Unicorns At War: Leadership in the Army

This post first appeared on Medium here. It has been reposted in its entirety.

A famous person once said, “No modern army has ever lost a war when they had unicorns on their side.” I have not found any empirical evidence to show that this is not the case, so the adage must be true. Unicorns are hard to find these days. Some say they vanished with the Great Flood. Others say knights hunted them into extinction in the early Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome. I have my own theory: unicorns got tired of being surrounded by sub-par beings and shuffled off this mortal coil of their own accord. Unicorns were supposedly marvelous beasts, with magical properties, who were both ferocious in battle and noble in peace.

Why, you may ask, am I speaking of unicorns? Just as unicorns have faded out of existence yet live on in popular legend, so too is the specter of true leadership slowly fading in the military. By this I do not mean that the Army has stopped producing excellent leaders. In fact, I think that the all-volunteer force has done an outstanding job of producing leaders at lower level. They have found how to balance the dual challenges of taking care of Soldiers while achieving the mission. Company grade officers and NCO’s have managed to fight a war without a foreseeable end (or, sometimes, a goal) for the past decade while still preserving the professionalism and ingenuity that have characterized the best of Army leaders.

But when an officer or NCO moves past the company level, a change happens. And I will speak to the officer aspect of this change, as it is what I see as an officer myself. When a captain transitions to major, or enters a staff position, they have to give up some of their deeply-held principles in the name of “being part of the team.” It begins at the battalion level and worsens as you move up to the brigade or division level. The further an officer moves away from seeing the battlefield as an E-4 or E-6, the further they lose the ability to understand the company perspective. This exhibits itself in several ways: lack of trust in subordinates, a refusal to accept that some problems need time to solve, risk aversion (due to career consequences), and a lack of innovation. Officers adopt a cookie-cutter way of thinking, not taking into account differences in capabilities between different companies, or even support and maneuver elements. Innovation dies in an environment that does not support independent thought.

Good officers fight this mentality as long as they can, but at a certain point, they are forced to give up their principles in order to advance to the next rank and “see the battlefield from a mission-directed perspective.” But if Soldiers are not being taken care of, then what is the purpose of the mission? Leadership continues even if you are not actively leading Soldiers. The military has recognized that this a problem and has termed this “toxic leadership.” Toxic leadership has a long term and very grave effect on Army leadership. Junior leaders, who do a great job at their level, look at their peers who have moved on to the next level and wonder what happened. They fear that they too will have to compromise their principles in favor of their career, and many opt to leave the Army altogether. This causes the best and brightest to leave, meaning that many of those filling senior Army positions are the ones who did not mind compromising their principles. Obviously, these are not the officers who would be preferred to be at the head of Soldiers.

But this does not mean that there are not good leaders at senior levels. Many do manage the difficult transition from company grade to field grade without compromising the key points of leadership. Which brings me back to unicorns. These officers are the unicorns of the Army. When you find them, you are surprised, and Soldiers gravitate to them, thereby creating a positive and innovative environment. This then, is the question: how do we bring the unicorn out of extinction and make it the norm? This is the question the Army will have to address as we attempt to move out of an era of persistent conflict into a more stable environment.

But until then, if you find a unicorn, shake their hand and try to stay with them for as much of your career as you can. They are indeed magical creatures, who change everyone they meet for the better and drive them to improve.


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