My Leadership Journey and Other Observations
Donald C. Bolduc
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.
[New Statesman interview, 7 January 1939]” -- Winston S. Churchill
First, let me begin by saying the military remains a noble profession filled with competent and committed officers. It was my honor to serve as both an enlisted man and an officer. I have watched the post-Vietnam Army, the air land battle Army, the post-Gulf War Army, and the post 9-11 Army transform, develop, and struggle with what it is supposed to do and represent. I believe that it is not emphasis we place on money and resources, but the lack of emphasis we are placing on leadership that is causing the Army significant problems internally and will eventually present vulnerabilities if not properly addressed. I assess that for the Army to be successful in the future it is going to have to get leadership right. The ability of our Army to successfully lead our Soldiers and defend the nation depends on leaders that can operate in both conventional and unconventional environments. The military leadership we need is one that can deal with the strategic issues of the 1st world and the asymmetric challenges of the 3rd world. Our future success in large wars and in small wars will be dependent on leadership and their ability to adjust and change the institution, improve interoperability among services and Special Operations, and discontinue petty differences for the greater good. Senior leaders default to lack of resources, budget shortfalls, and personnel shortages as their main readiness problem. These are valid concerns, but the real problem is the trust, growth and development of our people. Queen Elizabeth said, “I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”
That said, the Army leadership needs to admit to itself it has a trust and honesty problem. These problems can be directly attributed to inadequate leadership engagement, poor talent management, requirement overload, and a lack of moral courage. This is a topic that many in the Army are uncomfortable discussing and many will not appreciate my observations. While Captains, Majors, Lieutenant colonels, and Colonels describe their struggles in maintaining their integrity in a culture that breeds dishonesty and lack of trust, senior officers say the right things, but are reluctant to take care of themselves, admit their mistakes or personal failings to their subordinates. Another problem leaders are causing is requirement overload. The Army bureaucracy is so worried about protecting itself that it has lost touch with what is important to maintain resilient and ready Soldiers and units. Individuals and units are overwhelmed by the number of requirements and directives placed upon them. Therefore, they cannot properly focus on their core war fighting tasks. In the meantime, the issues with talent management, counseling, mentoring, and the promotion and selection of senior leaders are exacerbating the issues of trust and dishonesty. The Army profession rests upon the bedrock of good order, discipline, and trust. Unfortunately, an alternative reality where leading honestly, speaking truthfully, and reporting accurately has officers believing that they must be someone they are not, play along to get ahead, and be beholden to the person above you regardless of the consequences to the organization.
Second, Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” I believe I have the credibility to discuss these issues because I have been in the arena and I too have made every leadership mistake in the book during my journey. I have had the opportunity to lead from the entry level to the senior executive level. At times, I have been a bad leader and follower, but I learned from my mistakes, did not repeat my mistakes, and applied the lessons to be a better leader. I have been self-serving at times, dishonest, egotistical, unfair, and disrespectful, but learned the importance of respect, humility, sympathy, and empathy. It is recognizing these faults and self-correcting through self-awareness, observation, experience, knowledge, and education that I have been able to become a more effective leader. This honest assessment of my shortfalls has allowed me to become a better leader and follower. I learned from my mistakes and in the end, I realized from the assessment of my subordinates and some peers I got it just about right. I recognize none of this means that I have cornered the market on leadership, it only means that I must continue to reflect, study, listen, learn, and share my lessons. Ray Kroc said, “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves”.
Third, I want to express that I attribute any success to God, my family, a few of my leaders, a few peers, a few friends, and mostly to the efforts of many people under me. I tried to show my respect by practicing my faith and being a good son, brother, husband, friend and leader. To my subordinates I showed my loyalty for what they had done for their unit by underwriting their mistakes, trusting them, empowering them, praising them in situation reports, visiting them or calling them when they or family member was sick or injured, presenting awards in a timely manner, giving them the credit for everything that went well and taking the responsibility (myself) for everything that went wrong. I also stood up for them when I thought the system was being too harsh or unfair in their punishments even when this was not popular with my superiors. I realize that people are not perfect, and perfection is not what we are looking for in our military organizations. Success in an organization is always due to good leadership. People in the unit will do their job despite the quality of their leadership, but leadership is what brings units from good to great. Jim Collins said, in fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.
Fourth, in 2013, I recognized I had significant shortfalls as husband, father, and leader. My disposition and judgment were clouded by the long-term effects of PTS, TBI, pain management, and sleep disorder. At the urging of my wife and the realization I needed to get help, I enrolled in a program to get diagnosed and receive care and treatment. My thoughts were that at this point, I did not deserve the family and leadership opportunities I had in my life. To become a better version of myself, a better family man, and leader I needed to change. I had a loving, caring, and patient wife (Sharon), nurses, and doctors that helped with my recovery. I learned that if a leader cannot take care of himself/herself, they have no business leading and taking care of others.
After two years in the program, I was doing much better and becoming a better version of myself. I realized that helping myself was not enough. I decided that I needed to establish a program in SOCAFRICA that provided the same opportunities to my service members, civilians, and their family members. By gaining the full support of the leadership in SOCAFRICA and coordinating with Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) along with the assistance of Sarah McNary we were able to put together a program that began to make a difference in the lives of our service members, civilians, and their families. With the help of my senior enlisted advisor (Master Chief Rich Puglisi) who shares the same emotional and physical medical diagnosis as I do, we told our story and encouraged participation. The act of the most senior ranking members of the command standing behind their program, being transparent about their issues, talking about their personal and professional struggles, guaranteeing that getting help would not result in termination, labeling, stigmatizing or loss of security clearance resulted in many people in the command to desiring to seek treatment. There was only one service member that could not return to duty and that was due to a brain tumor being discovered during his medical screening. He was transferred to Walter Reed for surgery on the tumor, got a much-needed hip replacement and is back serving as a trainer in Special Forces.
The final thing I did to demonstrate moral courage, was to stand behind the program and tell my story to the New York Times. At the time of the publishing of the article, I was the senior most ranking officer on active duty to come out publicly with my struggles with the effects of PTS, TBI, pain management, and sleep disorder and how that was negatively impacting my personal and professional life. I received an outpouring of support from many people except my chain of command. I also took my message to other media outlets, Colleges and Universities, veteran organizations, and conferences. I visited medical and academic institutions to learn more about the science and therapy strategies. In addition, I spoke to many service members, civilians and their families to ensure they had my support to help destigmatize and promote seeking help. By June 2017, SOCAFRICA helped diagnose and provide care and treatment to 52 personnel with PTS, 421 with TBI, and numerous people with pain management issues, and sleep disorder. The results were a more productive command. A better command climate, a reduction in alcohol and drug incidents, a reduction in suicidal ideations, and an improvement at home with family relationships.
The health of our service members is a serious leadership issue and must be addressed in a better way. We take care of our equipment better than we do our people. Our people need an oil change too. If a race car never takes a pit stop it will never complete the race. We need to as senior leaders ensure our people get their oil change. Senior Leadership must take an active role in this area to ensure resiliency and readiness and not sit on the sidelines and promote programs without personally standing behind them. Given the divorce rates, suicide rates, drug and alcohol incidents, family violence issues, sexual harassment and assault incidents more needs to be done by the senior leadership in our military. The health of our active service members and families reflects directly on the health issues we are having with our veterans. Sun Zu said, "Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!”
The Goal of Leadership Should Be to Become a Positive Role Model
Nothing is more important in our military than leadership. Leaders can fix and make anything right or they can be the source of all the problems. To be a good leader, you need training, education, knowledge, and experience, but leadership goes beyond the mechanical and into the emotional. The emotional part of leadership is where leaders are uncomfortable and short change their people. The “suck it up” attitude that saves lives in combat can kill you in garrison and at home. It is the responsibility of the leader to maintain the fighting spirit and balance this with the wellness of our service members and their families. I consider the most important developmental attributes of a senior leader are character, moral courage, intuition, sympathy, and empathy. These attributes give the experienced leader the advantage in creating a positive and balanced command climate, make decisions and set the tone for respect and decision making within an organization. It also guides the leader in how they should act to ensure consistency in their leadership approach. Jim Collins said, “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse. This is one of the key reasons why less charismatic leaders often produce better long-term results than their more charismatic counterparts.”
The priority of leadership must focus on the people, family, and mission. A leader should be doing three things, attend to the mission not meddle in it, develop leaders, and take care of their service members and their families. Leaders must ensure our system and leadership approach remains merit-based, values-based, and faith-based. A published vision and leadership philosophy backed by consistent behavior and messaging is critical in leading and managing a military organization. This keeps the leader focused and on message. It cuts down on confusion and provides the left and right limits to the members of the organization to utilize initiative and accountability. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Leaders are not born they are developed, so to succeed we must develop them to want to be role models. A leader in an organization should be working to be a role model. Simply being a leader does not make you a positive role model. A leader has a lot to prove before becoming a positive role model. People will do what leaders say, but they will follow a positive role model to the end of the earth and back. I learned that understanding sound character, moral courage, sympathy, empathy, and intuition is hugely important in leadership and developing the habits to be a positive role model. I assess it is essential in setting the right climate in an organization. Your character sets the tone for your credibility to lead. Moral courage is the least understood and recognized attribute. Although valued, it is not rewarded as much as it is feared. Integrity is often defined as doing the right thing when no one is watching. Moral courage is doing the right thing when everyone is watching. Moral courage is feared by organizations that have insecure leaders, are afraid of change, support organizational nepotism, and support group think. Moral courage is so feared that there are undue command influence policies and regulations and whistle blower laws to protect those that have the moral courage to point out wrongs in an organization. Sympathy and empathy should not be confused with weakness. Personal understanding and understanding the experiences of others is hugely important to be a successful leader. A leader’s ability to use these sentiments supports the leader’s ability to demonstrate compassion and humanity. This is a deep and more profound understanding and acceptance of others that can be seen as being derived or enhanced by knowledge and wisdom. Compassion recognizes the "me" in "you," the shared commonality of feelings between individuals. Both sympathy and empathy imply caring for another person, but with empathy, the caring is enhanced or expanded by being able to feel the other person's emotions. The capacity to sympathize and empathize are considered vital for a sense of humanity —the ability to understand one's fellow humans and their problems. If a leader successfully develops these emotions the people around him will see his actions as genuine and not as obligatory or following some checklist on how to act in this situation. Nelson Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination”.
I learned that it is the differences of people in a unit that gives the unit it’s strength. It is up to a leader to devise a functional leadership and management process that leverages and balances the differences of people in an organization for the betterment of the organization. It is about creating the right combination of people to ensure unit physical and emotional strength. Intuition is a very important developmental leadership skill. Largely dependent on experience, personality, and disposition. Intuition is what a senior leader possesses over their subordinates if the leader is balanced, confident, and centered. The number 1 thing that distinguishes intuitive leaders is that they have the experience to listen to rather than ignore their gut feelings. What interferes with the exercise of intuition in an effective way is lack of confidence, arrogance, and lack of trust in your subordinates. Intuition should not be confused with knowing it all. There is a difference. Knowing when to listen and keep quiet as a leader can be very productive. Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Some Pitfalls of Organizational Leadership
Time management is the most abused senior leader daily activity whether it is their time or the time of others. More time is wasted by senior leaders being late for meetings, causing meetings to go long, and holding meetings that accomplish nothing. Another time waster is in the planning of meetings, commander updates, unplanned meetings, and rescheduled meetings than any other daily and weekly activity in the military. Meetings must serve a purpose, need to be short, and either support getting or passing essential information to the leader, getting a decision, or clarifying or receiving guidance. Leaders must get time management under control. Managing your calendar, meetings, conferences, updates, functions, and decisions is essential to maintaining the effectiveness of your organization and to the sanity of your people.
I have also worked for general officers that hold you accountable for the emails they send, but do not hold themselves accountable to the email that they receive from others. Information technology was supposed to make things easier and simpler, but it has not, in large part because leaders have not established implementation rules. Instead, it has created larger staffs, analysis paralysis, negatively effecting decision-making, complicated operations centers functions, slowed response, and created a sense of being overwhelmed by information. Like it or not, email has become the primary means of communication and the passing of information, yet everyone fights it instead of figuring it out. I have worked for several generals that tried to implement a NO EMAIL DAY. They were the first to violate it.
Executive read aheads are a good tool to pass information, get guidance, and a decision. All too often read ahead books are prepared and not read by the leader. This is frustrating to everyone and a waste of time. Nothing is more frustrating for subordinates than having their time wasted because a leader needs to be spoon fed every little detail. Imagine if a leader had to spoon feed his subordinate every detail? The subordinate would not be around very long.
It is a leader responsibility to get time management and information flow right for their people and their organization. It is not hard to do. First, you must be the master of your time. Second, be the captain of the meeting schedule, and delegate to your subordinates. Third, be disciplined in your email time and read the documents prepared for you by your subordinates. Fourth, establish a start time and a finish time for your day. Fifth, carve out 2 hours to read, think, and reflect. It took me a while to figure out how to do only what I could do, but I was able to do it. Be “Invictus” when it comes to time management and information flow, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
Observations on the Status of Leadership in the Military
We are in a crisis of leadership in our military that is characterized by a decline in moral courage, lack of communication, lack of trust in our subordinates, micro-management, organizational nepotism, and loyalty to a “person” at the expense of the organization. We have nearly lost the idea of candor because disagreeing is viewed as disloyalty. We are caught by our subordinates espousing our values and ethics than we are enacting them. We are caught by our subordinates playing favorites as we espouse a merit-based system. We give favor to someone’s branch, commissioning source, social activities, and in some cases their assignment history over more qualified people. Thinking outside the box is barely tolerated. We tell our subordinates to think outside the box but stay in your lane. This is contradictory and confusing. I told my subordinates there is no box and no lanes. I want you to do your job and be creative, use your imagination, and take the initiative. If everyone does their job you do not need a box or a lane. Key to ensuring this works is by guaranteeing to provide top cover for mistakes. Too often the subordinate pays the price and general gets promoted. I guaranteed to my subordinates if they make a mistake I will provide them top cover, so get caught doing something right and I got your back. Equally important as covering their mistakes is holding them accountable. A clear and frequent articulation of your “red lines” is necessary. My red lines were do not do anything illegal, immoral, or negligently unsafe. The feedback I received was that this was a good balance and the expectations were clear to all in the command.
We have lost the art of decision making. No decision is a decision but is less risk to the leader. Watching the world from behind a desk is more common than ever before. There is less and less direct contact with senior leaders and their subordinates, oral and written communication of substance from senior leaders is less common, while their staffs overwhelm you with minutia. We are finding ourselves confined to our offices and cubicles and this is negatively effecting trust and familiarity with our subordinates. Senior leader offices are spacious temples for their accomplishments and we put our subordinates in tiny cubicles. The military is being taken over by organizational nepotism, group -think, risk averse officers, coat tail riding sycophants that are more loyal to people above them than they are to their organization. Get along and move along is the norm. I do not mean to be unfair, because there are senior officers that are not in the category described above, but to move forward you better have developed the advocacy that puts you on their team.
Another leadership problem that negatively effects decisiveness is the development of bureaucratic systems and processes that is stifled by linear efficiency models that slows progress and negatively impacts effectiveness. Bloated staffs and Commander Action Groups slow everything down and shields the leader from what is going on in their organization. The screening of communication by executive officers and other front office staff interferes with critical information getting to the leader. There is little in way of leadership philosophy and we have lost creativity, imagination, and initiative because we are keeping people inside the box and in their lanes. Another example of creating more job opportunities for senior leaders is the creation of General Officer/Flag Officer Headquarters with bloated staffs to solve problems that are better solved by captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels. We are top heavy, and it shows in our lack of flexibility and responsiveness. Empowerment of subordinates through mission command is paid lip service and the underwriting of mistakes is afforded to some, but not others. There is little mentoring unless you are in a senior leader’s clique and counseling is below average. Consistency in leadership is almost nonexistent. This lack of consistency is seen in senior leadership mood swings, bully pulpit leadership, poor command climate, lack of organizational direction, pettiness among senior leaders that negatively impact subordinate commands. I have been the victim of and witness of senior leaders verbally beating up on subordinates during briefings for delivering a product that did not support their ideas or was developed based on poor guidance to begin with. I watched a commanding general throw an eraser at a subordinate that was nodding off in a meeting. The eraser hit him in the head. I spoke with the subordinate later to ensure he was okay and to mitigate any negative effect it could have on the command. I was a coward and should have spoken with the general. I did not because I was concerned with repercussions to me. I lacked moral courage in this instance and vowed never to let that happen again. I have deliberately avoided senior leader contact because I was not sure if I was going to get Doctor Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. I learned as a general officer to demonstrate passion and show constraint with your temper. There is no reason to publicly dress down your subordinates. A conversation goes much further and has better results. GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead people by hitting them over the head-that is assault-not leadership.”
Strategy is a lost art and there is little in the way of operational constructs that create continuity in the execution of the type of operations we have been doing since 2001. We have existed in an environment of poor strategy and personality driven operational constructs since 2001. All we must do is consider the policy and strategy in Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq as examples. We have relied on our tactical unit success to fix bad strategy and this has not worked. It is rare for senior leaders to publish documents that drive the organization in purpose, direction, and motivation. As a result, we have a strategy based on command tenure, commander’s personality, adhoc commands and staffs, and not on a well thought out plan that creates continuity between transitions. Subordinates are left to guess what their senior leaders want in a rapidly changing environment where intent is critical, and decisions must be made at the lowest level in a timely manner. In the end, subordinates are left on their own and left to take the blame. Junior leader careers are negatively affected, and the general goes off to an interim assignment and then emerges with another star on his chest.
One of the faults of our system is that it does not allow for mistakes to be corrected and the judgmental and zero-defect environment prevents second chances at the junior level and senior level. We are supposed to use counseling and mentoring to improve our subordinate’s performance. Instead we exist in a system where grudges are held and there is little chance for the subordinate to recover. I have seen in my counseling and feedback of subordinates and from officers that manage the personnel system, that the few that are “anointed” by senior leadership are given much latitude that others are not given. There is also a perception that senior leaders are not held to the same consequences as their subordinates. The most common quote I hear is, “we will demote a Soldier for losing his weapon and promote a general for losing a war.” The other issue we have that effect morale is the awards system. We guard this system like the virtue of our daughters. The award process lacks trust in recommendations from subordinate commanders, too onerous, and very bureaucratic. In many cases it is personality-driven and in some cases, quotas are placed on awards. We need to give more awards to our hard-working people and decentralize the awards process to ensure it is more flexible and responsive. We will punish a service member in 72 hours but take a year or more to get them an award. We lose awards too often. In 33 plus years in the military I have never heard of an Article 15 or general officer letter of reprimand being lost in the system, this is not the case with awards and evaluations.
Talent management is an area that perplexes us all. It sits between the crossroads of relationships and our centralized personnel system. Each organization has a talent management process, but few people are familiar with or understand the process. Based on my observations, talent management is a stated area of emphasis, but it remains a constant challenge and few organizations get it right. Talent management should be a transparent process not some secretive process that surprises people with the outcomes. The military promotion, award, and punishment system is designed to be merit-based so you would think that talent management would also be equitable and merit and experienced based. You get what you deserve and earn is the common phrase heard from senior leaders. I am not convinced this is true. I am more convinced that the talent management system is based on my guy and not the right guy. Again, organizational nepotism and group -think drive this process. I heard from many of my peers in private conversations and subordinates during counseling that they believe talent management is broke. When I heard a senior leader describe the talent management process as the "Game of Thrones" I was taken back and realized just how "my guy centric" we have become in some parts of the military. Results of these talent sessions must make sense, but often the assignment does not make sense and unqualified general officers are placed into positions without the proper experience for the job they are being assigned. H. Jackson Brown, Jr said, talent management without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There's plenty of movement, but you never know if it's going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.
Most organizations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person's divisive dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization like a cancer.
A relatively new phenomenon known as “Mobbing” is also related to our talent management system. Mobbing is a phenomenon that happens during this talent management process. As it relates to talent management mobbing is "ganging up" by superiors to force someone out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting, and isolation. In mobbing the officer has done nothing wrong, performance is above average, but is a victim of not being liked or does not have the advocacy of the leadership clique. I have seen many deserving officers overlooked for awards and assignments because they are not somebody’s guy or a victim of mobbing by superiors. Relationships are important, but not at the expense of getting the right people in the right jobs.
Suggested Revisions in the Military Organization
To maximize the effectiveness of leaders the organizational structure must support their vision, ability to adapt, ability to effect change, ideas, and resource concepts. Our military organizational structure is a bureaucracy that lacks flexibility stifles senior leader initiative, fights change, and is designed to operate in a cold war environment against conventional threats. DOD needs to be reorganized beginning with the combining of OSD and the JS. The current organization under a two-staff organization is ineffective, redundant, and expensive. The military services are an antiquated system and needs to be reorganized into a joint service organization. We need less GOs and FOs. There should only be two 4-star billets (CJCS and VCJS). All other 4-star positions should be reduced to 3-stars. All current 4-star jobs should become 3-star jobs, all current 3-star jobs should become 2-star jobs, all current 2-star jobs should become 1-star jobs, all 1-star jobs become colonel jobs, colonel to lieutenant colonel, lieutenant colonel to major. The above-the-zone and below-the-zone promotions are no longer needed.
The promotion process for 1-star and 2-star selections in the Army should be conducted in the same way as all other promotion boards. No one person should be able to prevent a promotion, nor should the promotion board be informally decided on before the board starts. The current process is not equitable and supports the current good ole boy system. By revising this system, you will negate the mobbing syndrome, my guy process, and open the aperture for other qualified officers to be selected. This will also impact the 3 and 4-star selection process as the 1 and 2-star selections will be merit-based.
Our education system must be reorganized and realigned. Trying to teach and educate colonels at the war college to think strategically is too late. We need to start when they are senior captains and majors and reinforce this with appropriate assignments. Currently, the prestigious commands and those that put officers on the promotion are tactical commands. All commands must be valued equally and if not, the garrison, institutional, and training commands should be weighted higher. It is these commands that have the most impact on the Army. To better align education, experience, and assignments I propose that the war college curriculum should replace ILE, CGSC and the ILE/CGSC curriculum should be taught to captains at the career course. The commissioning system remains the same and the way we train our new lieutenants for their occupational specialty remains unchanged. Our colonels should go off to fellowships at universities, think tanks, and the interagency. General and flag officer education needs to be curtailed significantly and should focus on generalship. It is amazing that with all the generals we have we cannot put together a quality course on generalship. The education should focus on making decisions, selflessness, intuition, importance of reading, time management, mentorship, guidance, grooming, counseling, teaching, delegation, and mission command. Tradition should not impede progress and effectiveness. I value tradition, but I am also an iconoclast and we must determine if there is a better way to organize and develop our nation’s military senior leaders.
The volunteer force has run its course. It served us well post-Vietnam and through 2001, but it is now time to move to a two-year mandatory service obligation for all American citizens. This system must be a ZERO exemption system with only specific and limited medical exemptions. We must have equitable representation from all levels of our society. This will ensure America is invested in everything our military does. It will ensure we have a stronger base to draw from in times of crisis and more familiarity with the military in all professions of our society. Our political system will also benefit from more veterans in congress, the White House, and throughout the inter-agency. A broader base of the American citizens from all levels of society will result in investment and improvement in the veteran’s system as more of our society will understand the requirements of the veteran and their family. The first check our government issues should be for veterans, the second for national security, and the third for critical infrastructure (highways, education, medical, and rule of law and law enforcement).
As General Jones discovered with his efforts to reorganize the military under a joint operating system, the military will not fix or change itself. This must be legislated. There is a requirement today to develop legislation that governs the interagency and makes our National Security system and government organizations more functional and responsive to the current and future domestic and geo-political environment. Jim Collins noted, “In the famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, Isiah Berlin divided the world into hedge hogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Hedgehogs simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn't matter how complex the world; a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple -- indeed almost simplistic -- hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance. You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They're hedgehogs. Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor -- they were all hedgehogs...the essence of profound insight is simplicity...Hedgehogs see what is essential and ignore the rest". I believe and assess the military’s “one big thing” is leadership.
As pointed out earlier, leadership is the most important aspect of military service. Leadership sets conditions for the success of everything in the military. Leadership is the only way to ensure mission success, to take care of people, and their families. It is the responsibility of all officers to study leadership, practice leadership, learn leadership, and live it for the entirety of their military service. I am a huge fan of the book American Generalship and many of the points in the book are mirrored in this article. I am a huge fan of GEN George C. Marshall. In many ways we got away from his organizational leadership and model on selecting our senior leaders, learning from mistakes, and recovering from being relieved of duty. General Marshall’s approach and success is articulated well and highlights many of the problems that plagued today’s senior leaders in Tom Rick’s book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Another great piece I drew from to back up my observations on dishonesty and trust was the monograph written by Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, called LYING TO OURSELVES: DISHONESTY IN THE ARMY PROFESSION. In this monograph the authors research points to untruthfulness being surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it. I experienced much of what was discussed in the monograph during my career and heard it echoed by peers and subordinates.
N. R. Narayana Murthy said, “Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is going against a vast number of naysayers and mediocre people”. Another confusing pillar is the stated emphasis of excellence and the consistent default to mediocrity. This is seen by all and does not make sense to our subordinates. One of the things I learned as a leader is success breeds contempt and jealousy. We are told to do the right thing, do our best, and that success is important. Unfortunately, in the military too much success will hurt your military career. I was criticized for being demanding, successful, perceived as too ambitious, and for being too physically fit, which made me laugh. One leader criticized me for being too disciplined and said this will be a weakness in Special Forces. I thought we want successful, disciplined, physically fit, and ambitious officers. Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
The other important area for senior leaders is Public Relations and Public Affairs. Alvin Adams said in the 1800’s that, Public relations are a key component to any operation in this day of instant communications and rightly inquisitive citizens.” The military senior leadership gets a D+ on the effective use of media. There is a lack of trust in the media that permeates the military at the senior levels. This military is not proactive in this area, usually late, defensive, and not transparent. It is my observation that Public Relations and Public Affairs exists in the military as a defensive tool and not an offensive tool. Often the public affairs plan and guidance is “RESPOND TO QUERY”. This approach lacks imagination and is so detrimental to our ability to be effective and stay ahead of the information cycle. We are comfortable with recruiting campaigns, telling good stories, but lack the same approach to explaining what we are doing, why we are doing it, and when things go wrong we lack the transparency to get the information out and hide behind the investigative process. Our public affairs and relations personnel are professional, experienced, and good at what they do. We must trust them, support them, and become less risk averse in this important area of military relations. Bill Gates said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.”
The key to fixing this is leadership. John Wooden said, “I think that in any group activity - whether it be business, sports, or family - there has to be leadership or it won't be successful”. Unfortunately, leadership in our military is the most referred to and under discussed aspect of our profession. It sits at the forefront of all that is written about, studied, and valued, yet it remains the purview of our academic institutions, authors, and documentaries. It is the most under discussed topic among senior leaders with subordinates within our units. In my four plus years as a general officer, I have never been talked to about leadership outside of a course curriculum. I have not been properly counseled about my duty performance since I was a captain. Most of the guidance I received was a result of a perception I was doing something wrong, and no teaching occurred outside of courses and classes other than what I learned from doing my job. To be fair to some general officers, I did have commander meetings and conversations, but this was not counseling or mentoring. Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”.
I could not begin to list the leadership attributes my superior officers valued the most as they have never articulated them to me. I could guess what they are from the menu of attributes I consider of value, but this is not the same and gets to my point that communication about leadership among superiors, subordinates, and peers is overlooked in our military today and that is why we are experiencing the problems noted in the two books and monograph. It seems we are too busy to discuss leadership, mentor, and groom our subordinates. Our days are cluttered with email mismanagement, long meetings with unclear agendas, priority overload, commander’s conferences with no real outcomes, unmanageable schedules, and senseless VTCs that go on forever without any real value. We are too busy meddling at the tactical level and do not spend enough time influencing policy, explaining what we are doing to our civilian leaders, and creating huge amounts of RFI’s (to cover up our hand wringing and delay tactics) that prevent our subordinates from focusing on their mission. It is extremely important that senior military leaders devote their time to developing their subordinates, providing guidance, intent, and mentoring and grooming. It is not uncommon to find very senior leaders way down in the weeds, being risk averse, and not making decisions in a timely manner. A leader must leverage the entire organization to be effective and stay out of the lower level business unless there is something illegal, immoral or negatively unsafe going on that no one else can handle. James Hume said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership”.
Senior leaders must discuss leadership during their active duty time as opposed to writing about all their great leadership approaches and successes after they retire. We must benefit from the experience of our leadership today and not just when they write their memoirs or books on leadership after they retire. A good test to determine if your senior commander has a philosophy is to ask your senior commander for their written leadership philosophy. They should be able to produce this in less than ten minutes. Then watch them to see if they enact what they espouse. I have yet to receive one aside from a generic guidance letter that tells me nothing and is rarely if ever updated or discussed after it is published. Gustave Flaubert said “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.
The following is what I consider to be important leadership categories that must be a regular part of the discussion between subordinates and their leaders. Master Chief Rich Puglisi was my sounding board and reviewer of all we produced. His counsel was invaluable and essential to ensure we delivered the right message to our people. I listed below 20 leadership ideas I routinely discussed within my command. To get this about right, I invested time conducting 12 different, two-hour sessions during my 26 months of command to discuss leadership with the command. These sessions were designed to make people think about leadership and know what was important to their commander. They were also designed to provide mentorship, guidance, teaching, and encourage counseling. I published and posted framework documents and ensured all in the command read and understood them. During all my command visits I discussed these documents and ideas to ensure understanding and that we were all on the same sheet of music. Command visits should not be confused with counseling and mentoring. I developed a system in my command where I did the initial counseling and my 0-6 directors did the interim counseling and I did the final counseling. This was a walk about that facilitated conversation and feedback and mitigated the formality of the office environment. I also instituted a process that I met with everyone arriving to the command and leaving the command regardless of rank or position. Everyone in the command talked with their commanding general. Another successful program was our sponsor program. This program was revised and monitored by Master Chief Rich Puglisi the SOCAFRICA Senior Enlisted Leader. This program was hugely successful and was and created an excellent first impression on our incoming personnel. The other hugely important part of senior leadership is consistency in behavior and messaging and was another goal of these sessions. Most importantly, this process was designed to demonstrate that the leadership cared about the people, families, and mission.
To address the problem with too many requirements and not enough time we developed an operational system that significantly decreased the requirements on our tactical units to free them up to do their jobs. We flattened communications, decentralized authorities, and lined up and distributed our units to be more effective in our mission. I did not waste my time getting into their business. I stayed at my level and supported their mission with getting the right resources, permissions, and authorities. We set up a system where my staff worked for the subordinate units not the other way around. This reduced the GO level staff minutia and requirements. The use of story boards was very useful to me. The story boards satisfied executive level communications. I do value story boards and use them to support what we are doing, demonstrate effectiveness, articulate resources required, and validate our return on investment.
I tried to be straight-forward, decisive, simple, entirely honest, and true to my word. I admitted my mistakes and provided top cover for the mistakes my subordinates made. I committed myself to be a leader with compassion, empathy, decisiveness, and caring. I wanted to be known as a leader that you could go to with an idea, problem, or a question and come out with guidance, information, and an answer or decision quickly. The most important part of being a leader is character backed up by a strong sense of moral courage that your people see. I know that the most important aspects of a person’s character are demonstrated through their honesty, respect for others, compassion and empathy in what you see them do and not what you hear them say. I wanted to be a leader that was considered more invested and focused in the organization and the people in the organization than the senior leaders above me. As Herman Melville said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”.
It is important that everyone knows what you want, that you talk straight and simple, give broad guidance driven by a framework so everyone knows exactly what to do. It is important to ensure everyone is on the same sheet of music and knows exactly what is going on, and that you give them the authority to do the things they are supposed to do. Trust your subordinates with the job and leave them alone to do it. Equally as important is to underwrite their mistakes. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman general commented: “Misfortune nobly borne is good fortune.” Holding your people accountable is important and you must define this for them in simplistic terms. For me, the end does not justify the means and do not do anything illegal, immoral, or negligently unsafe. There is also no room for bad attitudes. I told my subordinates that they get credit for everything that goes right, and I take the responsibility for everything that goes wrong. This is a win/win situation so get caught doing something. Teddy Roosevelt said, “people do not care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.”
20 Leadership Ideas
- What is successful leadership…Character, moral courage, and selflessness
- Vision and philosophy
- Mission Command and defining the operational environment
- Deciding and being a decision Maker
- Managing information flow
- Get Public Affairs right
- Underwriting mistakes
- Working for your people, taking care of people, taking care of families
- Determining priorities and reducing minutia
- Holding people accountable
- Policy and Military Decisions
- Do not be an office dweller
- Showmanship as an effective leadership tool
- The danger of Yes Men or Women
- The Importance of reading and taking time think
- Mentorship, Guidance, teaching, Counseling, and the pitfalls of cliques
- Sympathy and Empathy
- Time versus conditions-based effects
- Keep moving forward
Donald C. Bolduc
American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command, Edgar F. Puryear Jr.
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Thomas E. Ricks
LYING TO OURSELVES: DISHONESTY IN THE ARMY PROFESSION, Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras
Good to Great, Jim Collins