Good question posed last week in Jeff Withington’s “Counterinsurgency Leadership.” He writes, “is a good counterinsurgency leader automatically a good conventional war leader?”
My answer (“no, sometimes”) reflects my belief that, on the one hand, a leader should “never say never, never say always”, but is firmly rooted, on the other hand, in the great credence that leadership (from the board room to the war room) is leadership.
Certain leaders are best suited for certain tasks. Take Captain John Collins, a fellow platoon commander at Force. Collins embodies the fighter-leader. He’s smart, strong, and aggressive (and ugly). I love ‘Good-times-Johnny’ to death; I just don’t think he’d be as successful on the bridges of submarines as he was on the bridges of the Euphrates. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a professional, but I don’t think ramming your boat into an enemy sub at 20 knots is a preferred tactic. The hope would be he’d have an XO who would compliment him (and help him with his calculus homework) and maybe things wouldn’t be that bad.
But they would be that bad. Really, really bad. Collins was built to lead Marines, not mathletes. Johnny Collins on a dude tube? Submarines are expensive. (Collins breaks stuff.) Submarines have tiny spaces? (Collins barely fits in his office.) Math? (He writes his op-orders in the dirt with sticks.) A crew of super smart people? (Marine Corps “smart” is way different than Navy Nuclear Officer and Enlisted “smart”.) Patience? (I once saw him eat a Second Lieutenant who delayed one of his raids.) No, Collins wouldn’t do well on a submarine… not at all.
Let me re-attack.
In a conventional war key terrain must be seized and held and lines of battle advanced. In a counterinsurgency the people are the key terrain, security matters, not siege. Lines of battle must become transparent to a population that needs to get back to work. Both prove challenging environments for combat leaders in their own right. Both require men with the constitution for leading professional warriors. Sherman (a conventionally brilliant leader) wouldn’t have the patience for the task at hand in Afghanistan’s RC South. And I’m not sure Petraeus would have had the stomach to burn Atlanta. But this isn’t to say that a Sherman wouldn’t be an asset in the Panjshir valley, or Petraeus at Chancellorsville. Leadership is, after all, leadership…
No matter the case, things are very rarely “automatically so”…think about it using the most mysterious and dangerous practice of all time, dating women.
- If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll automatically look good with mascara stained cheeks, poufy hair, and her contacts stuck to her eyes, tomorrow.
- If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you’re automatically out of the doghouse.
- If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you’re automatically Don Juan.
The answer to each of these makes more sense if you delete the word “automatically” and start using words like “sometimes”, “might be”, or “may” and end it with a statement of probability – like “probably so” or “probably not.”
- If a woman looks good at the bar tonight, then she’ll sometimes look good tomorrow. (Probably so.)
- If a woman tells you she’s not mad at you, then you might be out of the doghouse. (Probably not.)
- If a woman says you’re the best lover she’s ever had, then you may be Don Juan. (Probably you’re on drugs.)
Love, like leadership, works best when you’re the right man for the job. It can work just fine if you’re not, but it works best if you are. When you fall in love (when love is just right) it doesn’t matter what she looks like in the morning (she’ll be her most beautiful), it’s ok to be in the doghouse (you’ll apologize endlessly and not know what you’re apologizing for…and not care), and when she tells you you’re the best she’s ever had, you’ll actually believe her (because you’ll be in love and it’ll be true). And all this brings up a greater lesson on leadership…
Leadership is about listening. I learned that racing sail boats as a Midshipman. Sailing puts you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to make decisions under pressure, and act quickly and decisively. Sailing requires intellect and teamwork and heart. There is no greater leadership class at Annapolis than a day at sailing practice – and the Chesapeake is a rugged coliseum. Those daily practices and weekly regattas prepared our crews for races to Hamilton Bermuda, Marion Massachusetts, Portland Maine, and Portsmouth England. We trained hard, made mistakes, came to respect the sea with a religious reverence, and sailed fast. We endured hardship and carried on. Sailing fosters a matchless spirit of adventure and excitement that can only be replicated by the experiences we would later have in the cockpits of aircraft, in the engine rooms of ships of war, or on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan.
