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Building Tomorrow’s Leaders—Lessons from the Military

Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey Jr., shared insights from the military’s success in developing strong leaders at Chief Executive magazine’s CEO2GOV Summit. Here are excerpts from his remarks.

The first thing I’d like to do is share a little bit about the Army. When I came into the job three years ago I was hearing that the Army was broken, the Army was hollow, the Army wasn’t ready. So my wife and I went around the Army talking to soldiers, families, civilians, trying to get a sense of what really was going on. And it was clear to me that we weren’t broken. This was a hugely resilient, professional, combat seasoned force. But there was no doubt that the soldiers and families were stretched with these continued deployments. We have been deploying soldiers to combat one year out, one year back, for five years. If you’d asked me five years ago could we have done that, I would have said no, there’s no way you could do that. It’s just not possible.

I had to figure out how to describe the condition of the Army both to external audiences and to internal audiences, and I came up with the term that the Army was “out of balance.” We were so weighed down by our current demands that we couldn’t do the things that we knew we needed to do to sustain this volunteer force for the long haul and to prepare ourselves to do other things. The country hasn’t had the capability in its ground forces for about the last five years to do something else on short notice. A small thing like Haiti we took care of, but if we had a big thing like North Korea, it would take us much longer than any of us would want to shift gears.

We put ourselves on a plan back then to get back in balance, and we have been making great progress over the last three years. With the drawdown in Iraq and the closure of next year’s budget on the Hill, I can actually see us getting to the points we set out for ourselves in 2007. Let me give you a few of examples. First, since 2004 we have been undergoing the largest organizational transformation of the Army since World War II, and we’ve been doing it while we’ve been sending 150,000 soldiers over and back to Iraq and Afghanistan every year. We have converted all 300-plus brigades in the Army to new designs—designs that are more relevant today. We’ve rebalanced about 160,000 soldiers away from cold war skills to skills more relevant today. For example, we’ve stood down about 200 tank companies, artillery batteries, air defense batteries, and we’ve stood up a corresponding number of civil affairs, psychological operations, military police, engineers, those kinds of things. This was a huge, huge internal change, but it was something we had to do.

While doing that, we’re also wrestling with the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005, all of which has to get done by the end of 2011. We have four of our four-star headquarters and seven of our two- and three-star headquarters moving in the next 18 months.

The bottom line is that by the end of 2011, we will have increased the size of the Army by about 74,000. We will have converted all of its organizations to ones that are much more relevant today. We will basically have rebased a 1.1 million person force, and we will be much more ready for the challenges of the latter decades of the 21st century than we were seven years ago. And we have done that while learning to fight a war that we were not initially comfortable with while we were fighting it. What I mean is, I’ve been in the Army 40 years and I spent the first 30 years of that time training to fight a war I never fought, and the last 10 years learning to fight a war while I was fighting it.

So since September 11th we have been in a period of continuous and fundamental change. It took September 11th to get us off the mark. My predecessor twice removed, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who’s now the head of the Veterans Administration, tried really hard to get us off of that cold-war mindset, and he couldn’t budge us. Bottom line, we’re in a much better position than we were three years ago and if the drawdown in Iraq continues, and I fully expect it will, we’ll meet the goals we set for ourselves and be in much better position of balance by the end of next year.

Now, the future… As Yogi Berra says, “Predictions are hard, especially when you’re talking about the future.” If we could predict the future, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. But that’s one of the things that strategic leaders get paid to do, setting the conditions for their organization to succeed in a future environment, and it will always be an uncertain environment.

What we’ve done is looked at the environment. We started from a position that we’re at war. We’re at war with the global extremist network that attacked us on our soil. They’re not going to quit. They’re not going to give up. They tried on Christmas, they tried in Times Square not long ago. This is a long-term ideological struggle and we’re going to be at this, maybe not at the scope that we were in Iraq, but we’re going to be at this as a country for a while.

