05 April 2012

Disruptive Thinking in the Military

Small Wars Journal has an excellent article today claiming that the military needs more disruptive thinkers.

Part of this stems from an antiquated, 1950s career model. A large bureaucracy thrives best when it can promote the average individual in a one-size fits all ascension program. This, however, necessitates sloughing off the highly talented instead of promoting them in accordance with their ability. For example, a younger, Marine reservist friend of mine can be a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, overseeing their Hong Kong branch by the age of 31, but would barely be commanding a Marine rifle company at the same point.

and why is this a problem?

A great part of this lies in how we educate our military members. We educate them in the art of war, but do so with a focus on mere tactics. We educate them when they are well past the age of agile and innovative thought. We preach adaptability, flexibility and maneuver warfare, but only do so in relation to the movement of military kit.

The average age of someone attending Harvard Business School is 27 years old. Most war colleges require at least a rank of O-4, and in some cases, O-5. By this point, most students are in their mid-30s. Creative impulses are largely repressed, and most go to get their check-in-the-block degree with no real intellectual rigor. It’s considered a leisurely billet with plenty of time off where little studying need be done.

Harvard Business School compiles the best society has to offer – from politics, to non-profits, to military, to tech, to entertainment and athletics. They get a myriad of viewpoints, classmates who have traveled the world in entirely different capacities, and the synergistic effect of diverse intellects. They push them hard, keep them busy, and encourage them to change the world.

The Naval War College has no civilians enrolled. Their diversity comes from other services, whose only difference in viewpoint comes from navigating a slightly different bureaucracy. Far from sending students there in their mid-20s who have just returned from the dynamic task of rebuilding a wartorn Afghan village, we wait until they’ve proven their mettle in the bureaucratic morass of a staff job.

There is a reason the likes of HBS and Stanford produce people who create multi-billion dollar, world changing organizations and our War Colleges don’t. You can’t innovate and have a long term impact if you are only surrounded by like-minded people. You must challenge closely held assumptions daily if you want to have an impact. This, again, is anathema to a career military person.

Furthermore, our war colleges teach doctrinaire procedures, not critical, creative thinking. They focus primarily on the tactical employment of forces rather than the strategic context those tactics play out in. Where are the courses on trends in physics like chaos theory? Behavioral economics and psychology? Investment strategy? Creating and adapting a dynamic balance sheet? True strategic leaders are generalists who can pull from a variety of interests, not hedgehogs who can only do one thing well.

The comments and discussions are also fascinating. Go read them.

By: Brant

1 comment:

S O said...

Some historical 'disruptive' thinkers rose in the ranks thanks to a protégé who supported them (see de Gaulle) and at times took them with himself as he rose.

The U.S. military has bureaucratised its promotion system and made it most anonymous. As a side effect it got rid not only of the disadvantages of patronage, but also of its advantages.