During a race the skipper is like the platoon commander, section leader, or flight lead. His job is to win. He must also care for his crew and make tough decisions. Ultimately, the sailboat’s skipper (like the platoon commander) is responsible for everything the crew does or fails to do. It’s a heavy burden, but if you’ve ever met the crew we sail with, you know how worth it this is…
In my time as a sailor, I’ve noticed two methods of calling tactics. Some skippers observe all that goes on around him – the shifting winds, the opposition, his own crew – and makes a call: tack, jibe, come into the wind, fall off…
Other skippers observe these same conditions, and ask… “Portside, how’s the trim?” “Mastman, how’s the tension?” “Helmsman, what do you see?” He gets input for what each professional at that position is feeling – and demands this participation from each level – and then calls his tactics based on his determinations and the observations of his crew.
I prefer to lead a platoon by the second method. Each of my team leaders are highly trained professional operators bred to observe a situation and act; and each does so uniquely based on their personality, style and tactical approach. Each shooter has a distinct understanding of the battlespace he is operating in; I want to know what my boys are thinking, feeling, believing – so I call tactics as I used to do during a regatta: “Team 1, how’s my flank?” “Team 2, what are you seeing – any movement?” “Team 3, are you comfortable pushing forward 50 meters?” “All Teams, stand by…3—2—1—Execute. Execute. Execute.” And the sniper fires his shot and the breacher blows his breach, and the rifles move forward as they do so well and the house is taken down and the mission is accomplished. And all I had to do was let these professionals do their job. Leadership is easy when the crew knows how to sail fast…
But there’s always the question of those things outside of your control…like the wind and the weather and the storms and the sea…
To this end, the skipper has many competing responsibilities. The most important among them is fostering a culture of excellence. (You must control what you can control.) The bedrock of excellence at the small unit level depends upon (1) flexibility, (2) creativity, (3) commander’s intent, (4) enthusiasm, and (5) “combat velocity.” This foundation provides the mechanism to succeed (and survive) and allows your crew the ability to do their job – no matter the weather.
There’s more to excellence of course – love for the men you serve, the pride you and your team take in your profession, the collective desire to compete (and win), passion, integrity, and a good sense of humor, to name a few – but those things are less the mechanism for excellence, more the architecture. At war’s dangerous fault line – that dodgy place where strategy and tactics (and politics and human emotion and culture and God and everything else) collide – leadership’s “mechanism” matters most. A mechanism accomplishes the mission and keeps brave men alive. The architecture gets you back outside the wire tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day after that…
So let me start here, that leadership, excellent leadership, has two dimensions: near sightedness and far sightedness. Without each the crew’s vision blurs. Truly excellent leadership requires a commander surrender his ego and call tactics not “for his crew” but rather “with his crew.” This 20/20 approach is perhaps best understood as the trigger pullers’ ability to execute their mission (near sightedness), and the commander’s ability to communicate his desired priorities and capitalize on the momentum created by his operators or adjacent units and articulate the changing mission from higher (far sightedness).
Whether fighting a platoon of Marines, or leading a section of Sailors, “20/20 leadership” is a critical paradigm that respects command and control, the chain of command and the other intangibles men face in war (and in the sail boat), while affording our remarkable Sailors and Marines the latitude they require to perform excellently.
Flexibility is a two way street. The small unit commander must be given a certain degree of flexibility by his commander; the degree to which he achieves flexibility depends on the personality of that commander, the confidence that senior commander has with him (and his level of sobriety at the time in question), and the overall command climate.
Flexibility cannot be forced – it must be demonstrated. It is, above all, an ethos – an understanding that no plan will survive first contact, no order perfect, and no situation above Murphy’s unrelenting law: whatever can go wrong in bad times, will. Flexibility is not a personality type, it can be taught and rehearsed – and should be! Flexibility is the ability to rapidly observe, orient, decide, and act on the enemy (or against the problem at hand) as factors beyond your control change. Flexibility requires a union of what is at times a mutually exclusive near sighted and far sighted reality: that to seize this initiative we often have to release most control to our subordinates. When, where and why this happens is the great unknown; that is all a matter of risk, uncertainty and luck – all of these a hard and fast certainty for the junior commander.
