Remarks at Army War College: What will the generals of 2030 look like?

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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 (a selection of which can be found below). 

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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.

It’s not just us in uniform. Historian Jeremy Black, in answering the question, “How [George] Washington Won [the Revolutionary War],” ultimately provided a one-word answer: “leadership.

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.”)

So I set out to, as British historian Sir Michael Howard has put it, “demythologize” supreme command. (And, at the same time, answer Drs. Sewall and Metz’s productive provocations.)

What did I find that made the difference?

Read the rest at Lawfire.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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