Posts Tagged ‘promotion’

General McChrystal’s new rules for Afghanistan

General Stanley McChrystal was the main liar in the Pat Tillman cover-up. General William Wallace headed one of the five official inquiries into the death and subsequent cover-up. Wallace recommended that McChrystal be disciplined for for misleading and impeding investigators. McChrystal should also have been disciplined—more commonly called court martialed—for his authorship of the Tillman Silver Star citation and the cable to CentCom General Abizaid about the Tillman death and what the president might say about it.

Instead of being disciplined, McChrystal was promoted—twice—from two stars to three then four. And he was given the most sought-after job in the Army: Commander in Afghanistan. I wrote an article titled “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” and said the answer was yes. The contrast between what the Army should have done to McChrystal an what they did do proves my point more eloquently than anything else I could have put in that article.

Having reminded everyone of McChrystal’s lack of integrity and the lack of integrity of those who promoted him—Petraeus and Gates—I now move on to discuss two McChrystal policies.

Avoiding hurting civilians top priority

McChrystal has issued a policy that “orders U.S. and NATO forces [henceforth] to break away from fights with militants hiding in Afghan houses so the battles do not kill civilians.”

This just in: Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have just ordered their fighters to only fight Americans from houses with civilians in them. Henceforth, all Taliban and al Qaeda IED and small arms squads will include two civilians who will carry, and erect where needed, a portable house.

Civilian death history

You need a little history of civilian casualties in war to understand where we now are and how we got here. Prior to World War II, civilian casualties were avoided by the civilians getting out of the way. Civilians doing that were called refugees.

As militaries became more efficient at killing and wounding people, nations became more concerned about the deaths of civilians during wars. For example, 45 million Allied civilians and 4 million Axis civilians died during World War II (compared to 16 million Allied civilian personnel and 8 million Axis military personnel).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the world was horrified an the civilian deaths and some rules were adopted to prevent a recurrence of unnecessary civilian war deaths.

The Nuremburg Charter defined war crimes as follows:

War crimes: violations of the laws and customs of war. A list follows with, inter alia, murder, ill-treatment or deportation into slave labour or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, the killing of hostages, the plunder of public or private property, the wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity. [Emphasis added]

The Fourth Geneva Convention says,

Article 3 states that even where there is not a conflict of international character the parties must as a minimum adhere to minimal protections described as: noncombatants, members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions:

(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation
, cruel treatment and torture;
[Emphasis added] (Note: the Geneva Convention only applies when both the occupying military force and the occupied country are signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention)

International law and the laws of war are murky and not generally agreed upon by all nations. But the general tone is thou shallt not hurt civilians unnecessarily.

Military forces have generally also obeyed another rule: thou shallt return fire when fired upon. American military have usually tried to avoid civilians dying in resulting crossfires. In some cases, U.S. personnel have risked or lost their lives trying to save civilians. I read of one incident, apparently one of many similar incidents, where an Iraqi child, presumably 9 or 10 years old, deliberately walked into the American position during a firefight and began hand-signaling to the Iraqi fighters the number and locations of the American soldiers. The Americans took no action because of his age. I would have shot him dead, or at least I would hope I would have done that.

I think there needs to be a third rule: civilians will do everything in their power to flee the area of a firefight.

Military priorities

The U.S. military has long has these two priorities:

1. Accomplishment of the mission

2. welfare of the men

In that order.

The rule about avoiding civilian casualties would be third. McChrystal’s new rule seems to make avoiding civilian casualties the first priority.

I am well aware of the current prevailing wisdom that protecting the civilian populace is paramount in counterinsurgency. But I think that still comes third after accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the American troops.

Not a military mission

If McChrystal’s policy is the right one, then we need to remove almost all U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan. If making protection of the civilian population is paramount, it is a role for local police, not U.S. military. Local police are the ones who back off in hostage situations.

The U.S. military has been used as an all-purpose workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan engaging in nation building, diplomacy, construction, propaganda, local police work, and occasionally, true military actions.

Many have noted recently that the number of bandsmen (guys who play musical instruments) in the U.S. military exceeds the total worldwide staff of the U.S. State Department. I have two reactions to that: get rid of the bandsmen except for the two ceremonial units at West Point and the Old Guard and hire more State Department people. Put them in Iraq. Let them withdraw from areas where they get shot at by Afghan civilians in houses.

Ordering U.S. military to withdraw whenever the enemy manages to pick firing position in a house is absurd. It guarantees increased U.S. dead and wounded and makes it impossible to win the war.

Taliban who escaped dressed as women

After McChrystal announced his new policy, a group of Taliban were cornered in a house that also had civilians. The Marines let the women leave then went in to get the Taliban. There was no one there. They had departed earlier dressed as women.

Is this McChrystal’s fault? I suspect it might not have happened before his new policy. He said to be biased against civilian casualties. The enemy took advantage of that precisely as I predicted.

But the main issue is the Marine officer in command of the operation on the scene. He’s a @#$%^&* idiot. I predict his name will never be released and although he may lose his job for a while, if he manages to avoid another episode of public stupidity, he will have a long career in the Marines.

During the Korean War, a bunch of Americans were captured by the North Koreans. Two saw an opportunity to escape. They turned off the trail the other POWs were on but continued to walk at the same pace because they were visible in sparsely vegetated terrain and did not want to attract attention. They were about to reach a spot where they could hide on the other side of a hill when another American officer spoted them and yelled, “Hey guys! We’re going this way!” The North Koreans then spotted the would-be escapees and beat the crap out of them. After the war, one of the Americans who got beaten was reunited with the dumbest captain in earth. After being released at the end of the Korean War, he had stayed in the Army for a career and was then a colonel.

It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure—and made more so by the profound stupidity of many U.S. military officers.

Officers who specialize in Afghanistan

I have also seen a media report that McChrystal wants to have many, many officers specialize in Afghanistan so they will be more effective there. They would even be working on Afghanistan when they were in the U.S.

