Gross’ first law states that it’s almost impossible to communicate anything to anyone. This truth about human interaction creates a lot of problems in communicating vital information in a military orders process – problems that can and do derail the flow of operations and lead to their failure. In a military setting this means defeat with lives lost. In a business setting it can mean loss of market share, revenue, profit. Both cases are very important – they mean success or failure in mission accomplishment. The purpose of this post is to consider one way of overcoming barriers in communication within an organization – military or civilian.
Backbriefing is a military practice of a subordinate explaining his or her understanding of the plan to the leader (the one who had originally briefed the plan), prior to execution. It’s considered a critical practice to ensure the subordinate understands the plan and to ensure the leader understands implications of the orders. At the tactical level, subordinates can have between hours and days after getting an order to read it closely, determine their own plan, and prepare their brief back to the leader.
Most who have an Army background at the tactical or operational level are familiar with this concept. What was news to us is that this concept has existed on the civilian side for at least half a century. The Manager’s Letter was first pointed out to us in Stephen Bungay’s book the Art of Action – Bungay, a career management consultant with BCG and historian, goes into depth about how it’s a great military practice that can have great effects for civilian organizations. He cites Peter Drucker’s explanation of the Manager’s Letter as proof of how it can work.
In his book The Practice of Management first published in 1954, Peter Drucker gives a great summary of the Manager’s Letter. Instead of trying to summarize it further, I’ll just let you see it for yourself:
Being a manager demands the assumption of a genuine responsibility. Precisely because his aims should reflect the objective needs of the business, rather than merely what the individual manager wants, he must commit himself to them with a positive act of assent. He must know and understand the ultimate business goals, what is expected of him and why, what he will be measured against and how. There must be a “meeting of minds” within the entire management of each unit. This can be achieved only when each of the contributing managers is expected to think through what the unit objectives are, is led, in others words, to participate actively and responsibly in the work of defining them. And only if his lower managers participate in this way can the higher manager know what to expect of them and can make exacting demands.
This is so important that some of the most effective managers I know go one step further. They have each of their subordinates write a “manager’s letter” twice a year. In this letter to his superior, each manager, first defines the objectives of his superior’s job and of his own job as he sees them. He then sets down the performance standards which he believes are being applied to him. Next, he lists the things he must do himself to attain these goals – and the things within his own unit he considers the major obstacles. He lists the things his superior and the company do that help him and the things that hamper him. Finally, he outlines what he proposes to do during the next year to reach his goals. If his superior accepts this statement, the “manager’s letter” becomes the charter under which the manager operates.
This device, like no other I have seen, brings out how easily the unconsidered and casual remarks of even the best boss can confuse and misdirect. One large company has used the “manager’s letter” for ten years. Yet almost every letter still lists as objectives and standards things which completely baffle the superior to whom the letter is addressed. And whenever he asks: “What is this?” he gets the answer: “Don’t you remember what you said last spring going down with me in the elevator?” The “manager’s letter” also brings out whatever inconsistencies there are in the demands made on a man by his superior and by the company. Does the superior demand both speed and high quality when he can get only one or the other? And what compromise is needed in the interest of the company? Does he demand initiative and judgment of his men but also that they check back with him before they do anything? Does he ask for their ideas and suggestions but never uses them or discusses them? Does the company expect a small engineering force to be available immediately whenever something goes wrong in the plant, and yet bend all its efforts to the completion of new designs? Does it expect a manager to maintain high standards of performance but forbid him to remove poor performers? Does it create the conditions under which people say: “I can get the work done as long as I can keep the boss from knowing what I am doing?”
These are common situations. They undermine spirit and performance. The “manager’s letter” may not prevent them. But at least it brings them out in the open, shows where compromises have to be made, objectives have to be thought through, priorities have to be established, behavior has to be changed.
Though the concept is in reverse – a civilian management genius describing a valuable communications practice more common in the military – it gets to the core of what this blog is all about.
Also – in researching this post we found a quote that proves Drucker understood the military approach to leadership and management:
We have written before about what a singularly successful leader Field Marshal William Slim was. We discuss his leadership and some of his thoughts on commanders here and here. His Command Philosophy was simple. We think it also makes a hell of a lot of sense regardless of what sort of organization you might lead.
No Details, No paper and No regrets! Each of these self-admonishments serve to sharpen a leader’s exercise of that crucial skill – judgment.
No details! Don’t go about setting machine guns on different sides of bushes. That is done a damn sight better by a Platoon Leader.”
No Details! There is a very fine art to knowing the level of detail you should concern yourself with at any given level of responsibility. Pay too little attention and you are disengaged and ineffective; pay too much attention at too fine a level and you micromanage – doubling the work. Employ people you trust and trust them to do their jobs well. Don’t kill your subordinates’ confidence and productivity by getting involved where you have no business doing so. Be mindful of the appropriate level for your attention and strive to focus your efforts and attention there.
