Obama’s general?

June 6, 2011

Amy L. Fraher is a retired Navy commander and aviator, and director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College. She is also the author of Thinking Through Crises.

This piece is part of a roundtable with Post columnist Steve Pearlstein and four of our On Leadership expert contributors about the leadership questions surrounding Gen. Cartwright’s pass-over for promotion to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Anyone who thinks that promotion to key posts in the armed forces, or in any competitive organization for that matter, is more about performance than politics  is out of touch with America today. Whether in academia, government service or the corporate world, what a leader does off duty, and with whom, can often outweigh on-duty contributions. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

With 40 years of military service, Marine Gen. James Cartwright certainly knew this, as did Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Yet, they both join IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn as some of the latest reminders of how fragile a leader’s informal authority really is.

On the surface, the sins which appear to have lost Cartwright consideration as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are fraternizing with a female captain (he was cleared of this charge) and disagreeing with superiors. But what really seems to have tanked his nomination was the cozy relationship he developed outside his direct chain of command with President Obama, earning him the Republican nickname “Obama's general.”

In his effort to encourage open communication, free thinking and dissent among his administration’s inner circle, it seems that President Obama helped Cartwright sabotage his own authority within his peer group. Instead of soliciting other points of view within an open forum, meetings were reportedly held in camera. Sidestepping his direct chain of command, Cartwright had the president’s ear. It was akin to bypassing one’s supervisors and going directly to the boss. We all know this can appear like schoolyard tattling and doesn’t endear anyone to their fellow employees.

Whether Cartwright actually did this, or just contributed to the perception that it was occurring, became irrelevant once he was tagged as “Obama's general.” The way around it from the very beginning would have been open public dialogue and transparency, which could have avoided the perception that he was developing a special relationship with the boss. Still, a word of advice to leaders: If you’re interested in fostering a culture of freethinking and dissent, you need to help protect the long-term careers of those who participate.

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