Editor’s note: This article is the first in a five-part series on educating Army leaders for future war.
Last month, the United States Military Academy at West Point graduated around one thousand cadets from the class of 2022 and commissioned them as second lieutenants into an Army emerging from two decades of war. While the Army’s newest officers are physically fit, incredibly smart, and qualified to lead, dozens of cadets we have taught during their four years at the academy admit that something is missing from their experience, leaving them genuinely concerned about their preparation to lead in future wars. These admissions are not simply the natural trepidation of people taking a major step in their lives. Their concerns are much more specific, with many divulging that they feel more adequately prepared to fight the conflicts of the past than those they see around the world today.
As officers who have spent a good deal of our own careers fighting America’s post-9/11 wars, we recognize a host of tactical, leadership, and life lessons these wars have imparted on us. The past few years at West Point, we taught and mentored many cadets in the graduating class, but we did not focus on our experiences fighting these wars of the past. Rather, we centered our instruction on the future of warfare. And what we found was astonishing. As with most professional military education in the Army, West Point does an excellent job imbuing its graduates with general attributes and competencies expected of military leaders in all environments. However, there is too little attention paid to how these traits should be applied in a context characterized by conventional and irregular threats from powerful competitors, the increasing use of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems on the battlefield, the rising importance of electronic warfare and signature management, and the erosion of truth itself. In other words, we train young leaders on the nature of leadership while often disregarding its character altogether.
Preparing leaders for future war is about anticipation and adaptation, not prediction. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aptly noted, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never gotten it right.” However, as one of Gates’ successors, James Mattis, said, “The more we anticipate . . . the less we have to improvise in combat.” Studying the changing character of conflict can help leaders shrink the adaptation gap once a conflict begins. Officers must not only study what future wars may look like, but also anticipate what attributes will be required of them to lead in those wars.
The first task in developing leaders for future war is to help them understand how the character of warfare and the character of leadership are interrelated. As with all things, some tenets of leadership endure through all wars while other characteristics must transform to suit the conflict’s character. Over the past century, Army forces have generally had the luxury of fighting in the single land domain with some level of coordination in the air and even less at sea. However, the space and cyber domains and increased access to information will change land warfare, ultimately making the battlefield more complex. As emerging technologies and shifts in the geopolitical landscape change the character of warfare, the way military leaders command and control their formations must adapt with it.
The second task in developing leaders for future war is to equip them with the skills and attributes they will need to improvise and adapt. Even after a war begins, its character will change as the conflict progresses, requiring agility and adaptability. As retired General Stanley McChrystal describes, he had to unlearn many of the things he had previously been taught about leadership in order to succeed in the complex environment he faced in Iraq. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel convincingly argue that a failure to undertake the important process of adaptation once a conflict begins can have dire consequences.
To accomplish these two tasks, we developed a new capstone course in West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies program titled “Leadership in Future War.” The course is based on several frameworks to help young leaders understand the nature and character of both war and leadership. Just as war is governed by a paradoxical trinity, so too is leadership. Though leaders will always be required to provide purpose, direction, and motivation to their subordinates, leadership is better described as the interaction between leaders and followers in a particular context. Exploring the relationship between these three elements—context, leaders, and followers—goes a long way in arming future leaders with a rudimentary understanding of the important linkages between the character of both war and leadership.
The Nature and Character of War
War is organized violence waged for political purposes. Many scholars and military theorists have recently cited Russia’s and China’s activities below the threshold of armed conflict as evidence war is a broader phenomenon that includes nonviolent activities. These observations may be correct, but there is nothing new about states using nonviolent yet manipulative actions to advance their interests. Whether one ascribes to the narrower or broader understanding of war, its nature has not changed. The nature of war therefore describes what war is: an inherently human endeavor that consists of the interaction of two or more actors involved in a clash of wills for political gain. The character of warfare, on the other hand, describes how a conflict is actually fought. The character of each war is unique and evolves over the course of history as technology, societies, economies, and the political context change.
Carl von Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity of passion, chance, and reason is one of the most important and enduring tools he provides to help understand war’s nature and character. As Clausewitz argues, any general understanding of war needs to account for each of these three linked elements. However, their relationship to one another is neither arbitrary nor fixed; they change with the character of each particular war. Though often misunderstood and misapplied, the Clausewitzian trinity serves as a useful tool to help understand war both in the abstract and in practice, including the nature and character of future war. Examining each of the trinity’s constituent parts and their relationships to one another can yield important insights regarding how war is fought.
The Nature and Character of Leadership
The nature of leadership is the enduring requirements of leaders and, at its simplest, it can be described as a process of wielding influence among groups of people to achieve common goals. The Army’s definition of leadership, “the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization,” is a reflection of leadership’s nature. The central question is whether this understanding of leadership is sufficient for the changing character of future wars. While leadership’s enduring nature and what it looks like remains foundational, an ability to recognize the changing character of leadership, much like the changing character of war, is vital to help one understand how to lead in practice. The expanding access to and speed of information flows today, coupled with the increasing difficulty in separating fact from fiction, are precisely why so many young officers feel less prepared to make sound decisions in increasingly interconnected and complex environments.
