Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rewarding moral courage

The fact that the SECDEF makes this very Salamanderesque statement on moral courage should make everyone appreciate the significance of the problem in the military we have with intellectual courage -- and fear. SECDEF knows it - and I think he knows to fix this is a top-down problem, not a bottom-up. Leadership 101 - from the front; but let's look at what the SECDEF says;
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he counts candor and moral courage among the essential qualities for 21st-century military leaders. Speaking last spring at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he cited several Naval Academy graduates who rose to greatness largely because they recognized the need to sometimes buck institutional resistance.

“One of the key reasons they were successful was because they were willing to speak truth to power -- willing to tell superiors what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear,” Gates told the midshipmen.
This is not the first time he has mentioned this. He senses, rightly, that there is not a command climate that encourages discussion. Just the opposite. I would also mention that it isn't binary between intellectual courage and fear. There is also a need to understand foolishness and futility. Often in policy issues, you must have the mind of an insurgent. Before you engage, think what is the possible cost-benefit of engaging at this time, on this ground, on this target. Often it is best to husband your resources and fight another day. Especially in a high threat environment - you cannot expect good men and women to mindlessly charge the front.

If there is senior leadership showing the way - then yes, you will see more intellectual courage. If the junior personnel are sitting there watching their senior leadership hunkering down, digging in deeper, or leaving for the rear - do not be shocked when everyone stays put.

I don't know if Midshipmen and other junior people are the ones who need this speech - I think the target audience should be the O5-O10.

Moving on through the article; one of my side-jobs last decade was to run interference for my boss on any publicized articles by officers under his chain of command. We literally spiked or edited to death articles that were not in strict compliance with his D&G - regardless of their tactical or historical significance.

Indeed - it was the spiking of one of my proposed articles on my experience in early OEF that led after a year's slow boil to this blog. Funny - I've never posted on that topic directly anyway ... but a catalyst it was.

Instead of "preaching to" - perhaps a better thing to do is to "ask from." Ask serving and retired officers under Chatham House Rules to send him their stories about how they were actively discouraged from publishing - or even better intellectually bullied after publishing. Ask for the direct and indirect threats they received to their career prospects. Heck - people send me emails all the time on the subject.

That is why I found this by CJCS so curious. As I spend a fair bit of my most effective years on active duty under his leadership, I would like to parse the following by Admiral Mullen.
"Few things are more important to an organization than people who have the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is headed, and then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made," the chairman told the cadets.
Sounds good at first read - yes? OK. Take a moment and then read it again. Then read it clause by clause - starting backwards (and no URR, don't read the words backwards; read the last clause first, second to last second ... etc). I'll wait. Do it, then come back.

See - is not logical, and it isn't supposed to be.

What he is saying is that you are to support whatever final decisions are made. Feel free though to question the direction of the organization prior to the decision being made. Of course, no one knows what the direction is until the decision is made ... and very few people are behind the closed door when/if discussions are being made ... so ... if you question the direction an organization is headed after the decision is made, then you have a weak character. Those with weak character are not worth promotion or support - therefore they have no career future. We can crush them if we wish.

In summary; "support our decisions and do not question them." I don't think that is what SECDEF was going for there Admiral Mullen.

We all know about the operational need to fully support the Commander once a Course of Action is chosen even if you don't agree with it - that is basic and fully agreed on. The problem we have is that bureaucrats and politicians in uniform are abusing that tradition to stifle dissent on programmatic, strategic, and policy issues.

They do not want courage - they want fear - they want silence. It is the results of that climate of fear that surrounds us from Optimal Manning, LCS, DDG-1000, LPD-17, and the still unsolved problem of unaccountable Sailors getting unaccountable Sailors pregnant - just to name a few.

In the same article, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack L. Rives, the Air Force’s judge advocate general after the 9/11 terror attacks,
... kicked off yesterday’s panel discussion by reciting the oath every officer takes when receiving a military commission. “That is really all the guidance you need,” he told the attendees, key leaders of the military education and training community. Pausing, he added with a smile, “Of course, the devil is in the details.”

Military members have a responsibility to remain apolitical even when reporting to political figures, Rives said, reiterating a key point made earlier in the day by Mullen as well as retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

“It’s important to realize that your oath is to [protect and defend] the Constitution,” Rives said. “It is not to a political party. It is not to an administration. It is not to a person…We owe our allegiance and loyalty to the country and its Constitution.”

When testifying before Congress, Rives said he knew he was bound by a promise to provide his best military guidance and when asked, his personal opinion, even when it didn’t jibe with the administration’s position.

“You have to live with yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror each day,” he said. “So you shouldn’t be motivated by, ‘What is this going to do for or to my career if I give my boss certain advice. Your obligation is to give the best advice possible.”

When he shares that conviction with younger officers and advises them to do what they believe is right, Rives said they sometimes balk. “They say, ‘It’s easy for you to say, you’re a three-star general,’” he told the group. “I thought about it and said, ‘Really, it’s easy for you to do as well, because you have to live with yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror each day. And you shouldn’t be motivated by, ‘What is this going to do for or to my career?’”

Rives said he knew during his career he’d given his commanders advice they didn’t like hearing. “But in almost every case, later they showed some appreciation for me telling them what I believed was my best advice,” he said. “So, ‘To thine own self be true’ is what I have to say.”
Yep. As we have discussed before - the guy in the mirror check is the key. As for his Rives's experience in appreciation - not everyone is as lucky. That is the gamble you take.

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