Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lessons in Military Leadership: Learn to be a Manager

Update: I've answered some comments and added some thoughts in a new post here and hereA few years back, I was on a flight from Muscat, Oman to Spain. I was seated next to an Omani gentleman in his dishdasha and traditional Omani cap and gazed at the book I was reading, Joseph Nye's The Powers to Lead. In nearly perfect, British-accented English, he asked me about the book. I do not remember the details of the conversation, except that he dropped what I would later realize was a bombshell on me. He said something to the effect of, "Leadership is not that important.  Managing is what is really critical, and difficult." As a Marine officer, steeped in propaganda about leadership from the earliest days of my training and education (ductus exemplo being the motto of Officer Candidates School), I dismissed this as the mumblings of someone who didn't get it. I mean, clearly the guy was a pretty well to do businessman and he was going to Europe for business, but still, he didn't understand what leadership really meant. I've rethought my position since then.  Military officers as a class are atrocious at management.  This is the root cause of many of our most significant problems in the military today.  Caution:  This post is slightly rambling, but you're getting it for free on a Saturday.  Maybe a more focused and edited version may show up in the Marine Corps Gazette or other publication someday.

Some military professionals like to toss about the phrase, "Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics." I don't really buy this phrase, but I'm coming up with a new one of my own: "We talk about leadership because we are amateurs (and not really that good at it anyway), but we really should focus more on management." When I had the conversation with the Omani gentleman, my picture of a manager was a guy in short sleeves and a bad tie.  Leadership was by far the more important and challenging skill in my mind.  I was  repulsed by the mention of my "managerial acumen" (a stock phrase) in an award I had received for my previous tour.  Who wants to be a manager?  I wanted to be a leader of Marines.

A few years and a lot of bad examples later, I'm far more jaded.  Many of my peers and subordinates are too.  The list of complaints will be familiar to most who read this.  The gist is that we see our daily grind as wasteful of time and assets, our tasks ill-prioritized, and our leadership risk averse, micromanaging, and loath to trust their subordinates.  In a word, we are mismanaged.  Our focus remains on leadership, though.  Officers speak of "forcing functions," "holding people's feet to the fire," and "upholding standards."  Often, though, this is because these very officers have been playing Candidate Platoon Commander (I refer here to the fake billets held and often royally botched by officer candidates), running around every which way to chase their imagination of leadership, instead of managing their units.  What is more, the cult and illusion of "tactical proficiency" and "leadership from the front" has commanders and key staffers shirking their own duties to do others'.  Sometimes this comes as the misguided effort to show that the billet holder is not above hard work and hasn't "lost it."  This can be a worthy stunt on occasion, but when officers give up managing to play Candidate Platoon Commander, they are derelict in their duties.  What is more, many leaders resort to diving into the tactical details of their subordinates' jobs or engage in coffee cup leadership (walking around, pontificating, and generally impeding others' progress) because they themselves do not know how to conduct their managerial role.  

They are clueless because the military has given them an excellent tactical foundation and has taught them decently how to perform their role when in combat operations, whether that is leading a company or working on a staff engaged in tactical issues.  It has done nothing to educate officers as managers across the institution and throughout their careers.  Yes, there are commanders' courses, but these are very brief and far too late.  Professional military education focuses on tactics and training, with a sprinkling of operational and strategic concepts, and a heavy dose of doctrine, all needed things.  But it does not arm officers with the skills needed to do the 90 percent of their job that is needed to successfully get their units to the fight, properly equipped, trained, staffed, and prepared to do their job.

The lack of management skills and the lack of trust officers have in their own ability to manage  their organizations is at the root of the micromanagement, growing centralization, and rigidity of bureaucratic processes and rules that are choking our institutions.  Cutting edge management thought seeks to flatten organizations and use information sharing to promote innovation and empower employees.  The military is marching in the opposite direction, centralizing and creating new levels of bureaucracy to control details of training and operations previously left to commanders' discretion, while using information systems to increase reporting requirements and to extend the reach of senior officials into the details of the lowest level units, but without granting reciprocal access to the views and ideas of these units' key billet holders.  This new military "management" model usurps the power of middle managers, leaving them even less prepared to manage larger units as they matriculate.  As management decisions are made by "the system" based on centralized, contracted data analysis managers' focus is directed down the hierarchy into the details of their subordinates' operations, rather than at their own level of command.

