adapting its personnel system to allow officers to pursue opportunities that develop "gardener-leader" skills without hampering competitiveness for command, the army encourages its best officers to broaden their experience. When officers who pursue opportunities outside traditional career paths command more frequently, the army demonstrates a new set of values to junior officers.
3. Renewing mentorship as a foundation to the profession of arms:
In a culture that promotes "gardener-leaders," mentorship is critical. Model airplane building provides step-by-step instructions for the novice to follow. Gardening is something that can only be learned through experience and tutelage.
Lack of mentorship appears near the top of many surveys to explain the decision of junior officers to leave. To reverse this trend, the army should include mentorship in its holistic review of the profession of arms. What better way to build adaptive, creative, and humble leaders who reflect Army values than through active and genuine mentorship?
These three steps cultivate a culture where leaders are not wedded to "the way we do things," but are able to adapt, think creatively, and approach challenges with humility. All are "must haves" if the army expects to apply the right lessons from the last decade and safeguard its profession of arms.
For more on this, read the longer version of this article here.
Major Joseph Bruhl is a strategic planner in irregular warfare and security force assistance at the army’s Security Cooperation Plans and Concepts Division. He holds a B.A. from Truman State University and an M.P.A. from Harvard. He is a Next Generation National Security Leader fellow at the Center for New American Security.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.