The Military Heritage
On March 28, 2102, Senator McCain gave the Forrestal lecture at the Naval Academy and talked a good bit about the difference between leadership and management. Note that neither Sen McCain nor I am disparaging management, it’s essential but, leadership is far harder to learn and every bit essential. Note that if you follow the link, Dale at Command Performance Leadership has the entire speech as well as his commentary, I recommend it highly.
In a little over two months, we’ll commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, when barely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we faced an enemy supremely confident in their ability – not just to defeat, but to annihilate – the battered remnants of Halsey’s Pacific Fleet. We were overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned. The Japanese brought 8 carriers, we had barely three; they had 11 battleships, we had none. And the Japanese had the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific – the Mitsubishi Zero – that easily dominated the slower, less agile TBDs, SBDs, F4Fs, and Marine F2As.
Making matters worse, our forces were plagued by faulty equipment. The Mk 13 torpedo was notoriously unreliable. In fact, not a single torpedo dropped at Midway by Torpedo 3, Torpedo 6 or Torpedo 8 even detonated. And the new electrical arming system on the SBD’s had the annoying habit of randomly releasing the bomb when the Master Arm switch was selected.
But in the end, the battle turned not on numbers or equipment – but rather on the actions – and the leadership – of some truly extraordinary men. What they did at Midway has become the stuff of legend.
Men like LCDR John Waldron, skipper of Torpedo 8, who led his 15 TBD Devastators against one of the enemy carriers at wave-top height and barely 100 knots, while trying to fend off the far more capable – and deadlier – Zeros. With no fighter cover of his own, Waldron’s fate was sealed. His last transmission to his squadron-mates was simple: ‘We will go in. We won’t turn back. We will attack. Good luck.’
And men like Marine Major ‘Joe’ Henderson, who led his mixed squadron of F4Fs and F2As against the carrier Hiryu. Struck by anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft in flames, Henderson pressed the attack – on what would be his last flight.
And LCDR Wade McClusky, who, despite being dangerously low on fuel, kept searching for the Japanese carriers until he found them, and whose extraordinary leadership – according to Admiral Nimitz – ‘decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway.’The Battle of Midway was won not by superior equipment, and certainly not because we outnumbered the Japanese. We won because of the stout hearts and uncommon leadership that for one hundred years has been the hallmark of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
My grandfather commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific during WWII. He made it a point to talk with pilots after they returned from a strike, asking them, ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ He knew that if you ever stopped learning from your men, then you stopped leading.
Today, we hear a lot about ‘management,’ and not nearly enough about leadership. That worries me. One thing of which I am certain – there is a great difference between managers and leaders. Competent managers are useful in any endeavor. But they are plentiful. Our nation graduates over 150,000 MBAs every year. But leaders … true leaders … are rare. And they are a far more important asset than managers.1
This strikes me as the old John McCain, the Naval Aviator who overflew Hanoi, who kept his head in the midst of exploding ordnance on the USS Forestal in 1967, and above all keeping the faith in the Hanoi Hilton.
But his points are just as valid for us as they are for the Navy. We need leaders in all areas of business, to train, to innovate and to develop our people. Where are we to find them?
Maybe a better question is, “What makes a leader?” Those of us in the civilian sector have coasted for years with what we can pick up from the military. We don’t teach it, and lately we rarely practice it either.
One of the key characteristics of the leader is honor (you can maybe substitute ethics here, although it’s at best a subset of honor). I have gone into mid 5 figure deals on a handshake and a promise to work it out. It was fine because I knew I was dealing with an honorable client who didn’t yet know what he wanted/needed to do but understood that I would help him define as well as implement his goals. While certainly we were both in the deal to make a profit I and he understood that if the project blew up in everybody’s face, none of us would remain unscathed, including the principal. And that is key, if the people you are dealing with have no skin in the game, except the glory they think they can get from screwing everyone concerned, run like hell. I’ve also dealt with clients that I wouldn’t rust to buy me a cup of coffee with a 60 page contract specifying it.
