02 December 2010

Leadership Failures, Command Importance and Counseling. Seriously, all of that's in here.

Received this article a couple hours ago, written by the famous “PowerPoint Ranter” COL(R) Lawrence Sellin, from a buddy. Good article overall, however the first couple paragraphs of this article are spot on and warrant recitation.

“I think that there are serious problems with the culture of Army leadership: close-mindedness, careerism, an aversion to innovation or creativity born of the fallacy that everything can fit into a step-by-step procedure, and a task-oriented mindset that creates an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism...and not only those who can think, but those who possess the moral courage to stand up for the hard truths that their bosses are unwilling to accept. I think this is going to be especially important as we transition away from Iraq and Afghanistan and attempt to prepare for unknown future conflicts.


It has always seemed odd to me that the US military spends billions of dollars on service academies, war colleges, graduate programs and other forms of education in order to train people to think, but then places them inside a bureaucracy that prevents them from doing so.The step-by-step procedures and task orientation methods like the Military Decision Making Process can create a mindless group mentality that inhibits discussion and stifles innovation. Although intelligent people may be embedded within such a system, all can be dragged downstream by the same aimless bureaucratic current.”


What specifically struck me was the comment from the first paragraph, written by a Lieutenant, was the aversion to innovation and creativity. I don’t think a single person in the Army will tell you they haven’t seen this. It takes a good Commander to change this mindset and atmosphere; and one who cares about nothing more than winning each and every day while bringing his men home safe. *Eagle 6, if you’re reading this (which you better be; otherwise I think we’re down to only our mothers and significant others reading this blog), I really miss being in your unit. We didn’t always see eye to eye but at least you let mine, or Eagle 2, or Eagle 3A’s voices be heard and honestly assessed our opinions and recommendations. I wish I saw more of that these days. Innovation was a strong suit of the entire Battalion under your leadership.* This is unfortunately largely lacking and undoubtedly one reason we struggled in Iraq for so long and continue to struggle in Afghanistan today.

Enough about PowerPoint and COL Sellin’s distaste for it has already been written. Instead, I finally have a way to recommend a book I read last spring in Iraq titled, “A Question of Command”. If you haven’t read it, go
buy it now and put away the latest Harry Potter or Twilight book that you’re currently pouring your heart and soul into. Mark Moyar’s thesis is outstanding; it’s well written with good case studies and really should be somewhere on the CMH Recommended Reading List. If you haven’t already, read it now. Moyar provides excellent historical reference on the importance of leadership in a counterinsurgency. COL Sellin’s article accurately spells out what is lacking and what we’re actually dealing with for the most part. Before I go any further, I’m not saying it’s like this everywhere, just most places.
Now on to my somewhat connected but not really rant of the week.

At the Battalion and below level, an organization is really only as good as its Commander. You can have bad Majors; a bad staff, bad Company Commanders even, but what keeps it all together and moving forward is that dynamic Battalion Commander. You can have the best Companies and staff in the Army and it’s all for naught if your Battalion Commander is lacking. As young Lieutenants and surly (and frequently disgruntled) Captains we are constantly reminded of a leaders’ responsibility to counsel subordinates, Officer and Non Commissioned Officer alike. Counseling is a very important part of the military culture. If you think I’m wrong ask a Commander or First Sergeant the importance of counseling when it comes to chaptering a Soldier out of the Army. Paramount. After nearly five years on various Battalion staffs, I have become increasingly concerned with the lack of counseling of Junior Officers. I say this strictly to highlight that it’s not an isolated incident but is endemic across the Army. In this almost half decade of toiling (read: rotting) away on staff I have received one counseling that came in the form of an Officer Evaluation Report (OER) counseling from my senior rater for an annual OER. These are great when utilized along with the other theoretically mandatory counseling’s. At the bottom of the first page of an OER is Part IV, Block d: Officer Development (requiring a mandatory yes or no entry for CPTs, LTs, CW2s and WO1s. It asks a simple question, “Were developmental tasks recorded on DA Form 67-9-1a and quarterly follow-up counselings conducted?” Yes that misspelling is straight from the form. TFor those of you not in the Army a DA Form 67-9-1a is an OER Support Form where we essentially highlight all the things we were supposed to do, all the things we did throughout the rating period, what special skills we have that better the Army and what jobs we’d like to have in the future. But before you get to the “pat yourself on the back” portion of the OERSF, there’s Part III which is verification of face-to-face discussion, i.e. counseling sessions with your rater (boss). There are spaces for an initial counseling and three periodic (quarterly) follow-up counseling sessions. This, unfortunately, is largely a hand jam as counseling sessions are rarely conducted for Company Grade Officers. This constitutes an absolute failure by our leaders in developing the next generation of leaders and sets a dangerous precedent for the perpetuation of poor leadership, laziness, non-confrontation, whatever you want to call it. I call it an epic failure and I believe it’s one of the many reasons droves of young Officers eligible to REFRAD continue to submit their paperwork. Frustration can come quickly if you have no idea what’s expected of you in a new job, or you just have a scatter-brained boss whose priorities for you continue to morph and change on a daily basis. Developmental counseling’s lead to far less confusion and clearly delineate what is expected of that young Officer, Sergeant or Soldier. Besides that, it’s a disservice not only to the young Officer or Sergeant, but also to his subordinates and it could contribute to the stunting of his professional development. We’re all busy but it does not relieve us of our responsibilities as a leader or supervisor.

Long story short, if you haven’t read Moyar’s book, you need to. And for Christ’s sake, if you are behind in your counseling’s, get on it.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that you are indeed still being read. Anything coming up in the Emerging Threats series?

  2. Thanks Graham. Hopefully JD read your comment and gets reinvigorated because I too would like to read another post from him. Any recommendations for the series?

  3. The OER Support Form is one of the most important documents in a commander's toolbox and the most under-used. Sadly, it is almost always completed only at the time the OER is due.

    As Josh McLaughlin wrote, it is most effectively used as a performance plan written at the beginning of the rating period with periodic follow-ups.

    That requires continuous deep and serious thinking by the commander about the current state of the unit, what has worked in the past and what has not and what precisely is the commander's vision for the future presented in a clear and concise manner.

    Ideally, the commander, together with each of his or her direct reports, writes a forward-looking performance plan. This provides the commander initial feedback of potential flaws or obstacles in his or her vision in a confidential and cooperative atmosphere. In the same way, each of those direct reports can write a performance plan for their subordinates based on the similar theme of the commander's intent.

    Usually a commander does not have the ability or interest to conduct such an analysis and exercise, or perhaps both.

    Instead, more often than not, the commander will simply continue with what has been done in the past and adjust according to whatever are the current whims of higher echelons or moves the unit into a new direction that nobody understands, probably because he or she doesn't either.