The training our military leaders need
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"
March 11, 2010; 11:19 AM ET |
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