Small Wars Journal

Foreign Area Officers as a Team of Teams

Mon, 11/04/2019 - 4:33am

Foreign Area Officers as a Team of Teams

Nick Lopez


How can the U.S. Military reform its 20th century management techniques and proactively address and rapidly respond to global problems? In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell highlighted the transformation of Joint Special Operations Command in the early 2000s to more effectively fight the Global War on Terror, and ultimately offered insights on how to respond to 21st century problems. This same transformation may not be feasible across the Department of Defense (DOD). However, established networks in the DOD can be utilized to tackle the wicked problems of the 21st century. One such network is the FAO corps serving across the globe.

From 1999 to 2014, the U.S. government invested close to 10 billion dollars to support the Colombian Government’s fight against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionárias da Colombia– Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and to bring about an end to 50 years of armed conflict that claimed 8.6 million victims (2018, Institute for Integrated Transitions-IFIT). As a result of unrelenting military pressure, the FARC-EP began secret talks with the Colombian Government in September 2012, which paved the way for more formal and overt talks in 2014. This set the stage to end a conflict yielding over 267,000 killed and 7 million internally displaced persons (IFIT). However, there was a sticking point at the outset of the 2014 negotiations. The technical process and detail required to execute Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) to end the conflict stalled the peace process and could have derailed negotiations altogether. Arguably the most critical item on the agenda with the FARC-EP, ‘End of the Conflict,’ required the Colombian Government and FARC-EP to form a separate technical sub-committee.[i] The Colombian Government’s sub-committee consisted of military personnel from the newly established Strategic Transition Command (Comando Estratégico de Transición- COET). With more than five U.S. government agencies and several more sub agencies involved in the policymaking process to determine U.S. support to the peace negotiations; bureaucratic standoffs emerged. This standstill necessitated a catalyst to overcome bureaucratic inertia. Unknowingly, a group of FAOs exemplified the key points described in Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. By acting as a network with shared consciousness under decision space, FAOs exemplified meta-leadership and were able to synchronize DOD support in a timely manner to provide the necessary support to the COET. The following will briefly describe key points from Team of Teams and then expound upon how FAOs applied these principles to assist the Colombian Government to reach a technical resolution for DDR and bring about the end of the 50-year conflict.


The book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, chronicles the transformation of a military organization from operating on slow and bureaucratic 20th century management systems into a highly effective, networked organization. Two of the key issues identified within the book still have merit with the U.S. military today. First, the DOD is deeply rooted in 20th century industrial management models where all systems of communication and information management aim to provide the decision maker with relevant information. Therefore, those implementing tasks rarely have a shared understanding of the whole problem and synchronization is difficult and rare. Furthermore, flexibility, creativity, and rapid responses to problems are not hallmarks of the military enterprise. If that isn’t enough, 21st century problems are complex, sometimes wicked, and contain many variables where the pace of change far outstrips dated bureaucratic systems’ abilities to keep up. The solution was to primarily focus on constant shared understanding, (the book used the term ‘shared consciousness’) across a networked organization, and to empower subordinates to make decisions. The idea was to overcommunicate and ensure everyone on the team had access to the same amount of information, which created shared consciousness.

While not efficient and contrary to standard military organization, the concept proved to be incredibly effective. An effective network with shared consciousness and decision space played a pivotal role in the successful DOD support to Colombia and the FARC-EP peace process. In the fall of 2014, the peace talks, having come to partial agreements on some of the less controversial agenda items, moved to more complex problems as organizations attempted to outline coherent steps for DDR. To determine ‘how’ to conduct DDR and end the conflict, the Colombian Government created the COET. Due to previously established relationships, the COET commander requested immediate assistance from the Security Cooperation Office (SCO) at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. A personal relationship facilitated this request between the then Plans and Policy director within the SCO. The COET, which primarily consisted of current and former military, needed negotiations training, strategic planning support, and advice on what model to use before moving forward with FARC-EP negotiations.

Three key aspects of the peace process presented challenges. First off, the Colombian COET required assistance within weeks – not months or years. Secondly, the U.S. Government at the time did not have a consensus as to who would take lead in the effort and there were several levels of involvement from the country team to the policy level at the National Security Council (NSC). All organizations had interests and equities with ‘how the U.S. should support Colombia.’ And all of this was without taking the enemy into consideration. Lastly, there was no bilateral agreed upon cease fire… the enemy still had a vote to continue the conflict. A group of six FAOs working throughout the DOD enterprise was able to gain authority from decision makers, effectively leverage their own network, maintain shared consciousness, and assist the Colombian Government. In an incredibly short timeframe, this network organized and executed negotiation seminars, wargaming, and strategy sessions with the COET. Former Minister of Defense Pinzón said, “The support of the United States has allowed Colombia to transform from a failed state – as it was seen by many 15 years ago –the Colombia that is on the verge of achieving lasting peace…” (Ordoñez, 2016).

How did the DOD energize to act in a timely manner, overcome disparate organizations with differing priorities, and help the COET to the third point of the peace process; Ending the Conflict? FAOs directly assisted the COET by leveraging their network, establishing shared consciousness, and allowing effective leaders to create decision space. The FAO network and the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) provided assistance and played an advisory role in an incredibly short timeframe. This allowed the COET to effectively negotiate with the FARC-EP and bring the conflict to an end.