No Paper! Do not have people coming to you with huge files, telling you all about it. Make the man explain it; and if he cannot explain it, get somebody who can.”
No Paper! Leaders need to surround themselves with people who can communicate. No leader has time to read every report and digest every piece of information themselves. You must rely on others to distill information for you and communicate that which is pertinent to your decisions. This “No Paper” philosophy isn’t really about paper at all – it’s really about making sure your key subordinates can communicate. This precept is all the more relevant today and it could be restated in 2017 as “No PowerPoint.” SECDEF, Retired Marine General Jim Mattis famously claimed that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” and National Security Advisor Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster banned its use in his headquarters in Iraq for similar reasons. Of course, PowerPoint doesn’t actually “make you stupid.” But, it can allow your thinking to become muddled and your message unclear. Practice the arts of verbal and written communication. Decide what really matters, get your message across and give your people the space and support to make things happen. As the original “Mad Man” George Louis said, “Think long. Write Short.”
No Regrets! What is the next problem? Get on to that. Do not sit in the corner weeping about what might have been done.”
No Regrets! Use your talent and judgment to do the best that you can. Having done so, do not become paralyzed with over-analysis when things don’t go exactly as you had envisioned. This is not an excuse for failing to conduct proper “After Action Reviews” or failing to examine lessons learned – this is an admonishment against indulging in that incapacitating and selfish habit of regret. Do not allow regret to rob you of your momentum.
Below is the text of a small handbook for junior officers of the US Marine Corps from the early days of the Second World War. In it there are some great quick leadership guidelines. As Dylan posted earlier there’s the striking presence of qualities sorely lacking from today’s leadership learning or in many cases leadership practice: seemliness & propriety. Indeed many of the rules herein are strict by today’s standards – what makes me wonder is how closely these were followed by the men that led combat operations on Tarawa, Peleliu, Okinawa or Iwo Jima.
Our copy belongs to Dylan – a gift from his aunt Debra on the occasion of our commissioning in 2002 – we took the time to make it digital for all those who could benefit.
As Weaponsman would say, “The past is another country” and we’d do well to regard it with the same respect we give to other cultures today.
“Thou shalt not”
HINTS TO NEWLY COMMISSIONED OFFICERS
MARINE CORPS SCHOOLS: MARINE BARRACKS QUANTICO, VA.
Your duty towards others
1. DON’T neglect the comfort and general welfare of your subordinates. This is your first duty.
2. DON’T go to your own meals unless you are satisfied in your mind that those you are responsible for are being properly fed.
3. DON’T say “Hi, you,” or refer to those in the ranks as “What’s-your-name.” Learn the names of your subordinates; it can be done rapidly with practice. They appreciate being addressed by their proper names.
4. DON’T neglect to investigate any complaint submitted, but don’t be imposed upon.
5. DON’T show favoritism. If your subordinates think you are unjust and partial, things will soon go wrong.
6. DON’T overwork your staff. There is a difference between over-working and working hard.
7. DON’T hesitate to keep the “backward” ones at work. The good ones will look after
8. DON’T curb your subordinates’ initiative; direct it into proper channels.
9. DON’T permit N.C.O.s to be aggressive or overbearing towards the rank and file; insist on the same kind of attitude which you set for yourself.
10. DON’T forget to study your subordinates. Learn their idiosyncrasies. Mark the weak ones and those on whom you can implicitly rely to do their job efficiently.
It is equally important to study the idiosyncrasies of your superiors. The higher their rank the more important it is that you should keep a watchful eye for their “hobbies.” It may be “toothbrushes,” “cubic air space” or “flying regulations”; Whatever it is, if you wish to succeed, you will require to use your ingenuity and tact in the matter of idiosyncrasies.
11. DON’T allow the sick to remain on duty; order them to “report sick.”
12. DON’T forget to supervise by occasional checks the duties you have delegated to subordinates.
13. DON’T desert your subordinates the moment the day’s work is done. Take an interest in their entertainment, and “off-duty” amusements. Help organize them; it is part of your duty.
14. DON’T make recommendations for promotion unless you are certain the person concerned is competent. You have a duty to the State, the Service and your unit.
15. DON’T forget that a house divided against itself will come to grief. Be loyal to your C.O. in thought, word and deed.
Your personal efficiency
16. DON’T scorn knowledge of Service matters. It is better to know a thing and not want the knowledge, than to want it and not know it.
17. DON’T lack initiative; we are not all born with it, but it can be cultivated.
18. DON’T be afraid to make up your mind quickly and rightfully. This is termed
“character.” Take charge.
