New Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey can count on many areas of expertise during his tenure leading the nation’s armed forces. The four-star general is experienced in the geopolitics of the Middle East after serving as an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s security forces. He was the architect of the Army’s revamped training and command doctrine in recent years.
And clearly, he is a thoughtful student of leadership. We know already that he is known for focusing on the low-tech aspects of leading the military, favoring seminars about flexibility and free-thinking leadership to high-tech war games. He appears to be a voracious reader of management books, calling the excellent Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty and The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations two books he’s recently read that illustrate his priorities and concerns. And he can speak eloquently about how he hopes to lead and reshape this country’s military in a time of great change, stress and budget constraints, as illustrated in a Q&A in the new Academy of Management Learning & Education journal, released Oct. 17.
In the interview, which was conducted by Duke University’s Sim B. Sitkin and Devin Hargrove, Dempsey expands on his ideas about leadership development in an armed forces that is scaling back its role in active conflict, how the military will need to reshape its command-and-control hierarchy, and the ways in which the armed forces will need to change its thinking about military careers. It is a thought-provoking and insightful interview that holds lessons not only for military leaders, but for anyone leading an organization on the brink of major change.
It is both rare and refreshing to see that someone in such a position of power not only is truly versed in some of the most forward-thinking ideas about leadership, but that he embraces them. Here, a few highlights from the interview I thought worth sharing:
· What makes a good leader at 20 is different than at 50. All too often, organizations take a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating leaders, applying the same tests of strategic vision, humility and integrity to both first-time managers and senior supervisors. Dempsey says in the interview that for his most junior commanders, the most valuable trait is inquisitiveness. For mid-level officers, it’s their ability to adapt. And for senior leaders, it’s how well they innovate. That quality, he says, “is the ability to see things changing before they begin to change, so you can get ahead of it.”
· To develop leaders, deliberately introduce chaos. While not a wholly new idea, Dempsey’s discussion of this concept is thought provoking. He notes that Ori Brafman, the author of the aforementioned The Starfish and the Spider, is working on a new book and “has almost convinced me that in leader development, chaos is an imperative. Think about that—the idea that you would deliberately introduce chaos into leadership experiences and see how different leaders react to it.” We may have enough chaos in our lives, he says, but he’s coming around to the idea that the only way to really test leaders is to see their response when confronted with turmoil. A wise idea in a tumultuous world.
· Don’t forget “lateral leadership.” The military is a pretty hierarchical place. That works well in conflict, when it’s trying to seize terrain or defeat an opponent. But in an armed forces that does much of its work building security forces and maintaining what gains it achieves, a more decentralized approach will increasingly be necessary.
To change the military’s culture so that peers remain competitive—but also collaborative amid these increasing demands for decentralization—the Army has been creating social networks to help build relationships between leaders and creating more training opportunities between peers. “That appears to have enormous potential,” Dempsey says. “You identify certain informal leaders very early on and instead of having the 40-year-old Drill Sergeant bludgeoning the learning into you, you allow peer-to-peer learning to take place, overseen of course, by the expert.”
· Military leaders need sabbaticals, too. The armed forces have long been an up-or-out career, driven by a rigorous hierarchy and carefully orchestrated promotions. But Dempsey questions the wisdom of having military officers who have not worked outside the armed forces. Having a “menu of options” for the most senior 40 percent of the armed forces to work outside the military, or even outside of government, would do more than broaden their development as leaders, Dempsey says. It would also help to reinvigorate the passion senior officers feel about their affiliation with the military.
He talks of his own years outside the Army—he spent two years at Duke and taught at West Point for five years—as an eye-opening time that helped to refuel his career. “I came back a clearer thinker, a better communicator. I came to the conclusion that this career was right for me because I had seen other possibilities; interacted with some of the best and brightest of America; and came to the conclusion that I thought that Army was right for me. I happen to believe that were we to [let officers leave on sabbatical and return to the military], we’d have young men and women in the second decade of their careers apply a different kind of passion to it. I have to figure out how to afford to do it.”
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