An infantry officer colleague of mine recently said that once an officer starts firing his rifle, he stops leading (managing) the formation and the platoon becomes 42 guys with guns.  Likewise, when key billet holders are out loading pallets, doing subordinates work, or otherwise micromanaging or taking part in feel-good lead from the front showmanship, they are often impairing their unit.  The result is the same when the commander of a regiment becomes a battalion commander, and so on.  And when a regimental commander is managing the battalion, the battalion commander no longer has a mandate to manage his unit.  His focus is driven down into his subordinates' realms.  Writ large, this means that no one is really managing the enterprise.

What does management mean?  My limited reading of management literature leaves me unprepared to offer a book definition, but I think that the most important parts of management are the parts that military officers screw up most frequently.  A manager, first and foremost, compellingly answers the question, "What the hell are we doing?"  This is an extremely common question in the ranks as we try to figure out the myriad of tasks and cryptic statements delivered from on high.  Looking at the poorly managed collection of work going on around us, we have to wonder, "What the hell are we doing?"  A large part of the answer to this question comes in setting priorities.  

Commanders rarely set priorities.  Most commanders post some sort of command philosophy that includes priorities, but these are so vapidly stated that they really mean little.  They often amount to "mission accomplishment and safety."  No kidding.  My command philosophy was not much better, I guess, but I tried to give some specificity to what mattered to me and why, and spoke to my Marines about these points, re-emphasizing them periodically.  What I probably did not do as well, but I did try when I could, was to set more specific priorities for specific scenarios.  We generally get scattershot taskings that we can never complete given the reality of time, but no prioritization.  When everything is important and "required" (often by name), nothing is important.  To this end, a critical element of prioritization is choosing what not to do.  Military commanders often cannot do this because their superiors have mandated "everything."  We continue to add requirements without taking them away.  

In my discussion with LtGen Neller, stemming from a back and forth volley of Letters to the Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, we discussed this.  He acknowledged that Marine leadership has given us too many tasks to accomplish, but stated that subordinate commanders must choose what is important and what is not.  In essence, he admitted that institutional leadership has failed to manage our priorities, thus ceding the ground to subordinate commanders without giving them the mandate to do so:  if I choose not to complete a required program, I have failed to carry out a Marine Corps order.  Nonetheless, military managers must navigate this minefield, setting priorities by stating what is important and what is not.  

Another key role of managers is ensuring that the right people fill the right billets.  Due to our rigid rank hierarchy and "experience" requirements, this is often not the case.  We will give incompetent majors a "shot" at a key billet so they can punch their ticket for promotion, rather than giving the stellar captain the billet he would excel at.  This, too, contributes to the micromanagement and downward focus of our commanders.  The thought in this case becomes, "If you can't do your job, I'll do it for you."  Instead it should be, "If you can't do your job, I'll find someone else who can."  Unfortunately, though, commanders continue to use "silver bullets" on idiots, putting guys who have weak records and weak performance in key billets so they can get them that shot at lieutenant colonel.  Even when these morons have been passed over once due to their clearly poor record, senior commanders will impair the institution by placing them in even more critical billets because they do not have the moral courage to let these failures fail.  There are always exceptions to this, officers who have been unfairly treated or have made a mistake but are otherwise stellar, but these are the rare exception.  When even poor officers can look good on paper, it takes a lot of work to get passed over for O-5.  Managers must manage their human resources, not just play roulette based on seniority and checks in the block.

Lacking an understanding of management, officers stumble around in the dark, often focusing on precisely the wrong things.  I've discussed the micromanagement angle and there are a host of other examples of the wrong things.  One of my major pet peeves is the senior officer as copy-editor or correspondence manual expert.  I think this focus is misplaced, but if it is really that important to the manager, he must ensure that his institution has a process in place to take care of these administrative details and he can focus on the content of the document and not get bogged down in things that detract from management.  Note, this goes for the XO too!  Another is the good idea fairy, which is closely related to the inability to prioritize discussed above.  A string of unprioritized and unsequenced good ideas yields a trail of half-started projects.

Luckily, this mismanagement is more rampant in garrison than in combat.  People are usually relatively content in the deployed environment because there is less stuff going on in a way.  There's a lot of stuff going on, but it is focused, we are good at it, and it kinda makes sense.  In garrison, not the case.  This is where management is more important than ever.