19. DON’T forget to cultivate tact; you will want it all day long. Some people are always at the beginning, middle or end of a row which could have been easily avoided.
20. DON’T forget confidence is begotten of experience and knowledge. The latter must be acquired by your own efforts. Experience comes to you.
21. DON’T use civilian terms for Service matters. The Service vocabulary is your professional language. It is essential that you should understand Service expressions.
22. DON’T, when given an order, explain all the difficulties you will have in carrying it out. Overcome them and give effect to the order as speedily as possible. In other words, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do to-day.” Do it now!
23. DON’T economize with your “Uniform Allowance.” The Government is not a philanthropic institution and you may be sure the allowance is only just enough.
24. DON’T obtain your uniform from “any old tailor.” Be correctly dressed by one familiar with the precise details appertaining to your Service. There is such a thing as a “Sealed Pattern,” and there are also “Uniform Regulations,” which are exacting in their demands for uniformity. Ask for advice rather than have to replace what you have purchased.
25. DON’T omit, when in uniform out of doors, to be correct in all essentials of your dress. There are such things as gloves, and gas masks, without which you aren’t properly dressed and “letting your Service down” in the eyes of those whose judgment matters.
26. DON’T smoke a pipe in uniform when in public places such as streets of a town, etc.; it isn’t done.
27. DON’T neglect your personal appearance. Be smart. Your subordinates will soon spot whether your boots and buttons are as clean as theirs. Yours should be cleaner, even in war time.
28. DON’T lounge about. Cultivate an erect carriage and always move about smartly.
29. DON’T omit to wear your headdress on all occasions out of doors. It is slovenly not to do so.
How to use your authority
30. DON’T be sarcastic with subordinates or hold them up to ridicule. Learn to “tell off” those deserving it, quietly, strongly and to the point. Fools must be suffered gladly sometimes.
31. DON’T ever lose your temper. It will only result in ridicule and indignity.
32. DON’T be pompous, adopt a bullying attitude or shout when there is no occasion to do so. Orders can equally well be given in a quiet but firm manner.
33. DON’T curse subordinates. It is cowardly. They cannot curse back. This includes mess servants, as they cannot stand up for themselves without danger of dismissal. Make your complaint to the Mess Secretary, who will take proper steps to deal with it.
34. DON’T be guilty of “nagging.” Cultivate the art of a short, sharp reproof should the occasion demand it.
35. DON’T find fault unnecessarily, or omit to find fault when the occasion demands it.
36. DON’T reprimand a non-commissioned officer in the presence or hearing of those in the ranks. You will undermine his authority if you do.
37. DON’T fail to correct your subordinates if you hear them speak disrespectfully of superior officers, but do it tactfully.
38. DON’T interfere unnecessarily with subordinates in the street or other public places. The golden rule is: if your authority as an officer is necessary for disciplinary reasons, and is likely to carry weight, use it; if not, pass on.
39. DON’T exclude common sense when interpreting the regulations.
40. DON’T give slovenly orders. They must be clear and lucid, both oral and written. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. The power of clear, unambiguous expression is not such a common gift as is usually imagined. Try to acquire it.
41. DON’T leave drunken Service personnel to their own devices if they are behaving in such a manner as to bring discredit on the Service, injury to themselves or others. If no N.C.O., Service police or civil police are handy, find a telephone and ring up the nearest Service unit; failing that, a police station. Give your name and request that the offender be taken into custody. Don’t go near the offender yourself on any account you may cause him, unwittingly, to commit a more serious offense.
42. DON’T forget that all your orders must be “lawfuI” i.e., the disobedience of which would tend to delay or prevent some military or air force proceedings.
Your behaviour and personal example to others
43. DON’T criticize superior officers (whatever your private opinion may be of individuals), particularly in the presence of juniors.
44. DON’T live beyond your income, get into debt or borrow money.
45. DON’T push yourself forward at the expense of others, especially your seniors.
46. DON’T be unpunctual. The Services are run to the exact minute; synchronize your watch daily with the official time.
47. DON’T quarrel; it dissipates energy needlessly.
48. DON’T walk arm in arm in public. The relationship doesn’t matter; don’t do it.
49. DON’T waste time and breath grumbling. Have this text in a visible place to cure you of this habit:— “Lord, teach me not to whimper.”
50. DON’T carry informality too far in the informal conditions you will find in Mess.
51. DON’T fail to show respect for senior officers at all times, but avoid a servile or fawning manner as you would the plague.
52. DON’T allow your personal dislike of an individual to impair your good manners.
53. DON’T remain seated if your C.O. enters the room you are in. Stand up.
54. DON’T bore people with your own doings, however interesting they may be. You have no idea how popular a “good listener” can become.
