On April 24, 2018, I was honored to speak at the US Army War College’s 29th Annual Strategy Conference. This year’s subject was future leadership, and my panel in specific looked ahead to what strategic leaders would look like in 2030. The full video can be seen here, and my remarks are available at Lawfire (and below).
Before I begin, you’ll have to indulge my payments on a couple of intellectual debts.
I owe great public thanks to two individuals’ right here, in this very room.
In 2009, Dr. Sewall said, “we lack the tools to judge military leadership.”
And in 2012, Dr. Metz wrote: “It is time for Americans to think deeply about the skills their senior military leaders must have, otherwise we risk identifying those skills through the failures of military leaders who lack them.”
These triggered something for me. Provoked questions: What makes great generals? What accounts for successful military supreme commanders?
These two grains of gunpowder helped fire the starter’s pistol on my PhD dissertation, some of which I’m about to share with you. And so I owe them a debt of thanks.
When you read up on generalship and supreme command, you find myths everywhere. Here’s one lieutenant colonel’s definition from 2013:
“True generalship is an ability to borrow elements of Patton’s technical military competence and the moral pureness of Gandhi, mixed with Bill Clinton’s artful communication, Ryan Crocker’s diplomatic savvy, and George Kennan’s strategic acumen – in other words, to approximate a fraction of the soul of George Marshall.”
That’s a “Great Captain’s” Twitter bio for you. (Or God’s). And I didn’t make that up. Somehow, it even smells wrong.
I think in the Army we’re often guilty of a softer, subtler mythology – an over-focus and obsession with a generalized “leadership.
I was just at West Point, where in rapid succession I heard the Command Sergeant Major say he wanted to build “leaders of character.” The Commandant told the cadets to “be a leader.” And the Superintendent said he wanted West Point to be the “prime leader development institution in the world.”
We use the word “leader” so much and so often that I worry it’s become a military version of “LOL” or “FOMO.” An empty catchphrase.
But leadership is constant. At war, both sides have leaders. Both sides have a supreme commander.
The better question is: What characteristics differentiate successful leadership from unsuccessful leadership, and successful supreme command from unsuccessful supreme command? (That was my dissertation topic (or, as I sometimes call it, “How I spent five miserable years locked in a room by myself.”)
What did I find that made the difference?
It wasn’t material factors (weapons or stuff). It wasn’t luck. And their adversaries were competent.
The difference was superior judgment and decision-making. When I looked at the performance of three supreme commanders that had steered wars to successful conclusion—over periods where the conflict might have gone a very different way—Washington in 1776 and into 1777, Grant in 1864 through the election that November, and Eisenhower in 1944 until the Allies took Paris—their judgments were objectively better than their unsuccessful adversaries.
Different strategies. Different time periods. Different war aims. All changed, while a careful reading of the dispatches and memorandums and decisions of the supreme commanders on both sides—I found superior judgment remained the most important factor.
Military supreme commanders make decisions; decisions make history.
Supreme commanders act as decision funnels for their side: ideas, opinions, options and courses of action go in the top—and only one strategic choice comes out the narrower, bottom end. This is in line with what Sun Tzu described at the end of Chapter 6 of The Art of War—military command akin to shaping and harnessing the power of water.
Let’s put a pin in that thought for now – senior generals as decision funnels – and let’s turn to development, or, building that funnel.
Which leads to the age-old question: How do you educate a general? Based on my research: You can’t. At least, not entirely. They have to do it themselves. My finding was that informal self-study mattered much more than formal education.
Think podcast-listening, newspaper-reading, and essay-writing—over degrees attained and diplomas achieved. That doesn’t mean we throw away military schools. But a successful supreme commander the War College cannot alonemake.
And to tackle the point Dr. Metz just raised [in his conference opening remarks], can the “assistant manager of CarMax” make a great supreme commander?
General Stanley McChrystal’s also made that case when he said: “I’ve dealt with a lot of [CEOs] who could walk in and be general officers in the military tomorrow…because they solve problems and they lead people.”