Decision Space

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World used the metaphor that leaders must be like gardeners that plant the seed and create an environment for growth (McChrystal, Fussel, et al. 2015). Instead of adhering to the specified line and block chart where the leader at the top is the only one in the organization that has complete situational awareness, the leader is the one who facilitates ‘shared consciousness’ so junior leaders are empowered with information they need to make effective decisions. A critical aspect of this model is the leader’s ability to delegate authority and decision-making down to the lowest level. In order to achieve more timely results, the command puts aside ego and does what is needed to delegate decision-making and support subordinates.

In late summer of 2014, the Senior Defense Official (SDO) in Colombia invited FAOs from various organizations across the DOD to Bogota, Colombia to set the conditions and create an environment for collaboration, to include peace process support. Visitors included FAOs working at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), SOUTHCOM, SCO Colombia, and Defense Attaché Office (DAO) Colombia. Their weeklong visit gave them a shared understanding of the SDO’s priorities and security issues in Colombia while simultaneously creating an environment for accelerated action. Those working for the SDO described the meeting as a call to action, wherein the SDO, after contributing to shared understanding, gave the FAO network the decision space required to get results. Setting the conditions and pushing decision-making down to the network, the FAOs quickly got to work. Following a December 2014 “red team” exercise to aid the COET in choosing a DDR model that was in the best interests of the Colombian government and politically feasible, the COET organized a meeting in early February 2015 to brief the results to the Minister of Defense and SOUTHCOM Commander. Following the brief, the MOD and COET requested support with negotiations given that its members had little to no experience. The FAO at the Joint Chiefs of Staff identified and coordinated a world class negotiation seminar for the COET with a Wharton Business School professor. The FAO at SOUTHCOM secured funding for the seminar while the FAO in SCO Colombia arranged for the Colombian military personnel to travel to Washington, DC in March 2015 (one month after the request), and escorted them, ensuring that all activities occurred as planned. Months later, the FAO at OSD facilitated additional, and more in-depth seminars with professors from the Harvard Business School, where SOUTHCOM and SCO Colombia FAOs executed the same roles with regards to funding and travel. The separate negotiation exchanges were critical in the COET’s negotiation of the DDR model with the FARC-EP. Following the negotiations seminars, SCO Colombia, SOUTCHOM, the Joint Staff, and OSD continued to provide strategic planning support to the COET as they worked out the specific DDR model and logistics requirements to support implementation.


The negotiation seminars would never have happened without the decision space and an established network. The security cooperation environment is incredibly complex, bureaucratic, slow, and cumbersome. Rose Jackson details the complexity of the security cooperation enterprise in her 2017 paper Untangling The Web: A Blueprint for Reforming American Security Sector Assistance, as a “…confusing web of interlocking and overlapping responsibility, with little overarching policy coherence.” However, with FAOs positioned globally in key nodes, there is an incredible opportunity to break down the bureaucracy, speed up processes, and be more effective by implementing solutions across agencies. A diagram in Jackson’s paper shows all the touchpoints in security cooperation and a key aspect is how there are FAOs positioned throughout the graphic (See Annex A for Graphic). As military bureaucracies are traditionally built around standard line and block charts, there are striking similarities between the disposition of FAOs across the globe and the 21st Century Team of Teams graphic depicted on page 129 and 130 of the book, Team of Teams. Due to the placement of FAOs across DOD and the interagency, FAOs were able to establish the conditions in a timely manner to provide assistance to the COET and peace process negotiators. By the fall of 2014, FAOs aligned themselves with the peace process effort within the U.S. Country Team in Colombia (both SCO and DAO), SOUTHCOM, Joint Staff, and OSD.

The COET needed support within weeks and FAOs were able to make it happen.

Anyone who has spent a day working in a government agency understands that nothing is done in one day or without multiple approvals. The FAOs working at all these organizations understood this and knew the timeliness of the requests at hand. In what would take more than 90 days to process, a FAO assigned as the desk officer for Colombia at SOUTHCOM knew the delegation had to get to the U.S. for the negotiation seminar that the SCO in Colombia established with the Joint Staff. Consequently, the FAO at SOUTHCOM ensured the event was funded and approved within 24 hours. Another example of the FAO network is the contribution of a retired FAO working in OSD, who was the only security cooperation professional involved in the red team exercise with firsthand experience in the planning and execution of DDR. This retired officer brought this experience to wargaming sessions with the COET, which proved invaluable to the selection of the model that the Colombian Government implemented. From fall of 2014 to spring of 2015, the FAO network served as a catalyst to ensure DOD provided effective support to the COET, which secured the U.S. investment in Plan Colombia.

Shared Consciousness

According to Team of Teams, overcommunicating is crucial, even if that means sacrificing efficiency. Creating an environment where constant, engaged conversation is encouraged allows for shared consciousness. Shared consciousness is critical for a networked organization, as depicted in Rose Jackson’s diagram (figure one) and the Team of Teams’ model (figure two). A networked organization allows for all nodes to synchronize and work within their respective organization seamlessly. For this to happen, leadership not only has to provide decision space, but also push information out to the network. This is effectively flipping traditional military architecture on its head.