In their book Leaders, McChyrstal, Jeff Eggers, and Jay Mangone offer a more holistic understanding of leadership not as a top-down activity, but as an interactive system in which leaders, context, and followers all influence one another. Just as the interaction of passion, chance, and reason shift with the character of each war, the character of leadership “is an emergent property of the interaction [between leaders, context, and followers]—constantly shifting as the variables change.” For officers to better understand how to lead in future wars, it is important for them to understand each of these constituent parts and how they relate to one another. Understanding leadership in future war therefore begins with an examination of the emerging context, the necessary leadership attributes to fit that context, and how to properly apply those attributes to today’s soldiers and organizations.
The Leadership Trinity and Future Warfare
Context is primus inter pares in the leadership trinity—first among equals. To categorize the types of contexts in which leaders operate, we employ David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone’s Cynefin framework, which classifies situations as simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. Under this framework, we contend past leaders operated in the simple or complicated contexts, with fewer variables impacting their operations within smaller geographic boundaries compared with their contemporary counterparts. This does not imply previous wars were not difficult or deadly, but a historical examination indicates that this era of warfare had clear cause-and-effect relationships and solutions could be applied through analysis and the employment of expertise. As future war becomes increasingly complex, leaders may face environments best described as an ecosystem full of unknown variables and no right answers. We cannot ignore the exponential rate of change in information and communications technology or the impacts of its proliferation, the increasing lethality and range of weapons systems, and the disruptive capabilities of space, cyber, artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous systems. These factors are pushing warfare into the Cynefin framework’s realm of complexity and challenging the developmental process of leaders to keep pace with the environment.
The second element of the leadership trinity is leaders, where most military training and education is focused. Leaders play a vital role in the success or failure of their organizations but given the rapidly changing context of twenty-first-century warfare, the practice of military command has been shifting at an unprecedented rate. Anthony King details this phenomenon in his book Command by asserting much of the practice of military leadership remained steady from Napoleonic warfare through the first Gulf War. The US military employs the composite term “command and control” to refer to the exercise of military authority in battle. The fundamental leadership problems during the nearly two-hundred-year era King described were ones of control—synchronizing various forces and warfighting functions across space and time to generate effects on the enemy. However, as information technology gave rise to increasingly networked adversaries and the environment became more complex, many military leaders discovered they had a command problem—an inability to properly define their missions and understand how actions aggregated to achieve strategic effects. Future wars might impose both command and control problems, as the complex environment could limit the ability of leaders to effectively control their forces in time and space and determine how to properly employ them to achieve desired results. Developing and training leaders to operate in such an environment is imperative, particularly if we are facing adaptive and networked adversaries operating with greater speed, range, and lethality than the nonstate groups the United States has fought over the past two decades.
The third element of the leadership trinity is followers, which includes both the structure of military units as well as the unique characteristics of those who populate their ranks. It is with the followers where our conversations with the Army’s future officers revealed the most interesting dynamics, especially given the tension in leadership and communications preferences between Generations X and Z. A key challenge for all leaders is to build trust among their teams, which is becoming more difficult in an age of increasing polarization and cognitive attacks from adversaries seeking to undermine cohesion. Additionally, members of Generation Z, which includes people born from 1998 through 2016 and produces most of our newly commissioned officers, hold very different leadership preferences and communication styles than the Millennial or Generation X leaders that currently hold most officer and NCO positions. Although Generation Z may be more tech savvy than their predecessors, they are also digitally dependent and still highly susceptible to online disinformation, making both leading and following all the more difficult.
We have no doubt that the next generation of America’s military leaders is composed of exceptionally smart, hard-working, and dedicated officers committed to the military profession. However, we question whether they have been adequately prepared for the leadership challenges they will face in future wars. The battlefield is becoming increasingly complex as units will fight at greater distances and be forced to make decisions faster. When these dynamics are combined with degraded communications and weaponized information that seeks to erode trust and cohesion within a unit, the challenges facing future leaders will be both novel and immense. To better understand these challenges, the next article in our series examines the changing battlefield environment over the past two hundred years to identify sources of continuity and change. Just as the military seeks to modernize its equipment and formations for future wars, it must also seek to modernize its practice of leadership. Viewing leadership as the interaction of context, leaders, and followers, and exploring the evolving character of each constituent part, is a step in the right direction.
Colonel Al Boyer is the director of the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy. He was formerly the director of the USAFRICOM commander’s action group, the commander of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and a US Army War College Fellow at Columbia University’s Social-Organizational Psychology program.
Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist currently assigned to the Directorate of Concepts at Army Futures Command. He holds a PhD in international relations, is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute, and is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @LiveCole1.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Army Futures Command, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.