Whence Petraeus?

Posted: September 28, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Former Marine Renny McPherson writing at the Boston Globe asks ‘What makes a visionary commander?’ and “Why the military isn’t producing more of them?’

McPherson and some colleagues attempted to understand the “where’s the next group of Petraeus-like officers?” issue through a series of interviews to 37 “top military leaders.”

Both the ‘What makes a visionary commander?’ and ‘Why the military isn’t producing more of them?’  questions are quite ponderable.  Vision, of course, is essential in a visionary commander.  Ah, but what accounts for the vision?  In short, the combination of nature and nurture; of ability and desire, and of opportunity and experiences.  The top military leaders McDonald referenced offered that visionary leaders are required to

…communicate more dexterously up, down, and across; they also must be adept at dealing with nonmilitary institutions and quick to learn foreign cultures…who can process the ever-larger amounts of information

How about the experiences part?  The top leaders offered visionary leaders need to

…(have) experiences that had helped them become better strategic thinkers…(including) sustained international experience, civilian graduate education, and taking on special opportunities out of the military mainstream

…(such as) serving as an aide or staffer to a senior military official, interacting with civilian parts of the US government, and making the most of serving abroad…(and including) joint military schools…as well as civilian graduate school

… (and having) repeated, regular contact with an array of leaders and everyday citizens from different cultures

… (which might be found) in foreign education, in positions with NATO partners, and in special assignments such as serving as a UN observer

Except for serving as an aide to a senior leader, such experiences are generally poorly received by the military system and will be unpacked in short order.

The second McPherson question–the ‘Why isn’t the military producing more visionary leaders?’ is perhaps more easily understood, if not more easily addressed.  Generally, the military system does not well support career paths that are inclined towards creating ‘visionary commanders.’

Why, you ask?  Because the military seldom provides career rewards for ‘non-traditional’ career path choices.

…a large contributor to this failure is the military’s inflexible system of promotion, which can actively discourage young officers from getting the mind-expanding, challenging experiences that could turn them into potent generals

While the CIA might have a few ideas of their own on “mind-expanding,” the top military leaders who were interviewed thought of their own career success as the exception that proved the rule.  And just what is the rule?  Without trying to be glib or dismissive, that one must first understand the career ‘game.’  This includes the topics of career progression, sponsorship, professional military education, command, and more.  Traditional career path success almost always includes profound proficiencies in the technologies, methods, and processes of modern warfare, and in staffing.

Since every critique should offer a solution, McDonald offers this as a start to try to create more Petraeus-like capability:

…the American military require leaders who have a broad worldview and are humble enough to know that seeking diverse experiences will make them better officers. It is time for the military establishment to adopt a system that does not penalize them for building such experiences along the way.

There’s the rub.  How exactly will the military establishment adopt such a system?

Experience shows that the military adaptation of such a system is unlikely to happen unless it’s top down–think legislatively mandated–directed and even that provides little guarantee of enduring success, which would require a multi-generational effort.

A first-order question is does the nation need more Petraeus-like leaders?  How do we make such determinations, using what sort of analysis, and who decides?  Finally, if we do, what will the military do to create more Petraeus-like capability?

At a cursory level, longer careers will be needed, greater educational and experiential investments will be required, and heretofore unfathomable ideas like mid-career sabbaticals may need to be introduced.  Similarly, how about the World War II-like practice of bringing a limited number of officers with the right experiences and aptitudes in at higher (colonel and above) grades?  As it is, it seems the General has become a high demand/low density resource.

If you believe the people will perish without a vision, institutionalizing methods of developing visionary leaders like Petraeus can’t start soon enough.

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