Image courtesy of Survival Based. Image courtesy of Survival Based.

By Major Carl “Skin” Forsling, USMC

As military leaders, we like to believe that we have a core set of values, beliefs, and leadership practices that transcend the day-to-day workings of society.  Our services have slogans such as “Semper Fidelis,” “This We’ll Defend,” or “Honor, Courage, Commitment.”  Some even joke that we have over two centuries of tradition unhindered by progress. That isn’t true.  We are a product of the society from which we are drawn, for better or worse.

The military takes American society and amplifies it.  Usually, this is a good thing.  Today, in one important way, it’s not.

Information is the modern world’s stock in trade.  It’s often said that we’re moving towards an information-based economy, even an information-based society.  Cell phones, e-mail, satellite communication, and the like have changed our lives.

The overloading effect of information has been picked to death.  In this sense, the military is only a reflection of society.  Every office worker in America hates his e-mail inbox, as do most military leaders, both enlisted and officer.

The military takes this normal workplace annoyance into the realm of pathology.  Military leaders are supposed to be leaders, 24/7.  They hear that, well, 24/7.  In spite of the health risks, they take pride in being what some call “Type A” personalities: driven, in control, sometimes hostile, and at least in appearance, knowledgeable.  Add these traits to a thirst for information, or as the parlance goes, better “SA” (Situational Awareness) and we have an organization that spends more time chasing information than initiating action.

Passing information, not making decisions

For example, not that long ago, before cell phones became ubiquitous, duty standers led easier lives. If I, as a company-grade officer, was on duty and something happened to a one of our Marines, whether he had a minor fender-bender in a parking lot or had been arrested, I tried to take care of the immediate problem at hand if I could.  If I couldn’t, I looked at the unit phone roster for the appropriate staff noncommissioned officer or officer-in-charge.  If he wasn’t there, I left a message.  After a while, I may have had to make an actual decision on my own, perhaps even calling an outside agency, whether military or civilian.  The next morning, I’d brief the executive officer on what I did, and hopefully I met his intent.  Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t, and I got praise or scorn appropriately, but that judgment was based on my decisions, not on my success as an information conduit.

Today, I no longer stand much duty, but then, today’s duties are no longer charged with making decisions.  That would seem to be a relief, but it’s not.  Duties no longer make decisions.  They make phone calls. They make e-mails.  They make web-based reports.  They have been delegated a lot of responsibility, at least as being information relays, but no authority.  They certainly aren’t trusted with decision-making, but if something happens they’d damn well better make the appropriate phone calls to the entire chain of command, the sergeant major, and the higher headquarters’ duty.  They’d also better not make any spelling errors on the Excel-based incident report.  That would be unprofessional.

All American military doctrine tells us that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level.  It also tells us that authority can be delegated, but not responsibility.  In practice, we have done the inverse.  We have drifted towards a Soviet model of leadership.  If a duty can’t reach an OIC, that is his fault.  It’s also the OIC’s fault, for deciding to go PT without a cell phone at the same time one of his people decided to get a DUI.  That leader should have been standing by, ready, 24/7.

As military leaders, we’ve lost sight of the purpose of information.  Do leaders need information to make a decision? Or rather, is it just to ”build their SA?”  Is knowing about a servicemember’s DUI at 0200 in the morning vice 0800 actually going to inform a decision?  Of course it isn’t.  It’s just building “SA.”

That is an example in garrison, where it might be just fodder for a “Terminal Lance” cartoon or similar satire.  Tactically, though, we fall for the same mindset, thinking that more information is always better.  Just because technology has made information cost-free for higher headquarters, does not mean it’s cost-free for the operator.

Line-of-sight communications used to mean that a subordinate commander had freedom of action once the curvature of the earth set him free.  Today, secure satellite comms mean the leash, or rather the choke-chain, is never far away.  Before, we went forward armed only with our weapons and commander’s intent.  Today, we need only the weapons, because the commander’s intent is going to be continually updated by SATCOM and mIRC chat.