Well, duh. That’s only about a century overdue.

At many of my Web articles about the military, I have criticized the military’s practice of reassigning officers to a new location and job every one to three years. I said it belies their claim to be “professionals” by making them nomadic, intercontinental temps who are jacks of various bureaucratic chores but masters of none. It is also a horrific thing to do to the families of the military personnel in question. Here is a list of those articles

Selfless warriors

Is there any such thing as military expertise?

John T. Reed’s review of I love a Man in Uniform

John T. Reed’s review of Question Of Loyalty by Douglas Waller

Should you go to, or stay at, West Point by John T. Reed

The military has been so in love with this nonsense for so long that they have regarded it as more important than winning wars since the Korean War. The prior approach during war time was that military personnel go “over there” and the “don’t come back until it’s over over there.” When we did that, we won all our wars. Since we started trying to rotate during wars as we did in peacetime, we have lost all our wars. Duh!

I wonder, though, if McChrystal is not exceeding his authority. What he proposes would radically change the way the Army operates.

The Afghan officers would be hitching their career wagon to McChrystal’s star. I can see where that would help McChrystal, but it would be a big gamble for all concerned. And what do the non-Afghanistan officers do? Become Iraq specialists? OK. But don’t we need some expertise in Bosnia, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, too? And what happens to those guys careerwise? Who gets picked for chief of staff and other top Pentagon positions in the future? Does a guy who devoted his career to Afghanistan get to be NATO commander? Would promising guys who got assigned to the Afghan beat leave the Army when we withdraw from Afghanistan?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good idea. It might also include moving families to a safe place near Afghanistan so they could visit more often.

What I am skeptical of is the vast Army bureaucracy becoming less process oriented and more results oriented. Career Army personnel, for all their talk about being “warrior”s and war planning, actually want the sinecure of the peacetime Army. At my article about whether one should go to West Point, I tell about the use of the phrase “the real Army,” as in when someone complains about their current military assignment in the Army, some career guy in the conversation always protests, “But this isn’t the real Army. This is the airborne, or Panama, or whatever. Once, I heard a lifer say, “But this isn’t the real army. This is war time.”


Also, when I analyzed West Point graduates getting out of the Army within five to ten years rather than staying for a 20 or more year career, I saw that the pattern was that West Pointers got out more in war time than in peace time.

Huh!? again.

What the Army needs to some real warriors who join during war time then get the hell out during peace time, like, uh, World War II, which we won in less than four years.

If you’re wondering how the Army could be “professional” doing that, I conclude you must not have read the above article. How’s about we lose words like “professional” and “warrior” and start using words like “results” and “victory?”

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

Leadership lessons for the military from ‘Deadliest Catch’ reality series

Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch TV series

Deadliest Catch, not to be confused with Ocean’s Deadliest, the series that was filming when Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray, is a weekly TV reality series about Alaskan opilio crab fishermen now in its third season.

It began as a single documentary about what they described as the most dangerous job in America. It is about eight crabbing boats and their crews fishing for opilio crab in the freezing waters and harsh weather north of the Aleutian Islands near the Bering Strait.

What the military claims to be

The Deadliest Catch crews are what the U.S. military claims to be, but generally is not. They are competent men, plus some rookies whose competence is yet to be learned and demonstrated. They face extreme danger for weeks at a time. Men die and get what the military calls “wounded” and disabled. They work extremely hard and are bone weary from doing so. It is mostly physical work. They must work as a team. They have a couple of leaders: the boat captain and the guy in charge of the deck operations.

See my other articles on:

whether there is any such thing as military expertise

• so-called ‘elite’ military units like the rangers or airborne

military medals

process- versus results oriented managers

famed on-time, under-budget contractor C.C.Myers

our recent wars should be run by lieutenants and captains

is military integrity a contradiction in terms?

the U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament OR How America selects its generals

is the U.S. military as good at producing leaders as it claims?

Results-oriented entrepreneurs

The crab fishermen are also what I hold up as the iconic, best examples of competent men:

• entrepreneurs, not government bureaucrats

• results oriented—they get paid by the crab, not for punching a clock or looking the part or talking a good game

• well led by men who all have different personalities and leadership styles

• brave, but not awarding or wearing any medals

• judged entirely by their performance, not but their degrees, appearance, or what tickets they’ve gotten punched

Not winning recent wars

It is the military’s job to win our wars. They have not won one since 1945 other than Desert Storm where the enemy behaved in a way that our enemies have not behaved since Korea—sat in easily visible trenches out in the open wearing uniforms—and are not likely to do again. Our military has not figured out how to win wars where the bad guys rely on hit-and-run type operations and either pretend to be innocent civilians or hide in the jungle. Consequently, that’s about the only kind of war we will have to fight in the foreseeable future.

It is the crab fishermen’s job to catch crabs. They get the job done. They have to. They only get paid if they do. They only keep their jobs if they perform well enough for the team to succeed. The boat owners only keep their boats and businesses if they choose and lead their teams and operate their equipment effectively.

Look at what they do NOT do

You learn the leadership lessons from Deadliest Catch best if you focus on the things that the military does that the Alaskan crab fishermen do not. They crab guys do not:

• wear uniforms

• salute the captain or deck boss

• call the captain or deck boss “sir”

• award or wear medals

• march in parades

• get trained in special schools

• look the part other than by coincidence

• use leaders or men assigned to them by some bureaucrat thousands of miles away from the crab fishing areas

• get paid by the hour

• keep their opinions that are contrary to the captains’s secret from him

• kiss ass

• get free medical care for life

• get a pension

• fill out forms in quintuplicate

• say “it’s not my job” when something needs to be done and is not happening

• wear badges or any other indicators of rank

• get paid and retained for decades in spite of doing a lousy job

• get paid and allowed to keep their boat and business if they don’t catch crabs

• allow their equipment to deteriorate to “deadlined” condition

• get promoted on the basis of efficiency reports or the current theories of far-away promotion board members

