Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Leadership is the art of leaders and often involves long periods of silence.

Mouthing off about your boss is juvenile, water-cooler, office politics. And I, for one, would never follow such an individual into harms way. A general who is unable to abide the direction of his civilian superiors has but one option - resign.

As POGGE made very clear, in past times a general who had so clearly verbalized his objection to his clear subordinate position, and had been discovered doing so, would have drawn his blade and fallen on his own sword.

General Stanley McChrystal, United States Army, has several superiors, but his ultimate boss is the person sitting in the Oval Office of the White House. He has but one duty to that person after he has presented his advice to that person - obey his orders. If he objects, he has the right to say so, directly. If that objection is overruled, he is duty bound to step aside and not assume the position he was requested fill or accept his instructions, salute and get on with it - without complaint.

McChrystal, however, did none of that. McChrystal was not just insubordinate; he vented his own personal disapproval of his superior, while still serving him, to his subordinates. That is a heinous and unforgivable crime in any military organization.

Most of McChrystal's offending comments in the Rolling Stone article were those repeated by his staff and cannot be attributed by the article's author to McChrystal's direct answers. But the fact that subordinates feel comfortable enough to repeat McChrystal's words and the context in which they were spoken suggests that McChrystal lacks the necessary leadership skills to lead anything larger than a reserve section (10 person squad) in any form of combat.

McChrystal's worst crime is the downward infection of his own subordinates. They are bound by traditional loyalty to their commander. If their commander is dissing his boss, they assume the same posture and the infection moves out of the staff organization into the line formations. The idiocy of it all is that it actually ended up on the pages of a globally-consumed publication.

You can't push poor judgment and blatant disloyalty further out into the light than by doing that.

The fact that it was so much more than a passing comment demonstrates, not just arrogance, but a false sense of superiority and invincibility which calls into question the man's ability to recognize, not just his own weakness in any area, but that of his command. Such a blindness leads to unit failures which, instead of solving at his own level with innovation, motivation and strong leadership, he declares inevitable and blames those above him. Read it in any fashion you wish to interpret it, but that is simply poor leadership and it needs to be corrected before it spreads further downwards.

McChrystal's poorly aimed and badly timed comments have probably already caused the career destruction of most of his command staff who had incorrectly presumed that he possessed a cloak of invincibility to superior civilian authority which allowed him to vent his insubordinate opinions in their presence.

Leadership at military command levels is always difficult. Sometimes a leader is asked to perform seemingly impossible tasks with too few resources. Often a leader finds her/himself saddled with orders which, on the surface, appear ridiculous. In the end, however, it is the job of a military leader to provide the necessary inspiration to subordinates and demonstrate the loyalty to one's superiors to execute those orders with innovation and adaptability. Failure is assumed personally and only transfers to a higher level if the superior commander reaches down and takes the cloak.

That's staff school stuff and McChrystal knows it. His barrack-room performance, clearly done to create some kind of impression on his staff, had no place under the multiple stars on his epaulets. Along with the comfort and authority which accompanies a general officer of his status comes the obligation to instill loyalty in his staff. Sometimes that means keeping silent on matters with which he disagrees. It always means demonstrating to subordinates a professional loyalty to one's superiors. Failure to do so quickly shatters the discipline of a command and encourages individuals to act outside their orders based on a disdain for their commanders at all levels, the example having been provided by the theatre commander.

That may work for John Wayne in a war movie, but it regularly leads to disaster in a real combat organization and diminishes the professionalism required to carry off the often obscene job of war-fighting.

McChrystal demonstrated all the maturity of command of a newly-minted corporal. Corporals can occasionally bitch over a beer about the insanity of their distant superiors; Generals enjoy no such luxury. Clearly, if he cannot accept the responsibility to set the proper example from his superior level of command, that responsibility should be removed lest he further damages his subordinates.

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