Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Why doesn’t the Army just order its officers to be more creative and adaptive?

Regulations mandating adaptiveness might be as useful as this report unveiled earlier this month by a couple of Army generals: "Everybody turn left and be creative." Seriously, watching today’s generals discuss how to improve leadership development is a little like watching dinosaurs discuss how to evolve. In bureaucratic terms, reports like this are called "moving ...

West Point
West Point
West Point

Regulations mandating adaptiveness might be as useful as this report unveiled earlier this month by a couple of Army generals: "Everybody turn left and be creative."

Seriously, watching today's generals discuss how to improve leadership development is a little like watching dinosaurs discuss how to evolve. In bureaucratic terms, reports like this are called "moving deckchairs on the Titanic" -- that is, lots of fiddling at the margins but very little grappling with basic issues. For example, there is a lot of talk about mission command, but no indication that they studied how other organizations implemented and cultivated it.

This report missed an opportunity. It should have tackled large issues. For example, two-career marriages are now the norm in American society, but the Army doesn't recognize that in the way it runs its personnel system, which seems stuck in the Industrial Age. What kind of signal does that send about senior service leadership being out-of-touch and/or unable to deal with today's realities? For that reason, and many others, it is time to move the Army's approach to people into the Information Age. In the 21st century it could be much more flexible than it is, offering features like sabbaticals, maternity breaks, and the ability to return after trying the private sector. That might keep some of the talent now fleeing.

Regulations mandating adaptiveness might be as useful as this report unveiled earlier this month by a couple of Army generals: "Everybody turn left and be creative."

Seriously, watching today’s generals discuss how to improve leadership development is a little like watching dinosaurs discuss how to evolve. In bureaucratic terms, reports like this are called "moving deckchairs on the Titanic" — that is, lots of fiddling at the margins but very little grappling with basic issues. For example, there is a lot of talk about mission command, but no indication that they studied how other organizations implemented and cultivated it.

This report missed an opportunity. It should have tackled large issues. For example, two-career marriages are now the norm in American society, but the Army doesn’t recognize that in the way it runs its personnel system, which seems stuck in the Industrial Age. What kind of signal does that send about senior service leadership being out-of-touch and/or unable to deal with today’s realities? For that reason, and many others, it is time to move the Army’s approach to people into the Information Age. In the 21st century it could be much more flexible than it is, offering features like sabbaticals, maternity breaks, and the ability to return after trying the private sector. That might keep some of the talent now fleeing.

Nor does there appear to be any reference to how the Army conducted the last 10 years of war. I guess the Army’s leaders think everything went well. If not, maybe they could start by re-thinking the Army’s bizarre rotational approach to warfare, in which commanders come and go. (One possibility would be alternating command teams at the division level and above, doing one year in and one year out for the duration, with different brigades rotating in below them. Worth thinking about.)

OK, Mr. Best Defense, you’re so smart, what would you recommend instead? Glad you asked! Here are some thoughts, rooted in historical research, about what I think the report should have said:

  • In a peacetime force, which is what the Army is about to become, you preserve your seedcorn by emphasizing professional military education. What do militaries do in peacetime? Train and educate. One reason our senior leaders were better in World War II than in World War I was that during the interwar period, the military education system was rigorous and respected. 
  • But a year in PME cannot be permitted to be the slacker sort-of sabbatical that it has become in many places. (I’m looking at you, Air War College.) It should be intellectually rigorous, with an intense reading load and lots of writing (and re-writing until the paper is of acceptable quality. If you are not writing clearly, you are not thinking clearly). Admission should be competitive, and available only to perhaps the top half or top third of the cohort. Grading should be serious, with no "A"s for effort. There should be class rankings, released to the class perhaps weekly. At the end of the year, class rankings from top to bottom should be made public. There probably also should be a failure rate of at least 5 percent. And all these outcomes should have consequences for the remainder of an officer’s career.
  • The education should be of such quality that graduates of staff and war colleges are sought after by senior commanders. They are not today, under the "no major left behind" program. Having attended CGSC strikes me as not something that commanders are demanding.
  • Teaching in PME should be a sought-after prize, not an act of voluntary career curtailment. There is a reason that Omar Bradley spent the majority of the interwar period as either a teacher or student in the military education system. One thing I did like in the powerpoint was on slide 12: "Require teaching in PME as a prerequisite for LTC and Colonel command." This is interesting, but it wouldn’t be necessary if the smart, ambitious officers knew that teaching was a reliable route to the top.    
  • The emphasis in PME should be not on training but on education, on developing officers capable of critical thinking. This is essential to prepare people for the unknown.
  • If you want adaptiveness in people, reward it. Others then will emulate it. Distinguish between one-time failure and incompetence. Trying and failing on occasion is an inevitable result of risk-taking. Incompetence, by contrast, stems from persistent failure — and paralyzes risk-avoidance. What you want is prudent risk-taking. Performance, good and bad, should carry consequences. Accountability will incentivize adaptiveness. Bureaucratic rules won’t.
Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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