• have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to endlessly spend in spite of not catching many crabs year after year

• routinely sign false documents or lie to each other

• get transferred to another state or continent or sent to yet another school on average once a year during their careers

If the Navy fished for crab

And if the catching of crab in the Bering Sea were done by the U.S. military, they almost certainly would do something like the following:

• require 80 ships instead of 8

• use ships that were at least three times as big

• use ships that cost 20 times as much—partly because they were built with components from every Congressional district, especially the districts of senior Senators who were on the Armed Forces Committee or senior Congressmen who were on the Armed Services Committee

• use crews that were three times as big and whose main activity was going on sick call

• have new captains who had never been on a crab boat before every year or so on each ship

• hardly catch any crabs

• give daily briefings on how much progress they were making toward catching crabs in the future

• and Alaskan crab would cost $200 a pound at your local grocery

If anyone in the U.S. Navy doubts this, I have a suggestion for them. Pick your best eight guys or whatever it takes to staff a crab boat. Rent a boat and put them on it for a season of the Deadliest Catch, which is a contest to see who can catch the most crab for the season. I’ll bet they come in last and make fools of themselves. What’s worse, I’ll bet that many of the actual Alaskan crab fisherman are military veterans. The problem is not the raw human material coming into the Navy compared to the raw human material coming into the crab fishing business, it is the incentives, or lack thereof, in the Navy, not the people. Although the longer a person stays in the military, the more he turns into a bureaucrat. I doubt long-term career military people could succeed on a crab boat. Whatever work ethic and results orientation they originally had would have been washed out of them by the years in the bureaucracy.

See my Web article on process-oriented people (bureaucrats) and results-oriented people like the Alaskan crab fishermen.

Study the leadership and teamwork, but mostly the incentives

They should be studying the videos of Deadliest Catch at the service academies and elsewhere in the U.S. military. But more importantly, those who are at the top of the civilian leadership of the military should look at the incentives and organizational structure of the crab fishing industry and mimic that in the military. The details of how the crab boats are configured and the personnel and teamwork and the rest all follow from the combination of the incentives and human nature. The same is true of the military. Their chronic ineptness and sloth follow from their incentives and human nature. And now, from 50 years of the same, from their habits.

Former Navy SEAL

On one episode of Deadliest Catch, their “greenhorn” (new guy) was a former “elite” Navy SEAL. He was unable or unwilling to work for much of the trip—on a boat where they have no spare employees, so the others had to do his job when he could not or would not. The crew did not like him at all and he was fired or quit during or at the end of the trip. He is not necessarily representative of all SEALs, but as far as I know no other SEALs have appeared in the Deadliest Catch series, so they are stuck with him as their only representative.

I am a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran. My brief military bio is at my military home page,

Is the military producing leaders?

I recently received an email from a young West Point graduate who had gotten out of the Army and was working at a household name big U.S. corporation. He was flummoxed by his inability to use his West Point and Army leadership training and experience in his work. He complained that the organization was predominantly women and they seemed to have a coffee klatch network that actually ran everything. The official organization chart seemed not to be the way things were really done. He was asking me what leadership style or approach to use. He was an entry-level manager.

Secretary was the real power behind the throne

At Harvard Business School, one of our cases was about a successful builder. What we were supposed to get out of the case by reading the facts about the company and from the Socratic Method questions of the professor was that the whole company was run by the boss’s secretary.

This was not good or bad per se. It depends upon the company’s goals and potential and whether the leadership of the secretary was achieving those goals and realizing that potential better than an alternative leader.

Probably, at least in some ways, it was not. So the lesson was to supplement the secretary where necessary.

Also, there was an obvious need to create a succession in case she quit or needed to be fired as a result of some not-yet-discovered malfeasance or she died or became physically disabled.

There is also an issue of using best practices with regard to checks and balances to prevent embezzlement, kickbacks, and such. Generally, it is not prudent to allow anyone in an organization to have too much control over money. For example, in banking, there is a rule that everyone has to take vacations during which others have to do their jobs. That’s because embezzlers typically never take vacation in order to prevent something from coming up during their absence that would reveal their embezzlement.

‘Managing from the 50th floor’

We also had other cases at Harvard about small companies. I remember one where Professor Earl Sasser—whose brother Jim was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee at the time—commented that a small company executive was, “Managing from the 50th floor when he only has a two story building.” In other words, he was being too bureaucratic and high falutin’ for a tiny company. In another case, I offered the observation that the company in question was just the boss and three girls and a coffee pot—so stop with the management consultant and market research suggestions. Other than getting crap from the females in the class for saying “girls” instead of “women,” that was what the professor that day was looking for.

Results, not ‘leadership’

My point here is that leadership is a really big thing with the military. Too big. Their focus needs to be on results, not process. Leadership is process.

The young West Point graduate I quoted above seemed to see leadership, incorrectly, as an end rather than a means to an end. That faulty perspective was probably the result of the overemphasis on and overuse of that word at West Point and in the U.S. military.

See my Web article on the evidence that Barack Obama is no leader.

What is ‘leadership’ really?

Leadership is also a “talk is cheap” word. Its definition is so vague that bullshit artists can claim it without being called on it. And the U.S. government and military are among the great producers of bullshit in the world today.

Webster’s New Universal Dictionary offers little illumination. It defines “lead” as

“to guide or conduct by showing the way”

Gotta know ‘the way’

What is “the way” when it comes to winning our wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan? There is virtually no evidence that the U.S. military knows the way to win such wars. They are making some progress, but they have been more like a very, very slow moving experimental research project than an organization that knows what it is doing since the middle of the Korean War. Indeed, they may well be moving slower than the world is changing which means they are getting farther and farther away from the answer with each passing year.

Until U.S. military leaders know “the way,” they cannot show “the way” to their subordinates. Knowing the way is a prerequisite—a sine qua non—to leadership. Until such time as the U.S. military figures out the way to win our current wars, leadership is generally a matter for the future.

