Lessons in agency transformation from the battlefield
The military’s rich history holds countless lessons. But which of them could help other agencies transform from sometimes troubled organizations into ones edging closer to excellence?
In his new book, “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today,” Thomas Ricks scrutinizes the history of the Army to determine how the world’s greatest military descended into mediocrity. In an exhaustive and at times scathing analysis of the deterioration of leadership after World War II, Ricks concludes that there has been a pervasive decline of accountability.
The repercussions from that decline would sound familiar to any number of agency leaders, military and civilian alike. In an era in which punishment often is reserved for the most egregious mistakes — or the ones that garner the most media attention — it could be argued that there has been a governmentwide abdication of responsibility and leadership.
“What we have these days…is a situation in which success is not rewarded, failure is not punished and everybody is kind of treated as interchangeable,” Ricks said in a recent interview. “The lesson is ‘don’t stand out, don’t be exceptional, be an organization man,’ and the result is a military in which generalship doesn’t look like guiding as a profession, it looks like union members taking care of each other.”
How did the military decline from a time when tactical daring and forward thinking were rewarded with success to a time when innovation is frowned upon and failures largely go unpunished? More importantly, in an era that demands innovation at all levels of government, how can that complacency be reversed? There are many sides to the problem but not as many solutions.
In World War II, “people were encouraged to learn to think critically because if you didn’t adapt and succeed, you got fired,” Ricks said. “When there are no consequences for failure, when all you need to do is serve out your year and move on, why go to the trouble of trying to operate differently and maybe getting in trouble?”
He said that culture has been especially present in the yearly rotation of commanders in Afghanistan. It’s also true in the federal government, he said, where leaders can frequently move between jobs.
“The civil service mentality — ‘I’m going to get paid whether I do my job or not’ — is worrisome,” Ricks said. “When you don’t remove failures, you wind up stymying talent below who see incompetence tolerated, and so younger talent leaves. When you don’t remove these failures, you basically wind up with an organization that bends toward failure.”
You’re fired — and it’s not the end of the world
In World War II, being relieved of command was rather common. It was not an automatic career-killer nor was it seen as a comment on the person’s character. Often, those who were fired were given second chances down the line.
As Ricks said, “155 generals commanded divisions in the Army in combat in WWII. Of those, 16 were fired, but of the 16 who were fired, five were given the chance to command another division as a combat leader in the war.”
“It’s evident these days that people don’t get fired,” he continued. “We won WWII. In our recent wars, we’ve had a lot of stalemates and near-defeats. I think there’s a direct connection there. These days, mediocrity is tolerated. Risk-taking is to be avoided.”
We need much more stringent oversight, informed expert oversight and a little tough love.
Yet even after 10 years and two messy and difficult wars, Ricks sees a continued inability to take a critical look at the tough lessons the United States should have been learning.
“There seems no inclination in the military establishment to sit down and look at the serious lessons. Rather it’s sort of, ‘We in the military did everything right, it’s the civilians who screwed this up.’ The Bush administration in particular did screw things up, but there were a lot of errors committed in the military,” Ricks said. “They were very slow to adapt in Iraq and Afghanistan, to recognize the nature of the war and make the necessary changes. And that’s the prime job of a general. By the time the Army began adjusting in Iraq, it was about four and a half years into the war, which means we fought in Iraq incompetently longer than we fought entirely in WWII.”
It is difficult to say that the war in Iraq would have gone better if more people were relieved of command, but according to Ricks, such removals are crucial to putting the hard lessons to use and avoiding the same mistakes in the future. And it is a concept that is applicable to more than just the military.
“The big key is to reward success and punish failure. But don’t make [punishment] so devastating that it becomes the equivalent of nuclear warfare on personnel management,” he said. “You make relief more common [and] less devastating, and you do it earlier. When you leave a failure in position, his subordinates know it and he knows it. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to leave someone in a position like that.”
Still, Ricks acknowledged that it is easier said than done and noted the difficulties in relieving government personnel due to civil service protections and an environment in which the threat of a lawsuit dissuades managers from taking action.
How to improve training, education and oversight
In the modern military, Ricks said, it often is not the individual general who is the problem but rather outdated training and education that is not relevant to today’s strategic requirements.
“The problem with that is you train for the known, you educate for the unknown,” Ricks said. “There was a lot known during the Cold War. We knew who the enemy was; it was the Soviet Union, and it was big, slow and kind of like a dumb dinosaur. We didn’t really need to think about strategy. We knew what the strategic problem was and what the answers were.”
“But the Cold War ends and suddenly we needed a different type of general,” he continued. “An adaptive general who could look at a new kind of war, understand it, think about it critically. But we have generals who have never been trained and educated and brought up to do that.”
The challenge, of course, is finding a way to make these lessons take root in the military and in the larger federal workforce.
“You need congressional attention,” Ricks said, “[and] I’m not sure if you’re ever going to get it. But if Congress pays attention, people in the government start hopping. We need much more stringent oversight, informed expert oversight and a little tough love.”
But are oversight and tough love enough to overcome what seems to have become a generational malaise regarding accountability and leadership? Perhaps not, Ricks admitted, but it would go a long way.
Accountability is actually fairly easy to establish, he said. “Reward success and punish failure. If you do that, people want to be successful and will figure out how.”