55. DON’T open a conversation with very senior officers; leave it to them. In other words, don’t thrust yourself forward uninvited; you might meet with an unexpected reception.
56. DON’T “stand drinks” to members of your Mess.
57. DON’T be afraid to refuse a drink at any time if you don’t want it. Only a “boor” would press drinks upon a guest unnecessarily.
58. DON’T acquire the aperitif or cocktail habit in war time. Both sometimes affect the moral as well as the physical fibre.
59. DON’T forget that ladies — even if they are serving as officers — are only allowed into that part of the Mess set apart for their use.
60. DON’T introduce religious or political into conversation in an Officers’ Mess.
61. DON’T seek popularity with other ranks by assuming a contempt for authority and strict discipline. You will lose their respect and gain nothing.
62. DON’T strike fancy attitudes of your own, or move about when giving a word of command on parade. Stand to attention.
63. DON’T apply for leave the first day you arrive at your new station. You will create a bad impression.
64. DON’T try to evade your responsibilities. You are not paid to “pass the baby” to others.
Relationship between officers and rank and file
65. DON’T be familiar with those in the ranks. They like you to keep your proper place.
66. DON’T be familiar with your N.C.Os., however efficient they may be. Young officers need great care when handling experienced N.C.Os. Keep your dignity. Common sense and understanding on both sides will simplify matters.
67. DON’T enter a Sergeants’ Mess unless invited by a general invitation to officers.
68. DON’T stay for more than one hour at any dance to which you (in common with other officers) have been invited by the Sergeants, Corporals or rank and file.
69. DON’T attempt to buy N.C.Os. a drink at any such entertainment; remember they are collectively “Host” and it really isn’t done.
70. DON’T try to create an impression by consuming a large number of drinks. You will lose your subordinates’ respect (if nothing worse happens).
71. DON’T enter or remain in the “bar” of a hotel if rank and file are present. The “lounge” is more suitable for officers.
72. DON’T, because the “ranker” happens to be your father or brother, drink with him in a public bar. Find somewhere private. He is sufficiently proud of you not to want you to behave in a manner unbecoming to your rank.
73. DON’T take an N.C.O. or any of the rank or file into the Officers’ Mess.
74. DON’T inquire into the private domestic affairs of those in the ranks who are married; leave this to senior officers. If they want your help in any such matters they will ask for it.
75. DON’T attempt to know the “married families” socially, that is, by visiting their homes or forming any other social liaison. To do so is to invite accusations of partiality and favoritism, which are difficult to refute, bad for your reputation amongst seniors and juniors, and detrimental to Service discipline.
76. DON’T allow the attractiveness of your “lady driver” to make you forget, even temporarily, that the dividing line between officers and rank and file must be maintained.
77. DON’T shirk saluting senior officers at all times, Whether “on” or “off duty.” There is nothing servile or derogatory to yourself in this. It is an ancient Service custom with hundreds of years of tradition behind it.
Irrespective of rank, you must salute your superiors in rank before addressing them, or being addressed by them, on duty or parade.
78. DON’T fail to return every compliment paid to you by rank and file, and acknowledge it with a proper full salute; never touch your cap like a taximan acknowledging a tip. There is only one kind of salute, and it is the same for officers as for those in the ranks.
79. DON’T forget to salute if covered when you enter and leave an office occupied by a brother officer of equal or senior rank. It is courteous and has now become an established custom of the Service.
80. DON’T forget to salute a bier, uncased Colors or when the National Anthem is played.
81. DON’T salute or return compliments if you are without your head-dress.
Disposal of offenders
82. DON’T find an alleged offender “guilty” if any reasonable doubt still remains as to his guilt. He must be allowed the benefit of the doubt.
83. DON’T punish a first offender for a minor offense.
84. DON’T fail to keep an alphabetical roll of first offenders you have “let off with a caution,” so that swift and suitable punishment follows a further offense. Every offense cannot be treated as a first offense, or it becomes a habit.
85. DON’T forget to inform an offender whom you have decided to punish that you are doing so for three reasons:-
(i) Because he deserves it;
(ii) To deter him from committing that offense again;
(iii) To deter others from committing a similar offense.
86. DON’T use your position to inflict any punishment which could be termed “malicious.”
87. DON’T forget that the careers of your subordinates can be seriously damaged by a mistake on your part. Be correct in all your dealings with offenders, and above all be just.
Your correct conduct in private affairs
88. DON’T discuss official Service matters in private correspondence.
89. DON’T indulge in adverse criticism of junior or senior officers in private correspondence. It is grossly unjust: they cannot defend themselves.
90. DON’T discuss official Service matters with anyone, unless it is a matter which their official position demands that they should know.