Most military leaders are familiar with execution checklists, containing prowords describing the progress or contingencies of an operation.  If “Steelers” is passed at 0025Z, the objective is secured.  If “Syphilis” is passed at 0035Z, the troops require emergency extract. Those are items of information that allow leaders to make real decisions.

A few years ago, I participated in an OEF flight that attracted some attention—the first delivery of MV-22B Ospreys to Afghanistan.  Many of the execution checklist items didn’t describe items requiring decisions, only status and position reports, data that only existed in order to be pushed to higher on a minute-by-minute basis.

There was a checklist item stating that the aircraft had gone crossed the beach and another stating that the aircraft had passed the Afghan border, for example. Was anything going to change because an aircraft travelled another few miles? No. Information was passed purely for its own sake and to satisfy higher’s information “Jones.”  It was information technology, in this case, satellite communications, that allowed this type of supervision to exist.  Not so long ago, a unit might launch aircraft and not hear from them until they landed at their destination some hours later.  We used to be okay with that.  Why not now?

Information technology isn’t a bad thing, used correctly.  Blue-on-blue engagements may someday become a thing of the past, for example.  At the same time, this constant communication comes with some danger.  Eventually every Marine and Soldier will be reachable anytime, anywhere.  Every individual will be a chess piece on a combatant commander’s board.  If information is a drug, every leader will be mainlining it.

Kicking the Habit

Like a drug, information is addictive.  Access to a continuous flow of information creates a demand for more.  Once one of the big kids on the playground is hooked, everyone else will be too.  Those working underneath an information junkie stop leading and start becoming information conduits.  They, in turn, have their own subordinates busy finding the answers to any question they worry their boss might ask.

Objectively speaking, any information is only valuable to the extent it helps a leader make decisions.  Any information that makes for a better decision is valuable.  Conversely, any information that does not inform action is useless.  Spending man-hours gathering information which only exists to get passed up the chain and not acted on is a waste.

How do leaders counteract this tendency?  The biggest step is to ask yourself, before sending out an RFI (request for information),”Am I going to make a decision based on the answer to this question?”  If you’re not going to do anything differently based on the answer, then don’t ask the question.

The higher a leader is, the more he has to think about the effects of just asking a question.  One effect is just the time consumed in finding an answer.  It takes just a second for a leader to send an e-mail RFI, but it can take a long time for those tasked to find the answer.  This is time they could spend doing their jobs better.  The other effect is that, as in particle physics, the act of observation actually changes the outcome. As the saying goes, ”What my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating.” Subordinates alter their behavior based on what their commanders are interested in.  Sometimes this is a desirable effect, but this has to be managed carefully.  If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.  A commander that is interested in everything will find that his subordinates are incapable of independent action.

We’ve forgotten the lessons of “A Message to Garcia.”  Those serving in the military actually desire accountability.  They just desire accountability for results, vice accountability for every intermediate action.  As all of our doctrine claims, orders should state what do to, not how to do it.  By overemphasis on constant updates, we belie our professed core beliefs on leadership.

Trust:  an underutilized leadership trait

As leaders, we need to save our mental resources for information that helps us fight, not on an endless stream of situation reports.  While the importance of proper supervision is reinforced with every press release from higher, the importance of loyalty, downwards as well as upwards, gets much less attention.  We owe it to our subordinates to show our loyalty by trusting in them unless they show themselves unworthy of that trust.  As it stands today, the going-in position is, “trust no one.”  If the words on an officer’s commission speaking of “special trust and confidence” are actually worth the paper they’re printed on, then the military as an institution has to act accordingly.

Occasionally, subordinates will fall on their faces when we don’t watch them.  As Marine Major General John A. Lejeune said, the relationship between officers and men should “…partake of the nature of the relationship between father and son.”  Sometimes, like a good parent, the superior’s job is to let failure happen, but still offer guidance, counsel, and support.  No one is indispensable.  A subordinate must always be ready to assume the job of his superior–we should always be endeavoring to train our own replacements.  This will happen only if we allow them to work in a manner that holds them accountable for results, not information.