The urge to “do something” and the need to be patient

the end from metal gear solid 3 aiming his sniper rifle

I’m forever catching up with my podcast queue.

I recently finished two IWI podcasts – one on the role of Air Force Special Operations Command (ep 44) and the other on counter-insurgency (ep 43).

A couple of things stood out.

The Air Force episode featured a discussion on the importance of measures of effectiveness. The crux of the argument was that it’s important to ensure we are measuring things to be certain that we are making progress, especially in messy little wars.

Nothing wrong with that. It makes sense.

But.

The conversation eventually meandered towards just how difficult that is to do. Often, there are no clean measures to determine if the needle is moving in the right direction. And this is often the case in small wars.

As such, smart young men and women contort themselves to put numbers on things where numbers don’t belong.

The military has become obsessed with measures of effectiveness, often shortened to “M-O-E.” Much of this is borrowed from business practices with a shady past and questionable conclusions.

But it is pervasive. A senior leader putting up his hand mid-brief and stating “Ok but how are we going to measure this?” while all of the other officers in the room turn to the briefer with a scowl is one of the reasons we have such a hard time doing anything anymore.

Asking “how are we going to measure it” sounds like a smart thing to ask. And it’s a great way to kill a good initiative.

Quantifying all of the great things that were achieved is also a great way to get a good evaluation.

As a result, we tend to do the things that are easily measured as opposed to the things that are actually effective.

Sometimes, we just know what will be effective. It’s a gut feeling that comes from education and experience.

The schoolyard bully doesn’t need to measure what to say to make the other kid cry; he just knows it. He knows the other kid’s psychic weak point.

He doesn’t need to measure it.

This is a subject I feel strongly about because this hyper-focus on MOE isn’t helping.

The second podcast, on counter-insurgency, featured a pointed short discussion on the limits of military power. What I loved most was Jacqueline Hazelton planting the flag on the source of many of our problems – leaders’ insistence that we “do something” in response to every emergency.

The immediacy of modern communications and the perceived political and social pressure that swells whenever something happens – especially if that something includes dramatic images – compels political and military leaders to “do something” in response.

“How are we countering this?”

No one wants to “appear weak,” thus, we escalate, often doing the proximate thing we shouldn’t.


There’s a great short-expression in Arabic – فَٱصْبِرْ صَبْرًا جَمِيلً – which translates to “be patient with beautiful patience.”

We need much more of that.


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The Battalion Commander Effect

battalion commander on the radio in vietnam

Catching up on podcasts.

Great interview over at From the Green Notebook with COL Everett Spain on his research and paper concerning the “Battalion Commander Effect.”

Recently, U.S. Army Colonel Everett Spain coauthored an article in Parameters titled, The Battalion Commander Effect. Spain and his coauthors found that evidence suggests Army battalion commanders are a major factor in whether or not high-potential lieutenants stay in the Army.  In this episode, Joe and Everett discuss the research and dive into why self-awareness and humility are important traits for military leaders.

S3, Ep8: Everett Spain- The Battalion Commander Effect

The research and interview is focused on the effect battalion commanders have on junior officers specifically when it comes to retention. The research shows – not surprisingly, I think – that battalion commanders have a tremendous effect on junior officer retention, for a variety of reasons.

It was only recently that I actually began to fully understand how important the battalion commander is in an organization.

Yes, of course I know their role is important – but I didn’t quite realize how critical it is. I used to think that if the subordinate leaders (company commanders, first sergeants, and beyond) were good, a battalion could make up for the shortcomings of a weak BC.

Kind of, but not really.

That battalion commander represents the battalion – inside and outside the organization. It’s hard to get past that.

It wasn’t until I’ve had both good and bad battalion commanders and numerous different positions within different battalions over the course of many years to see just how critical the battalion commander is. It affects professionalism. It affects morale. It affects retention.

Have you ever been in an organization where people like to ask “Where’s the BC?”

The chief thing that I’ve learned, and what is discussed in the interview, is that the battalion commander set the culture.

There really is something special about that role – battalion commander – that I don’t think many people truly appreciate. The expectations are so high. We want that person to be the epitome of professionalism.

To inspire us and lead by example.

To put in the work but also go home at a reasonable hour.

To be an expert in their field – technically and tactically proficient.

To be in just as good shape as the much younger leaders.

To be firm and fair but also display empathy.

All that, at a time when the said leader is often in a mature family with older children.

I think about the leaders taking command now who grew up in the GWOT.

What ghosts have they accrued?

It’s a huge responsibility. I’m glad that the Army is doing more to find the right people for this position with the introduction of the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP).

One of the things that stood out to me in this episode was a short conversation on giving feedback – something Joe has discussed in the past as something he is working on (me too!). It’s hard to tell someone they are failing in an area or they are not hitting the mark in a certain domain. How can we do it more effectively?

COL Spain recommends leading off with a statement like “I care deeply about you, so I want to tell you…”

I like that. I think that works. For whatever reason, whenever I am ready to give a critique, I feel my body tense up and steel itself for a rebuttal – I get pre-defensive.

This other way – leading with care – disarms that.

There was a short aside towards the end discussing what the equivalent might be for the enlisted side – which leader in an organization has a significant effect on junior soldier retention?

I love that they hypothesize that it is the Sergeant First Class.

If we’re talking about retention – especially for first-term soldiers – it is that Sergeant First Class who will shape the impression of a junior soldier. I was fortunate to have a cadre of amazing platoon sergeants when I first joined the Army. Professional, firm, but with the right amount of empathy.

In Kuwait, just before the invasion of Iraq, my platoon sergeant scooped me up one afternoon to bring me to a tent that had a television because he knew that I was a news junkie. He knew who I was and he had an interest.

Those things stick with you.

And here I am.

Lots to think about from this episode – check it out.


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“Just In Time” Information Management

sniper team on top of a humvee
Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.


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The Fire of COIN is Gone

counterinsurgency dream jisr al doreaa
The_Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa_-_Dream_1_-_YouTube

As I was getting out of the Army in 2006, the debate about “how to win” in Iraq and Afghanistan was heating up, and counter-insurgency (COIN) was gaining traction as the “graduate level of war.” As a college student who liked to read about what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an interesting time. I enjoyed reading about junior officers struggling to make an impact, and the importance of the strategic corporal.” I told friends that getting out of the Army in 2006 felt a lot like being taken out of the game at halftime and having to watch the rest from the sidelines.

COIN was hot. Very smart and eager men and women ground themselves to the bone trying to figure out what it was and how to employ it. It provided an organizing purpose to be excited about. Field manuals, books, debates, blogs, dreamy instructional videos – it was the constant topic of the day.

And now it’s dead.

No one is really talking about “winning” anymore, because the wars just kind of faded away. Back in the Army, no one is really talking about COIN or strategy. We lack that kind of overarching purpose to drive us on.

In the midst of cutbacks, drawdowns, and realignments, I think I am starting to see a trend towards what the “next big thing” is in terms of organizing principle, something to get excited about. It seems that what the Army struggles with today is how to satisfy all of the ever-increasing demands placed on it while still empowering junior leaders and building lethal teams. It’s not as exciting as COIN, and it doesn’t get any cool monikers like “the graduate level of war,” but effective management in the 21st century Army seems to be the holy grail. It feels like in order to accomplish everything that is being asked, something (and likely, many things) have to fall off the table.

The new COIN isn’t getting simply back to basics, exactly, but more like figuring out what a true modern Army looks like, how we train, and how we fight. If the wars never happened, what would the Army have become? It feels like that’s where we are, or where we’re trying to get to.


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