Leadership: Think Different Or Die

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August 16, 2011: The U.S. Army admits that it has a leadership problem, and is looking for a solution. It all began over five years ago when, despite many battlefield successes, the army noted that junior officers (captains and majors) were not staying. So opinion surveys were ordered, and these indicated that junior officers in the U.S. Army (and Marine Corps) felt a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of senior leadership. This disconnect between junior officers, and their commanders, has been around for more than a decade. It's gotten worse with a war on, because, unlike past wars, there has not been widespread removal of battalion and brigade commanders who did not perform well. Alas, that is not new either. Even in Vietnam, there was a similar situation. There were some divisions in Vietnam where commander did remove battalion and brigade commanders who were not doing a good job. But this was frowned upon. In World War II and Korea, it was much more common for commanders who did not deliver, to get replaced. With a war going on now, and junior officers facing life and death situations because their commanders were not being sufficiently aggressive, or innovative, have been leaving the service.

Six years ago, the army was losing its lieutenants and captains at the rate of 8.7 percent a year. All indications were that this rate would increase. Subsequent opinion surveys confirmed this. There were several reasons for the losses. One was the prospect of constant overseas assignments, without their families, for the duration of the war on terror. Then there was the pull of better job prospects in a then robust economy. The prospect of losing over ten percent of your junior officers a year was compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of these were those with the most combat experience.

A third factor in the exodus was the dislike of the army’s “force protection” fixation. The army put a lot of emphasis on keeping casualties down. But a lot of the combat commanders interpreted this as doing as little as possible. Yet it was obvious that commanders, who got outside their camps a lot, had a positive impact. Being active reduced enemy activity in the area, and overall American casualties. But these aggressive tactics come with some risk, and many battalion and brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) are more risk averse than the captains and lieutenants (company and platoon commanders). Once you hit lieutenant colonel, you are making the army a career, and are less inclined to take chances. But majors, captains and lieutenants can afford to take chances, and are put off when their bosses are not.

Nevertheless, the frequent overseas service, and better opportunities in civilian life, was the major cause of junior officers leaving, and there’s not much the army could do about that at the time. By 2009, young officers were not leaving as frequently, because of the recession, and army efforts to increase the percentage of time (“dwell time”) units spend in their U.S. bases, with their families. So for the last two years, the army has had a chance to make some more changes, before losses of junior officers starts to rise again.

The army has discovered what a lot of large corporations already know; the current generation of young officers is quite different. Being raised with PCs, video games and the Internet has created a new kind of officer (and corporate manager). The 21st officer wants more information, more autonomy and more responsibility. During the last decade, these 21st century officers have proved that they can succeed with this new approach. Now the senior army leadership wants to hang on to as many of these young, combat experienced, officers as they can. This won’t be easy, as the senior leadership recognizes that middle management (lieutenant colonels and colonels) still tends to have a stultifying effect on their subordinates. These officers came in during the late 1990s, and were captains and majors during the early days of the Iraq war. The senior leadership, which came into the army at the end of the Cold War, is trying to change the army so that more experience is captured, and used. This would be unusual, because the usual drill after a war is to freeze thinking, in the belief (often not admitted) that the next war will be like the last one. The army leadership now believes that changes will continue, and that it’s crucial for the army to keep moving forward, its ideas updated, and adapting to a changing world. That, in itself, is a unique challenge.

 


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