Talking About Military Leadership

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W.J. Astore

In 2004, when I was still on active duty, I spoke on leadership at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California.  At the time, I was the associate provost/dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

To prepare for my talk, I jotted down a few notes; I’ve decided not to update these or change them.  (I’m sure I’d say a few different things today; then again, I’ve been retired from the military since 2005.)

Here are my notes from 2004 (with a few additions for the sake of clarity):

What is uniquely military about military leadership?

  • Life and death situations (but also true of Police, Fire, MDs, etc.)
  • Mandate to take the lives of others under certain ROEs (rules of engagement)
  • Inherent chaos (fog and friction) of war.  Thus leaders must promote cohesion—bonds of trust within a unit—else the unit may collapse under the stresses of war
  • Possibility of routine loss of leaders on the battlefield requires the development of junior leaders with the willingness and emotional strength to take command when needed
  • Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution.  Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
  • Role of long-serving NCOs (non-commissioned officers)—take care of them, and help them take care of junior enlisted.  Put their needs before your own.  Share sacrifices: Yes, RHIP (rank has its privileges).  But officers should eat same grub as grunts.  Take care of the needs of the men and women you’re leading before you address your own needs.

No one personality type.  Our greatest leaders have been everything from vainglorious (MacArthur) to self-effacing (Gen Bradley)

“They don’t care how much you know, but they’ll know how much you care.”  Actually, your subordinates care about both.  Combination of emotional intelligence with intellect and hard work.  You don’t have to be the brightest or best, but you may need to compensate with work.

Respect for subordinates; and don’t play favorites

Listen before acting

Keep calm in times of stress

Role model: As a leader, you are always being watched

Humility but not diffidence: If you don’t lead, who will?

Refuse to tolerate incompetence

Recognize top performers.  Don’t take your best people for granted.  Remember to reward them.

Communication: Telling people to suck it up sounds tough and appropriate in a military context.  But are you sucking it up too?  Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top.  Integrity and sincerity are essential.

Look inside yourself.  Why do you want to be a leader?

Academic leadership: Irony is that many academics avoid leadership positions because they distract from individual scholarship and academic achievement.  [This mindset is] foreign to the military.  Officers and NCOs trained to lead.  Necessary because war might quickly knock out commanders; subordinates must be ready to act.  Thus department chairs [in academe] often rotate; “burden sharing” rather than leadership.  Healthy iconoclasm in academe, but it should not get in the way of leading.

“Question authority” is not enough.  “Change authority” or “Become authority” if you don’t like the answers you’re hearing.

At the USAF Academy, there was a “Bring Me Men” ramp, but that slogan was removed due to sexual harassment scandals, even though the sentiment was based on a quotation from the late 19th century.  But what it always was intended to mean was “Bring Me Leaders.”  Leaders have moral courage to take responsibility and report clearly to the people.  As commissioned officers, we swear an oath to the Constitution, and to protect it against foreign and domestic enemies.  We do not swear an oath of allegiance to a specific leader or monarch.  But an officer must also respect the chain of command.  You go outside that chain at your peril.

Get to know your military.  How many of you plan to serve in the military?  Congress is ignorant of military matters.  A minority have served (about 30%, whereas in 1969 it was nearly 70%) and even fewer have sons and daughters who are willing to serve.  Only six congressional representatives and one senator have children serving in the military.  7/535 members = 1.3%.  Among the rich and connected, the military is not seen as a desirable profession compared to law, medicine, business, or other, honorable professions.

How to get to know “your” military: Take an ROTC course at your college/university.  Attend a military ceremony.  Ask questions.  The U.S. military needs your interest.  Perhaps too narrowly drawn from the lower classes, but that’s not the military’s fault.  No recruit is turned away because he or she is too rich or because he or she attended Stanford or Berkeley.

How would you like to be the leader of a U.S. military unit in Iraq that was expecting to rotate after a year, after which your men and women are told they have to stay for six more months, possibly longer?  How do you keep people’s spirits up?  Keep them focused on the mission while they’re separated from loved ones for months at a time?

End of notes.  Comments, readers?

Thanking Me for My Service

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W.J. Astore

A visitor to my home today saw my retirement plaque, which marks my twenty years of service in the US Air Force.  He immediately thanked me for my service to my country.

I appreciated his thanks because I took (and take) some pride in having served honorably in the military.  But people who thank me make me uncomfortable.  Why, you ask?

Because I believe it was an honor to serve my country.  It was an honor to be entrusted by the people of our great land with their trust.

So when people thank me, I always feel like thanking them back for allowing me to serve; for giving me this honor, this privilege.

Now, I write articles that are often critical of today’s military.  And there’s lots of things to criticize.  But I don’t believe in criticizing the military’s ethic of service, an ethic that should be based on humility and tinged with pride.  Because our nation’s ideal is a citizen-soldier military.  Note how the word “citizen” comes first.  We are not supposed to want a military composed of mercenaries or warriors.  Such a military is inconsistent with our democratic ideals.

Also inconsistent with our democratic ideals is our national tendency to idolize officers of high military rank.  You know, the generals and admirals, men like Tommy Franks or David Petraeus.  Why?  Because any citizen-civilian outranks any citizen-soldier in the military, generals included.

We must always remember that military members serve us: we the people.  We don’t serve them.  And we must remember as well that our president, a civilian commander-in-chief, is first and foremost exactly that: a civilian.  And that he’s not the commander-in-chief of all Americans; merely of those Americans who choose to don a uniform and take the oath of office (to include active duty, reserves, and National Guard members).

These are fundamental points (or they should be).  They are derived from our Constitution.  Our founders saw (reluctantly) the need for a military, and perhaps our greatest founder, George Washington, was also arguably our greatest military leader.  Not because he was a Napoleon, but precisely because he wasn’t.  He was our Cincinnatus, a citizen-soldier, with the emphasis firmly placed on citizen.  A man who placed his duty to the Constitution, and to the people, before himself and military vainglory.

If you wish to thank a service member for his or her service, by all means do so.  Just don’t be completely surprised when they deflect your thanks, or even thank you back for the honor and privilege of being able to serve in the name of the people to protect our highest ideals as enshrined in our Constitution.