Thursday, December 15, 2011

Leading Change and Managing Stasis

It has been a while since I posted my two missives on leadership and management in the military.  Overall, they were well received, but could use some refinement.  I'll lay out some caveats, then talk about what I've learned from a cursory dive into the literature, then discuss how this impacts my recent commentary about the institution, the budget battle, and Goldwater-Nichols.  I'll break this up into two posts, the first covering the background, the second talking about the application.

First, some caveats.  This message is targeted at the battalion-level and above, though some of its lessons could be used at lower levels.  Overall, I think we do a decent job of leadership at the small unit level and real management is not required for the most part in smaller formations.  Second, my background is from aviation, which brings significant requirements for management at the squadron/battalion level.  We have our own maintenance in the Marine Corps, a significant budget/flight hour program to manage, plus the detailed training and qualification of hundreds of aircrew, for a C-130 squadron.  This perspective is different than a ground-based battalion, however I still think that the unit sizes require management and leadership.

Unsurprisingly, I could not find any one prevailing "doctrinal" definition of leadership or management.  There are different interpretations, but the most useful dichotomy I found was managing stasis versus leading change.  Some did make the distinction between managing things and leading people, but this was not universal and I find it unhelpful.  The best summary I found was from John Kotter in a Harvard Business Review article titled "What Leaders Really Do."  The summary was particularly helpful in making a dichotomy between managers (first) and leaders (second).  When you read this, I implore you to realize that both are absolutely critical to success.
-"Planning and budgeting versus setting direction."
-"Organizing and staffing versus aligning people."
-"Controlling activities and solving problems versus motivating and inspiring."

In this dichotomy, managers run the trains, leaders map out new plans and align people and their aspirations to attain those plans.  Realize that in most organizations, these functions are conducted by the same people.  In the military, I think that we have a massive problem with all of the activities in the management "column."  We really don't care for them and often don't give them the attention they deserve.  In the leadership column, we institutionally ignore the first two major bullets, and focus on the third with little to guide what we're motivating and inspiring about.  Of course, we write up service visions and commander's philosophies, but these are far too often lofty and vapid statements with little real meat.  Our leaders, at various levels, do not take the time to get with their middle management to pass their vision, their direction, the important communications from the institution, etc.  In 15 years, I cannot think of a time when a leader of the rank of colonel or above ever called his career officers together to express vision, to explain policy, or to define a way ahead, except for officers who had just taken command or were on their way out, or for safety standdowns.  Perhaps this is unique to the air wing.  I know that some high performing outside institutions make it a point to ensure that senior leaders regularly pass such vision and guidance to their key middle management to ensure that the institutional culture is properly conveyed and that the institution's vision remains fresh and updated in this critical sector's minds.

Returning to the management column, this is the bread and butter of "stasis."  If we are not instituting new processes, management is what must be done in order to ensure the trains run.  If we don't properly plan, budget, staff, and control activities, chaos ensues.  Continuous crisis mode.  Sound familiar?  Budget deficiency letters?  Who are we going to send to that next class?  That next IA?  Have we submitted the budget?  Our TEEP?  Document x, y, or z?  That was due last month?  That's due tomorrow?  This is all a failure of management.

Sometimes we are in crisis mode because our processes are broken or because we need to overhaul our way of doing things.  Change requires leadership.  But in keeping with the stop-doing approach of Matthew May, which I've referenced previously, we have to decide what really needs changing and doing and to stop doing and changing what doesn't.  So, leaders must set priorities and be honest about what can really be done.  The literature says that an effective leader-manager only focuses on one task at a time.  I don't buy that, as some tasks take quite some time and must be run concurrently with others.  I believe this is more of a recommendation to delegate.  The boss can't be laser focused on everything all the time, so if he wants his organization to do multiple tasks concurrently, he needs to properly delegate so that a principal can focus sufficiently on the one or two tasks that the boss has prioritized for him and delegate others to his subordinates.  Note, if you only focus on one or two tasks at a time, you can't micromanage!!

