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Gen. Monty Meigs (Ret.)
Military leader

Gen. Monty Meigs (Ret.)

A retired U.S. Army General, Montgomery Meigs has commanded U.S. and NATO forces overseas and is now President and CEO of Business Executives for National Security.

Guidance for Junior Officers

It's not clear that the dilemmas junior military officers encounter on mission are similar to those faced by a national figure like Tzipi Livni who is deciding whether to join a grand coalition led by a candidate she bested.

Most of the time, issues of policy and execution cause the most frustration for junior officers, especially when they perceive micro-management preventing what looks like a common sense solution. Over the years I tried to develop and pass on a set of tests to help officers deal with these situations.

First, what does the policy, guidance or order really say? Demand to see the text; study it. For an oral order, ask for clarification. Often the organization's oral history misrepresents what the boss said or what the regulation requires.

Second, if the policy or order is absurdly limiting or creates a contradiction that can lead to failure or illegal action, seek an alternative route. Can the objective be reached by executing in a way that avoids the limiting conditions? Often with a creative approach, the best way around an operationally foolish order or an absurd policy, becomes obvious.

Third, if the dilemma remains, ask the boss or someone very close to him, whether he meant the guidance as stated. In the case of a regulation, ask legal counsel or an expert, whether it be interpreted in another way. If not then one must raise the ante, but it pays to be humble at this point.

Last, present to the boss in a factual way the operational, legal or ethical dilemma. Commanders do not want their orders and policies to create ethical or operational absurdities or illegal acts. However, we do know that stress, uncertainty, anger, incompetence or fear of failure can lead to guidance that can lead to folly. Even the best err. Lee at Gettysburg and Grant at Cold Harbor both miscalculated and ground up regiments in futile frontal attacks.

If these four steps did not lead to a way around the problem, seek the counsel of a mentor about the two choices that remain. Comply and risk supporting improper action with the unfortunate consequences that often result. Or, refuse to comply and depart with untroubled conscience.

Junior officers face a higher standard than does Tzipi Livni. She answers to the court of Israeli public opinion. Junior officers may answer to a court martial in which the defense team of the officer charged with disobeying an order or regulation must overcome the legal presumption of its lawfulness. Fortunately in units led well, by step four above, these issues are resolved. However when they are not, the dilemmas posed for officers are the most difficult they face professionally, for often lives are at stake.

By Gen. Monty Meigs (Ret.)

 |  February 23, 2009; 10:17 AM ET
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