As historian Hew Strachan states in The Direction of War, “Operational thinking finds its intellectual focus in doctrine.” Doctrine drives how leaders think and fight. But when the Army publishes new doctrine, as an institution we owe it to ourselves to do a better job informing, then educating, the Total Army force.
Bayonets, Forward! With this command Union Army Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain ordered the 20th Maine Regiment to execute a daring counterattack against the 15th Alabama Regiment of the Confederate Army on July 2nd 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg. At the extreme left flank of the Union Army, the 20th Maine fought off repeated assaults for the past several hours against the determined Confederate Soldiers.
Outnumbered and low on ammunition, Chamberlain’s bold decision and courageous leadership led his men of Maine down the slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and stopped the Confederate assault against the Union Army’s left flank.
This iconic scene immortalized in Jeff Shaara’s Killer Angels, the movie Gettysburg, and Army Doctrine publications as the epitome of leadership in action, is just a snapshot in the portfolio of Chamberlain’s remarkable and unparalleled career.
Every year, new command teams spend thoughtful hours crafting the words that will precisely convey their version of unit success. This intent typically reaches the service members in the form of an organizational mission statement or “Unit Vision.” And if your experience is anything like mine, leader development takes center stage. When those command teams brief their vision to the unit, the slides inevitably include phrases like these:
“Developing leaders is our #1 priority.”
“Leader Development is in everything we do.”
“The heart of this unit is its leaders.”
“Good leadership is our most important asset.”
Sound about right?
But when was the last time you participated in a unit leader development event that was focused on the practice of leadership? Not doctrine, not staff processes, not command supply discipline…leadership! It’s probably been a while.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)
It’s been a while because collectively we have compartmentalized the study of leadership to the schoolhouse. We’ve also adopted the belief that training events fulfill the requirement to develop leaders. When “Leader Development is in everything we do,” going to the range is leader development; so is doing PT and inspecting vehicles. Leader development has evolved to encompass everything except the very activity its name implies – teaching our people how to be good leaders.
Allow me to explain why this has occurred and what you can do about it.
We remember the books that change us…that alter our thinking, move us emotionally, or reveal unseen, enlightening perspectives. Powell’s My American Journey did that for me. So did Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. And when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in 2007, I recall connecting so many new insights that I didn’t have enough book margin to capture them all. The relevancy for the military profession spilled off of the pages and sparked an intellectual curiosity that has lasted for years.
The topic is neuroscience and the breakthrough discoveries that its researchers have made in recent years. As neuroscientists publish fascinating papers about how the brain functions, authors like Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer, David Rock, Joseph LeDoux, and others translated their work into digestible language with real world application. From decision psychology to organizational efficiency to change detection and management, new understanding of the brain is changing how we live our lives.
But as I made connections from neuroscience to the military profession, specifically tactical combat leadership, I found few resources to aide the service member, Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Warrior Mindset being the most useful. So I decided to embark on a personal quest to publish something that references neuroscience to improve military leader performance. What resulted was my first published article and a Master’s thesis on the topic. This post is an adapted version of that endeavor.
For the last year, friends and colleagues have recommended that I listen to Dan Carlin’s podcast, Hardcore History. People from separate circles and professions brought it up as a “must-listen-to.” I even subscribed a few months ago but never got around to beginning any of the multi-hour episodes.
I finally succumbed to the pressure last week and skeptically began the five-part series, The Wrath of the Khans…and I’ve listened to nothing else since. I admit it…I’ve officially converted and am now a staunch, overt, unapologetic Dan Carlin fan.
Bringing History to Life
I’ll concede that I often forget how important history is to personal and professional development. Sometimes I focus too much of my reading on topics that break new ground or dive into lofty concepts. I’m interested in history, but I get pulled away from it. History, however, is the never-ending repository of real-life lessons that we should repeatedly visit.
Dan Carlin brings those lessons into vivid clarity through detailed retelling, thorough research, and heartfelt enthusiasm. He’ll admit that he’s not an historian, but instead coalesces the prominent historical writing and assess its validity and logic. He explores the details that typically get left out and in doing so, transports history into the present day perspective.
Whether you’re studying history or just looking to get lost in a story, Hardcore History is a fantastic option. And if my word isn’t good enough, Hardcore History is the #1 ranked History podcast and the #6 podcast across all categories in iTunes.
Dan Carlin has over 56 podcast episodes to choose from, with 14 of them free on iTunes and his website. The two big series are Wrath of the Khans, a year by year account of the conquest of Genghis Khan and the generations that followed him…and Blueprint for Armageddon, a retelling of the colossal tragedy that was World War I. He also has series for sale that cover the fall of the Roman republic, the Punic Wars, the German-Russian fight in World War II, and many others.
I recommend starting with Wrath of the Khans. It’ll grab you right away and give you a good sense of what Dan Carlin brings to history.
If you haven’t already read this paper from Casey Haskins, it’s definitely worth a look. You may not agree with the sweeping premise, that the present-day Army suffers under the administrative and philosophical burden of the Cold War era. But there are plenty of valid points that will cause you to evaluate the quality of your own leadership and your organization’s culture.
The SlideShare document is below and you can scroll through it for a quick look. I’ve also included the paper’s Conclusion, which is a bullet list of bold changes and a summary of the paper’s tone. Keep in mind that it is a few years old, too.
Good staff officers surge right away on mission analysis
after identifying a new problem or receiving guidance from the commander.
Even though the task suspense may not be pressing, they ‘get after’ the problem because doing so:
- Defines the problem as a result of the design process
- Gives the staff (and the commander) immediate perspective on the problem
- Injects a surge of energy into the organization
- Allows everyone to analyze the problem with the commander’s guidance and situational conditions fresh in mind
- Results in a reference product (e.g. staff estimates, Mission Analysis Brief, or at least pages of notes)
- Shapes immediate coordination/guidance to give subordinate headquarters.
If this post resonates with you, it might also be good for your team.
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Hear the Chairman describe how the US will keep the force highly-trained and ready despite the constrained fiscal environment:
The sacred responsibility is to ensure that we never send a man or woman into combat unless they are prepared – best-trained, best-led, best-equipped and prepared to overmatch any adversary decisively, you know. And those words are carefully chosen. You know, we don’t want to just win. You know, we want to win 50 to 1, not 5 to 4 because we should be able to do that, you know; the nation has given us the resources necessary to do that.
Toward the end of the article, he also explains that the phased, structured approach to operations planning may be mistaken:
Once you introduce yourself into an experiment, you change the outcome. And I think that’s true. And that’s somewhat how I’ve watched the use of the military instrument evolve over time, where, in particular in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we’d have to admit that although we had what we thought was a definable end state and a series of objectives, that when we touched it, it changed it. And when it changed it, we then had to adjust the end state because some of it became literally infeasible and others opened up opportunities.
I think we’ve got to develop strategic thinkers who, although they understand how to – how to identify an end state, back plan, phase – you know, put in these extraordinarily exquisite phases – that’s all important work, but it’s not actually the way it plays out. The way it plays out is once you touch it, it changes and then you’ve got to be adaptable.