Avoiding micromanagement and promoting effective management and leadership goes beyond that.  Another HBR article by Torbert and Rooke lays out the "Seven Transformations of Leadership."  In this they lay out seven types of "action logic" and their strengths and weaknesses and suggest means to transform from the weaker types to the stronger types.  The military personnel system tends to produce mostly the weaker and few of the former through its rewards and metrics.  The sort-term nature of assignments and our grading scale mean that there is a bias for short-term outlooks, immediate results, and little long-range thinking.  These are characteristics of their opportunist category.  The system rewards those who make no errors and do not rock the boat:  their diplomat.  The system rewards experts through its focus on MOS proficiency and the touchstone of "experience" and tactical proficiency.  They warn that the expert action type often lacks emotional intelligence and "lacks respect for those with less experience."  Familiar?  The system rewards achievers that meet strategic goals.  The authors warn that these sorts lend themselves to managerial work, but are unable to think outside the box.  While we might not think that their individualist type is rewarded in our system (ignores rules, irritates colleagues by ignoring process and people), this is the type where people shake their heads and how s/he advanced and others say, "Well, he gets things done."

Their ideal types are the strategist and the alchemist.  The other types can be transformed into these types, but the focus on long-term vision and change, sometimes at the expense of short-term results, militates against these transformations.  Additionally, the constant reshuffling of personnel works against leaders settling into a role for long enough to really develop these characteristics.  Here, I'm certainly not arguing for longer promotion timelines.  I'm arguing for being more honest about who might develop these skills and to plop them down into key positions for longer, rather than lacking the moral courage to break people out and running everyone through a seat to get their "check in the box."  What is more, the short term focus of our assignments, commands, and fitreps means that no one is going to follow the "stop doing" approach.  Every assignment is a 6-18 month dead spring of creating new initiatives for fitrep bullets, meaning that the ship is listing all over the place as we continually change tack, shift priorities, drop initiatives of our predecessors, and start new ones.  This has to stop.

There is much more literature out there and if you want a deeper, less rambling education, I encourage you to search on the titles I've referenced and branch out from there.  I'll include a few "actionable items" drawn from the above, brief intro.

-Leading for change requires SETTING PRIORITIES.  Set your priorities and remind your people what they are.
-Leaders focus only on one or two key projects.  Other projects should be truly delegated or set aside.  Again, PRIORITIES.  For real.
-True delegation means you let someone else deal with the issue and report back.  Don't micromanage.
-Management is not a dirty word.  Management is the planning, budgeting, staffing, control, and other functions that keep a situation in stasis.  Manage stasis, lead change.
-The short-term nature of our assignments militates against the long view.  Commanders, have moral courage, identify your real performers, and put them in the seat for as long as possible.  We don't need more incompetent majors, lieutenant colonels, and above.  We're good on those.
-Stop doing.  Follows from prioritization.  Instead of a whole bunch of fitrep bullet programs that your successor will drop, focus on a few long-term projects that will truly be enduring and beneficial.  If nothing needs or can be changed, manage stasis.  It is ok.
-Even if we do not institutionalize 360-reviews for fitness reporting, we should have a periodic "gut check" to inform leaders.  I had to do one of these for a boss who went to NDU.  Maybe this should be a requirement for each level of PME?
-For each level of PME, we must add some management literature.  We are managers/leaders during much of our career.  We don't know anything about it.  We need education.
-Senior leaders must do a better job of communicating, truly, with their middle management.  There is a huge disconnect.  We never see you guys (not that any of you are reading this).  A periodic email to majors and above?  Captains and above? would be nice.  What are your priorities?  The services?  The latest feedback from the theater, the Pentagon, etc?  What should we expect in the coming year?  How do you want us to develop as officers?  A brief, personal note would go a long way, even just in an email.  Find time to address your career officers periodically in person.  Institutional leaders, you could do the same.  Even a video, and not a flashy, vapid address, but an honest talk about your vision to professional peers, to be broadcast for all PME students, tailored to level, in their seminars around the country would be worthwhile.  Don't bother if you are not going to be truly frank.  Or, send your local senior leadership to these seminars once a year.
-Revise the fitness reporting system, once again, to focus more on management skills, specifics of leadership, and the action logic of officers.  Stop the forced inflation (a whole other topic) by purporting that my statement "Capt X is an average officer" is adverse.  By definition, most of our officers are average.  We have to be able to say so.  Include a required comment on the officer's key weakness.  This would help see through the smoke.  "Maj Y consistently produces superior results, but his drive for results sometimes comes at a cost to readiness/his Marines/his family/his fitness/his health."  If we force officers to provide one comment for constructive criticism, it both provides a basis for improvement and gives the board a more developed picture.
-Select and assign fewer, better key billet holders who sit for longer.