Webster’s other definitions are merely tautological, that is to lead is to be in charge or direct. Such definitions contain no element of competence or achieving results. Too often, that is the definition that the military intends.

I am in charge of X number of men and therefore I am a leader.


Another Webster’s definition is,

to show the method of attaining an object

That is a teaching definition and, again, it begs the question of whether the U.S. military knows how to attain the object of winning recent wars. They do not.

Webster’s definition number 9 introduces results saying,

to induce; to prevail on; to influence

That reminds me of a definition of leadership that I heard when I was a West Point cadet:

A leader is someone who causes people to do that which they ought to do but would not do in the absence of the leader

This is a results-oriented definition that I like. Once again, however, the phrase “that which they ought to do” means that knowing what they ought to do is a prerequisite to leadership. To put it kindly, the U.S. military has been bewildered about how to win in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Bewilderment is not a foundation for leadership. In the U.S. military, “leadership” has become a substitute for results and a “fake it til you make it” way to cover up the bewilderment.

What about generic rather than war-winning leadership?

I did learn some useful things about leadership at West Point and in the Army.

In the book I wrote called Succeeding, I have a chapter entitled “Mechanical Tricks.” It says that every career or job has aspects that anyone can master. For example, a shortstop in baseball needs to know that he must throw the ball to second base if it is hit to him with a runner on first and no runners anywhere else and fewer than two outs. Anyone can learn that. Does that mean that anyone can learn to be a shortstop? No. I could not. Infielders are born not made. I was born to be an outfielder, albeit not a very good one. My son Dan was a great infielder.

The point is not that learning mechanical tricks of the trade will make you a success at any trade, but rather that any trade you take up has such tricks and you must learn them to maximize your chances of succeeding. There is an old saying among us football coaches that “You don’t need talent to hustle.” Unfortunately, the corollary to that is that many who have talent figure, “If you have talent, you don’t need to hustle.” And at the lower levels of amateur sports, most coaches let them get away with not hustling. Mastering all the mechanical tricks of a trade is hustling.

Are there mechanical tricks of the generic leadership trade?

Yes, there are mechanical tricks to the leadership trade. West Point and the Army teach many of them and that’s good. But as I said with regard to shortstops, learning the mechanical tricks increases your chances of succeeding, but leaders are born not made, so just learning the mechanical tricks of leadership will not by itself make you a leader.

Should West Point and the Army continue to teach those mechanical tricks? Absolutely. What they need to stop doing is claiming they produce the world’s greatest leaders.

Command voice

Let me give you an example. In 2005, my freshman high school football team was doing stretching exercises before an early-in-the-season practice. I was standing next to a natural leader linebacker named Chris Borges who was taking a turn at leading the stretching. I was whispering suggestions to him to get him to learn the mechanical tricks of how you speak to your subordinates in a scattered-around-the-field-outdoors situation. My comments went something like this.

Chris, you need to enunciate the preparatory command more slowly and clearly so they understand exactly what you want them to do. You rushed and slurred the words a little bit last time and they were uncertain which stretch we were doing. That’s why they looked raggedy responding to you.


Chris, when you give the command of execution—the one that gets them to start the stretch—you need to snap it out like the crack of a whip or a gun shot. Let me do the next one and watch how they respond to my commands compared to how they responded to yours. You were too conversational about telling them to start.

I then lead one of the stretches demonstrating to Chris exactly how you enunciate the preparatory command and bark out the command of execution.

Did you see how sharp they were in responding to my command? That was not my age or authority as coach. It was my voice. You need to get the same confident reaction on the field when you call the defense and the strength of the offensive formation. You must use that same tone of voice to yell “Mustang Black!” or “strong right!” or whatever you want so that the team will have confidence in the defense called and promptly execute it.

I also taught him to use his diaphragm rather than his throat to add force to the voice and avoid fatiguing the vocal chords.

I did a similar thing training our quarterbacks how to call cadence and audibles. There is a line in the Bible, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?” As a result of the training I got in those mechanical voice tricks of leadership at West Point, my linebackers and quarterbacks sounded like pros, not “uncertain trumpets,” as most young high school players do.

On 10/10/08, I went to the high school to watch Chris and my other 2005 freshmen, who were seniors in 2008, play. I hapened to sit next to Chris’s father andmentioned this article. He said that he had come to practice one day and was astonished at how Chris was commanding his teammates in practice. He said he had never heard him talk that way before. Q.E.D.

Taking charge of adults

In January, 2008 I was at a football coaching clinic. Before a session started, the room was full of coaches engaged in loud conversations. The very old guy who was the conference operator came in and tried repeatedly to get everyone’s attention to make an important announcement. But his voice was so quiet and conversational that no one paid the slightest attention to him. I watched this go on for about four iterations then I yelled in my best West Point grad voice at an OSHA-violating decibel level, “AT EASE!” I figured that some of them had been in the military and the others would figure out what it meant. They all instantly shut up and looked at me as if to say, “Who is this nut?” at which time I motioned with my hand to direct their attention to the old guy. (Perhaps I should say “older.” I was 61 at the time.) He made his announcement and left, after which the conversations resumed. No one said anything to me, probably because there was zero uncertainty in my West Point-trained “trumpet.”

Stray artillery round

I was involved in another incident where I similarly took charge of people I was not formally in charge of. In June of 1966, when I was a 19-year old rising junior at West Point, I chose artillery as my branch for a one-month internship to occur in July of 1966. Each cadet who was going on the internship that summer got an hour or a day—I forget which—of quickie instruction on that branch. One of the things they taught us in the artillery session was that when you are an artillery forward observer and you see an artillery round go astray, you tell the guys who are in radio contact with the gun batteries, “Cease fire!” Then you figure out why the round went astray before you resume firing.

The following month, when I had turned 20, I was in an artillery battery in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. I was with about two dozen officers and another dozen career sergeants on a hill top acting as forward observers calling in artillery fire on old vehicles on another hill about a mile away. I was a mere cadet—not yet even the lowest officer—a second lieutenant. The other officers there were mostly captains and ranged up to the lieutenant colonels who were battalion commanders.

