I have a theory on the Giving of Advice, and yes I said theory before anyone makes the requisite jokes about “everyone having an opinion…and them all stinking.” There are only three reasons people give advice in my assessment:
This is the post excerpt.
1. Because they genuinely wish to help you.
2. They are caught off guard, don’t know what to say, probably not wishing to appear foolish they make something up.
3. Because they actually wish to lead you astray.
3. Is someone acting with malice, probably for his or her own self-interest at your expense.
2. Mostly has to do with his or her own ego and/or insecurities, and less with doing you well or ill.
But #1, just as Active Constructive Responding is to being the only method of communication that builds and strengthens a relationship; a genuine wish to aid another person is the only genuinely decent reason to give advice. Of course, we must bear in mind that even the well-intentioned can still give bad advice. Genuine caring does not equate to genuine understanding of the situation.
That stated, allow me to share a personal experience. I hope you will benefit from my pain so that you will not experience it for yourself. I’m going to discontinue my military career after what is the worst assignment and experience in 13 years of Active Duty. That includes having fractured my spine in the line of duty, if scale of comparison is required. Without going into the details of that, I will get to the heart of this post as it relates to the title.
I wish to share with everyone the most awful piece of military leadership advice I have received. I asked my Battalion Commander her guidance on how to be successful as a Company Commander, and more specifically one of her Company Commanders. She not once but on two very different occasions, separated by a few months, repeated the same thing to me, “It’s about being a politician shaking hands and kissing babies,” that is the only advice she had to give and yes it’s a direct quote. When I first heard it I believed she was making a joke, and I laughed heartedly. However, when it was clear upon her face that she did not see what was so funny…I knew she was offended, and I felt in that moment the first of many indicators that my career would end, and not well, under her command.
Please note that I termed this the “most awful” and not necessarily the “most incorrect” piece of military leadership advice I have received, because it may very well be apt advice for getting ahead in today’s military, unfortunately for those who depend on us to fight. I’ll discuss the very disheartening implications for the stewardship of the US military, if that is the case a bit later.
Not knowing my personal experience with this “leader,” you are unburdened by any of my potential personal bias. And thus you can give “the LTC,” the benefit of the doubt that her reasoning for giving the advice was reason #1 perhaps more easily than can I. It may not have been the case, but we can hope so.
For this we must return to my Theory, if people who give genuine advice based on the genuine reason #1, then they want to help you and see you succeed. It stands to reason that in order to effect that outcome a person would give you advice they believe in. Or better said, advice they truly believe will help you win, no matter how truly they believe in it. So by that logic “the LTC” gave me the advice she genuinely thought would help me succeed at being a Company Commander in today’s US Military… But, be a politician?
I direct you to this Gallup poll, that shows surveyed Americans consider the US Congress the least trusted of US institutions. And last I checked it was full of career politicians. That doesn’t mean politician is synonymous with untrustworthy, flip-flopper, never answers a direct question with a direct answer; however, I direct you to Google’s secondary definition of politician, “a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.”
The military holds exactly the opposite spot, as the most trusted of US institutions in the Gallup poll. It is rational to come to the conclusion Americans surveyed responded as such because they do not view members of the military as they do politicians. Perhaps exactly opposite in fact. So how could that advice have been reason #1 kind of advice? It only could have come from a genuine place of aid if:
1. The “leader” giving the advice believes it to be so, perceivably based on her own experience of success.
2. And/or the institution has become an organization where politics outweighs and out favors other Measures of Performance (MOPs) and Measure of Effectiveness (MOEs).
What was it the American people surveyed used as their rationale to determine the military to be the most trustworthy vs. congress as the least? We cannot know their minds for sure, but we can surmise that it didn’t involve Soldiers being like politicians. More likely it is based on the conception that members of the Armed Forces are meant to be competent, committed, trained and proficient warriors of character.
But if the military has changed so much or if it never was in the condition for people to have rightly perceived it, as stated above, in the first place, i.e. the key to success as a military leader is to be a politician rather than, being what exactly? There is only so much time, energy and talent to be expended on mastery of a craft. 10,000 focused hours of practice in fact is the generally accepted benchmark to master any one thing. So if the military leader’s efforts are focused on politics; who is leading the war? For your consideration I present another Google derived definition of what military leaders ought to be in my assessment. Not the secondary definition this time, but the primary: Warrior (especially in former times) a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. The bold was my emphasis on the sad idea that being a brave and experienced fighter harkens back to a long and forgotten past of warriorship, but otherwise that’s straight from the search results. Gen. Mattis, the current SECDEF, is referred to as the “warrior monk,” because he made the military his life, never marrying and having no children. But I do not believe anyone has ever referred to him as the “warrior politician.”
