Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exorcising Sukhomlinov’s Ghost

As someone who enjoys an obscure reference ensconced in just the right place - noting gets my interest than when another writer finds a way, unrelated and on their own, to place that intellectual Easter egg in just the right place.

Remember last month my passing mention of Sukhomlinov?

You can never get enough Sukhomlinov, and to keep the double theme going - did you get a chance to listen to yesterday's Midrats? If so, then you are in for a treat. Yesterday's guest LT Matt Hipple, USN has also taken the time to grab something off the cutting room floor and to send out way for a guest post.

If anyone could appreciate Sukhomlinov, he knew the Front Porch would.

Matt, the rest of the post is yours!

The Sukhomlinov Effect, a progenitor to Colonel Boyd’s “to be or to do,” points towards the central truth of leadership. The Sukhomlinov Effect was coined during the final days of combat pompadours for Imperial Russia’s failed but bespoke Chief of the General Staff, Vladimir Sukhomlinov; roughly stated, the side with the fanciest uniforms, especially those of leadership, loses. We all have the cravings of Sukhomlinov’s ghost in us, the desire to BE a leader. However, we must exorcise Sukhomlinov and pursue our objectives without airs. Leadership is not something gained while trying to embody a leader, but stumbled upon when pursuing objectives the best way we can in a team; the key aspects of which are salesmanship, cultivation, and prioritization.

Making the Sale
We have often heard, as in the Honorable John McCain’s article “Leadership over Management,” that leadership is something separate from management. However, what they call leadership is merely salesmanship: the ability to conceptualize, communicate, and inspire men to the cause. What they call management is merely bad management. Leaders must be able to do both.

Salesmanship is the tip of the leadership spear, and what separates the “dragger” and “pusher” from a “leader.” It creates the independent initiative that engenders independent pursuit of the team’s goals.

Making the sale has three components; knowing the product, honesty, and knowing the customer. The dangers of a silver tongued officer who doesn’t understand his mission or purpose is self-evident. As stated by General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord:
“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined... One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
The ability to make the sale without knowledge or direction leads to disastrous excursions like the Czar’s Russo-Japanese war. Not only does uninformed salesmanship create poor results, but it soon wears thin as subordinates gain a Pavlovian fear of following their leadership.

Trust goes further than mere competence; even if you are familiar with the mission, you must always pursue the sale with good faith. Honesty is a keystone to continued leadership. If you argue for a mission with a senior leader, then announces to the division that you “fought against it,” they will find out; trust is broken for the snake-oil salesman whose motivations and information are suspect. If you think something is important, say so. Lying also puts your men in the position of spreading disinformation and potentially embarrassing situations. It is important to remember that your men are adults and know they don’t have to like everything they hear. Of course, lying is largely initiated by the fear of those who don’t understand how to engender true motivation from their men; if a leader knows his audience, he need not dread this problem.

Knowing the audience allows us to communicate our product information in a focused and useful way. Sailors join the navy for different reasons: patriotism, family history, education, money, etc… The ability to communicate to the importance of a mission or policy is useless if it cannot be communicated in the motivations of those who must execute it. While, “because I said so,” is an acceptable positional-authority fall-back, it’s unnecessary if we can communicate how it can build a career, support a national mission, or help a shipmate. Tacit obedience comes later, when your men have learned that your orders are in good faith with both them and the cause.

Unfortunately, not every leader is Winston Churchill, or even the Sham-Wow guy; competence and honesty don’t create good communicating skills. The gift of gab is not your only tool; setting the example is the most reliable fall-back position. It doesn’t matter from where; you can be a young LTJG Zumwalt firmly standing OOD in a storm despite endless vomiting or a Nimitz deftly orchestrating efforts from behind a desk. Practically, for your subordinates, the good faith example set by his leader is the reliable and thoughtful management that inspire a holistic trust and confidence.

