July 1, 2007  

Technology and leadership

The ubiquitous nature of data and technology, which transforms every soldier and pilot into a node in a network-centric environment, is irreparably changing existing leadership models for the military.

Until recently, collection assets would feed information up the line to divisional commanders and they would pass it up or parcel it down on a need-to-know basis. However, today, many war fighters have access to the same data as their commanders and are being given the opportunity to not only critique that information but also to act upon it independently of commanders’ orders.

As a result of everyone having access to the Global Information Grid (GIG), leaders are faced with the challenges of commanding young men and women who have been plugged in to communications and entertainment devices since they were kids, while at the same time respecting the traditional pyramid model of command. In many instances, the growing pains are obvious.

“There’s no way to run a military without a hierarchical structure,” said retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan. “When you hook everyone up to the Internet and give them processing capability, you are essentially flattening the chain of command. If everybody is making independent decisions, the likelihood they will be coordinated to a mission goes down.”

Odom said that what we’re experiencing today are “constipated information channels” and “diarrhea of the e-mail.” Both have increased the capability and propensity of senior leaders to micromanage from afar. The question now is whether the military can develop senior commanders who will allow lower commanders to make decisions — and then stay out of their hair and live with the results.

The technology of 2010 offers commanders an unprecedented ability to control events on the battlefield through direct interaction with a soldier on the ground or a pilot in the cockpit.

“There’s a real danger of the 5,000-mile-long screwdriver that lets a commander stick his hand in where it doesn’t belong,” said Dan Kuehl, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is director of the Information Strategies Concentration Program at the National Defense University. “The technology allows that possibility. Technology exists for the president in a bunker in the White House to watch a screen in an airplane and tell the pilot, ‘No, no, don’t hit that — hit this instead.’ Do you want that type of micromanagement? I think not.”

There is a fine line that separates where a commander interjects himself into a tactical operation from where he hangs back and lets his subordinates make their own decisions, for better or worse. Determining which path to take is a human question, not a technological question.

“Technology is never going to replace the human in warfare,” Kuehl said. “But the human that recognizes what it can do and use it effectively will have an advantage over the human that doesn’t. At the same time, the human that puts too much reliance on a silver bullet is as much at risk as the human that places no faith in technology.

“The sense I get from students who were battalion commanders in 2003 in the drive to Baghdad is that they are still somewhat distrustful of technological promises and whether the technology will work. That is the most normal reaction in the world when you’re putting your hide on the line. The Army and Marine Corps are, at their heart, human operations. As they see and experience the technology working in major exercises or find ways they can use it operationally in combat, their faith will go up.”

There’s no going back to pre-Sept. 11 days in terms of technology, particularly because the generals who ran America’s previous all-out war, the Persian Gulf War in 1991 — all of whom commanded without the benefit of the Internet, and who would have likely dismissed it as little more than a toy — are all retired now, replaced by a new breed of tech-savvy commanders.

“The people flying combat missions in 1991 are now in their 20th-plus year of service and are colonels and above,” Kuehl said. “They were the ones that began to have the advantages of pulling targeting data from someplace else and putting it into the cockpit. They were the first to benefit from what we know call the GIG.”

chain of information vs. chain of command

“This is a trend going across the entire economy,” said Irving Lachow, senior research professor in the Information Resources Management College at NDU. “When information is concentrated at the top, leadership or management is more directive: ‘You will do this or that.’ The issue is getting people to do what you want them to do. Whereas if people have the ability to contribute to the decision, leadership changes.”

That leads to the creation of the mission-type warrior who works most effectively not when he’s told what to do but when he’s given a goal. In other words: Don’t tell me what to do — tell me what you want accomplished.

“The German operational model in the 20th century gave a great deal of tactical and operational flexibility to the guy on point,” Kuehl said. “That’s what this technology lets you do. The technology of the GIG gives lower levels of command the ability to go out and accomplish the mission once they know what the mission is.

“However, can higher levels of command step back and let them do it without telling them what to do? There will be an awful lot of trust needed on both sides.”

Access to information has always meant power. Those that had more of it led; those with less followed. Today, it’s not that commanders have less information, it’s that their subordinates have more.

“What happens is that I don’t own this anymore, and because I don’t own it, I don’t control it,” said Col. Bryan Bartels, chief of the Global C2 Systems Development Division at U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike and Integration. “If I no longer control the data, then I no longer own the whole thing, and if someone has more information than me, he can take it away.”

That’s a fear Bartels said today’s commanders must get beyond, and quickly.

“A chain of information is not a chain of command,” he said. “In the past it was. Now, because I can get information and pump it out through the pipes, I have no right to keep that information. It’s not my information. The issue of ownership is less important; more important is that we can work together on something. The ‘power of one’ concept gets much stronger. If you’re not willing to share your information then you start to become irrelevant. Commander’s intent becomes more important in a chain like that.”

The most effective leaders in the future will empower subordinates to act on information that falls in their areas of expertise and foster collaboration between staff and the war fighter.

“Subordinates are making collaborative calls across staffs, and maybe the boss is not even aware of it,” said Bill Waddell, director of the Command and Control Group at the Army War College. “That is a change in the way information is empowering folks.”

It is very much akin to the Wikipedia model, in which users can comment and edit everyone else’s comments. Eventually, a more robust picture is created and users can, for the most part, rely on the validity of the data.

“The idea is more of a Wikipedia because everyone is watching it,” Bartels said, adding that a blogging system in which everyone can read entries and comment on them would have to be filtered to prevent commanders from being inundated with too much noncritical data. “In the information age, you know exactly who is putting information into the pipeline. You become very accountable because of everybody else.”

That means mistakes in judgment or analysis can quickly be traced back to an individual. “The intent is not to slam someone but to get out the truth,” Bartels said. “People are going to be accountable and evaluated, and they can very quickly be retrained, if necessary.