A last thought on management philosophy, and one we certainly don't get in the military, is that rules are often counterproductive.  I'm reading Matthew May's In Pursuit of Elegance, in which he cites urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie.  While Ben is talking about traffic rules, the point is salient nonetheless.  "[R]ules strip us of our capacity for socially responsible behavior. ...  The greater the number of prescriptions the more the sense of personal responsibility dwindles."  Are we reinforcing negative trends through mismanagement?  Perhaps.

We won't get to a better place with regard to management until we elevate the professionalism of the officer corps as a corps of managers.  I'm not saying that we should strip out the leadership concepts or focus on administration over tactics.  I'm saying that our inability to manage our enterprises is critically impairing our ability to lead and fight.  We need to value management by integrating it into our professional military education curriculums and perhaps adding management reading to our reading lists.  Perhaps, instead of studying some long-lost battle at your next PME session, you can bring in a local, respected manager to talk about how he plies his trade.  Even just thinking about how you manage your unit and your enterprise is probably a good place to start for most.  

For more on this subject, see my latest post here.


  1. I was taught in MBA school that you cannot be an effective leader until you are an effective manager. A leader who takes his soldiers (or Marines) into a place his manageral skills did not prepare or equip them for is a danger to all.

  2. Bjorn,
    I agree completely. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I had a longer response that got blown away by a browser crash.

    Shorter version: You've articulated what has been a growing realization in the back of my mind as an Army officer (and current company commander). I've been trained in many aspects of leadership on the field, but my managerial acumen is still deficient. I've tried to teach myself, but it's been too little, too late for my stint as a commander.

  4. Peter,

    I don't think you are entirely correct in your assessment. Leadership and management are going to mean different things depending on what one specializes in - for instance, do you need good leadership or management skills to make a squadron work? Likewise, you could argue that in a combat situation what you need is good leadership, particularly at lower levels (i.e. ductus exemplo).

    Arguably, the higher up the chain you are, the more important it is to be a good manager and the more important it is that subordinates demonstrate good leadership skills. Yet, one could argue that the recent slew of firings of senior officers (a certain MEU CO for shoplifting comes to mind) is a demonstration of absolute poor leadership and all the good management in the world won't fix it. I don't think you can neatly distill something as leadership and management - they are intertwined and elements of both are important, but the amount depends on the situation.

  5. Anon 902, Agree that mgmt and leadership cannot be neatly disaggregated and that different scenarios call for more of one than the other. What I'm saying is that we focus on leadership to the exclusion of developing management skill. And I don't think you can be a good leader without being an effective manager. Or if you can, it doesn't much matter ecause you don't have an effective organization to lead. I'm not arguing against the value of leadership. I'm arguing against leadership as a gimmick and leadership without management.

  6. Law firms are also notoriously mismanaged, as are many other civilian businesses. They sort of succeed in spite of themselves. These are the vices on our side, and I wonder which are in common.

    First, you have many technical experts who don't really like` dealing with people. They consider the chastising, directing, and explaining a side part of the job rather than something very important. They also don't like policing friction among peers, when, in fact, that is something they need to sort out or the job won't get accomplished.

    Two, many are criminally inarticulate about what they want you to do, they change their minds in midstream, they expect you to read their mind, and they get pissed when you do something based on their vague directions different from how they would have done it. Plus they are pissy when things don't go the way they want, even though exogenous factors are at work. This might overlap with the leadership principle of "justice" however.

    Three, they alternately delegate authority and yank it away to subordinates, cajoling subordinates for "awaiting direction" and then for "going haywire" when they take initiative. Most managers, it seems, intuitively want you to do things the way they'd do them if they were in your shoes. It's not fair, though, because of point two above.

    Four, this seems a problem not shared with the military, but law firms are partnership where technical rank is often superseded by individual lawyers' power in the organization due to their large books of business. So such people often ignores management directives, flagrantly violate corporate policies, and no one wants to say anything about it. A corporation at the very least typically has a formal chain of command.

  7. Sounds more like whiny diatribe than a analysis/synthesis of the definition of Leadership and Management, and their application within the Military Profession.

    Look forward to an articulate piece in the Gazette.