The Martial Gardener
The best way to build and manage an effective team is cultivation, not curation. If you visit the gardens of Versailles and Buckingham Palace, you’ll notice the stark contrast between the French meticulously cut lawns and militarily precise potted shrubberies and the British style of flowing vines and natural water-side willows. The French form is unnatural, a curative style requiring constant trimming, support, and micromanagement as the natural world attempts to break the mold; the frays are immediately noticeable. The British style is superior, as a garden becomes more beautiful as it is cultivated and grows into its natural environment, trimmed only minimally as the gardener allows the innate advantages of the flaura to take root. A good leader is a British gardener, able to provide the opportunities for growth and cultivating organic success rather than micromanaging his team and limiting himself to what is familiar and comfortable. One of the greatest American gardener-admirals was ADM Elmo Zumwalt. As COMNAVFORV, he delegated incredible levels of tactical and operational leeway to his intelligence and brown-water officers. He often would take his own ideas or those inspired actions observed in the field and churn out ZWI’s (Zumwalt’s Wild Ideas), allowing his staff JO’s to knock them down if they came at him with enough evidence.

As CNO, ADM Zumwalt turned DESRON 26 into the “Mod Squad”, a test platform in which command positions were offered to officers one rank below the billet’s typical holder. He created opportunity, trusted his subordinates, and let the garden grow. As a JO’s, it is as simple as trusting in the word of your technicians, probing them for ideas, and giving accolades and opportunity based on ability rather than rank. This creates an atmosphere in which the leader’s motivations are trusted, subordinates independently work toward team goals, and learning is an encouraged and organic part of the team’s development. It is all about creating a working, growing organization: "In this age, I don’t care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony—even vicious harmony… you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete." -General Mattis

A free cultivation mindset does create opportunities for failure or deviation, which is why so many modern military leaders fear it. However, the Japanese have a type of pottery called Kintsukori which explains the error of this idea. Kintsukori means “to repair with gold,” an art in which broken pottery is repaired with gold or silver and observers acknowledge that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. This concept applies to both teams and individuals as an organization grows.

An individual may fail, greatly fail, but the lessons they learn are important and sometimes expensive. ADM Nimitz drove a ship aground as an ENS. RADM Mahan ran his ship into an anchored barge as an LT and as a CO collided with some more ships and got a ship stuck in a drydock. General Charles Gordon, when a cadet at Woolwich Royal Military Academy, punched a fellow cadet through a staircase window. One managed our war in the Pacific, one transformed a generation’s understanding of naval strategy, and the other ended the Taiping revolution and conquered the Sudan one of two times. Zero-tolerance is a plague upon the navy, as we expel redeemable sailors who may not be in the right field or who have learned expensive life lessons that can be kept and taught within the organization. One of the best officers I’ve met was a CMC-gone-warrant who, in his heydays, dismantled a Naples bar in a drunken haze for re-assembly in the street. Yes, a rabble rouser and perhaps not acceptable in scale with today’s social media, but these are the people who learn their lessons, mature from experience, and teach the next generation not to be psychotic from a pulpit of experience. While as in a garden, not every plant is worth keeping, some are weeds, we are all still humans and flawed. The people who learn, move on, and are grateful for the opportunity are the kinds that are, even if everything is horrible, a reminder to JO’s like me that there’s a reason we joined the navy.

An organization may find its parameters broken, such as the incident of LTJG Michael Bernique’s breech of NAVFORV protocols during a raid Rach Giang Thanh, a river close to the Cambodian border. When called to Saigon

to face a potential court-martial, his deft defense of his actions as inspired by his overall mission led ADM Zumwalt to award him the Silver Star instead, the actions at “Bernique’s Creek” inspiring Operation Foul Deck. Curation is about holding an organization and its methods in a glass case as it gathers dust and the world passes it by; cultivation is letting that organization grow, risking the bad to find the good. As junior sailors bring their ideas or outside experiences, if not acted upon, they should at least be acknowledged as good active thinking necessary for or If you invest in your people, take risks for them and give them independence, they will take risks for you. It’s scary, but the job of a leader is to take those risks, not hide from them:
"Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you." - General James Mattis
From everything so simple as a method to plan divisional qualifications to greater concerns like watchbills, the O-6 isn’t going to fix the navy for you. It’s only you and your division. Start prioritizing your concerns between what is safe and what is leading.