Establishing conditions before and after key engagements through video teleconferences (VTCs) and phone calls, the SDO would ensure all FAOs in the nodes would understand what the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia required from the DOD. Armed with shared consciousness, FAOs working within Joint Staff and SOUTHCOM would pre-brief and post-brief all meetings to decision makers to ensure that shared consciousness and requirements from the country team were met. This concept went as far the NSC, where the Joint Staff presented requirements needed for the peace process before policy subcommittee meetings and worked to ensure the meeting notes reflected the same. These requirements allowed for follow-on discussions and eventual U.S. support to the Colombian Government post FARC negotiations.

As FAOs constantly sought to bridge organizational gaps by creating a shared understanding, they essentially exuded what Dr. Leonard Marcus called ‘meta-leadership’. He described meta-leadership as, “a holistic, three-dimensional framework for grounding leaders, decoding the context in which someone leads, and then recruiting and motivating a wide range of stakeholders to achieve shared objectives” (Marcus, 2016). FAOs went outside their formal chain of command to influence and thrived in the spirit of cooperation. They leveraged the network, which was a wide range of stakeholders, towards the ultimate objective of DOD support to the COET.


A group of Army FAOs demonstrated initiative from the tactical to policy-making level in various DOD organizations and consequently influenced U.S. support to the peace process that ended a 50-year conflict. This influence is a byproduct of meta leadership that achieved results outside traditional lines of command. Without FAOs coming together as a team of teams, the U.S. Government could have been blind to the requirements of the peace process and there may not have been willingness for DOD support to the peace process. FAOs were critical in achieving interagency shared consciousness and the DDR outcome may not have been the same without their ability to motivate a wide range of stakeholders.

The nature of warfare will continue to change and will require increased interoperability and interagency synchronization. Moreover, security cooperation will only continue to expand as a U.S. foreign policy tool. FAOs are a naturally distributed, networked team of teams across the DOD and interagency that shapes, influences, and drives solutions to 21st century problems. The need for the meta-leadership that FAOs can provide will also continue to grow. Accelerated action and the ability to leverage the global FAO network to shape objectives that would otherwise not be possible will be critical. As strategic operators that span the tactical to policy gap, FAOs act as architects of security cooperation and are constantly setting conditions for forward movement – a team of teams on multiple playing fields.

U.S. DOD support to the COET served as a case study to exemplify the FAO network as a team of teams. Interviews, editing, and several email exchanges with Lieutenant Colonels Rob Santamaria, Agustin Dominguez, and Mr. Dan Pike made understanding the DOD’s role in assisting the COET possible.

The views reflected within this essay are the author’s and do not represent the official position or opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.


Figure 1: Rose Jackson’s depiction of the lines of contact and coordination within Security Sector Assistance (SSA). As FAOs are predominantly identified in the diagram in the DAT/SCO, they are also located within several outlying nodes in the interagency, Combatant Commands, and DOD Staffs. If energized properly, this network provides incredible advantages in attacking wicked problems.


Figure 2: GEN McChrystal detailed the transition of a 20th century organization to a 21st century, agile, effective organization with the help of the below graphic. Starting at the top as a traditional, industrial era military Command moving towards a Command of Teams and ultimately a Team of Teams where information exchanges and action can happen rapidly. The Team of Teams architecture is very similar to the disposition of FAOs globally throughout USG organizations. Figure from page 129 and 130 of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.


Dominguez, A. E. (2019, May 01). FAO Lessons Learned. (N. Lopez, Interviewer)

Institute For Integrated Transitions. (2018). Los debates de la habana: una mirada desde dentro. (A. B. Liévano, Ed.) Barcelona, Spain. Retrieved 05 12, 2019, from IFIT Transitions:

Institute For Integrated Transitions. (2018, September 25). The Colombian Peace Talks: Practical Lessons for Negotiators Worldwide. Retrieved from IFIT Transitions:

Jackson, R. (2017, January). Untangling The Web: A Blueprint for Reforming American Security Sector Assistance. Open Society Publisher.

Marcus, L. (2016, November 23). Meta-Leadership 2.0: More Critical Than Ever. Severna Park, Maryland, United States of America. Retrieved 06 06, 2019, from

McChrystal, S. A., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Ordoñez, F. (2016, January 31). McClatchy Washington Bureau. Retrieved 05 10, 2019, from

Santamaria, R. A. (2019, May 08). FAO Lessons Learned. (N. Lopez, Interviewer)

End Note

[i] There were six points during the FARC-EP negotiation process, Rural Land Reform, Political Participation, End of the Conflict (also known as DDR), Illicit Drugs, Agreement regarding the victims of the conflict (and transitional justice), and Implementation and Monitoring Mechanisms (IFIT, 2018).

About the Author(s)

Major Nick Lopez is an active duty Army Special Forces Officer currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy degree at Princeton University. He received a B.S. in Latin American Studies from the United States Military Academy in 2008. After Princeton, he will continue serving in the Army as a Foreign Area Officer.