91. DON’T, when permitted to wear “mufti,” wear any old clothes. Re-member that you are still an officer. If someone recognizes you in “loud” or any clothing unfitted to a commissioned officer, you bring discredit not only upon yourself, but the status of officers generally.
92. DON’T discuss Service matters at home. Your family will undoubtedly be curious, and you may wish to impress them with the importance of your position, but careless talk even amongst those you trust most, may sacrifice valuable lives. Do not by mere foolishness become an unpaid agent of the enemy.
93. DON’T attempt to gain a personal advantage by writing a private letter on an official matter to a friend or relative who may hold high rank or be in a position of authority.
How does a leader bridge the gaps of religion, language and culture to build a cohesive and effective team with people from vastly different cultures?
Allies are really very extraordinary people. It is astonishing how obstinate they are, how parochially minded, how ridiculously sensitive to prestige and how wrapped up in obsolete political ideas. It is equally astonishing how they fail to see how broad-minded you are, how clear your picture is, how up-to-date you are and how cooperative and big-hearted you are. It is extraordinary! Let me tell you, when you feel like that about your allies, just remind yourself of two things: First, that you are an ally too, and that all allies look just the same. If you walk to the other side of the table, you will look just like that fellow sitting opposite. The next thing to remember is that there is only one thing worse than having allies – that is not having allies.”
– Field Marshall William Slim
We hear every day that our world is increasingly interconnected and that the teams we work with and lead are more diverse. What does this mean for organizational leaders? What unique leadership challenges do diverse organizations pose? Why is leadership in these settings so extremely demanding? How do we achieve that alignment of purpose without a common context?
Successful leadership of diverse teams requires creating a new group culture and shared purpose. Leading coalitions is a challenge as old as Western civilization itself. Our greatest cultural heroes from Achilles to the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc were part of warrior coalitions. Those great armies shared values and a culture that brought the Greeks and the Allied powers together against the common enemies of their times. While historical coalitions usually enjoyed the blessings of common languages, cultures, and values, today’s organizations are often far more diverse and have fewer shared values with much less in common culturally. Leading diverse organizations can be more challenging and often requires leaders to create a shared purpose and culture out of whole cloth where none exists. Often lacking true unity of command, coalition leaders must create unity of effort through commitment based influence founded on mutual trust and respect.
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and earned respect.”
Case Study Burma 1943 The Forgotten Army:
The 14th Army’s triumph in British India under the leadership of Field Marshall William Slim offers a study in effective leadership of an incredibly diverse organization under the most difficult conditions. Following many months of severe Allied losses and setbacks in the theatre, Slim took command of the newly created 14th Army in Burma in 1943. The 14th Army was composed of over one million men from all corners of the earth. They came from the armies of India, Nepal, Africa, China, the United Kingdom and its commonwealth nations, and the United States. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who spoke countless different languages found a home in its ranks. At best, this sounds like the set up for a bad joke about “walking into a bar…” at worst, it is certainly a recipe for rancor and discord. Imagine the difficulties in leading such an organization under the best of circumstances… Slim understood that all of these differences would make command of the army very challenging. However, he grasped the importance of personal influence and building a common purpose and possessed a style of leadership well suited to his new command. This made all the difference and allowed the 14th Army to accomplish the nearly impossible.
In a speech to officers at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College many years after the war, which Brady already mentioned in his post on Slim’s Qualities of a Commander, Slim defined Command as “…the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” You see, Slim understood that he could not rely on his position and rank to afford him sufficient influence. Success for the 14th Army required personal, commitment-based influence and a shared sense of purpose. Slim had to create that. As Army commander, he made an effort to visit each battalion in his million-man army to speak personally with his soldiers. He shared with them, in one on one conversations, often in their native tongue, his goals and vision and tried to learn from this diverse group what he could of their cultures, motivations and values. Slim made an express priority of conveying his vision and purpose directly to his soldiers despite the army’s incredibly vast dispersion and size. He did this because he believed the foundations of morale were “spiritual, intellectual, and material in that order.” He envisioned an army where each soldier believed his work was directly linked to the accomplishment of an attainable and noble goal in which leaders valued their men’s lives and placed an emphasis on providing as best they could for the soldier’s needs. This was truly revolutionary stuff for a British commander of his generation to think and say. “He believed that be they British, Indian, Gurkha or African, if they were told the reason for fighting, the justice of the cause and the importance of beating the enemy, and were kept in the picture … they would respond with enthusiasm.” He communicated his vision. Slim’s success shows the profound power of creating shared values, a shared organizational culture, and providing a shared purpose and vision. The most successful organizations today understand this as well.
Command is the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” – Slim
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and an earned respect. Greatness in the most demanding circumstances can only be accomplished through a leader with strong personal influence with his soldiers. This concept has been discussed at length in business and management circles for some time. Slim understood this better than most. He recognized that his positional power as a British Field Marshall and Army Commander would not be sufficient to lead his new army.