Sweating the Big Stuff

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. A leader’s job is not to enforce all standards, but to enforce the ones that he can see are important, clearing the path of those that are not. Some, such as Senior Chief Jim Murphy USN (Retired) may disagree in his proceedings article, Sweat the Small Stuff, “Even requirements that appear petty and inconsequential are important.” I would counter that importance is only based on context. It is the job of a leader to take responsibility for the risks, bend the rules when necessary, and protect those trying to get the mission done. These sentiments are best illustrated by the conclusion to the letter of dubious attribution from General Wellington to Whitehall during the Iberian Campaign:
“This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance,
2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.”
To a JO, this is as simple as giving your sailors the cover necessary to do critical maintenance while higher-ups are gathering everyone for the vitally important “don’t set yourself on fire” safety stand-down, or giving justification to your department head or CO to bypass safeties or circumvent the regular supply system. As ADM Burke said, “A commander who does not exceed his authority is useless to his subordinates.” In the end, leaders exist apart from standards. If standards were all that were necessary, we would hire hall monitors, not uniformed officers.

Part of prioritization also rounds back to honesty in making the sale. There is a misguided notion out there that every JO’s job is to be a PAO for every policy the navy comes out with and that any pitch must acknowledge the inherent value of those policies. In being honest, and knowing how to prioritize, sometimes the answer is, “do this, so we can get back to work. Otherwise, people will come bother us from our real mission.” To those who consider their ideas or policies brilliant, it may be offensive, but it’s a reality check. Every policy is not equally important to everyone. As said before, we cannot allow the ego of Sukhomlinov’s Ghost to guide us.

The return of Sukhomlinov’s Ghost leads us to the final and arguably most important part of prioritization is learning how to de-prioritize yourself. We talked before about knowing our subordinates, their motivations, their capabilities, and their personalities. As JOs, we are not the technical experts, we don’t have the experience, and even if we stay until we’re CNO, we will be learning things every day. Know who and when to push your subordinates to the forefront, or seek their forceful backup or insight into your decisions. You may have a rank on your collar, but a PO2 can have built as much authority on a subject as an officer of any rank. It is your job to find those individuals and bring them into the circle.

When we let that ego blind us, we lose opportunities. On my first ship, we had an SN who painted capstans. While more than regular for the navy, this leads into our previous point on knowing your team. Standing JOOD on our Atlantic crossing to AFRICOM, I learned the man was from the Gambia and spoke not only English, but French, Swahili, and a smattering of other local languages fluently. When I suggested to someone that we move him to more appropriate tasking, I was told he “had to do his time.” Being new, and stupid, I accepted this answer inspired by a superior’s organizational ego. We are not a frat conducting initiation, we’re here to conduct missions with the capabilities we have. I could have taken it to my chain of command, pushed the issue, but I didn’t. I didn’t put faith in my instinct and I let the smallest amount of organizational inertia best my better judgment.

Consider the Source

It feels silly to write about leadership from the perspective of what still feels like so little time in a vast organization; and I hope humility serves me well. I am by no means an amazing officer, but I hope that this realization at least indicates I am a good one. Sukhomlinov’s ghost whispers every rare often, but I drown him in the work of serving both shipmate and taxpayer. There are many senior and junior officers, warrants officers, and a whole slew of enlisted that I admire as far better leaders than I. Perhaps I’ll be like them and perhaps I won’t; but whether we get the job done is far more important than how I feel about my leadership. It may well be that as the pieces fall, it is not the best part for me to play. The best I can do, that we all can do, is do our jobs to the best of our ability; every watch, every task, every sailor in trouble we treat with the greatest consideration, discipline, and care. Find the cause and passion for what you believe in, do well by your people, stay faithful to your country, and never betray your own honor; you will find that as the likeliest path as any to stumbling upon leadership. When you find it, you’ll likely realize it wasn’t what mattered.

Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer who graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the NEXTWAR blog and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government, he wishes they did.

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