Inspiring future military leaders


What’s the No. 1 way the military could create even better future leaders than it has today? (Sara Winkler/AP)
November 9, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on fixes that could help attract, develop and retain better military leaders.

The enduring challenge is to make service in our all-volunteer force relevant to those who serve today. This must be done without sacrificing the longstanding customs and traditions that define the finest military force in the world. But it requires current leaders to demonstrate they can adapt, recruit and lead a changing workforce in a changing world. It is appropriate that we consider this challenge as we honor those who have served on Veterans Day.

The young people who raise their hand today and swear to “support and defend the constitution” are bright, committed and courageous. But they are not my generation.

 I entered the service before the personal computer, before the Internet, before cable television and before we admitted women into service academies. The challenge of my generation has been to adapt to the inexorable change in our world and the rapid introduction of technology into our lives and profession. What we have experienced as fundamental change is merely a part of the world this current generation accepts as normal. In seeking ways to improve leadership training and development in the military, we must ask ourselves, “Have we continued to learn and evolve personally so that we can credibly interact with our next generation of leaders and translate immutable values, traditions and customs into a context they understand?”

If there were a No. 1 thing the military could change that would produce even better military leaders, it would be for us to collectively commit to becoming even better leaders ourselves.

 It has been said that great leaders are great learners. I believe that. The continual challenge of adaptation and evolution is only met through learning. The best gift that we can give new members of the all-volunteer force is to instill confidence in them that their leaders understand and care about them. That can only be done if we ourselves embrace change and continue to display the curiosity that drives intellectual growth until the day we leave service.

Why is this so important?

First, we can demonstrate the behavior we want them to emulate. We need to have each generation renew their intellectual capital and in turn contribute to organizational learning. If learning is important to us, we can make it important to them.

Second, we need to enhance our own decision-making on technology investments and new policies and procedures in a constrained fiscal environment. This requires innovation that is driven by learning. For example, we cannot make critical decisions on policy or budget matters if we are uninformed or have cut ourselves off from the current revolution in computation, analysis of large data sets, advances in personal electronic devices, the need for interoperable communications, and the increasing role of social media and public participation in any crisis or complex problem.   In fact, these challenges transcend military operations and apply to all facets of government.

Third (and related to the second point), the most vexing problems leaders face are not likely to be solved by a single person, agency, armed force, nongovernmental organization or private company alone. Technology is extremely important but does not offer a simple answer. The complexity and interconnectedness of our world and of the problems we face also demand increased collaboration, cooperation, partnering and networking. In short, we need to create unity of effort to solve complex problems—in the military as at all levels of government—and we must continually seek the personal skills and tools that enhance our ability to do that.

Our young volunteers live and interact in that environment every day and expect it will be the way we lead. Further, it is part of our social contract with the public we serve, who expect a better “whole of government” response to crises and problems. We must demonstrate through our actions that we can unify, not divide. That does not happen by clinging to outmoded concepts and creating ideological isolation in an era that demands national unity.

So as we celebrate the selfless sacrifice of those who have served and those who serve today, let us as leaders commit to improving the leadership development of those who serve and will serve in the future. Let us commit ourselves to lifelong learning, adaptation and the creation of national unity. That will do far more to create future leaders who can succeed, because we will have demonstrated by our actions and behavior that we can solve hard problems. That is the genius of America. Let us find it again together.

Adm. Thad Allen served as the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard, and led federal response efforts for both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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