Suddenly, we heard a loud “spit spit spit” sound zoom over our heads followed by a huge explosion in the air about 40 yards away (called a VT shell—VT stands for variable time or some such—those shells have a timer that causes them to explode in the air above the enemy rather than a contact detonator that explodes on contact with the ground or other object). No one was hurt, but we could hear shrapnel (artillery shell fragments actually) hitting our vehicles and cutting through the leaves on the trees around us. Everyone hit the dirt. I crouched down next to a vehicle and looked around at everyone else. Since I was the lowest ranking non-enlisted man there, I said nothing, expecting the colonels to yell, “Cease fire!”

After four or five seconds of stunned silence, I concluded that the others there—all very experienced artillerymen—were in brain lock or did not know what to do so I took charge of the situation and screamed “Cease fire! ” at the half dozen or so jeeps that had radio contact with the half dozen gun batteries that were firing the cannons we were controlling. The radio operators instantly started screaming “Cease fire!” into their handsets and fire ceased.

Investigation revealed that an aiming stake had fallen over at one of the guns. An aiming stake is a five-foot long red and white striped steel pole. You stick it in the ground next to each cannon before you start shooting to serve as a constant landmark from which to make all changes. If you move it, you have to start over with regard to zeroing that gun in on the targets. A soldier went out and picked it up and jammed it back in the ground any old where. The gunner then cranked his traversing wheel around until he found the stake in his surveyor-type eyepiece and they fired the shell that almost hit us. This happened because the gunner and the kid who reposition the post were as dumb as the post. So much for the notion that paratroopers are elite. I remember a master sergeant on the forward observer hill walking around with a jagged shell fragment showing it to everyone. He had to keep flipping it from one hand to the other because it was too hot.

Did this incident illustrate the effectiveness West Point’s leadership instruction? Generally, yes. It is a good illustration of the principle I stated above that before you can lead you have to know the way. Because of the little instruction I had gotten in June 1966 at West Point, I knew the artillery “best practice” of yelling “cease fire” whenever an artillery round went astray. On the other hand, the artillery officers and NCOs on that hill, some of whom were themselves West Pointers, and all of whom had years of formal training and experience with artillery—not just one day—had the same training and more.

My command voice training and experience at West Point was also important. Had I not had it, I probably would have said to the guy nearest me in a quiet conversational voice, “Sir, aren’t we supposed to say ‘cease fire’ when that happens?” As a result of having both training and experience in yelling commands at West Point, I knew to eliminate the middleman of asking someone else to do it and I knew how to use my voice in a way to get the same instant obedience from those radio operators as I did from those football coaches decades later. Since I had given commands many times at West Point, I was totally comfortable giving them that day at Fort Campbell.

I also think my not having brain lock after the explosion was the result of my West Point training. Part of it was from Beast Barracks where the upperclassmen yell at you a lot and you have to learn how to function with that happening. I think upperclassmen yelling at plebes and plebes calling upperclassmen “sir” is wrong and should be eliminated. But it needs to be replaced with a briefer, less demeaning, less hazing type simulation of combat chaos like pilots get when their flight simulators are programmed to give them all sorts of panic situations. We had many such training sessions at West Point mostly in summer time.

Since West Point, I have been in many high-stress situations like football coaching, Vietnam, Harvard Business School, Ranger School, and around serious injuries, where others around me got brain lock or panicked. Because of West Point, I immediately recognize such situations as ones requiring me to slow down, take stock, speak confidently, and make calm decisions. But I must note that some of those who were not responding so well to such situations were also West Pointers. So although I got that from West Point and many, probably most, of my classmates did, too, it did not seem to take universally.

You may wonder what the officers said about my taking charge of the stray artillery round situation at Fort Campbell. Not a word. I suspect they were so profoundly embarrassed by a 20-year old cadet having to take charge of them in a dangerous situation that they simply never spoke of it even to each other.

Covered in blood

I’ll give you one more example of West Point training in leadership directly being effective.

My wife’s aunt, a retired high school physical education teacher, was visiting us. My oldest son was about four and out playing in the yard. He suddenly ran in screaming as if he were on fire covered in his own blood. My wife and her aunt freaked out. I saw that it was a panic-is-not-useful situation and immediately calmed my voice. I took him into the bathroom and wiped the blood off him with a towel trying to find its source. He did, indeed, have a bad cut that took stitches to close, but it was no big deal. We put a towel on the cut and put pressure on it while we took him to the emergency room and got him stitched up.

How did West Point teach me that? At Camp Buckner, which is a wooded, mountainous area just west of the Military Academy, we were trained in dealing with wounded soldiers during the summer between our freshman and sophomore years. They had real soldiers playing the roles of wounded men, complete with Hollywood realistic wounds and fake blood being pumped out as we dealt with them. I remember one of the “wounded” men had his stomach ripped open such that his intestines were hanging out. Another had his head blown open exposing his brain. The soldiers had a squeegee ball hidden in their hand with which they made the blood keep squirting out. We had to calmly administer first aid to these guys and get them evacuated to the rear in the training. When my son came running in covered with blood, I had a “been there done that” feeling. He didn’t even have his intestines hanging out.

Again, this was a best-practices situation. The military knows how to handle those situations and therefore they know how to train soldiers to handle them and therefore the soldiers can lead effectively when those situation occurs. But you can probably get as good or better training in an advanced first aid course or an Emergency Medical Technician course.

Again, the military’s ability to train leaders is limited to their knowledge of how to handle the situation. Not knowing how to win asymmetric wars is a huge problem with regard to producing pertinent leadership. Military training generally only works for specific situations and although there is some spill over to similar situations, like calling plays on a football sideline while the play clock is ticking down, knowing how to care for wounded soldiers does not necessarily make you, for example, an effective leader of the old girls network in a civilian corporation.