As I said above, much of our honor code comes from the military, dating back to Greece and Rome. Why? Because it has proven to be the best way to order the business of war. There is a huge caveat here though because while there is law and rules of engagement involved in the military and warfighting, there is much more involved. In truth, western armies have known for centuries that if they want a well-ordered army they need very good non-commissioned officers (NCOs). This is where the tradition is, this is the first line supervisor who will catch you is, this is where your buddies are. Few men actually think about the slogans that motivated them to go to war in battle, they are far more concerned with not letting down their buddies. Part of what seems to be happening in our military right now, appears to be that our senior NCO’s are retiring and their replacements have been so busy in the last ten years fighting battles without enough time to study, that some of that heritage is being lost. Armed Forces Journal ran a very good article lately on the problems the military is having.
The problem of battlefield discipline predates the modern law of armed conflict. The problem is raised, if somewhat obliquely, in Homer’s “Iliad,” in which the erratic and uncontrollable rage of Achilles culminates in his abuse of Hector’s corpse — an outrage even by the standards of that violent time. In 1066, William the Conqueror is said to have expelled a knight from his assembly for mutilating the body of the conquered King Harold II.
Under the modern conception, war is violence for a purpose, organized and sanctioned by the nation-state. Acts of violence that would otherwise be unlawful take on a gloss of legitimacy — and sometimes even honor — because they are committed under the authority of the state. There is a difference between the civilian ethos of violence and the warrior ethos of violence. Warriors are given a special privilege of legitimate violence, but this violence retains its legitimacy only so long as warriors adhere to the warrior ethos. So the very nature of war raises the problem of battlefield discipline.
Indeed, war demands discipline. War is not violence for its own sake or for the personal gain of the people committing it. Without discipline, the violence cannot be directed to serve the pragmatic political purpose for which it is called forth. This is especially true in a counterinsurgency, in which the berserker approach often works to defeat rather than advance the aims of the campaign. Also, in the absence of discipline, the violence occurs outside the authority of the nation-state, thus stripping it of its legal justification. Combat without discipline is not war.
The problem, then, is to unleash a brutal, destructive force while containing and directing it to achieve limited objectives. There is a very small margin of acceptable error because the misdeeds of just a few undisciplined soldiers can undo the work of many thousands of their more disciplined comrades. (Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak’s concept of the “strategic corporal” gets at this reality.) To this end, a military commander must not be a mere manager of violence, but rather a leader of individuals whose job it is to commit violence.
Though not specifically talking about the military, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” addresses the problem facing leaders who are responsible for training others in ethics. Though Aristotle believes in universal standards of virtue, he recognizes that the process of becoming virtuous may vary from person to person. Aristotle uses the analogy of a doctor who learns what is theoretically good for everyone and then applies that knowledge to the practical details of an individual patient. The process of training others in virtue begins with an understanding of the general principles of the law, but it does not end there. Rather, it is a matter of continued training and habituation over time that must, to a certain extent, be tailored to the individual.
The law is a blunt instrument, a generally applicable set of rules that does not and cannot deal in such fine distinctions. The saying goes that “hard cases make bad law,” which means that judges should focus on the general principles of the law instead of the specific facts of outlier cases.
Military commanders, though, must be concerned with the hard cases — their business is people, not principles. Battlefield discipline, then, stems not from the law of war but from the ethos of the warrior.2
While our problems in the private sector are not the same, they bear some resemblance. It’s hard to be loyal to a huge corporation or even a big factory, in truth if it’s not led well, it’s nearly impossible to be loyal to your team. I’ve seen it forever where you have a brown-nosing supervisor, he always has trouble with his people. This is often a problem when a large company is run by the quarterly bottom line, especially when it is proud of its degrees in accounting and its MBAs. I wrote about this some in relation to the meat-packing industry where supervisors are being squeezed for output while being denied enough authority to do anything good, there’s not even enough money to properly maintain the plants.3 I depend absolutely on my journeymen to keep things going, and going right. They’ve been around (either with me or other companies) long enough to know how to do almost everything right, and I make sure that they know I’ll back them up.
Interesting enough, I learned long ago and far away that if I wanted good people in my group, the things I needed to do was, praise in public; criticize in private, never blame them to my superior, certainly I require good performance from them, but I do it, not my boss, and to help them be better. This is what Michael O. Douglas was referring to as “remove the blocker”. There is nothing new here, it’s been known for hundreds of years, you just have to do it.