There are several devious problems at work here friends, but I’ll draw attention to just a few. Historically, states and nations keep militaries so that they stand ready to enact war on their behalf; offensively or defensively it’s about being able to fight and win. It’s not pretty and it has been described much more vividly by more eloquent individuals than myself: Sun Tzu, Bonaparte, but I particularly like to reference, Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, who stressed the “moral” and political aspects of war. “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.” Von Clausewitz wrote. I do not believe and I think history would agree, that Von Clausewitz was implying that the politicians were actually doing any of the fighting.
Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “War is young men dying and old men talking,” which is generally considered to be a variant of something the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, 5th century BCE, once said. Between the two of them I’m sure they saw more than any one ordinary person would choose to see of war. It might be paraphrased again as “Politicians start wars, and Warriors shed blood finishing them.”
But I digress, it is possible that I went to deep on a piece of advice from a person who themselves lacked the kind of depth worthy of such a degree of contemplation. However, we must consider that what I call the Middle Managers of today’s military: the Battalion/Brigade and Squadron/Wing commanders, who sit at the middle of the seesaw between small unit tactical action and the strategic guidance of Flag/General Officers, are a unique byproduct of the last decade and a half of the War on Terror.
I share this 2012 link to the Duffleblog.com Outrage: Army Announces Officer Promotions To Be Based On Merit, Performance, as the satirical counterpart to the fact that promotion rates to Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) for the Army were as high as 83% at that time. 83% percent of anything is by definition, not highly selective and not all those selected could have been the “best qualified.” Look at it from the inverse perspective, only 17% of Majors that year weren’t promoted to LTC. To put it another way, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, author of Lone Survivor and literally the Lone Survivor of his four man team from Operation Redwings in 2005, had better odds (25%) of becoming the Lone Survivor than an Army Major in 2012 had (17%) of not getting promoted to LTC.
I reference that because Marcus Luttrell, and the three SEALs that gave their lives on the ground: Michael P. Murphy, Matthew G. Axelson, Danny P. Dietz and the eight other SEALs and eight US Army Special Operations Aviation personnel who gave their lives in the air that day were Warriors, or as SEALs often refer to themselves as Sheepdogs standing against the wolves of the world. Point being they were members of the elite Warrior class whose numbers are very few, who train exceptionally hard and happen to be great Americans. Anytime you select 83% percent from the given mass of regular military officers, sadly not all amongst them could be “great Americans” and if “the LTC’s” advice holds true as a philosophy for her generation of officers, more are politicians than they are warriors. Even fewer are those who are impeachable in competence, character and commitment, while being skilled and charismatic leaders with sound temperament. Frankly, that is a tall order to ask for in any one person and is for that reason exceptionally rare, more than 17% rare, let alone 83%. Patton is by most accounts a legendary US Army leader, nonetheless few accounts speak well of his temperament.
So when the next conflict comes, or if the current conflict ever reaches an endgame with military leaders who aspire to be politicians rather than warriors; and I state that as fact because “the LTC” did not emphasize being both, neither in her words or actions. We have reached a point that the core leadership of the military lacks the emphasis on training and keeping the warrior skill and spirit; and/or since they are not trained warriors themselves, they lack the capacity to pass it on to the next generation of leaders.
I am not saying that many, if not most of our military leaders are good and decent people who chose to serve for the right reasons: duty, honor, country. However, the lax screening criteria of the intervening years has allowed far too many unfit and incapable people to advance. And now that we have passed the apex of the drawdown with the previous presidential administration and with the current administration, the military is “hiring again, with bonuses.” The Middle Managers are fat with “leaders” who if they had to do it again would not make the cut for promotion in the ranks of MAJ, LTC and for some full Colonel. We have now entrusted the enforcement of a “return to standards” to a group of leaders who themselves didn’t have to make the same cut and many of whom would not have.
If the media is ever again filled with news of regular military activities in a theater of war, and if whatever or whomever you pray to forbid, another PVT Jessica Lynch situation arises. Where a non-combat arms type/”low density” unit finds itself out maneuvered and overrun by the enemy due to a lack of training and proficiency in warrior tasks and drills. The Army’s Warrior Ethos was created in direct response to what happened in the aftermath of that and similar incidents of the Army straying from warrior proficiency. When that becomes the norm rather than the exception because military leaders are focused on PR, “the presentation” be it on PowerPoint or other medium, and not focused on training to fight so you can fight to win. That is how we lose this or the next war. It’s certainly how we lose the war for the hearts and minds of the American people.
“Especially in former times,” is that how the histories will reference the capacity to actually Soldier and fight, when they archive the US Military of the 21st century? “They were Warriors! In former times but now…eh, they’re politicians. Maybe they can talk the enemy to death…”