Then as we look at the trends that are out there around the world, it strikes us that the trends that we see are more likely to exacerbate the situation than ameliorate it. Trends like globalization. There’s no doubt that globalization is having positive impacts around the world on prosperity, but it’s unevenly distributed. It creates have and have-not cultures, and the populations of some of these have-not cultures are much more susceptible to recruiting by the terrorist organizations.

Technology is another double-edged sword. The same technology that’s bringing knowledge to anyone with a computer is being used by terrorists to export terror. Demographics are really going in the wrong direction. We’ve got studies that say that the population of some of these developing countries will double in the next decade. Can you imagine the population of Pakistan doubling in the next decade, and the attendant problems that that would present to an already strapped government? And the population of the world is increasingly moving to cities. We’ve seen studies that say by 2030, 60 percent of the population of the world will live in cities. Some of us have seen the sprawling slums of Sadr City in Baghdad—an area that’s three miles by five miles where two million people live. Those are tough places for ground forces to operate.

Another aspect of demographics is the burgeoning middle class. The middle classes in both China and Japan are already larger than the population of the U.S. That’s a lot of two-car families and a lot of demand for already scarce resources. And the two things that worry me most: weapons of mass destruction and safe havens. We know that terrorist organizations are out there seeking weapons of mass destruction, and I believe that when they get one, they will attempt to use it against a developed country. And then there are countries or parts of countries where the local government can’t or won’t deny their country to terrorists, much like you had in Afghanistan before September 11th, and what you have in Yemen right now.

Put all those things together, and it strikes us that we’re in an era of what I call persistent conflict—protracted confrontation among states, non-states, and individual actors who are increasingly willing to use violence to accomplish their political and ideological objective. That’s what I think we are dealing with as a country and as a world, really, for a while. So that is one of the key data points for us; we’re organizing the Army to deal with that.

The second thing we’ve had to do is look at what the character of war is like in the 21st century, because it’s going to be different than the large tank battles that I grew up planning to fight on the plains of Europe or the deserts of Saudi Arabia. And it’s going to be much more complex. You can look at Iraq and Afghanistan and sure, those are harbingers of things to come. But we also like to look at what happened in Southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006, where you have Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, operating inside a state, Lebanon, supported by two other states, Syria and Iran, and fighting yet another state, Israel.

This non-state actor starts the war with more than 13,000 rockets and missiles. This non-state actor has the instruments of state power, and not just small rockets like they shoot at our bases in Iraq and Afghanistan; missiles they shot as Israeli cities. They had unmanned aerial vehicles. They inflicted 40 percent of the Israeli casualties with state-of-the-art anti-tank guided missiles, and they used improvised explosive devices to channelize the attacking Israeli forces so they could kill them with those. They shot down an Israeli helicopter with a state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile. They hit an Israeli ship in the Mediterranean Sea with a cruise missile. They had secure cell phones for communications and secure computers, and they got their message out on local television. That’s a different ballgame, and that’s what we call a hybrid threat. We think those hybrid threats are much more likely to confront us here in the years ahead.

No enemy is going to come at our strength. That’s not what they do. They assess you, and they attack your weaknesses. So it’s a different kind of ballgame. In the environment of persistent conflict, we think war will be different and so we’re adapting ourselves.

For 60 years, the central organizing principle of the Department of Defense has been conventional war. The Department of Defense is set up to crank out planes, ships, tanks, trucks. I think we have to change that. We have to move to a operating paradigm where versatility is the central organizing principle, because the one thing we know about the future is that we’re never going to get it quite right.

What I just told you about the future is a shot. It’s a good shot, but it is at best an 85 percent solution. We have to be versatile enough to adapt to the realities that actually present themselves. So we’ve built these versatile organizations. Our leader development training is designed to build officers and noncommissioned officers who can change directions quickly. We’re trying to get our procurement programs to be more agile so we can adapt the equipment to the realities that our folks see on the ground.

