Developing Army Strategic Leaders for an Age of Austerity


By Richard Weitz

The last panel at the April 2012 Army War College Annual Strategy Conference assessed how the Army could develop strategic leaders for the coming age of austerity.

Dr. Don Snider of the U.S Army War College and Senior Fellow in the Center for the Army Profession and Ethics at West Point defined strategic leadership to encompass positions from civilian to military from general officers to NCOs. Citing the Abu Graif incident, Snider noted that leadership failure at any level could result in strategic failure.

William Eggers

William Eggers, co-author of If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Things Done in Government and director of the Deloitte Public Leadership Institute, examined strategic leadership in a broad context, looking at core competency in relation to present day leadership.

When asked “is government today more or less capable at executing than 30 years ago,” 60% of senior executive services members responded that it was less capable now than before.

Eggers solution was a shift in the core competencies needed by today’s leaders to qualities such as quiet transparency, digital/social intelligence, and future thinking.

Eggers suggested three concepts in particular are needed to address both cost constraints and to promote strategic thinking: agile integration, beta leadership, and rebel browsing.

For Eggers a process he terms “rebel browsing” — leadership that disrupts the status quo– is an essential trait for today’s strategic leadership. Rebel browsing refers to using people who are on the edges of organizations and who “seem too out there” or have radical ideas in order to drive innovation.

Instead of dismissing people who do not operating with the same core principles, managers should treat these individuals as people who could find radically new and better ways to accomplish goals. Yet, these rebels are often an untapped source for innovation.

Eggers encourages managers to empower them to help address systemic constraints.

According to Eggers, innovation is about getting more for less rather than accept commonly understood tradeoffs.

His solution is to have disruptive innovation that help breaks the tradeoffs associated with the high cost of innovation. Instead of going along with the establish mode of thinking, we need innovation that breaks traditional roles.

He uses the example of replacing several types of offensive air missions with UAVs, which 20 years ago would have been thought of as science fiction. For many missions, they have replaced piloted aircraft requiring a larger staff and much more expensive equipment.

Eggers calls for innovations that are “good enough” rather than perfect more-for-more gold-plated system. Strategic leadership can best foster innovation if it uses contrarian thinking.

To further address the cost efficiency of innovation, Eggers proposed a system of rapid development that he terms “beta-leadership.”

Over the past half-century, the time from conception to implementation of military acquisition programs has doubled, in part due to the exponential speed at which technology changes. Beta-leadership emphasizes a quick prototype, iteration, and “fail-fast-fail-smart” approach.

To function efficiently new models must engineer a certain amount of trial and error into the process to find mistakes quickly and correct them instead of attempting to achieve perfection from the start.

Eggers gave the example of commercial software such as Twitter, which undergoes initial beta phases to weed out potential problems through user input. He applauds the innovation studies at White Sands missile base where soldiers returning from combat are exposed to commercial technologies and allowed to innovate according to their experiences.

This model, along with Apps for the Army, allows for rapid development through crowd-sourcing, design thinking, red teaming, and prototyping.

The last trait Eggers discussed is collaborative leadership and open innovation. or what he terms “agile integration,” getting others to help you fulfill you mission.

Prior to the digital age, having too many people working on a particular issue caused problems since “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

However, advances in technology have overcome many of the former complexities and today allow for mass collaboration. In his view, NASA is the paradigm of this trait.

As budget cuts have limited the capabilities of NASA, there has been rapid growth of the private sector in space. Instead of trying to compete with these organizations, NASA has attempted to cooperate with private companies such as Virgin Galactic.

To leverage these partnerships, NASA has posted challenges accessible to individuals working in these companies so that NASA can draw on their expertise and innovation. Agile integration is a movement toward a more open model. It requires leadership skills in risk analysis, risk mitigation, networking, and bringing in outside help to cultivate, integrate, and operate these individuals and their ideas.

William Smullen

William Smullen, Director of National Security Studies (NSS) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, considered strategic leadership from a national security perspective.

He said that no one can be a genuine leader if they did not think strategically — thinking about the future.

According to Smullen, during the Cold War, U.S, leaders thought strategically to counter the Soviet Union by developing a policy of containment, but after the cold war we fell into a period of strategic disorientation, as made evident by the term commonly used for “the post-Cold War period.”

This vacuous term made evident that we had fallen victim to “strategic thinking deficiency.”

Smullen recalls the response in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when the government was unable to properly provide food and shelter for people. The affair demonstrated the government’s strategic impotence to plan and prepare resources to respond to the damage.

In his view, the United States must think ahead and use past instances to project future possibilities. To do this, Smullen recommends addressing uncertainty, “our adversary,” with better strategic management.

He notes how the 2009 Iranian election protests should have been seen as a portent for the subsequent Arab Awakening, and applying them to the present and future so that we can better understand their potential impact.

Smullen points to five key attributes that are needed for effective strategic planning and management.

The first is to balance competing interests, which discourages avoid being drawn into any type of conflict unless absolutely necessary.

Next effective planning must have achievable goals that can be realistically accomplished given the fiscal constraints of the present time.

Third, these goals must be principled, so that there is value to the mission set for within the plan.

Finally, strategic planning must be sustainable; it must be able to span multiple years and administrations.