Creativity is fostered, not taught. In the complex fight we are in today, faced (at times and as an example) with an enemy with a death wish, the small unit commander’s best resource are his junior Marines and Sailors. Let’s take as an example, an event that unfolds into kinetic warfare. A classical sort of contact in a less than classical sort of environment. Our advantage is that our men have street sense and toughness – an inherent understanding for what’s going on around them, a natural feel for the street and an internal barometer for the precipitation of violence and unrest that might soon unfold. Creativity hinges on the ability of these young men to “turn the chess board around” and think like their enemy. Giving our Marines a voice in our mission planning increases awareness and gives a plan rugged depth – they’ll fight like they know how: brutally and without impunity, like our enemy. The creativity these young men bring to the planning cycle has decisive effects that tend to cripple the enemy’s command and control – at least in the short term. Creativity is a vital tool of combat leadership for the small unit commander – bringing the trigger pullers in on the planning and war-gaming will add surprise to the offense and offer the command inventive ways of waging war and bringing violence to bear on a wicked enemy.
Commander’s intent is critical in small unit leadership because it expresses what you must accomplish, but does not dictate how it must be accomplished. An important distinction I think. The 20/20 leadership model emphasizes “C/I” as absolutely critical. The small unit commander must deliver a crystal clear task, purpose and end-state with all orders he gives. “Here’s what you are to do, here’s why I need you to do it, and here’s what I need it all to look like when you’re finished.” Notice the small unit commander must avoid dictating HOW the mission is to be accomplished; he must leave that aspect, as much as his senior commander and the situation permit, to his subordinate leaders. A coherent commander’s intent will assist execution acceleration and will allow for added creativity and flexibility to guarantee mission accomplishment.
Enthusiasm is a choice made daily and the small unit leader’s force multiplier. All else being equal, enthusiasm enhances training, personal and professional expectations and above all, when considering other factors (serious things such as duty), enthusiasm, in the every day execution of routine tasks, becomes a moral imperative. It is absolutely necessary to constantly echo to your marines and sailors: enthusiasm is a choice. For officers, enthusiasm is an obligation. Above all, create an environment that allows the marines and sailors you lead to be excited about what they do and for the big picture, remind yourself of the awesome responsibility you have to be a leader these men deserve.
Combat velocity is more than speed. Velocity is speed with direction. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of the small unit commander’s decision making cycle, or the speed of his maneuver, with a clear direction. Combat velocity recognizes that in the counter-insurgency fight speed is no longer enough. The small unit commander can and must affect the situation by bringing a degree of order to chaos in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction. Similarly, his subordinate leaders must give direction and foster the speed of the decision making cycles of his own subordinates. Tempo (speed over time) and velocity (speed and direction) must be combined in a near and far sighted sense, as a weapon in themselves.
In the end, 20/20 focus is a leadership model – a tool – that a small unit leader can explain to the men he leads (but must more importantly demonstrate). It is more than a compromise; it’s a strategy for teamwork, excellence, mission accomplishment and success. It reflects the reality that small unit leadership is all about having a clear vision for what’s in front of you, near and far. And respects the independence of nature and the wind and the weather, but celebrates the excellence of one’s own crew. If 20/20 vision is a standard that is daily trained to (flexibility, creativity, commander’s intent, enthusiasm, and velocity), initiative will be gained swiftly, battles will be fought with maximum violence and maximum control, races will be won from Newport to Bermuda and lives will be saved at that dangerous fault line where strategy and tactics collide and all that is left is for young leaders to decide: How should I call my own tactics?
Or better yet, how do I create a culture of excellence?
The answer to what brings men success in leadership with a wonderful platoon, I find, goes back to what brings men success in love with a wonderful woman…
Listen up…hope for the best, and remember things are rarely ever automatically so.