Failures in Generalship and the Nonprofit Sector

The thing I am loving most about grad school so far is that it is exposing me to bodies of literature that my former life as a nonprofit sector consultant just didn’t.  (Whether it could have, that’s another story.)  Today, I read Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article “A Failure in Generalship,” which resonated for me in unexpected ways.

Yingling’s brief article is a tough look at the reasons why America’s military leaders failed in almost identical ways in both Vietnam and Iraq, despite the nearly thirty years they had to learn and adapt.  He concludes that the reasons are not about individual personalities, but in the systemic ways that we select our generals, and the ways those systems fail to produce generals that are capable of succeeding at important aspects of their jobs.

Here’s a long excerpt that you should read closely.  I’m blown away by how much this analysis is directly relevant to the failures of leadership in social change movements.  I’ve boldfaced some of the best bits.  Hint: every place he writes “generals” you can sub in “social change leaders” and every place he says “war” you can think “social change.”

I wish that the social change sector had the courage to examine itself so honestly and to ask tough systems questions like this.  Of course, it is also true that we lack the systems of accountability that are at least theoretically provided by Congress, so it may be that our challenge is even harder than the military’s.  Food for thought.

The Generals We Need

The most insightful examination of failed generalship comes from J.F.C. Fuller’s “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure.”…  He found three common characteristics in great generals — courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.

The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.

Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America’s general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.

If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America’s military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.

To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.

Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told. Congress must ask for a candid assessment of the money and manpower required over the next generation to prevail in the Long War. The money required to prevail may place fiscal constraints on popular domestic priorities. The quantity and quality of manpower required may call into question the viability of the all-volunteer military. Congress must re-examine the allocation of existing resources, and demand that procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face. Congress must be equally rigorous in ensuring that the ways of war contribute to conflict termination consistent with the aims of national policy. If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads them.

Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.

A few thoughts on social change movement HR strategy

Social change work is hard, long term work.

Like most hard work, it takes a lot of practice to get really good at it.  Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” claims that it takes about 10,000 hours (10 years) of practice to really master something.  I don’t see why social change organizing/campaigning should really be any different.

People who have the skills to be outstanding social change activists have lots of choices and opportunities in their professional life–they have the leadership, analysis and “getting things done” skills to be valuable in many fields.

So, given these realities, are social change movements structuring themselves to attract highly skilled potential superstars and to retain them for the 10 years it takes to attain mastery… and beyond, into the most highly productive years that follow?

In my anecdotal experience, not so much.  To me, the sector looks like its strategy is more “burn and churn.”  Get ’em in while they’re young, pay ’em as little as possible, and work ’em hard for 3-5 years until they burn out.  Minimal investment in tactical skills, strategic thinking or leadership skills.  The survivors become the next generation of leaders.

In a world where it’s organized people vs. organized money, why aren’t we doing a better job of investing in our people?

Update: Some great discussion on this post over at Google+.

Citizens United vs. United Citizens: Building a Movement to Drive Money Out of Politics

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court case.  Gideon Rosenblatt has a fantastic, in-depth piece up on Huffington Post that covers why campaign finance reform is an urgent, fundamental issue that the progressive community needs to rally around in a concerted, strategic way.   Hint: money is corrupting not only policy decisions, but the very democratic process itself.

On Buildings, Balance and Advocacy Campaigns

My wife Molly works for a big-time international multidisciplinary buildings engineering firm.  Over the dinner table, I’ve learned a bit about how big buildings get designed and built.  Another frequent topic of dinner conversation in my house is the myriad challenges of designing and running truly effective environmental advocacy campaigns.   The other day, I had one of those “aha!” moments.

Buildings are really complicated.  They can’t be designed and built by just one person, or by a team of people with only one set of skills.  For example, on Molly’s current project, there’s a mechanical engineering team (they figure out the heating and air conditioning), an electrical engineering team (the do the lighting and electricity), and a structural engineering team (they make sure the building doesn’t fall down).  And that’s just the engineers!  There are also multiple teams on the construction side, the data center designers, and more.  Playing the role of designer & project manager are of course the architects.

Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently.  Each of them have different expertise, and each brings important knowledge and skills to the project.  Failure to incorporate any of these disciplines’ perspective would almost certainly lead to a failed project — a building that is too hot or too cold, doesn’t have reliable power, falls down, is ugly, doesn’t have the functions the owner needs, or goes wildly over cost.

As you might expect, these different teams often have wants and needs that conflict with the other teams.  The most beautiful building design might be impossible to cost-effectively heat or cool.  Electrical and mechanical teams can tussle over limited space in the service spaces.   Structural wants bigger, heavier beams while the project owner wants to keep cost down.

All of these differences of opinion have to be worked out, typically through ongoing “coordination” meetings.  In the best cases, potential conflicts are identified early in the process, before too much time and energy has been spent.  But since building design is always an iterative process, coordination is a continuous process, and as the building design evolves, it can become more and more stressful and high-stakes.

Let’s talk about advocacy campaigns.  As you may be starting to suspect, I think there are some parallels.  Advocacy campaigns are often big, complex, multi-year endeavors.  They have a clear goal, but the process can be very messy and filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Successful advocacy campaigns will involve people with many different forms of expertise: strategists, lobbyists, field organizers, communications, technology, policy experts, attorneys, fundraisers.  Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently, and advocates for different values.

So far, lots of parallels to that big building project, right?  But when I look around at the leadership circle of most of the advocacy campaigns I’ve been familiar with over the years, I don’t see that diversity of disciplines represented.  Mainly I tend to see lobbyists and/or policy experts.  Strategy, field organizing, communications, technology, or development are rarely represented at the leadership table, and if they are, they’re typically represented by junior staff who are lack status and power with respect to more senior lobbyists/policy experts.

Over time, this results in unbalanced campaigns, where critical expertise from all of the relevant disciplines is dominated by one or two limited perspectives.  Such campaigns may experience short-run success, but they quickly run into the limitations of their narrow leadership perspective.

Worse, I see a disturbing pattern wherein certain of these disciplines (e.g. communications, field organizing) are long-term under-resourced, which results in these disciplines never developing senior staff-level expertise, which makes it all the harder for these disciplines to credibly represent themselves and be taken seriously at the leadership table.   This further deepens the vicious cycle of unbalancing.

Have you been a part of an “unbalanced” campaign?  What was it like?  How do we create more balanced campaigns?

Technology is not the question or the answer

My friends Tim Walker and Michael Silberman have been doing some thinking about the long-term problems with many of the approaches to date about social change + technology and have popped out a provocative (and very welcome!) manifesto about the need for “web thinking.”

http://www.echoditto.com/insights/webthinking

I was honored to contribute some thoughts on the early drafts, and while I don’t think it’s perfect, the final version is a must-read if you’re serious about changing how change happens.   It’s great to see people engaging in serious, big-picture critical thinking like this.  The conversation’s already going on in the comments.  You should join in.  See you there in five.

Copenhagen, a brief hypothesis

Copenhagen was doomed to failure from the day that Obama decided to do health care in 2009 and not climate legislation. Enviros should have recognized this and responded by de-emphasizing the strategic importance of Copenhagen, and focusing their limited resources to prepare for 2010.