Slim’s interactions with the American Lt.Gen. Joseph Stilwell demonstrated the power of his personal influence. General Stilwell, the commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the region, had a reputation as a maverick, eccentric, and borderline insubordinate, if brilliant, commander. The man’s personality was such that his nickname was “Vinegar Joe.” Draw your own conclusions… If there were ever a commander who held positional power in contempt and disregard, it was Stilwell. He had previously refused to serve under any British commander, dangerously dividing the already fragile coalition. He also expressed a strong and general dislike of the British officer class and of the British goals in the region. However, upon taking command of the 14th Army, Slim was able to win Stilwell’s admiration and loyalty. With an impressive combat record of his own, Slim appealed to Stilwell’s warrior ethos and, as a man of very humble origins himself, Slim was able to sympathize with the American’s republican distaste for the aristocratic trappings of many other British commanders. Slim convinced Stilwell to follow his lead. In doing so, Slim saved the coalition and brought the American forces back into the fight as part of the 14th Army that ultimately defeated the Japanese in Burma in the spring of 1945.
Slim shows those qualities of leadership necessary to build a successful coalition from an incredibly diverse and dispirited force. His wisdom rings true through my and Brady’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat leadership across a language and cultural barrier requires skillful perception and introspection. Influencing men who are not formally under your command – or even in your army – don’t speak your language, don’t share your culture or worship your God demands that you explain the justice of your common cause and the importance of beating the enemy and that you keep them always informed and treat them with respect. They must trust you and you must trust them.
What analogies can we make to the world of business? What is the most crucial ingredient to building a shared culture? How can we achieve alignment of effort across cultural and language barriers?
 Field Marshall Sir William Slim Defeat Into Victory.
 Defeat Into Victory.
 Sir Geoffrey Charles Evans, Slim as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1969), 215.
How do military commanders and their staffs plan to solve problems which they haven’t yet defined, can’t yet know and have not prepared for? What implications does this model have for business leaders?
My daughter sings an old English folk song about the “Grand Old Duke of York.”
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down…”
So, the Grand Old Duke may not have been a military genius. Unless of course his goal was to improve the physical fitness of his men by forced marches uphill… But I’m sure that wasn’t what he intended to do with his 10,000 men. After all, 10,000-man armies aren’t cheap to just keep hanging around. So, how do we begin to plan? How do we create and communicate our intent? What was the Duke missing?
You must start with vision. The boss is responsible for the vision. He defines the desired end state. This vision may be broad and general. It should leave room for individual initiative of subordinate leaders. The boss’s Operational Art and Design together form an Operational Approach – this is the planning guidance which translates his vision into specific and actionable plans much like an engineer’s blue prints convert a concept sketch into an actual car. Begin with your end in mind. Here’s how it’s done.
Capital isn’t scarce; vision is.”
– Sam Walton
First, we need to address some specific vocabulary:Operational Art is the application of creative imagination, supported by skill, knowledge, and experience to design strategies for solving problems. Operational Design is a framework for understanding an environment and a given problem and developing a vision for desired conditions. Operational Design produces guidance for planning and an Operational Approach to solve a given problem. The process of Operational Design takes place after a military unit has received a mission, during the larger process called Mission Analysis prior to development, analysis, comparison and approval of courses of action and the production of written orders tasking subordinate units. We will talk more about Mission Analysis in later posts. For now, we just need to understand that Operational Design fits into a larger planning methodology.
The Essence of Operational Design is asking Four Questions:
What is going on here?
What do we want the environment to look like? (What is our desired End State?)
Where should we act to achieve our desired end state?
How do we get from our current state to our desired end state?
Let’s take each one in turn and dig a bit deeper.
What is going on here? Understanding Your Operational Environment:
To gain understanding of a given problem, it helps to adopt a systems perspective. Operational Design is a way to think about the interactions of systems. It facilitates an understanding of the constant, evolving and complex interaction of various systems and their implications on a given problem. Military planners use the model represented by the acronym PMESII-PT (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment and Time Available) to identify and examine the systems interacting in a given area of operations. Another conceptual model for examining the environment through a systems approach is RAFT (Ask yourself, “What is the Relationship between relevant Actors? What are their Functions and Tensions?). Each of these systems is interrelated and interacts with each of the others in complex and sometimes unexpected ways. Gaining this perspective is the first step in understanding an environment.
Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare.”
– Japanese Proverb
2. Define your desired End State: This is the part where Vision comes in… What do you want the environment to look like? How do you accomplish your boss’s intent?
3. Determine Where to act: Put simply, what in the current environment is preventing your organization from reaching the desired end state? What is the underlying or “root cause”? Failure to think clearly at this stage results in a solution that treats symptoms while potentially failing to treat the “disease.”
