Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Military strategies and leadership styles

Another read a few months back was Blue Ocean Strategy, by Kim and Mauborgne, which I enjoyed as I was brushing off some dust on my strategy-type training from back in my MBA days.

As I read it though, I made a note to myself- I need to comment on folks' misperceptions about military strategy, and then while I'm at it, throw in some bonus comments about people's misperceptions about military leadership styles.

1. Military strategies- there are a great number of texts out there, both classical and more modern- a couple of classical ones that come to mind- anything by Clausewitz, and of course, Sun Tzu, more modern military strategy, which right now for me revolves around counter-insurgency approaches, for example, Galula and Kilcullen.  The primary point I want to make here is that I've never seen a military strategy that advocates a full frontal assault without some compelling circumstances. Some may say, why of course they wouldn't do that! But I have read many times where people refer to military strategy in this way- and it is clear they really haven't thought deeply about the subject.

While there are some strategies which use blunt force, and some strategies which treat military personnel as expendable and sacrifice them in large numbers, my experience and observations of great military leaders is that they recognize the substantial variety of approaches to be taken and balance out the many conditions and work very hard to adopt the strategy and tactics that are most appropriate for the situation.  At the most basic, they ask questions about what are we looking at in terms of mission, enemy, terrain, troops, and time. They think carefully about the resources at their disposal, just what they are trying to achieve, and the lives of the men and women that they will put in harm's way. I've been amazed at how we've asked our military leaders to conduct our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with an almost zero tolerance policy for casualties.  Each death is tragic. I personally mourn the loss of friends in the process. That being said, when one looks at the casualty rates in previous conflicts compared to the current conflicts, we are clearly in a new era.

2. Military leadership styles: One of the "benefits" of my being called up during my last semester of my MBA program a while back was that I got to create 2 or 3 self-designed reading courses as I was not going to be bale to attend that last semester. One of the reading courses I created involved a set of texts on leadership.  I chose as one of the texts the Army's field manual on leadership, in military parlance, FM 22-100. 

I tire of those who consistently portray military leadership as "autocratic". While there is clearly a hiearchical facet of life in the military, again, the best leaders I've observed demonstrate all of the best of what Lominger likes to refer to as "learning agility", including those aspects most clearly tied to leadership. Lowe's has also invested in Blanchard's situational leadership models, and again, I'd suggest that the "effective" examples of leadership in the military that I have seen take such principles and go much further with them. Quite a while ago, I thoroughly enjoyed getting coached and corrected by a basic training battalion commander who did a better job using the socratic method than any professor I've ever witnessed. I had to stifle a grin and giggle as my third person self would watch my interactions with this lieutenant colonel. It would have been inappropriate to tell him at the time, "Dude- awesome execution of socratic method!". I've seen great military leaders model some of Marshall Goldsmith's feedback, that many times, the best leadership approach is to resist the temptation to "add value" by putting their voice and stamp on some work that their subordinates have created. 

In any case, the comments about military leadership are intended to convey my argument that those who characterize military leadership as autocratic, or vice versa, have missed something. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another book read- some related military thoughts

Over the past few days read through a book that had been on my shelf for a good while:

The Looming Tower, Al-Qaeda's road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.

After working through it, I note that the book is a winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. So I'll just add my endorsement to that one. Lawrence Wright continues to cover the topic in his work for the New Yorker.

I've read a large number of books trying to understand some of the culture, background, etc of the situation I was working through during my year in Iraq, but had never carefully studied bin Laden and/or Afghanistan. I'll soon be "covering down" on a rear detachment command for a unit that is deploying to Afghanistan in the near future, one of two battalions within our brigade, so I have wanted to get a better sense of the big picture of what they are moving into- not that the text would give me any insight into what their day to day activities would look like (one engineer battalion, one MP battalion).

In any case, I was impressed with the level of detail in the text, and it felt very consistent with my experiences during my year in Iraq in trying to understand the motivations and cultural practices, expectations, etc of those with whom I worked or those that were trying to kill me and others like me.

I had one thought repeatedly come to me as I read and contemplated our engagements in Afghanistan to date. We really seem to be taking a broad and blunt instrument approach when it appears to me that the most effective approach would be more targeted and surgical. I can't profess to fully understand our mission and strategy right now, so it may be that the approach is completely aligned with the mission and strategy, in which case I'd suggest that we need to do a better job of communicating the mission and strategy to the general public.

In any case, a great book if you'd like to study the "how did it get to this?" question, and get some insight into the backgrounds of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Additionally, some interesting profiles of the U.S. folks that were trying to get in front of them, their ignored warnings and failed attempts to work through the bureaucratic infighting between CIA and FBI.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More books read recently

Punching in, the unauthorized adventures of a front-line employee, Alex Frankel.

Thoroughly enjoyed it. Always amusing to read something where someone tries to be someone else, in this case a journalist role-playing the blue-collar or retail worker position. Some funny things and some reality checks.

Stumbling on happiness, Daniel Gilbert

Also thoroughly enjoyed. Not as much about happiness as it is a running commentary about findings in research that we don't accurately predict the future very well, and a variety of other predictable and common errors people make in thinking about the future, their emotional states, etc. People are funny, and I enjoy people watching. This text  to me, just as Punching In, is a great people watching kind of book.

Lowe's taking care of the troops; Christmas for our military

I've had to adjust to negotiating my military service with a corporate entity this year, something that I did not have to sweat in my previous world of academia- summers were "free" in that world. From the perspective of the corporate world I can see how it is a challenge to appreciate all the benefits of reservists and guardsmen in your workforce with the interruptions service brings. We try to sell all the other benefits which come from the skill sets and experiences we bring to balance out the absences.

That being said, I'd like to give some public credit to my employer for being ranked in the top 50 (#34 this year!) of military friendly employers and also for another recent grand gesture.

Home for the Holidays

 Lowe’s has donated $25,000 to help bring more than 200 soldiers from South Carolina home for the Christmas holiday.

Last week, the Family Readiness Group made a plea to the community asking for help to raise the $35,000 needed to help bring the Army Reservists home before the men and women head to Afghanistan in January. Since then, the group has received $10,000 from local Carolinians and $25,000 from Lowe’s.
The soldiers will arrive on Dec. 23. More than 100 members of the 1222nd South Carolina Army National Guard are scheduled to arrive at Lowe’s 2442 in Ft. Mill, S.C., between 8 and 9 a.m.
Meanwhile, more than 100 members of the 174 MAC (Mobile Augmentation Company) will arrive at Lowe’s 2595 in Spartanburg, S.C.

The Army reservists, from York, Lancaster and Chester counties, are currently in Wisconsin training.
For those Guardsmen, you could not have offered a better gift for their holiday season then to help them return to be with their families prior to their deployment:
For my brothers and sisters in arms during this holiday season, you are in our prayers and are not forgotten, despite the lack of news coverage. It may feel like our country is more concerned about other things, but there is a strong core of people, beyond just family and friends, who won't forget you.

Recent books read

Recommended: Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Not so recommended: Lies About Learning, Larry Israelite