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The training our military leaders need

Amy Fraher
Amy L. Fraher is a retired Navy Commander, Naval Aviator, former United Airlines pilot, and Director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College.

Leadership challenges facing today's military have changed significantly in recent decades. Women now make up a larger percentage of the armed forces than ever before, attend all of the service academies in growing numbers, work in nearly all fields and have proven their mettle in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, technical advancements have transformed the battlefield: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), sophisticated delivery systems, advanced weapons and real-time communication networks link teams around the world in combat. These developments -- both human and machine -- demand a different, more integrated type of leadership skill set than previous environments required.

Yet the recent firing of six Navy commanders since January, triple the usual monthly rate, prompts questions about whether and how leaders are being prepared to tackle these daunting challenges.

In particular, the investigation and subsequent reassignment of Captain Holly Graf, commander of the USS Cowpens, for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her 400-member crew has drawn an inordinate amount of attention. Perhaps more shocking than Captain Graf's dismissal was the years of abuse reportedly endured by thousands of sailors on several different ships under her influence. While some criticize Captain Graf directly, holding her individually responsible, others are critical of the Navy selection process that continued to place her in roles of increasing responsibility.

Although these failings trouble me as well, what I wonder more about is this: What leadership training, mentoring, coaching or supervision had been offered to Captain Graf along her career path? It appears that something was missing in her cultural sensitivity, self-control and ability to assess and adapt to the challenges of her environment.

There are recent indications that some areas of the US military are, of necessity, becoming aware of the increasing need for cultural sensitivity. For example in an excellent point paper entitled 'One Tribe at a Time', US Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant emphasized using small groups of specially trained soldiers with "cultural awareness," "street smarts" and intuitive decision-making skills to work directly with Afghanistan's centuries-old tribal systems may be the only way to win the war. And the USMC has just launched a new program deploying 'Female Engagement Teams' in Helmand Province to try to win support from rural Afghan women. Although these are significant improvements, leadership training remains under-conceptualized in many high-risk fields, including the military.

Like many high-risk professions, military training has tended to be based on a model that prioritizes technical skills while assuming commanders are either born with leadership skills or simply pick them up along the way. Yet, what these recent Navy firings make clear is that professionals working in today's complex high-risk operating environments need are not more technical skills, but rather more sophisticated social skills to build their leadership capacity, an area sometimes called emotional intelligence.

As a result, we need multifaceted, on-going leadership development programs that focus on enhancing peoples socio-technical capabilities to manage anxiety, tolerate uncertainty, communicate effectively, mentor and team-build, particularly with diverse groups in stressful environments. In the end, what the Navy's firing of six commanders demonstrates clearly is the need for a new vision of leadership that includes a continuous program of leadership development throughout an officer's career, supporting commanders in the way America expects commanders to support our troops.

READ ALSO: Bob Schoultz on Capt. Graf: "A failure of Navy leadership"

By Amy Fraher

 |  March 11, 2010; 11:19 AM ET |  Category:  Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Because the military kept promoting and supporting Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood Shooter) despite many years of poor performance ratings and subordinate complaints, all armed services (like the Navy with Holly Graf) are suddenly finding the liability of keeping deadwood on the payroll....just like any business.

Besides Holly Graf, five men have been fired so far this year, so you couldn't call it targeted at women in command.

The fact that the Navy tolerates poor leadership, amongst women or men, for too long indicates a political patronage system where junior leaders are protected from corrective action by more senior patrons. Surely this is not unique to the Navy.

In Graf's case, this would seem to indicate that rather than a correction of "politcal correctness," a return to more strict interpretation of existing codes. Most Navy firings this year fall into "personal issues" like DUI and innappropriate relationships (heterosexual variety.)

• Capt. John Titus Jr. was fired Jan. 8 as CO of the Naval Supply Corps School in Georgia. His removal followed a judge advocate general’s investigation; a spokesman declined to disclose the nature of the investigation.
• Capt. Holly Graf was fired Jan. 13 as CO of the Yokosuka, Japan-based cruiser Cowpens after an inspector general’s investigation found problems with her “temperament and demeanor,” a spokesman said.
• Capt. Glen Little was fired as CO of Naval Weapons Station Charleston, S.C., after he was arrested Jan. 26 on a charge of solicitation of prostitution.
• Cmdr. Scott Merritt was relieved as head of Naval Support Activity North Potomac on Feb. 12 following nonjudicial punishment. Sources told Navy Times the NJP involved fraternization with junior Navy personnel.
• Cmdr. Timothy Weber, the commanding officer of the Norfolk, Va.-based destroyer Truxtun, was relieved for having an inappropriate relationship with a female officer in his command, according to a Navy statement
Cmdr. William Reavey, Commanding Officicer at NAS Pensacola, for undisclosed personal reasons.

Posted by: veetpete | March 14, 2010 5:04 PM

Her sister, the admiral is Robin Graf, not Polly Graf. That is the truth.

Posted by: edbyronadams | March 12, 2010 7:29 PM

What really got Holly Graf in trouble was that she was a namephreaker who demanded that her photo ID should be three dimensional.