Smullen also addressed military challenges such as the reduction of the U.S. Army from 570,000 to 490,000 troops by 2017. In his view strategic management and thinking should be taught at every level of education, both in basic and advance courses, since it can be accomplished minimal cost. Training must go beyond tactical thinking in order to prevent strategic failure, which occurred when we accomplish our objectives in the first three weeks of combat, but then things change. Addressing current and future crises effectively requires strategic management.

Leonard Wong

Leonard Wong, research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, argued that strategic thinking should not be limited only to strategists since all senior level officers should think strategically, regarding logistics, acquisitions, intelligence, and human resources.

To ensure strategic thinking, Wong stresses recruits should not only be warriors but should possess three innate skills: conceptual skills, openness, and moral courage. In his view recruits must also be able to learn and develop frames of references, future orientation, and understand the enterprise being undertaken.

Incoming cadets need to possess good conceptual skills in order to work through issues and problems.

One way to measure these skills are SAT scores for ROTC scholarships. Here he points out that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines all require SAT scores of 1000 or better, whereas the Army only requires a score of 920. The Army is used to working in an age of abundance. It brought in large numbers of people and hoped the best thinkers would rise to the top. But with fewer cadets in the age of austerity, Wong argued that Army recruiting standards need to be raised.

The importance of conceptual ability must be stressed from day one, but currently the opposite is true in the Army. Currently where ROTC cadets are ranked, their rank is determined by a 40/60 split of academics and leadership programs. Academic comprise only 40% of the ranking, yet this is where conceptual skills are developed and measured.

Compounding the issue is that academics are ranked only according to grade point average (GPA); therefore this inadvertently encourages ROTC cadets to take the easiest classes. For example 58% of ROTC cadets major in Criminal Justice. The current system does not encourage recruits to pursue diverse degrees or to develop useful skills such as Arabic or Mandarin, since these hard subjects could negatively impact recruits GPA.

Wong also stressed the importance of openness and contrarian thinking.

These traits allow a free flowing discussion of different and opposing ideas. Wong noted that this kind of discussion generally takes place in Army training environments, such as in the widespread After Action Reviews. However, a Center of Army Leadership found that only 59% of 22,000 leaders interviewed felt that there was an openness or free-flow of ideas at their current station. Looking closer at the openness scores, the trend tends to be below societal and even institutional averages as careers progress. As Army Officers rise in rank, they tend to become more close-minded. In this age of austerity,

Wong advocates fostering more openness, especially at the senior officer levels. Openness is an innate quality and it is very hard to teach someone to be curious regarding different ideas. Generally speaking, those individuals who are not open are more productive because they simply do the job and get it done, so military society has gravitated toward these types of people. To address the issue, openness could be assessed during the recruiting phases, or at least stressed to a greater degree in leadership development. If subordinates do not challenge those in the higher ranks, they may perceive they are always right. This approach can work in times of abundance, but not in times of austerity.

In Wong’s view, the Army needs to utilize different experiences and accept more openness into training to teach different frames of reference necessary for good strategic leadership. He uses the graduate school exams in which officers may be exposed to different political, religious, and social philosophies such as Marxism, Atheism, and Feminism. Yet, the infantry officers coming through the Army War College with graduate degrees has declined. In 1985, 20 out of 30 officers had some type of graduate degree, often achieved in civilian institutions, compared to 11 out of 30 in the 1990s. Today, the majority of infantry officers do not hold a graduate degree.

Wong also saw problems with the Army’s enterprise understanding; knowing how the Army works.

Working in the Pentagon helps teach officers how to better understand their enterprise, since that is where most Army planning occurs. Since 2001, only 4% of the total months of officers was spent in the Pentagon. MFE infantry officers, who generally rise to general officers, do not have to spend any time in the Pentagon or undergo any additional education or training.

These senior officers do not have exposure to these frames of references since they spent most of their time with soldiers and therefore are not experienced in handling enterprising issues such as acquisitions, which means they often assume senior positions in the Pentagon without adequate preparation.

The Age of Austerity does create an opportunity for the Army to raise standards since it is recruiting better people.

Wong recommends that the Army force officers to work in the Pentagon or in another Department, or enter into graduate school, so that they interact with different groups and learn different frames of reference.

He also wants the Army to conduct assessments of their conceptual skills as they rise in rank and perhaps, depending on the results, require them to receive more education or training.

Finally, Wong proposes adjusting the Officer Professional Management System (OPS 21) away from a single track concerned only with leading soldiers and toward a system that teaches them to manage all aspects of the enterprise.

Closing the panel discussion, Snider noted that that some of the best U.S. military occurred during an earlier age of austerity, such as the interwar period of the 1930s. In the age of austerity one of the cheapest, yet most important forms of capital is intellectual capital, and if properly utilized, the Army can continue to invent and innovate even in times of budgetary constraint.

Snider added that the Army has two different characteristics. It is seen as military department of the federal government and is managed in many respects as a bureaucracy. But the Army has been professionalized and therefore can at times require certifications and licenses.

The factor that dictates which of these two characteristics dominates are the Army leaders themselves.

The function of leadership is to take what is inherently a hierarchical bureaucratic structure and make it behave and operate with the character of a unique Army profession, a unique body of knowledge, and military expertise.

Snider insists that the Army get serious about the moral development of its human capital. Military service is the repetitive practice of discretionary judgments and moral development is necessary for a profession that expects people to kill and die. In his view, over the last decade, we have had too many instances of moral failure that, at times, has led to mission failure. Imparting moral character should be an essential component of leadership development.