What Mastery Means for Military Leaders [TED Video]

Art historian and critic Sarah Lewis delivers a thought-provoking TED talk on “The Near Win,” a concept that espouses the immeasurable gain resulting from just-missing one’s ultimate goal. She highlights examples of artists, musicians, and Olympians in explaining that developing Mastery in a craft is all about “staying at our own leading edge.”

There is parallel connection to the military in that we, like an Olympian archer, must hone our craft through repetition after repetition. Sarah Lewis comments that:

Success is hitting the 10 Ring, but Mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again, and again, and again.

But success in battle requires not only individual Soldier Mastery, but also organizational Mastery. Do we work military organizations with enough repetitions to reach Mastery?

The Positive Side of Barely Failing

She also says that falling short of perfect is acceptable because it gives us the motivation to strive even harder. How do military leaders react in the face of the Near Win? Do we reinforce the positive aspects of training even though they don’t quite meet the standard? Do we have the stamina (or the time, for that matter) to add more repetitions in order to meet the standard?

Motivation for Mastery

And as a final point about military leadership, Sara Lewis wisely asserts, “Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft, and not for the sake of crafting your career.”

She explains that creative professionals produce their best work when they do it out of a love for their craft, not for the secondary material gain that would result from perfection.

I believe that the military’s “love for our craft” is our immutable dedication to protect our most valuable asset, the Soldier. A leader’s motivation is to achieve Mastery, not so that he may rise through the ranks, but so that he may execute any mission with rapidity and violence of action, while putting the Soldier at minimal risk.

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  • Chris

    I find friction a useful descriptive construct. Overall Clausewitz has several ‘near misses’ – the trinity and center of gravity (CoG) are good examples. Neither concept is easily translated into the present but they provide a springboard for discourse. As a ‘near miss’ – On War as an unfinished work with incomplete ideas – but it provides us much in the of understanding when utilized.
    On another thought, the failed ‘near miss’ that comes to mind is MARKET GARDEN. What makes a near miss usefull? The fact that we get closer to acheving a higher objective. In the sense of warfare and war, achievement of a higher purpose (not your own task) is of critical importance. MARKET GARDEN then could be said to support the attrtition approach so this is a matter of degree, not yes or no.

  • Chris

    Sarah Lewis’ description of a flawed and incomplete product as a near miss makes me think of Clausewitz. It is flawed – but one great leader I worked for once said, “All theory is wrong – some is useful.”

    • Chris, thanks! So, continuing with your Clausewitz analogy…when is “too much friction” considered failure during an operation?