We want an Army that’s a versatile mix of tailorable and networked organizations, operating on a rotational site. And that’s the other big bit of institutional change for us. We are putting the entire Army on a rotational model, much like the Navy and the Marine Corps have been on for years. It is a huge institutional change, because all of our institutional systems are designed to support a garrison-based Army where everybody was ready for everything all the time. And now we’re focusing our resources on getting about 60 percent of the force ready to do anything that the country needs while the rest of the force is recovering and building back up.

That’s the only way that we’re going to meet the sustained commitments and sustain the all-volunteer force. That’s the wrinkle. We have to get our soldiers and families to a point where the soldiers have at least two years home between deployments. We’d like to get three, but two years is where we have to go, because the human mind and body was not made to deal with repeated combat deployments without at least two to three years’ recovery. We just finished a study that shows that it takes 24 to 36 months to recover from a one-year combat deployment. When you don’t do that, the cumulative effects pile up faster, and you read about suicides, increased drug and alcohol challenges, and so on. That’s something that we’ll have to deal with; it’s the outcome of almost nine years at war.

The bottom line is we have as good a view of the future as we think is realistic. We continually adapt and evolve that. And the Army is in pretty decent shape. I’m at the point where I can actually see us getting to where we set out to go in 2007. So I’m going to shift gears here to strategic leadership.

The question that I asked most in Iraq and the question I continue to ask most today as chief of staff of the Army is, what are we trying to accomplish? What I find is the higher up you go, the harder it is to answer that question clearly and succinctly, and yet the more important it is that you do. Because at my level, what I say has to permeate about nine layers down. And developing a clear vision statement is really hard. I tell my folks, it’s like sharpening a No. 2 pencil: you start with a flat end. You put it in, you sharpen it, you take it out, you put it down. You go do something else. You come back, sharpen it a little more, get a little finer of a point, and you just keep doing that.

But it all starts with the leader. We have a process in one of our doctrinal manuals that talks about the commander’s role in shaping and establishing a vision, and it’s understand, visualize, describe, direct. Basically the leader has to have a far broader, more complete understanding of the challenges and issues facing the organization so that he or she can help shape the preparation of the vision. You see that in combat. It all takes place in the mind of the leader. It’s the leader who pulls the staff, because the staff is not as agile as the leader.

So what we tell our folks is, you have to build your understanding. Get outside your organization. Read, talk to subject matter experts. Build your own understanding of the situation. You have to see it clearly enough to visualize it because you then have to describe it to your subordinates in a way that they can understand. They are the ones that will then help you direct the rest of the organization to do it.

Once you have the vision, that’s the “what” you’re trying to accomplish. Then I tell my leaders that they need to involve themselves in the strategy and the policy to accomplish the vision. Strategy and policy are hard. Some of you may have been into the Pentagon, but one of the main laments around the Pentagon is, there’s no policy, there’s no strategy. Why? It’s hard. If it was easy, colonels would do it, is what I tell them. Strategy and policy take the senior leaders’ involvement to get it right, particularly to support your vision.

And the strategy is the how. We’re pretty good at strategizing, but what I get masquerading as strategy is laundry lists of objectives. I’ll tell you a quick story from my Iraq background.We went in there and in 2004 we built a counterinsurgency strategy. We briefed it to everybody all the way up to the President, said it was what we were doing. They all go, yes, good idea. About a year later, got a call from Secretary Rumsfeld who says, “Hadley doesn’t know what you’re doing,” which means the President doesn’t know what we’re doing. So we drag out the counterinsurgency strategy again and we brief them. Okay, we got it. About a week later I get a call from the chairman who says, “I want to send over the Secretary of State’s counselor. I want you to give him full access.” So we did. And he comes back through me and gives the deputy chief of mission and me a short out-brief and he leaves.