  1. Maj Munson,

    Some excellent points - but I do think that some of your experiences are unique to you. Of course, that is not to say that I have never seen some of the issues you mentioned, just not nearly as bad as you make them sound.

    Perhaps one of the key points you brought up is personal rotation. I think this is being addressed to some extent by a recent MARADMIN ensuring staffs stay glued together longer. Ideally, this would mitigate some of the issues that lack of continuity produces.

    I would also say that senior leadership - even at the battalion level, does a poor job sometimes of expressing intent. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. Some of these you mention, such as lack of priorities (hugely important), others include lack of education in our senior leaders.

    Anyway, good post, looking forward to part 2.

  2. RCS,Thanks for your comment. You'll be unsurprised that I have a riposte. Your point is fair. I am speaking directly to military folks here. Although I know that a few others read this, it is mostly military types that come by and they know what the score is. That being said, I have been blessed in my recent operational tour to work under two excellent COs that were very good leaders and managers. During my Det OIC gig in Afghanistan, the Wing CG left me, a junior major commanding in a LtCols billet, blissfully to do my thing with very little micromanagement, even though micromanagement may have been warranted a bit until he figured out that I was not too junior for the job.

    On the other hand, my most recent experiences in staff-land have exposed me to some of the worst of the leadership and management faux pas that I rage about. Additionally, I draw from across the ranges of experience of my peers and friends to point out problems and suggest solutions. That, and even my TBS platoon commander told me my standards were too high. He was afraid that I'd expect too much of my Marines. He didn't realize that my perhaps unreasonably high standards were directed at officers of Marines, because I think that our standards are too low. We could do better. So, yes I may make things sound worse than they are, but that is because for some people at some junctures, the leadership and management is abysmal, that incompetence is unacceptable, especially 20+ years into a career that should have weeded these people out, and because we can do better. Also, I'm speaking institutionally. This includes both the massive faceless bureaucracy that sucks up 75% of LtCols and Cols into the DC area, as well as the poor leaders and managers that are functionaries at higher commands, showering stupid ideas down on the hapless line units that find themselves with 36 hours of tasking in a 24 hour day, some of which is patently insulting, often in the safety realm.

    As for the personnel rotation thing, that MARADMIN may help, but my issue may be more of a wing/aviator thing. In squadrons, with more officers at the field grade level, COs will rotate guys through the Opso, Maint O, and XO billets to get their check in the block for O-5 and command. They do this musical chairs because they don't have the moral courage to say, that guy's an idiot and I don't want him commanding my son or daughter, so off to special projects you go. I also think that we could do with fewer COs that sit for longer, if the Marine Corps is going to be more diligent in weeding the wheat out from the chaff. 25% less COs is a good thing if you get rid of the right ones. That takes a revamp of our personnel and fitrep system though.

    Finally, I'm not just ranting about the USMC here. Across services, the problem is clear and middle management is extremely jaded about the stupid things that come out of higher echelons. We must do better.

    So, you're right, in many areas it is not as bad as I make out. But it is this bad in some places, and the lack of leadership and management on senior staffs really hurts us.

  3. I agree in full with your point about rotating people through to get the check in the box. I also agree on having fewer COs - it should be a privilege not a right.

    The impersonal personnel system...that's a whole other topic.

  4. And here's another jaded view on leadership. It speaks to the view those in the middle and lower ranks have of the institutional leadership:

    Part of his comment: "The main issue is this--a LOT of the senior leadership is lost in the sauce, has no idea what's going on or how to accomplish anything concrete. So, they attempt to make themselves feel like they're in control of the situation via a) imposing ludicrous chickenshit on those below them, and b) spending most of their time liaising with other senior Americans, doing coordination meetings, briefings, etc., etc., etc. That way, they feel like they are in control of their environment, and never have to encounter anything which would suggest differently. All this is done at the expense of their subordinates and of the war in general, but that's ok."