Couldn't stop myself.

Posted by: edbyronadams | March 12, 2010 6:12 PM

She was a crappy personnel manager and was continually promoted because she had family connections in high command in the Navy.
The same thing can happen in small to large business firms across the nation.
Posted by: edbyronadams

Good point Ed. My understanding is that promotions and ship commands are heavily influenced by "mentoring" - aka "meddling" - by senior officers. This results in too many officers reaching the career level of Commmander where their incompetence is impossible to hide and someone has to relieve them before they get sailors killed.

Posted by: ZZim | March 12, 2010 3:55 PM

why are top military commanders and leaders like Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson highly inclined to project mission failure in afghanistan?

why is Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson boldly inclined to identify bad afghan police, but unwilling to arrest the bad afghan police? how many excuses from Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson does it take for the people of afghanistan to lose faith and confidence in their government?

Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson's marines are hardly working at improving public trust because they are not taking out the bad police that the general is conspicuously aware of.

the lame arguement from a phony soldier will unhinge in a heartbeat like the mind of a lunatic.

Posted by: therapy | March 11, 2010 11:49 PM

Who recommended Capt. Graf and others for promotion, who recommended, and approved their assignments? Their superiors.

If someone like Capt. Graf gets a horrible reputation from more than one ship, it's clear that the leadership is simply not paying attention. Or, worse, does not care.

Thus, things have to get really bad before anyone does anything.

And so it goes . . .

Posted by: WashPostSucks | March 11, 2010 10:22 PM

She was a crappy personnel manager and was continually promoted because she had family connections in high command in the Navy.

The same thing can happen in small to large business firms across the nation.

Posted by: edbyronadams | March 11, 2010 9:57 PM

Road out a flat spin at "low, allitude"
scariest thing I ever did
I still remember,
Oh dear God , just get me back ,

Never was right after. Never could find anyone, to explain what happened.

Posted by: EarthCraft | March 11, 2010 9:39 PM

Agree 100% that the military is still stuck in an industrial-era mentality that focuses on teaching widget-handling skills, rather than dealing-with-people skills. There is occasional, pro-forma "leadership training", but it's largely a farce.

And with respect to having soldiers trained to effectively interact with local populations, the military is still deep in the Dark Ages. A deploying soldier will spend hundreds of hours learning rifle skills, but the sum total of his language and cultural training might consist of being handed a pamphlet, if that. We train soldiers how to kill the locals, but not how to talk to them. And we wonder why it all goes bad.

Posted by: 12008N1 | March 11, 2010 3:57 PM

"In the end, what the Navy's firing of six commanders demonstrates clearly is"

...that firing 6 commanders is more significant than firing 3, but less than firing 12 or even 9. Nothing more.

Posted by: dubya1938 | March 11, 2010 3:39 PM

" retired Navy Commander, Naval Aviator, former United Airlines pilot, and Director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College."

Um, look: there comes a point where you either have to go with the system or get out. Look at your own resume.

Is the system broken or not?

If it isn't, then why make radical changes?

If it is, then do you see changing the way that you interact with women in Afghanistan as the solution? Is the solution to systemic problems to be found in the management of small combat teams?

No, the very problem is in idolatry. You don't see people rising to the top of large organizations like the US Navy unless they reflect the values and standards of those in charge. And they don't get to be in charge if they have "bad" standards and values, almost by definition.

You want to see the system change but you are who you are and where you are today as a result of that system, and if anything that simply makes you an outsider who is ungrateful for what you have and where you've been. In their eyes, and in the eyes of their supporters. It's the same logic behind "support the troops, even if you don't support their war".

Posted by: dubya1938 | March 11, 2010 3:36 PM

It's weird to me that everyone's singling Graf out for her behavior--chewing people out publicly is terrible leadership, true. Compelling people to walk her dogs or play piano is abuse of power, true. I don't know about the cursing stuff, because I'm ex-Army and I'm used to the officers cursing almost as much as us enlisted folks, but I guess the Navy's officer corp culture is different.

However, none of this stuff is worse than the commanders who were knocked out for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a far greater abuse of power than making someone walk your dog. If I had to choose between an officer who cursed at me and made me walk their dog, and an officer who tried to grope me (and thanks to Eric Massa, we know that's an equal opportunity event in the Navy--look out, gentlemen), I'd grab a leash and a plastic bag without hesitation. I mean, I wouldn't want either, but that's what I would choose if I absolutely had to.

Back to the blog post itself: I'm not sure more diversity training is the answer. Better weeding-out process maybe. Graf's got a long family history in the Navy, including parents, at least one sibling who's an admiral, etc. Massa kept getting promoted despite subordinates and peers knowing that he was a total creeper. It's true that certain leadership techniques and tools need to be taught rather than picked up, but "don't grope people" and "don't make that dude walk your dogs" aren't among those techniques. The vast majority of military officers know these things. Taken together, all this makes me think that the real problem lies in the procedures for promotion and assignment, not necessarily in the leadership training environment.

Posted by: dkp01 | March 11, 2010 3:32 PM

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