About a week later, I’m sitting there watching Secretary Rice testifying before the Senate, and she says, “Our strategy is clear, hold, build.” And I go, what the heck is that? I call my boss, General Abizaid and said, hey, what’s that? He said, “I don’t know.” What it was is a bumper sticker. It wasn’t quite right, but it was a bumper sticker to explain to the American people what our strategy was. So it’s not only important to have clarity of vision, but you’ve got to be able to articulate the strategy with the same level of precision that you do the vision, because it has to permeate your whole organization.

Then the consensus—and this is the fun part. There’s an old adage in the military: Before you can impose your will on the enemy, you have to impose it on your staff. Building consensus starts with the staff. Because I’ll wax eloquent to them and they’ll nod knowingly and they will rush out and come back two days later and only have about 75 percent of what I wanted. So I wax eloquent again and send them out. That’s part of the process, getting them to understand what’s really in your head so they can go out and help you sell it.

I tell my leaders: Building consensus is the senior leader’s responsibility, and it’s not just inside the organization, it’s outside the organization. You’ve all seen the good ideas come screaming through the lower headquarters that get up to the next level of questions and slams into a wall because no one has set the consensus for a good idea. You have to have consensus to accomplish your vision, and that takes resources. And for us, resources are always a fight. But that’s the leader’s job, to go out and get the resources they need to execute their vision.

All organizations have cultures. We have an Army culture, and inside the Army we have all these little micro-cultures. And whenever I’m rubbing up against something that seems like an easy thing to do and I’m not getting any traction, it’s usually because I’m rubbing up against an element of organizational culture.

For example, I went into Iraq with two bits of Army culture in my head that I knew I was going to have to address to develop a counterinsurgency strategy that would be effective in Iraq. One is, at that time in 2004, we were very good at employing lethal force, and that was our option of first choice. And I knew that that was not going to help us succeed in the long haul in a counterinsurgency operation. Second—and I did this myself in Bosnia—was, when you put American men and women on the ground in a foreign country, they will do, do, do. They won’t let anyone else do. We were in Bosnia for nine years largely because at the beginning we did everything for the Bosniacs and didn’t force them to do things for themselves. As I worked on the strategy, I looked to address those two things to give us a better chance of success.

I have also found that is the higher up I go, the more time I have to spend outside the organization setting the conditions for the organization’s success. I tell my leaders, if you’re spending more time inside directing things inside the organization than outside setting the conditions for the success of your organization, you’re putting your energy in the wrong place—and you’re probably making your subordinates mad.

I had lunch with a McKinsey consultant before I took this job to get a sense of how businesses train CEOs to take over, and it’s pretty much the same. But he asked me one question: “Who is most responsible for your organization’s success?” And that’s one of those questions where the more you think about it, the more different ways you can answer it. I thought about it a lot, and my answer was, it’s the people who provide us the resources. Because if I can get the resources, I know what to do with them. If I can’t, I’m managing shortages. So I’d try to set the conditions through the Secretary of Defense and with Congress to make sure that the Army gets the resources that it needs.

Effective organizations are focused on outputs. But big organizations like the Army can be very process-oriented, and we reward ourselves for completing the process, but not getting the output we wanted. For example, you all read about [neglect at] Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] in 2007. We made a huge effort to pile on, to fix the whole process. Then about a year later, we took a look at it and we had not improved the processing time for a soldier through the system one iota.

So we went back and said, what are we measuring? We were measuring the process. How many rooms did we have for the soldiers; how many TVs were in each room; how many computers were in each room; how many nurse case managers were there; how many squad leaders were there. We hadn’t forced ourselves at the beginning to answer the first question: What are we really trying to accomplish?

If we’d forced ourselves to say at the beginning that what we’re trying to do is ensure a soldier gets processed through the system quickly and fairly, we would have measured things differently and gotten where we needed to go sooner. In big organizations like the Army, there’s a lot of process, and people get very enamored with the process, but the process doesn’t always give you the output; but effective organizations focus on the outputs.