Ask: What must change? What doesn’t need to change? What conditions are required for success? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various actors? What opportunities and threats exist for each of the relative actors?
4. How do we get to our End State? What are our Objectives? What is our Center of Gravity?: Ask: What broad, general actions will produce those conditions that define our desired end state? How do we move from existing conditions to desired conditions? What tensions naturally exist between the two states? What risks exist?
A little more vocabulary clarification is needed here:
Objectives are those things which MUST be achieved to reach the end state. These are our goals. Objectives are “the clearly defined, decisive, and attainable goals toward which every military operation should be directed.” Objectives, as defined in Joint Pub. 5-0, pg III-20, must meet the following criteria: 1) Establish a single desired result (goal); 2) Link directly or indirectly to one or more higher-level objectives (or end states); 3)Be prescriptive, specific, and unambiguous; 4)Not infer ways and means for their accomplishment. It is not written as a task.
Effects are behaviors caused by some action. Desired effects are conditions related to achieving our objectives. These must be measured.
Tasks are actions that create effects and may be objectives for subordinates.
Center of Gravity (COG). A CoG is “a source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action or will to act.” – JP 5-0 Clausewitz said it is “the hub of all power and movement on which everything depends.” Regardless of the definition we use, selection of a correct CoG is crucial as it focuses our thinking and shapes our planning. Note, there may be more than one CoG and a CoG may change during any given operation. You and your opponent each have a CoG – protect yours and attack the other guy’s!
It all comes down to Ends, Ways and Means: The “Three Legged Stool of Strategy”
Ends = Ways + Means. Using our vision, we identify our desired End State or “End.” Next we should list the “Ways” that can achieve our desired “End.” Ways are usually (but not always) verbs. They are the resource or thing that can accomplish, or keep us from accomplishing our End. Ways are methods, tactics, practices, strategies, or procedures. Each of these Ways will have certain requirements or needs without which it cannot function. These are the “Means.” Some examples are, troops, money, time, political capitol, weapons systems, and technology. List these out. Identify a Way that is the primary Way to achieve the End State. We call this a “Critical Capability.” Now, select from your lists of Means that resource or thing that has the inherent Critical Capability to perform the Way. This resource is the CoG. All other Means are called “Critical Requirements.” We must focus our efforts on a CoG either directly targeting it or targeting something it needs in order to function. Identifying the CoG allows planners to focus on what they should protect or attack, directly or indirectly, to accomplish their goal and realize their vision.
That’s it for our introduction to Operational Design. Please, let us know what you think. What did we leave out? What just didn’t make any sense? What would you like to know more about? In the next post on this topic we will discuss more detailed planning and tracking of results through Lines of Operation, Lines of Effort, Measures of Effectiveness, Measures of Performance, Key Performance Indicators, Branches and Sequels and Decisive Points.
What would you give to hear the man many have called the greatest British general of all time give a talk on leadership? In 1952 Field Marshal Sir William Slim did so at Fort Leavenworth and it was reproduced through Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and then in the pages of Military Review (page 10). Dylan and I have been reviewing it ourselves and not only is there a ton to pull out but there’s a lot that links to many other fascinating leadership topics. Here I’m going to look at the Qualities of a Commander that Slim listed and see if we can make some comparisons.
Slim named five qualities that make a commander. They include Determination, Judgment, Flexibility of Mind, Knowledge and Integrity. If we look at his explanations, we can pull even more out of his reasoning and then specifically which facets of these qualities he seems to highlight the most. For me it’s most interesting to look at his background, approach and habits and wonder how his experiences in the First World War and in Asia in the Second led him to believe these things. I’ll use some comparisons with other sources to contrast as well.
The first, and most important quality Slim mentions is Determination – or what he calls willpower. It seems to fit perfectly with a military priority of mission accomplishment – but the interesting thing is that if you look at the US Army’s attributes of a leader, Army values, etc. you won’t find determination anywhere – much less in first place (actually in the US Army’s leadership manual, ADRP 6-22, you get the word 3 times: referring to judgment & ethics, under the 4th bullet “displays character” in the competency “Leads by Example”, and in a description of delegation). Slim’s explanation is that a commander’s going to find opposition everywhere – internally his staff and subordinate commanders will tell him that what he’s asking is impossible, or inadvisable, so he has to push through that. Additionally allies, as he illustrates in his famous quote, present all kinds of roadblocks. Finally, as American commanders today are so fond of saying, “the enemy has a vote” and of course is not just trying to resist you but trying to defeat you in other ways. A commander needs strong sense of determination to get what he wants to accomplish through all of that. If a commander couldn’t overcome, remove or bypass obstacles to success, he wouldn’t accomplish much – and in Slim’s view, wouldn’t be a commander.