Born not made

Some aspects of leadership can be taught and mastered by anyone, namely best practices (yelling “cease fire” when you see a stray artillery round hit) and mechanical tricks (using your diaphragm and speaking in a clear, sharp, loud voice when commanding). But other aspects of leadership fall into the born-not-made category. For example, the fact that most, but not all, of my West Point classmates responded favorably to our training that was designed to keep us calm in stressful situations indicates that those who were born with that quality can have it enhanced by training and experience, but that those who were not born with it generally get little or no benefit from training or experience in it.

There are other such qualities, like politician abilities, that are born-not made. Ronald Reagan was born to be a politician. Empathetic, able to read people and relate to them in ways that caused them to respond. He did not go to politician school. If he had, he probably would have been a better politician sooner. But politician school would have had no effect on my politician abilities. I have none. Don’t want any. But leaders sometimes need politician skills. My lack of them hurt my ability to lead in some situations.


At a more basic level you have things like phobias. People who are afraid of heights cannot be or at least should not be paratroopers. I had no trouble jumping out of airplanes. But there are other areas where I am near incapacitated by unchangeable brain wiring. Paratrooper school is helpful at the mechanical tricks of being a paratrooper as well as the mental attitude it requires. But if you are afraid of heights, no school can do much about that.

I am generally thin and my upper body muscles are relatively weak. My lower body muscles are relatively strong. When my son Dan was a college football player, his weight-lifting marks in upper body were embarrassingly low by Ivy League team standards, but his lower body marks were so high that some of his teammates were embarrassed and did extra work in the weight room to try to match or exceed him—unsuccessfully. (As a senior, my son was a 220 pound, 6’2" running back who once had an open-field, head-on collision with Harvard 2nd-team All-American linebacker Dante Balestracci in a third-and-three run. Dan got the first down. Balestracci went on to a tryout with the New England Patriots. There’s more to being a running back than weight-lifting marks.)

Body types are born not made. Can anyone improve muscles strength from training and work outs? Yes. Can people who tend to be thin like me compete successfully in body-building competitions? Nope. No matter how hard I word, I cannot look or get much better than a beginning gymnast. People tell me I look “fit” or “trim,” but never buff. And I work out seven days a week. My sons all look buff with lighter work outs than I do. My youngest has big guns (biceps) from curling 60 pounds. I curl 130 every third day and have high school sophomore football player biceps (slight evidence of muscles).

Leadership is the same. Training can get you some benefit, especially in mechanical-trick areas, but there is an irreducible, unchangeable, born-not-made component to leadership, body building, and most things in life. Those who have it benefit from the training and experience. Those who do not have it, get little or no benefit from the training or experience and are unlikely to achieve adequacy no matter how much training or experience they get.

And there is still that fundamental problem that no one can teach leadership in an area until they master the underlying subject matter. The trainers and their graduate “leaders” must know the way before they can show the way. In the big picture sense of its win-our-wars mission, the U.S. military generally does not know the way. See my article on whether there really is any such thing as military expertise.

Other West Point mechanical tricks of leadership

Other mechanical tricks of leadership or achieving results that I learned at West Point include:

• reconnaissance

• rehearsal

• recognizing that some people respond to hard ass, but not nice guy, and other people respond to nice guy, but not hard ass

• that people can meet far higher standards than I would have believed if you demand them

• what I call the “Ooomph” principle, that is, you can be a lot more forceful to get people to do things than laymen think

• that conflict is not a to-be-avoided-at-all-costs thing

• the need to take good care of your subordinates

More tricks learned in the Army

In the Army, I learned that not everyone is as talented, motivated, decent, and trained as West Point cadets and that getting the right people under your command is far more important than one would figure out at West Point where almost everyone is a great subordinate. I also learned that only high stress, like Ranger School, reveals some important character flaws. I also learned “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the Army. For example, my wire squad (switchboard operators and repairmen) in Vietnam did the sort of job that no one noticed, which is the way it’s supposed to be. Every time I walked through their area, which was daily, I said, “Keep up the good work, guys!”

I take no credit for the great job they did. They were doing it that way when I arrived. They needed no leadership so I gave them none. West Point probably would have had its cadets reflexively try to make things better. That would have been for the cadet’s ego and career, not the accomplishment of the mission or the welfare of the troops. It also would have annoyed and mildly insulted the wire guys. If they want, they can make the platoon leader look bad by sabotaging the operation in subtle ways.

So what am I getting to here? That West Point and the Army do know and teach through classroom instruction, example, and experience, many mechanical tricks of generic leadership. That’s good, but very limited.

‘Follow me’

One Army recruiting TV commercial has the narrator say something like, “When a civilian employer asks you if have ever had any leadership experience, just smile.” Then the commercial cuts to a young sergeant saying “Follow me” as he and they parachute jump out of the rear door of a plane.

Cute. The Army is big on that phrase, “Follow me.” It’s on a statute of an infantryman at the Infantry School at Fort Benning.

Leadershipwise, “follow me” refers to two leadership mechanical tricks: setting the example and putting yourself in the location where you can best direct your subordinates. Point man, the implicit location of a guy saying “follow me,” is generally a lousy position from which to lead in battle. Good place to get killed, not to lead.

When I was in the Airborne, the highest-ranking officers always went out the door of the plane first. That’s very “Follow me.” It’s also very wrong. They should be in the middle of the stick (plane load of paratroopers) not at either end. See the true-to-life movie The Longest Day, about the paratrooper landings in Normandy in support of D-Day, where the commanding general of the division did a “follow me” first-guy-out-the-door theatrical stunt then spent the rest of the night wandering around alone looking for troops to command. That, folks, is how not to lead.

