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Building a new generation of visionary leaders for the US military

30 September 2010

Summary:  As our military wages an apparently endless long against whatever (terror, jihadists, Islam), it’s not too soon to start thinking about the next generation of military leadership.  Petraeus and his peers took the shining instrument built from the shambles of Vietnam.  How sharp will it be when they’re done?  Who will lead the long effort to rebuild it for the 21st century?  GI Wilson points to some answers.  At the end are links to more on this subject.

Here are two articles of interest for those concerned about the US military, especially the second:

  • Growing Strategic Leaders for Future Conflict“, Barak A. Salmoni, Jessica Hart, Renny McPherson, and Aidan Kirby Winn, Parameters, Spring 2010
  • The Next Petraeus“, Renny McPherson, Boston Globe, 26 September 2010 — “What makes a visionary commander, and why the military isn’t producing more of them.”

Renny gives us much to think about. We need more scribes taking up a discussion of leadership (general officer and otherwise) for where are the mavericks that served the Nation so well a la George Patton, Pete Ellis, Chesty Puller, and John Boyd. Any leadership discussion will eventually go down the path of why the Nation requires a USMC. It is more than the Nation needing and wanting a USMC though theses factors are pillars in the Nation’s sage logic.

I pray Renny is the bow wave of veterans returning to our private and public educational institutions. Renny and those who have served literally “have been there and done that.” They have the moral and professional obligation to now offer respectful umbrage and criticism of politicos. Ironically most of the academic, commercial, and political leaders they meet at the top have never seen combat ( perish the thought of serving for let someone else do that) or experienced providing first aid at scene of a bad auto accident. In other words these labeled-leaders never look the tiger in the eye.

I do offer caution to Renny’s and his colleagues approach to assessing leadership from the top for he writes:

Two years ago, I joined three colleagues in a project to understand this problem more deeply. We interviewed 37 top military leaders, all of them having commanded abroad at high levels since 9/11. A third of the interviewees were three- or four-star generals and over half had served in special operations units. The interviewees included combatant commanders, theater special operations commanders, and corps- and division-level commanders. They were some of our nation’s finest and most experienced senior officers.

This above reflects a singular top down and self-reporting view. I submit a better picture of leadership is once of convergence including an equally weighted bottom up view. Who do the fighters see as leaders ? Who do the street combatants see blocking and tackling for them opening doors so they can do their job of closing with and killing the enemy.

Despite all the Game Boy technology, the job of killing has not changed in the annuals of warfare for those in contact. The most fearsome thing on this earth is being in close proximity of another human being who wants to kill you. So it is not unfair to ask those who stare the tiger in the eye and pull triggers who they see as leaders? Surveying only those at the top (to be sure I personally know some great generals,admirals, and colonels who are trigger-puller centric having ” been there and done that”), glosses over the fact many “heavy breathers” get to the top via the current system steeped in careerism. There way too many the DOD food chain who know too well how to play the careerism cards.Sadly, the rare strategic thinkers/initiates that do emerge dissipate immediately with changes of command and retirements.

I agree with Renny strategic thinkers are few in the wake of our military, political, and educational systems. The succession plan for future strategic thinkers is left to chance. But lets not blindly assume that all of those at the top who see themselves as strategic thinkers are. They are in fact more of a by product of a bureaucratic system with perhaps some strategic glimpses.

I suggest that in Renny’s quest for strategic thinkers, he looks no further than himself. Today we may find more of these strategic thinkers in waiting not in the military or Congress but rather in the ranks of those leaving combat behind pursuing educational endeavors or leadership positions in the civilian world. Witness young veterans running for Congress and filling seats in academic institutions, and taking positions at all levels of government. My hope is this “Renny Effect” cascades UPWARD paving the way for both “mavericks” and professional leaders expected to exercise independent thought, creative unorthodox approaches to issues, and strategic thinking.

Renny, urges us to be open enough to grow more leaders.  I agree. Time for Renny and colleagues to start plowing the fields for planting season is here. We must return to the ideals of honorable military service as a guiding underpinning of any service to the Nation period be it in or out of uniform as Renny implies. Col Gerry Turley in The Easter Offensive writes:

“There is a saying about military men to the effect that during a service career, “one must prepare himself for a moment that may never come, to thrust himself into uncharted arena of battle should the need arise.” Most military men faithfully prepare for this eventuality.”

The “Renny Effect” must hold true for all walks of life if we are to survive as a Nation…that is to serve altruistically not just get ahead for personal gain.

Other posts about our military leadership

  1. “America’s Greatest Weapon”, 25 May 2008 — About our people in uniform.
  2. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2008
  3. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  4. A discussion about advanced education of military personnel, 10 January 2010
  5. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 1 July 2010
  6. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010
  7. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010
  8. Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, 7 September 2010

See these reference pages for other posts about our military

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