“When you see the power of it, people get convinced very quickly. If I share information and I get 10 times more back, it helps me do my job better. In this environment, you get immediate feedback on the commander’s intent because he’s in the environment with you.”

Maybe more germane to the discussion is not the Wiki model but “The Wisdom of Crowds” model. As presented by James Surowiecki in his 2004 best-selling book, leaders make better decisions if they listen to a diverse set of voices on an issue — rather than surrounding themselves with like minds or one or two true experts — because the biases of a more diverse group cancel out each other, leading to a more considered decision. It’s the thinking behind putting 12 strangers on a jury.

Military decision-making is not a democracy,” Lachow said, “but if people can provide useful information, it will create that wisdom-of-crowds effect.”

Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has been at the forefront of using wisdom of crowds in the forms of blogs to collect a wide variety of opinions on a subject before making a decision. He provided an update in March at the Net-Centric Operations Conference in Norfolk, Va.:

“The problem with the blogs is that people treat them like the chain of command. I can’t put something into the information environment until I staff it, which is just 180 [degrees] out of where you want to be. The first six months, we had a few people blogging and it was kind of the same people all the time on events. So you’d see something like a period of interest or a period of activity gets declared, and people start to focus on a certain place on the face of the earth and information starts to flow very quickly, then it slows down.

“You go, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ ‘Well, I can’t give you this until I clear it with my boss.’ ‘Let me help you out here. Either you give it to me now, or I fire you and your boss.’ We had a breakthrough. Six months later, we retrenched. It’s culture. It is. We had to break through again.

“[Then] we went through what’s called the tethered goat phase. The commander made the decision and then he asked Lance Corporal Cartwright to blog it so that it looked like everybody was participating. We kind of fixed that. But the idea here is, it’s not your rank, it’s not what you wear on your collar, it’s your contribution. That’s the measure of merit. It’s not the chain of command. It’s the chain of information. They’re not the same. If they’re the same, I can’t win, and that’s tough.”

It is possible that approach will help decision-makers quickly get to an 80 percent solution where they can feel comfortable making decisions with the information at hand, rather than waiting to collect 100 percent of the data.

“If you look at people who get a lot of information — cops, surgeons — they know what pieces of information to look for and don’t worry about the little stuff,” Lachow said. “They have an instinct or sixth sense; their subconscious mind looks for patterns. That’s why training is important. You have to train people to operate in simulations where they are presented with too much information, and let them make mistakes.”

It goes back to a Carl von Clausewitz theory on the difficulty of building a battle plan with little information, but with a 21st-century difference.

“Now the scarcity is of time and attention, not data,” Kuehl said. “The problem is how to get five critical nuggets of information out of the 500 nuggets that have been presented to you. You can have too much information.”

For commanders to find those key nuggets, filters on that data will be essential. The technology to filter is readily available, and many of us already use filters every day when we set our computer home page to display particular stock quotes, sports scores and local weather.

Too Much Information

Widespread access to data also raises the question of whether troops would fight hard if they knew they were being placed in a dire situation in which it was likely their lives could be sacrificed. Would the battle of Stalingrad have turned out the way it did if Gen. Vasily Chuikov’s 16 Soviet divisions knew they were about to be attacked by a German army of 500,000 men? Waddell doesn’t think so.

“Access to information tells them in the foxholes that things aren’t as bad as rumor has it,” he said. “More knowledge is a better thing and is an advantageous way to approach a campaign. It empowers troops to prepare better for the next fight. Information empowers optimism. In this day and age, no commander is conducting a Pickett’s Charge,” he said, referring to a bloodbath on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in which the Confederates suffered a 50 percent casualty rate.

“We’re seeing more and more enlightened leaders who are using information to their advantage and empowering subordinates,” Waddell said. “This, however, puts pressure on subordinates. You don’t want to be a major or captain sending up information and getting slammed because it is not accurate.”

It also puts pressure on the commander to control the potential overload of data by dictating the ebb and flow of information and setting priorities by turning particular issues on and off.

The onus on making too much information work is multifold: It is on the boss who must set priorities, it is on the staff officers taking care of the boss, and it is on subordinates to ensure that collaborative information is passed along.

Leaders must do three things to deal effectively with the flood of data today. First, they must make sure their subordinates understand the objective. In other words, the commander’s intent must be clear. Subordinates need to understand the ultimate goal, so communication and motivation are key.

Second, the commander must clearly articulate boundaries so subordinates have some freedom of action within a defined envelope. The commander can’t predict everything that will happen, but he can set broad guidelines for the people acting under him. On the corporate side, this rule is epitomized by a company like Toyota, which has given certain assembly-line workers the power to stop the line if something’s wrong but doesn’t let them look at financial records.

Third, the commander must set the rules of engagement. On the military side, such rules might be “don’t fire unless fired upon” or “don’t bust down doors in a culture that finds that tactic extremely insulting.”

“Leaders must prepare their subordinates to operate in a networked, horizontal team-oriented collaborative environment,” Lachow said. “It is a question of training. Leaders have to learn to let go a little bit and understand that they don’t know everything and aren’t always right.”

The military will demand a more fluid command culture to accommodate the larger number of people who will have access to information and be able to offer insight into that information. By “fluid command culture,” I mean one in which once a decision is made, it is constantly revisited in the light of new information.

“Military genius operates with no rules and is free to roam,” Odom said. “It’s an instinct where a commander can see imperfect information and draw effective conclusions. You’ll never have total awareness. What you can do is have rapid corrective feedback when things go awry if you get accurate reporting. However, no IT system will overcome the capacity of leaders to make misjudgments.”

Barry Rosenberg has covered aerospace and defense issues for two decades.