  8. Anon 1201,
    Congrats. You got in a nice anonymous jab AND it was the first thing I read this morning when I checked email. Good job. I'll give you that it is not an analysis/synthesis of definitions, which I never purported it to be, nor do I think is specifically required in this case. Maybe some discussion of definitions would be required in a final essay, however, because your beloved institution has no clue what it means to manage, I have not been taught, nor have I seen in practice, a definition of management. I have, however, seen a lot of stuff about leadership, as well as people exercising it well or otherwise. Often, the gimmicks I "whine" about are what people do when they really don't know what their role is and amble about aimlessly. Some of these gimmicks aren't gimmicks when done by someone with a clue and an honest desire to lead and manage their unit.

    As for whiny, sure. I see something wrong, I complain about it. This a blog, not the Gazette, so this is the first draft of whining. If you don't like it look somewhere else. But you may want to rethink your stock answer when someone points out what they see as a deficiency. Since you are anonymous, I have no idea what rank you are, but I see you as probably either senior enlisted or LtCol or above, or a prior service officer, who has enough time in to be vested in the status quo and your first reaction is to bristle to challenges to the status quo and call them whining. This is why we have a flawed institution that many in "middle management" and below hate. Well, we don't hate the institution, we hate what our seniors have done to it. Diatribe. Yes, there is vitriol behind it. I and many of my peers are fed up with the mismanagement and stupidity foisted upon us daily. We don't like the answers we get when we challenge the status quo. We are angry because there are better ways to run this thing than that which often see around us. We are frustrated because "the system" doesn't seem to really care, and its guardians do not enter into dialogue with us, or when they do, they label us as "whiners" who "don't get it." We get it. We are the ones who are keeping this thing going while others walk around with coffee cups pontificating or are putting out senseless directives that make everything and nothing important.

    In a final "whiney rant", KIA bracelets are a hot topic in our beloved Corps. I honestly am not too worked up about it. But I found a comment in the WaPo interesting. An unnamed official said that the Uniform Board is "working the issue aggressively." "We expect a resolution POSSIBLY by the END OF THE YEAR." Are you serious? Two and a half months for someone to decide what to do about a bracelet? So, when it comes to institutional change, we do not have much hope. The institution has made the status quo very easily defensible, so that people like you can drive by with a charge of whining and not really have to put any thought to countering what I say.

  9. I agree with Peter's comments for the most part based on expereince of seeing all of the changes. The current senior leadership at the O-6 and above level survived the purgings of the Officer Corps after Desert Storm. They grew up under a micromanagement environment and were survival was a dog-eat-dog existence. They chased out the bulk of those who were the Vietnam generation who built the volunteer Army after the Vietnam War and there younger acolytes and left the Army to those who wanted to control everything. When email was in its infancy they walked around with stacks of index cards with every minute issue about the units they commanded and they drilled down at least 2 levels. I had a personal encounter with this type of senior leader as an ARNG officer deployed during the first SFOR rotation. I use to run circles around these type of officers because my ARNG commander was an experienced combat commander from the Vietnam era back then and he didn't lead the unit with index cards. This is the root, look to GEN Meyer banning cigarettes in basic training back in the mid 1980's, GEN Saint providing greater living space in Europe in the early 1990's and the implemetation of PC rules by the President Clinton administration in the 1990's and you can see how the US Army has evolved. I am looking to reitre in a few months after serving over 30 years and starting out enlisted and reaching the rank of LTC and seeing the changes unfold over the years. It will take officers with the ability and time to enact change to put an end to the present climate we serve in and enact change were the stuck on stupid from above ends, "manadatory this mandatory that" and make the impossible happen asap. For those who say I am whining... can see that I served over 30 years and knew what the Army was like under Caspar Weinberger as DOD Secretary was like when Reagen was President, he wanted meaniful training and not the risk adverse taking leadership we have now. It was the highpoint of an Army led by expereinced Vietnam vets who built the volunteer foundations and were not emcumbered by all of the centralized rules driven by computerized metrics tracking system environment we have today.

  10. Well said, Peter! Learning from the military is a big deal for those who want to become leader. They are taught self-discipline and self-control, and these characteristics can rub off on others. But there are also people who are more inclined to help themselves than help others.

  11. Have you looked a John Kotter's books about the differences in leadership and management. I think this may change your perspective a bit. I do agree that military is weak in terms of management yet we do so much of it by default. I also think that we inappropriately apply management processes to problems that truly require leadership process

  12. Have you looked a John Kotter's books about the differences in leadership and management. I think this may change your perspective a bit. I do agree that military is weak in terms of management yet we do so much of it by default. I also think that we inappropriately apply management processes to problems that truly require leadership process