‘Managerial,’ not ‘leadership’ experience

As to civilian employers, they generally do not ask if you have had any “leadership” experience. Rather, they ask if you have any experience doing the job for which you are interviewing. They might ask about “managerial” experience, which has a connotation of getting things done in the far less rigid, and far less clear, “chains of command” that characterize civilian businesses. The thought of you barking out commands to the “girls” (as they call themselves) in the office or the more experienced men and women in the company, makes the prospective boss shudder. The prospective bosses would also typically think it brash and naive overconfidence if you started talking about how you were going to use your military “leadership” skills in a civilian company to which you were new. It implies that the civilians already there are not leaders or are ignorant of leadership skills. There is almost no chance of that if the company is worth working for.

As I said at the beginning of this article, you cannot lead until you know the job. Job one for a guy just out of the military is to learn the business you are entering. You cannot lead generally until you know more about it than the people you are leading.

Top big business managers do not fit that because no one can at that level of complexity, but they have to be experts at finding excellent subordinate mangers. Some young captain or sergeant getting out of the military is not qualified to be a high-level civilian manager, in part, because he has zero experience hiring and firing people.

Far from being prized by civilian employers for your leadership skills, civilian bosses are more likely to think you need to be deprogrammed to erase your military notions of top-down, “do what I say because I outrank you,” command leadership to replace them with the ambiguous, matrix, “get along with people” skills that are necessary to succeed in non-military organizations.

Promoted according to your follower, not leader, abilities

One of the dirty little secrets of the U.S. military’s great leadership training and experience is that promotions there are entirely based upon how you do as a follower. The vast majority of the great leaders in the U.S. military have probably been passed over for promotion and the great ass kissers were the ones who got the promotions. Name some of the great West Point leaders and I’ll bet you cannot get very far before you name a guy who got fired by the Army—Patton and MacArthur for example. I shudder to think what would happen if some our current most successful civilian leaders like Steve Jobs or C.C. Meyers were suddenly made Army officers who were subordinate to higher ranking officers. They would probably be court martialed.

Will they train you to be a leader in the military?


Will they give you experience at being a leader in the military?


Will they reward you if you lead well?

Ha! Not a freaking chance!

They will reward you if you make your superiors like you. The U.S. military does not give a rat’s rump about how your subordinates respond to your leadership. They only care about whether your boss likes you.

In my final command position—company commander of Bravo Company at Fort Monmouth School Brigade in 1971, my superiors relieved me because I refused to spend Unit Fund money on a Soldier of the Month Savings Bond purchase that my superiors wanted (in violation of Army regulations) and because I refused to attend “command performance” parties at superiors’s homes on Friday or Saturday nights.

I refused to buy the bonds because Army regulations said I was supposed to spend the money in accordance with the wishes of the troops. I met with them weekly and asked how they wanted me to spend the money. They wanted the foosball machine in the day room repaired. I got the foosball machine repaired. I was following not only Army regulations, but also what I was taught at West Point about taking care of your troops. The Army has no complaint about you taking care of your troops AS LONG AS IT DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO PISS OFF OR EMBARRASS YOUR SUPERIORS. Actions like having your men take off their boots during a forced march and put their bare feet up so you can walk along and check them for blisters do not bother the brass. But many situations where your troops are being jerked around are caused by your superiors and, in those situations, taking care of your troops requires a career-ending confrontation with your boss. I did it many times. I never saw or heard of any other officer do it.

MBA ‘leadership evaluation’

I had an amusing repercussion of the “fight for your troops” ethos I learned at West Point at Harvard Business School. During your first year there, you spend all day every day in the same amphitheater as your 84 section mates. So you get to know those 84 people very well.

Once, when I arrived late, my section mates told me I had missed a discussion about which member of our section the section members would most want to work for. They said I was voted the one most would want to work for. I was stunned and asked, “Based on what?” They said it was because they thought I would fight for them whenever necessary. “That’s true, I would, but how the hell would you guys know that? You never worked for me or even with me.”

They said that during the hundreds of case discussions that year, I would occasionally and passionately point out the need to protect or take care of subordinates in the case as part of how to manage the situation. I guess I did. I learned that at West Point, but as I said above, it appears to be lesson that was interpreted far more narrowly, e.g., checking for blisters, by others than my comprehensively broad get-in-the-boss’s-face approach.

‘Movie extras’

In Vietnam once, my company was supposed to be teaching a class in something thought up by an empty brass hat up the chain of command. The company commander was not complying with that order, but reported that he was. Then the empty brass hat in question showed up and wanted to watch the class which was to be in session in fifteen minutes. The company commander quickly got an officer or sergeant to teach it and needed troops to play the role of students. He woke up my night shift guys for that purpose.

They had worked all night running the corps commander’s radios, and were sleeping in a special building with air-conditioning and blacked-out windows. When I heard about it, I went straight to the company commander’s office and asked him if it was true. He said it was. I told him if he ever pulled another stunt like that I would climb the chain of command to the President if necessary until I found someone who agreed he needed his ass chewed. I was a first lieutenant. He was a captain—one rank higher than I. He never did it again. He was probably too busy giving me a 40 on my efficiency report—at a time when anything below 97 meant your career was over. The efficiency report did not mention his using my men as “movie extras” in his phony class. Just another day at the office using the leadership skills I learned at West Point and being “rewarded” appropriately by the Army that so treasures the leadership skills they teach.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Army taught us to take care of our troops at West Point, then drove out of the Army every officer who applied that lesson to situations where it meant standing up to his superiors. Most of the protection the troops need is from their leader’s own superiors.

‘Command performance’ parties

On Friday and Saturday nights, I was usually on a date and the last damned place I would ever taken a date was to a party of Army officers who were either sucking up to the brass or hitting on my date or getting drunk or most likely, all of the above. I have never taken a drink of alcohol. (See my article on O.V.U.M., that is, stuff that is Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory)

In contrast to my superiors relieving me, my subordinates in Bravo Company (my last command) circulated and signed three petitions demanding that my superiors reinstate me. They hated my successor who immediately announced he was reinstating the savings bond purchases with their Unit Fund money. Did I lead my men successfully? Close enough. Did I suck up to my superiors? Absolutely not. So does the Army produce leaders or followers? When it comes to training and many job descriptions, they do offer leadership training and experience. But when it comes to incentives, which ultimately trump training and experience as far as the resulting behavior is concerned, the U.S. military hates and discourages or even bans leadership. They talk about leadership. They teach leadership—such as their knowledge of the subject is. But they reward followership, or more accurately, ass kissing, and punish any leadership that bothers the boss, which is to say, most leadership.