But that’s wrong. Apologies to McChrystal, and the leadership at the local CarMax on the Carlisle Pike, but generalship and supreme command are different. To sell a car, one doesn’t have to spend human lives; to seal a deal, a businessperson doesn’t have to kill anybody (unless you’re Russian).
Based on my research, successful supreme command and generalship includes both aptitude and acculturation. War is unique. Success demands familiarity, which means, sorry CarMaxxers and “office warriors,” no fourth star for you.
What does this mean for 2030?
Let’s return to Michael Howard, who has noted that when new generations have “no personal memory” of a previous war—it brings on “all kinds of…problems.”
How will emerging generations impact generalship?
In 2030, the “Greatest Generation” will be dead; the Baby Boomers will be retired.
Generation X, will be the generals (of which I am proudly one of the youngest members). Millennials will be field grades and Generation Z (my kids) will be our cadets and company commanders. (On the plus side, there’s some real military talent in this generation. My three-year-old daughter Georgie will make you forget Patton, and my six-year-old daughter Grace will make you beg for mercy.)
But there’s a flashing red light there—though Faulkner said the past is never really past, the Cold War and what came before will be dead to our entire senior military leadership. No experience with earthquakes of extreme violence or truly global, great power wars (even the cold ones).
If our professional sin of the past generation was forgetting counterinsurgency, then big war amnesia looms large in 2030.
This matters because the “future’s not what it used to be,” as Yogi Berra once said. A generation ago, we then saw better days when the Wall came down; a generation ahead, we now see scarier days when “one of us can kill all of us,” according to one widely-read columnist.
As with all generational shifts, future leaders will be prisoners of the problems of their day, but also blind to some of the problems of the past.
I think the funnel metaphor will still apply in 2030—senior generals and supreme commanders will still close with and destroy future enemies with superior decisions.
But I think the funnel has, and will continue to get, wider on both ends. There are more options. And a wider range of choices.
Strategic leaders of the future will be more global. All major American allies are in demographic decline (particularly Korea and Japan). This will force countries to share burdens. It’s one thing to not want to spend blood or treasure, it’s another thing entirely to not have enough young people to spend. This will mean more multinational operations, overseas assignments, and international engagement.
Strategic leaders of the future will be more technical. A flip-phone mind won’t cut it in a 5G world.
Narrative will matter more to future strategic leaders. Getting the other side to believe in your story matters more than it used to now that everybody has access to unlimited information. Harry Truman once said “leaders are readers.” But I’d add successful leaders are writers (and readers). Speed may kill, but storytellers win.
Strategic leaders of the future will be more meritocratic. Public belief in the old, experienced WASP male at the head of an institution has been shaken; the American people have grown more comfortable with young (and different) leaders in positions of power. We should consider speedier (and other) pathways to strategic positions.
Strategic leaders of the future will be more female. First, generally speaking, women are outperforming men in nearly every educational category. As I mentioned, I was just at West Point, where I saw the Pershing Award handed out—recognition of the top senior/firstie essays on officership—four of the six awardees were women…the First Captain, or top-ranked cadet, is a woman…in a student body that’s less than 25% female and rising fast now that the combat exclusion policy is gone.
Second, the way women are perceived by society, our very strategic culture, has changed—from the movies, to elite military schools, to the selection of the first female combatant commander.
More women will be run the show. The Mac of 2030 may sport sensible earrings instead of a corn-cob pipe; the next Marshall may have sleeve tattoos; and the new Eisenhower may actually be a “Chan” or “Chavez.”
Leadership or superior judgement?
As a final, deliberately provocative thought, while I think leadership matters, I do want to put a big stick of dynamite on the idea that “leadership” wins wars. It’s not leadership. It’s superior judgment, relative to our adversaries (or, as FM 6-22 “Army Leadership” might call it, “intellect.”). This should be our highest professional standard and how we judge military leadership.
That’s what Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower can teach us. War is as much a clash of judgments as a clash of wills.
If war is a gamble, then it matters who’s making the bets—and since I started with a debt, I’m finishing with a bet. I choose these casino terms advisedly, to reinforce the point that before we roll the iron dice, we’d better think hard about who’s calling the military shots.
Which is why I’m so grateful to be part of this important discussion. Thank you!