The president on Memorial Day announced a new head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking officer in the armed forces and the top military adviser to the president. For a country currently engaged in three wars and wrestling with an inevitable downsizing of its military budget, this is no small job.

Which may help to explain why President Obama appears to have made an about face, so to speak, on who he would pick for the job. Ever since the rumors began a few weeks ago that the president would be naming Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Army chief of staff who was put in that post only last month, much has been made over the fact that he would not be selecting Gen. James Cartwright, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman who was widely said to have the ear of the president.

The explanation seems to be more than just that Cartwright butted heads with outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen. The Post’s Greg Jaffe wrote Monday that Dempsey was favored for his focus on building up the leadership capabilities of the army and the near-term needs of the boots on the ground, while Cartwright was bent on making sure the military had the technological advances ready to fight the next war.

The difference between Dempsey’s and Cartwright’s apparent leadership styles is a classic example of the near-term versus long-term debate. Many leaders wrestle with which one matters more, and how to keep the focus on the next challenge, future technologies and years-out strategic planning—all while making sure needs are met for the people they lead at the moment. The best leaders find a way to do both, leaning one way or the other as the demands of their organization and their people change.

But most aren’t able to do that. The usual complaint is that leaders are too focused on the near term, getting wrapped up in day-to-day crises and not spending enough time laying the groundwork for the future. All too often, they go from putting out one fire to another, sacrificing future security for easier wins today. Rare is it that the complaint goes the other way.

But there’s a downside to too much focus on the future, too. Doing so may help to ensure the right technology is developed, or that the next strategy is in place, but it doesn’t do enough to help the hearts and minds of the people you lead. With three conflicts at varying stages in progress, the military is stretched in a way that is bound to affect troops’ morale and motivation. The Army Times reported recently that not only is the quality of leadership prompting soldiers to leave the service, but that the Veteran Affairs’ suicide prevention line is receiving record numbers of calls. For an armed forces exhausted from ten years of war, knowing that all the right tech will be in place to fight yet another war probably isn’t their biggest concern. 

Dempsey’s attention to developing the leadership of the people on the front lines—he replaced a pricey war-gaming exercise in the Army with a seminar series on building more flexible and free-thinking leaders—he’s putting the right thing first. All the gee-whiz technology in the world can’t make better leaders. But officers who feel their needs are being met and who are skilled at making better decisions can think more soundly about the future wars we will fight.

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