Name the great current American leaders that the military has produced

To hear the military tell it, people who have had leadership training and who been in leadership positions in the military are the best leaders in America.

Oh, really? So where are they?

Since 1992, each of our presidential elections has featured a former military guy against a former draft dodger. The draft dodger always won. The one West Pointer, Wes Clark, lost early. As I write this, on 10/11/08, never-served-in-the-military (or in any other real job) anti-war candidate Barack Obama is leading Service Academy graduate, retired Navy Captain, Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain.

Are there any former military leaders in the Senate? My namesake and former cadet platoon member Jack Reed, Senator from Rhode Island is a West Point grad, but he never served in a war. I suspect his being in the Senate stems more from his government and law degrees from Harvard than from his West Point training and experience at leadership in the military.

Another way to see how the U.S. military is doing at producing leaders is to see what leadership positions they hold in our society after they get out of the military. Most people are only in the military for two or three years. Some are in longer. And a smaller number make a career (at least 20 years) of the military. In the last 30 years or so, the number of people on active duty in the U.S. military has ranged from about 2 million during the Reagan Administration to about 1.4 million today. Let’s assume an average of 1.6 million and that their average tenure is four years. That means that in the last 30 years, about 12 million people have been on active duty in the U.S. military. Virtually all of them get out of the military when they are still young enough to have second careers in the civilian world—age 38 to about age 53.

So if these 12 million men and women are such great leaders, where are they in our society?

The last president who served on active duty in the military was George H.W. Bush who got out of the military in 1945.

Many people who served briefly in the military are in Congress. But the question should arise are former military people disproportionately represented in Congress. If they got extraordinarily effective leadership training and experience in the military, they should be. Furthermore, those analyzing it need to figure out how to separate those who became Congressmen as a result of the benefit from leadership training in the military and those who just used military service as a resume entry and did not benefit from training or experience.

In my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?,” I contrast the top ten most prominent living West Point graduates with 13 prominent living Harvard Business School graduates. HBS does not claim to produce “leaders.” But the contrast between the two lists is stark. Of the ten most prominent living West Point grads, only three—Reed, Petraeus, and Krzyzewski—currently hold leadership positions. The others are all former this or that like Al Haig. But the Harvard list has all sorts of people who hold top leadership positions in many walks of life including the current Commander in Chief George Bush, historian Michael Beschloss, GE head Immelt, New England Patriots owner Kraft, NYC Mayor Bloomberg, and so forth. Plus I could have named far more than the 13 I named. The Wikipedia write-up on Harvard Business School has a longer, rather astonishing list.

Does Harvard Business School do a better job of training leaders than West Point? In many ways, and probably the most important ways, yes. The leadership you learn at Harvard Business is more free form and results oriented. The West Point version is more pro forma, narrow, specialized, and divorced from the reality of actually getting people to do any useful task. At West Point, you learn how to get people to perform close order drill and the manual of arms and do choreographed calisthenics in the artificial world of the military. At Harvard Business, you learn how to get people to make or sell a product or service in the real world. Probably more important is the real world management experience you get in the civilian world after Harvard compared to the nutty and largely useless, if not harmful, experience you get in SNAFU Land after West Point.


The most obvious dead giveaway that the military are poseurs with regard to leadership is their propensity to discuss it in a vacuum.

Those of us in the real world who have to get results when we are in a leadership position—as in my coaching of a high school football team in 2003, 4, and 5—are more likely to use words like “team,” “teamwork,” and “team building.” Talking about “leadership” and what great leaders we are implies that the followers are insignificant—that our great leadership is what made everything happen. In the real world, real leaders are very mindful of the feelings of their followers and of the crucial importance of the contributions of their followers to the success of the team. Military people think they take care of that by saying their troops are “outstanding” every time the subject comes up, but then they cancel that out the next time they use the word “leadership,” which puts the spotlight back on them.

Only in the military, where you can just talk a good game and look the part, and where subordinates are afraid to piss off the brass, could you pontificate endlessly on the leadership of yourself and your subordinate leaders and not catch any flack for it. In the real world, such a “leader” would hear complaints about his narcissism and taking too much credit for the success of the group pretty fast. In German, the word “leader” translates to “Führer.” Real leaders who get followers to do great things in the real world do not have a Führer complex.


Leaders and followers are opposite ends of a see-saw. The lower one end is, the higher the other must be. In other words, if you have great followers, you need little in the way of leadership to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We practiced leadership at West Point on our follow cadets—who were highly talented, motivated, and disciplined. Leading them is like playing tennis without a net—very poor preparation for leading regular Army troops.

The worse the followers, the greater the leaders need to be. As I often say in my writing about football coaching, an ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of coaching. Coaching is the football equivalent of leadership. Another coaching saying is that, “Great players make great coaches.”

The military work force is generally low quality. See my article on the need for a military draft, in part to upgrade the quality of military personnel, for details on that. For example, the military has been granting waivers to allow about 8,000 convicted criminals a year to join the Army. When I was a platoon leader and company commander in the Army, I never had any say whatsoever about the subordinates assigned to me. That has always been standard military procedure. In the civilian world, that would be considered insane and good leaders subjected to such situations would generally resign and go elsewhere.

In the real world, you do not expect your subordinate managers to exhibit such loaves-and-fishes leadership. Rather, you get the best people you can overall, including both managers and subordinates. And those best managers are well aware that they must constantly give credit to their subordinates for the group’s successes. He leads best who leads least. The smart leader makes his leading as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. Military people are very self-conscious and affected about their approach to leadership.

John T. Reed