Monday, June 27, 2011


Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918

Image via Wikipedia

There was a very interesting piece about Army Leadership by Greg Jaffe (a consistently excellent journalist) in the Washington Post of June 25 2011. It carried the provocative headline:


Let me quote briefly from the piece:

A major U.S. Army survey of leadership and morale found that more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants had directly observed a “toxic” leader in the last year and that about 20 percent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one.

The survey of about 22,000 Army leaders was conducted by the Center for Army Leadership and comes during a year when the Army has removed or discipline three brigade commanders who were en route to, or returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Selection to command a combat brigade, which consists of about 5,000 soldiers and is commanded by a colonel, is highly competitive in the Army.

The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making.

…..About half of the soldiers who worked under toxic leaders expected that their selfish and abusive commanders would be promoted to a higher level of leadership.

Hmm! The Army’s findings are disturbing though I guess that the good news is that the subject is being discussed in the first place.

Personally, I have great affection for the U.S. Army (insofar as one can have feelings for such a vast organization) which was why I spent many months with units in the Nineties, and have followed its activities so closely ever since. In fact, most of my American  friends are either serving or retired military, and the majority of those are Army. My interest is both personal and professional. Where the latter is concerned I planned a series of books around that institution. So far, only The Devil’s Footprint, which features the 82nd Airborne, has been published, but Getting To Know The Warfighters is due out shortly, and other military related books will follow.

Based upon both my field research and experiences, the Army has a long way to go before it gets its leadership up to the standard required. The reasons are structural so extremely hard to eradicate. They include:


  • The fact that the best and the brightest tend not to go into the Army. This doesn’t mean that there are not some notable exceptions, and that there is not considerable competence, but more that the Army, as a service, does not attract restless, cutting edge talent. Worse, its culture actively discourages intellectualism and academic brilliance, particularly when it comes to the more senior ranks. ‘Clubability’ rather than talent is preferred. Bright people tend to question the status quo and the last thing Army generals want is the very system that treats them so well to be questioned. Dave Petraeus and a few others are exceptions – though they shouldn’t be -  but the overall standard of generals is not high  and the Club of Generals, both serving and retired (informal but no less real for all that) likes it that way.
  • An excessively authoritarian and rigid culture that, by definition, discourages creativity, initiative and original thinking. After all, if you are conditioned day after day, and year after year, to follow orders, and regard The Army Way as being the only way, you are scarcely likely to question the system particularly as the system actively discourages such behavior. Such action is typically a career breaker. In contrast to ‘The Big Army, ‘Special Forces’ have considerably more autonomy and and freedom to use their initiative, and the results speak for themselves. This raises the whole question as to whether as to whether Special Forces training and culture should not be adopted more widely.
  • Careerism has become endemic to the Army culture. There are various definitions of careerism, but few are as pithy as this one from  careerism - the practice of advancing your career at the expense of your personal integrity. Needleless to say this scourge is not confined to the Army but is widespread in politics, business, the professions and academia.

I could write much more about this, but will save it for a longer paper. But the overriding point is that the whole question of Army leadership is vastly important; and, up to now, has not received the attention it deserves.

The Army, despite its massive power tends to be excessively sensitive to criticism – ‘defensive’ would inadequately describe its mindset. Accordingly, let me soften my words by paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway. The above photo is of him in Milan in 1918. 

The U.S. Army is a fine institution; and its leadership is worth improving.

We pay for its inadequacies in both blood and treasure.










Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment