The Best Defense

Was Captain Bligh a micromanager?

As it happened, almost immediately after finishing the Steve Jobs biography, I read Nordhoff and Hall's Men Against the Sea, about Capt. William Bligh's epic voyage across the South Pacific after being ousted by the mutineers who took HMS Bounty from him. He sailed 3,600 miles in an open 23-foot boat that was carrying 19 men, losing only one en route (to hostile locals). Most people couldn't get a boat loaded like that across the swimming pool. He brought it across an Atlantic-wide space.

Like Jobs, Bligh was a toxic leader -- yet clearly the right man to pull off such an extraordinary feat of seamanship.

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The Best Defense

The 2011 Army survey: Actually, Tom, there is a lot to worry about in there

By Jörg Muth

Best Defense directorate of mission command

Thank you for posting the link to the annual survey of Army leaders. To answer your question I think we should start worrying now. While the report was exhaustive, transparent and well crafted, it came from within the system and thus suffers heavily from betriebsblindheit -- company blindness. That is a notable German word that describes the inability of a person who was forever with a company to see certain problems. I read the report with the eye of the sociologist, historian, and Army fan.

The first worrisome fact is that only 15.7 percent of uniformed personnel were willing to take part in that survey. It is most likely that many of two major groups whose responses would be most important did not reply -- those in combat units because they are too busy and those who want to get out anyway because they are too disillusioned already.

There are discrepancies in the findings that are not solved. When 70 percent of the leaders rank the leadership capabilities of their superiors as good, why do only half of the questioned want to emulate the behavior of their leaders, and why are only 44 percent able to learn from them? After all, 70 percent point out that their superior leads by example.

How is it possible to get so many favorable ratings on leaders when 58 percent of those who think that the Army heads in the wrong direction reflect that the Army is unable to retain the best leaders, and only 44 percent think that the personnel promotions are accurate? The same level of identified toxic leaders over the years shows that there is something wrong with the system of weeding out incapable leaders.

Surveys like this from active duty soldiers need to be corroborated with surveys from officers who left the service because they believed the good leaders were not promoted. There was a survey not long ago for West Point officers who left the service and they gave that as their second most important reason to leave, just after the Army bureaucracy (82 percent). Especially the agreement to leadership capabilities expressed in higher ranks points out to the tendency that those who were the most streamlined were promoted.

Obviously most (85 percent) leaders of the current survey showed false confidence in their cross-cultural interaction abilities because the feedback from foreigners about behavior of U.S. Army officers is way less positive.

If the leadership is so outstanding, why do only 43 percent of those stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan rate the morale of their unit as high or very high? Samuel Stouffer in his seminal sociological work, The American Soldier, had recognized in 1949 that in such surveys you need to distinguish between combat and non-combat units. I predict that the leadership ratings for combat units will be way worse if they were singled out for this survey. It is easy to lead by example a staff stationed in a FOB, compared to a rifle company in Helmland, Afghanistan. The tail of the U.S. Army is by now so big that only a fraction of the leaders served in combat units, yet they are the most crucial.

Morale seems to be an issue and that needs to be addressed. 91 percent of the Majors and Colonels claim to be satisfied with their careers, yet their personal morale level is at 63 percent (high or very high).

The idea of the survey is excellent, but what can be done to improve it next year?

  • Make it shorter instead of more detailed to motivate soldiers to participate. Focus on key leadership elements.
  • Bring in experts who know the Army but are not in the Army for an out-of-the box perspective.
  • Distinguish between combat and non-combat units.
  • Corroborate the data of the survey with other surveys, especially from soldiers who have left the Army.
  • Give room for quality answers and not only closed questions. Before World War II, the German Army routinely used to ask its juniors officers during the district defense examination for their opinion on a certain topic and thus got a wealth of valuable input and creative ideas to improve.

Jörg Muth, PhD, studied History, Sociology, the Law and Peace- and Conflict Studies. He is an expert on the US Army -past and present. Jörg is the author of Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. The book was placed by the Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond T. Odierno, on his professional reading list. In June Command Culture received the 'Distinguished Writing Award' of the Army Historical Foundation.

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