The part of Slim’s Determination focus that squares with current US Army teaching is his idea that determination is rooted in moral courage – which maps to integrity and personal courage in some ways. If I understand where Slim’s headed with this, it’s that in order to have a strong sense of determination, the leader has to be himself convinced that what he’s doing is right, worth doing and honestly, worth risking his job. So many military leaders talk on and on about moral courage, but Slim lays it out best here:
“Moral courage simply means that you do what you think is right without bothering too much about the effect on yourself. That is the courage that you will have to have. You must be as big as your job and you must not be too afraid of losing it. It does not matter what your job is, whether supreme commander or lance corporal, you must not be too afraid of losing it – some people are. So the one quality no leader can do without is determination, based on moral courage.”
The second quality Slim lists is Judgment – he says that in many ways it could be as important as determination. He explains that it’s a special kind of judgment that’s needed because it’s using imperfect and incomplete information (almost echoing Clausewitz). Slim explains that a good sense of judgment of human beings is an important facet – a commander needs to know the best man for the task, based on his own qualities. This leads to the importance of delegation – a judgment sense of ‘what should I be making the calls on and what should my subordinates be making the calls on’.
Slim has a great explanation of his ideas on keeping his decision workload simple and focused on the future rather than the past – which Dylan will explain in another post. Where Slim really links his quality of judgment to so many others is his explanation of a “lucky commander” – what he explains isn’t really luck but a sixth sense for choosing the right way forward. Slim says it’s a combination of “training, knowledge, observation and character” that allows a commander to be right more often than wrong and explains it through the image of a painter mixing paints. His is another way of explaining the Fingerspitzengefühl concept or Clausewitz’s combination of coup d’oeil & conviction. In a final note he says a commander must be able to balance his determination and judgment – calling to mind the Kurt von Hammerstein-Eqúord 2×2 of initiative and intelligence.
Slim speaks little of the value of Flexibility of Mind but lists it nonetheless as a quality of a commander. He defines it as adapting to changes in war ranging from innovation to politics to the weather. The valuable part is that he sees conflict between flexibility of mind and determination and that a leader needs to seek a balance – “see that your strength of will does not become just obstinacy and that your flexibility of mind does not become mere vacillation”.
Slim notes knowledge as being another quality of a commander – and lists both knowledge of friendly forces (their capabilities and limitations and the capabilities and limitations of their equipment, as well as their context) and enemy forces and their character as being the core of this – and he explicitly mentions a knowledge of the enemy commander. What this points to is experience – it would take an obscene amount of study to equal the decades of experience a Field Marshal would have – there is likely no substitute for experience in this regard.
What’s really interesting about Slim’s description of a commander’s requisite knowledge is what he calls “the real test of a great commander in the field” and mentions an argument with Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. Slim says it’s a commander’s ability to “be a judge of administrative risk”. Now Brits use the term “administrative” or “admin” more than just a bit differently than us and from my own experience seem to use it interchangeably with “logistics”, “supply” and “task organization” depending on the context. I’m assuming he’s saying that judging administrative risk is, as he mentions before, the ability “to know…if he can do it with the resources he has” – and if that’s the case the “resources” include task organization. The ability to know accurately whether or not a unit could accomplish a military task given all the obstacles and adversarial forces would indeed be a good indicator of the skill of a commander and would require significant knowledge and great judgment.
Integrity is usually what most modern writers of leadership content list as the first and most important quality of a commander – and often saying that without it you can’t have the rest. But this view contradicts what many observers of leaders have seen. Today the list is long and distinguished that names the great leaders we’ve had in the US that have rather publically shown a want for integrity. Personally I’ve known leaders – commanders – who’ve displayed good leadership traits in many ways but lacked integrity in others. So I’d say it’s not a requirement to be a leader – but maybe a requirement to be a good leader – the kind the led say they’d follow to hell and back – and more than that a leader they actually do follow to hell. Slim says integrity is required for a commander to lead in the bad times – when nothing is going right and the outlook for the future is dire as well. If I read him correctly and apply my own experience it’s that integrity allows the led to be convinced that what he’s doing is right, worth doing and undergoing great hardship for, and honestly, worth risking his life. Without it the led may believe that the goals set by his commander may not be the right ones – that the led may be risking his life for some selfish personal gain of the commander. In this way, integrity may be the way the commander lends his own strong sense of determination to each member of his command.
Maybe one of the larger things I found interesting about what Slim wrote is that command is earned through success – and not a thing given. This seems different from the way we look at it today. Slim is also known for having had great self-knowledge and humility and not only does it seem to shine through here, it makes for a pretty lucid and revelatory explanation of an often clouded topic.