I tell our leaders that they are where they are because someone invested in them. And every senior leader has a responsibility to themselves and to me to help me grow the next generation of leaders. I’ve found no better way to instill loyalty up than to invest down. When people understand that you are focused and interested in their long-term success, you get a lot of strength out of that.

We’re pretty good at energizing subordinates. That’s one of Jack Welsh’s four E’s that he always measured folks against. But folks want to be part of something. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be part of a winning team, and the more that we tell them how what they’re doing impacts on the larger whole, the more buy-in we get and the more energy we get out of the subordinates.

I tell them I want them to operate with an offensive mindset. In Iraq we said that you had to have an offensive mindset. The environment was so uncertain that if you weren’t focused on the enemy and being opportunistic, you were always back on your heels. So you had to always be leaning forward. I tell them I want to be out there scratching and clawing for an advantage, to look for opportunities. A lot of effort in the military goes into accomplishing the mission. I say, “That’s okay, but I want you to out and if in the course of accomplishing your mission you see the opportunity to go beyond that, and to realize something you didn’t think you could, then that’s the kind of leader that I want.” I want someone who has the intellect to be able to see the opportunity and the courage to take it.

Then lastly, they’ve got to balance their personal and professional demands. I spent a lot of time talking to leaders coming into Iraq. I talked to every company commander and above who came into Iraq when they first got there and I said, “Look, troops, if you’re going to sustain yourself in this environment, you have to find time every day to read, sleep, exercise and think, because if you do those things, you will be physically, mentally and emotionally in a state to lead.”

We’re all type A personalities, folks in here, obviously. We tend to run ourselves too hard. And if we don’t get ourselves on a program and a system, then we just run ourselves down. And believe me, when you’re in these sustained deployments, you feel yourself getting stale. If I’m not creative, if I’m just going from meeting to meeting, I know I’m stale and I have to shake myself out of it. You have to read something besides your e-mail, your inbox and the intelligence, or you get tunnel vision and when you go on these deployments the hardest thing to get after 30 days is a fresh idea. Where do you get fresh ideas? Books. That’s just the way it is.

The other thing I found in Iraq is that my mind was going so fast all the time that the only way to sleep was to read. Different people need different levels of rest, but you’ve got to get it. I believe the biggest reason for ineffective senior leader decisions is lack of rest. They push too hard, try to do too much. And the problem that looks insoluble at 11 o’clock at night is easier at 7 o’clock in the morning.

Exercise: that’s part of the physical piece of it. You have to do something to get exercise every day. Senior leaders generate a lot of stress, but unlike a company commander, you’re not kicking down doors or climbing over fences, you’re in your headquarters. You have to find a way to burn off that extra adrenaline that you’ve generated. I got four or five days a week of exercise in Iraq, and I was a much nicer person when I did.

Lastly and probably most importantly is to think. I tell our leaders that they need to try to carve out time daily and periodically to think about what it is they’re trying to do. Spend 20 minutes of a day at a time when you are your best, whatever that time of day is for you, by yourself, organizing the short term, figuring out what it is you want to do. In these deployed environments you get so many feeds from so many different directions that all this stuff is rattling around inside your head. You have to take some time to sort it out so that when you talk to your subordinates you’re semi-coherent. Otherwise you just pass on the confusion.

Then periodically you have to get off by yourself and think about what you’re trying to accomplish, get your own sense of whether you’re accomplishing it, and what you need to do in the future. I started off taking a day off every month in Iraq where I’d just stay in my room and I’d read things and then I’d write things, and I’d think about the next six months. So if you think about it—read, sleep, exercise and think—it’s just a way of ensuring that you’re balancing your personal and professional demands.

Then my wife always says this to the spouses: “Find something besides work that you really love to do, and do it, because work is not always going to be there.” It’s coming at me like a freight train, I have about 10 months left. After 40 years, this old dog has to learn a few new tricks.

So those are the things I tell my folks. I hope you might find a few bits of commonality in that for yourselves.

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