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Ronald Heifetz

Ronald Heifetz

Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership, is the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and a Principal at Cambridge Leadership Associates.

Bright Shining Shinseki

General Eric Shinseki represented the model of military integrity in the winter and spring of 2003 when he cut against the grain of his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, to give his best judgment to Congress and the American people. He stated that the Iraqi war effort was more than a military procedure, that to secure the country after the "war" and create sufficient stability to enable peace would require two-to-three times as many troops as the administration wanted to accept. He was undercut and marginalized for speaking up, but the lesson was not lost on the American people.

General Shinseki was a special soldier, but he also was not unique. He represented a new relationship between the military and the American people in the post-Vietnam era, in which military commanders were far more wary of being misused in foreign policy efforts for which they were ill-suited or for which the American people had insufficient commitment. That carefulness in regard to military ventures and greater transparency with the American people, along with the resulting increase in success rate, are responsible, I think, for the increase in credibility of our military. The military still has a way to go in developing the leadership skill required to speak up without getting fired.

Deeply embedded in the ethos of American government and military command is civilian control, which far too often has generated a model of leadership overly reliant on "effective execution" -- orders come from above, and leadership is mostly about implementing those orders effectively, creatively, and with a minimum of cost in the lives of men and women. The upsides of this model are enormous in terms of efficiency in execution and absolute fidelity to civilian control. The downside is the binary nature of authority relationships in which subordinates often see only two options: deference or -- unthinkably -- exit, stalling, or the risk of insubordination. A third set of options -- the many ways subordinates have at their disposal to question authority, even while respecting the ultimate prerogative of seniors to decide -- is by and large left unanalyzed and unaddressed in military leadership training.

Those inclined to seek this third set of options are too often culled out by the culture. In complex changing environments, people closer to the action need to engage in direction-setting because they have information relevant upstream. This information flow requires the education of military commanders in analyzing problem-definitions and strategies of action developed prior to the moment of decision.

Developing a model of military leadership that includes an ethos of responsibility for direction-setting in four directions (up, left, right, and down), rather than one direction (down), may strike some as placing civilian control in jeopardy. Many within the military would argue, however, that it only safeguards the quality of civilian decision-making. To others it may seem generate inefficiency, as if I am suggesting that in the midst of battle, one should call a meeting.

In fact, most military decisions are not made under sharp time pressure or on the battlefield. There is often time to raise important questions and to raise them with situational awareness and skill. The army is already moving in this direction in its newly emerging leadership doctrine, and I expect that its implementation will only add to the military's well-earned trustworthiness.

By Ronald Heifetz

 |  November 2, 2009; 2:43 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Yes, I can't wait until America's Generals start contradicting Obama.

Posted by: pgr88 | November 2, 2009 8:14 PM
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