  5. I certainly have witnessed some of the above. The challenge is actually having senior leadership / higher come and explain their rational and why the information is important. Here's an imperfect example: I am an intel officer, I need census information (amongst other things), I put together a format I think answers the mail and the 3 shop drafts a battalion FRAGO for the companies. I guarantee everyone below the battalion level just had a fit. Now suppose RCT comes down and says we need some little extra bit of information (maybe biometrics, maybe something else). So now there is a new requirement to levy...guess what, more bitching.

    These are actual examples from a recent deployment. Fortunately this was overcome by explaining why the information was / is important. My guess is that no one explains why you have to be at the base theater at 0530 so you can receive sexaul assault training...

  6. Personalities, Growing up, Why we do things...

    Must admit I find the blog hard to follow - but not because it's bad. So many pertinent, salient issues that strike a chord. And honestly, some of them just make me angry.

    Fitreps, evals, OERs, whichever your service calls them - they are all in dire need of repair. Perhaps if they ever get it close to correct they'll start hitting at some of the personality issues you address. Many leadership experts say that characteristics x,y.z are most beneficial for a leader to have. But when career leaders are tested, they are often found to have a, b, c traits. If things are not matching up, not even a little bit, then we probably have a problem.

    Growing up....I'm all for it. Part of growing up means setting some priorities, which you addressed. Maybe when our bosses decided on some reasonable priorities like not having to spend every dime of the budget, not needing so much in terms of computers and other automations, not needing so many additional commands etc - and - when we in the middle and lower paygrades decide to stop complaining about coughing up an additional 5% for TRICARE and similar benefits, perhaps then we'll be able to save some money, save everyone's job, and make progress.

    Also, part of growing up is being able to tell your subordinates they are not cutting it, or that they are great, but not well-suited for their current job. I am of the opinion that we can use 99% of the people we have. If we do a good job of leading and managing, we'll align them in the right positions. We'll have to add a dose of courage to that too.

    Lastly, we do things for a variety of reasons and every reason falls under one of only two categories: selfless or selfish. I have done many, many selfless things in my life, at least you think they are selfless. In reality, most of those are selfish. It makes me feel good to buy a gift for a family member, or to forego leaving work early in order for a subordinate to leave early. Looks selfless to stay at work and for many leaders it is selfless: they are pissed off they have to stay and they only stay because of the implicit requirement to do so. Others do that for selfish reasons: it makes them feel good to know they are doing the right thing for their subordinate. We need to peel back the layers and figure out how to identify and parse out those reasons. They matter. What exactly they mean, I can't say. But it goes to defining someone's motivations and that's extremely important.

    Lot of excellent articles here, well worth the read.

  7. Bumperplate,
    I think your opening is a compliment. I'll take it as such. I am all over the place, but I write about what interests me and I think is important. As far as the posts making you angry, I am angry a lot of the time anymore and I write to release some of that. I write in the hope that some good will come of it. I think, though, that the only people reading stuff like this are peers and juniors who are already angry and have figured this stuff out. When I went to NYC, I stopped at the NBC store on Rockefeller Center with my family. I saw a security badge lanyard with a Dunder Mifflin logo on it and had to get it. When I showed up with it on at work, someone suggested that it might get me in trouble. When I mentioned that to another, he said "Anyone who would get mad at you over that, wouldn't know what it is." That pretty much sums up our existence right now.

  8. It's a compliment...the anger is because the issues are important but I see little in the way of progress. Very frustrating.

  9. Lot more to say about this leadership, management, and similar topics. But I'll spare everyone.

    Been going to the HBR articles mentioned above: really good stuff. My eyes have been opened by your recent posts looking to parse out the differences between leadership and management. My previous views probably were not "wrong" but were too simplistic. I like simplicity but nuance and complexity must be accounted for.

    I've definitely learned some things from this discussion.