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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

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Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

I have to wonder what we are thinking with expressions such as "too big to manage" or "too big to lead." Frankly, it scares me. I have been associated with the uniformed side of the Department of Defense for the past four decades. While DOD is smaller in sheer numbers than when I entered an Army ROTC program in 1973, it is still massive by any measure.

Today, the DOD is about 3 million strong when you count its civilian workforce. The 2010 Fiscal Year Defense Budget was $531 billion with an additional $130 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. This month DOD may receive a supplement of $37 billion for contemporary military operations.

The DOD funding comprises over 50 percent of the discretionary budget of the United States Government. It is global with military operations in at least 80 countries worldwide. With its military departments and services, it is a formidable organization in its size and complexity.

As one can imagine it is a powerful institution and bureaucracy within the executive branch of our government. Renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington made this point in two seminal works, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations and "Interservice Competition and the Political Roles of the Armed Services." It is precisely because of the breadth and potential impact of this largest entity within the executive branch that its effective leadership and management are important.

Within DOD, we expect its military leaders to have the technical competence to develop strategy and plans to execute national will, but also to train, organize, and equip forces to fight and win our nation's wars. We expect military leaders to be engaged in dialogue and provide their best professional advice to their civilian leaders. It is their professional obligation to be good stewards of the resources, people, facilities, equipment, organizations, and funds that are entrusted to them. Above all, we expect them to be subordinate and accountable to civilian leadership as outlined in our U.S. Constitution.

These expectations are inherent functions of all senior leaders: to establish the sense of purpose and identity, to outline the vision for today and tomorrow, and to guide the institution through the day-to-day routines and crises. As is often quoted, leaders determine "the right things to do" and the managers "do things right", and both are necessary. We can see that this is especially important with an activity that is so vested in national defense. Hence, the greater the size and complexity of an organization, the more critical it is to provide effective leadership and management.

Organizations that may be considered "too big to lead" require leaders who are big enough to lead with others. Such organizations need leaders who are temperamentally suited to handle complexity and, more importantly, who can develop teams of capable individuals to pull and push constituents towards their vision.

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  July 20, 2010; 11:31 AM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Where big doesn't have to mean bad | Next: No such thing as 'too big to manage'


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With all respect, the army analogy is imperfect and possibly misleading.

Compared to the intelligence and secret security sector, it is relatively uniform, unified, and open.

Uniform: There's a certain commonality of structure, management, and doctorine among the army's operational units. Officers have relatively similar backgrounds and can transfer with ease. There are many venues for conversation among the units and functional divisions.

Unified: There's a chain of command, a hierarchy, a home office, regional offices. The intel sector answers to dozens of agencies which only approximate talking to each other or coordinating efforts. Military contractors have relatively well-defined roles providing goods and services; intelligence contractors are more often pushing the envelope on methods and practices.

Open. We have a rough idea how many bases and personnel there are and what they are doing in the Army, and that information is accessible to interested members of the public. Can anyone in this country claim to have an overview of the intelligence sector?

No, managing this hidden world is beyond current practice and art. It's a bit like a centipede with no coordination between the legs

Posted by: j3hess | July 24, 2010 6:10 PM
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Leadership my rear end. DOD, almost universally, is nearty 100% inbred. It is full to the brim with groupthink and mediocrity.

If and when you apply for any recruitments in the mid and upper grades that are posted by almost any DOD org, do so knowing this: DOD has been using and abusing fed hiring and external to DOD applicants for years and years.

DOD's hiring outcomes (and hiring outcomes are the only thing that matters) and from surmised external to DOD recruitments in the 0300 and 0500 series from GS 12-15 (or equiv) result nearly EVERY SINGLE PATHETIC TIME in the hiring of only and merely either a current or a prior DOD staffer, including DOD GS staff, or a recently retired or discharged DOD active duty person who is typically from the very same DOD office that recruited the position, or a DOD contract-based staff.

And how do DOD hiring 'managers' do this? It's easy. Even though they may solicit persons from other federal agencies and/or from outside of the federal workforce to apply, they simultaneously use (and abuse) agency or even sometimes facility-level application screening and hiring criteria.

By using this shallow and limiting screening criteria against the application pool, it 'accomplishes' four things. First, it discounts and invalidates the highly portable and translatable skills sets that persons like you developed and demonstrated in organizations outside of DOD and/or the federal workforce. Second, it by very definition inflates the skill sets and experience of those applicants who were either previously or currently employed by DOD prior to application submission. And third, by abusing such limiting criteria, the only persons ever hired are ALMOST ALWAYS only and merely current or prior DOD staffers of some sort - to include DOD civilians, or recently retired DOD active duty members who desire so-called 'conversions' to DOD GS positions post retirement that are oftentimes into the literal very same desks and chairs that they occupied while on active duty, or DOD contract staff.

This process, given its indefensible rate of near 100% levels of inbreeding, is not only thoroughly and absolutely corrupt; it reeks of abuse and self-interest. Near 100% levels of inbreeding by very definition leads to mediocrity, groupthink, and an organizational culture that is steeped in an entitlement mentality. And worst of all it DOES NOT result in hiring the truly best and the brightest from the applicant pool.

Posted by: michaelsmith21 | July 22, 2010 2:52 PM
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How can it be managed if everything is highly classified with pretty much NO oversight? Each of the many agencies have their own secrets that they keep to themselves. There's no way it can be managed without some sort of transparency and that's never going to happen because it's......well.....it's classified.

Posted by: kevkno | July 22, 2010 2:36 PM
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If this passes for comment, we are doomed. Perhaps, we are going to have to break the military, de-fund the military. Either that, or they are going to take control of the US.

Posted by: rusty3 | July 22, 2010 1:37 PM
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I am astounded at the fact that there is no mention of the contractor workforce in this column. "3 Million strong" does not account for large networks of contractor support for both civilian and military operations. The question of "too big to manage" must be answered by addressing this fundamental question. How will DoD manage a rapidly-increasing workforce that is not within the organization itself?

Posted by: revans9678 | July 22, 2010 11:55 AM
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For starters, they need understand where the 'real' Management Focal Point resides.
Just void the ODNI and 'think' Intelligence!!
But, I wouldn't bet on 'reason' prevailing!

Posted by: realtimer | July 22, 2010 11:04 AM
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If the military can do it? Since when did the military do anything efficiently. This is like a bankrupt person lecturing another bankrupt person on fiscal responsibility.

There is no greater waste and corruption in government than in DOD.

Posted by: KCV257 | July 22, 2010 10:50 AM
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During the Civil War, Lincoln's head of the army, General Burnside, was presented with the opportunity to arm the Union troops with lever action repeating rifles. He rejected the use of lever action rifles with the comment that the muzzle loading rifle "is, has been, and always will be the United States army's primary fighting weapon." His supposed rationale was that the repeating rifle would allow the trooops to fire too fast and waste ammunitiion.

Unfortunately, my view of our military leadership is, has been, and probably always will be far more General Burnside than Colonel Allen. I would suggest that Col. Allen is living in a fantasy world and would site the devastating cost to our troops in the well documented delay in providing improved body armory and vehicles in Iraq as a more typical example of our military leadership.

Does anyone else ever wonder what those five or six majors, colonels, and generals who invariably sit behind a leading general testifying before a congressional commmittee, could accomplish in that time if they had something productive to do; and what is the cost to the taxpayer for having those five or six ranks sitting there and doing nothing. Military leadership has to be something more than building your personal fiefdom and then lording if over others - doesn't it?

Posted by: jdcolv | July 22, 2010 8:06 AM
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