Raising the bar

Donald E. Vandergriff
Major, US Army (Retired)

Washington: Center for Defense Information, 2006. 115 pages.

Chet Richards
Editor, Defense and the National Interest
January 7, 2007

Available from Amazon.com.

Thanks to the US Army’s brilliant personnel policies, we taxpayers are now paying at least twice as much for Don Vandergriff’s services as we could have had by simply promoting him. But it’s a good deal for Don, and considering how many billions we waste on weapons systems to defeat the Soviet Union, we’re still getting a bargain.

What we’re getting is the most thorough look ever on how to create leaders for highly irregular conflict, where creativity and initiative – what Vandergriff calls “adaptability” – in accomplishing a mission become vastly more important than rigid discipline in following orders.

Vandergriff begins by observing that the Army’s problem is the same as for any large, successful organization: Its structures, doctrines, and personnel policies were optimized for a different situation and cannot be simply “transformed” to deal with a radically new one any more than a locomotive can be transformed into an airplane.  Too many people have built reputations and careers through the old system. He argues that the most effective way to change the Army is by changing the way new leaders are trained and what they are trained for. Then, as these leaders migrate through the system during their careers, the Army will change along with them in an inevitable, organic process. “Changing the culture of the Army and the military is generational and begins with the Army’s newest and potential leaders.” (p. 24)

This approach is battle tested – the Marine Corps used a similar strategy to inculcate maneuver warfare, beginning with courses in the Amphibious Warfare School in the mid-1980s and culminating when Col Mike Wyly and his team produced FMFM1, Warfighting, in 1989. The new doctrine was tested in Desert Storm and then employed with a vengeance in the 2003 “march up” to Baghdad. With the selection of General James Conway to lead the Corps, graduates of this program have now taken command.

In the case of the Army, Vandergriff insists that fundamental ways of thinking about conflict must change from defeating other armies in set-piece battles to successfully resolving “fourth generation” conflicts that are practically never decided by battles. He characterizes this change as a shift from “linear” to “complex” thinking.

Many others, of course, have made this same observation, and Vandergriff duly acknowledges the big names in the field. Where Vandergriff makes his original contribution is in proposing specific methods for creating the leaders who can carry out the program of change that he envisions. He calls his methodology the “adaptive course model” (ACM) and states its purpose as “ … creating leaders who understand and practice adaptability, while encouraging Army senior leaders to nurture this trait in their subordinates.” As he notes, to accomplish this purpose, the ACM must encompass three elements: a culture of learning, a program of instruction designed to nurture adaptive students, and a corps of highly trained and competent instructors.

Vandergriff does an admirable job of explaining each element, and interested readers should consult his 40+ page Chapter 3, Creating Adaptability, for the details (for those who prefer the PowerPoint version, we have it conveniently available here on DNI). It is worth noting that he draws on the latest research on leadership, including the data supporting the concept of “recognition-primed decision making,” and employs a variety of techniques to make the program as “experiential” as possible. The name of the game is “adaptive leadership,” and under Vandergriff, you’ll be doing a lot of it.

Will it work? I am pessimistic, not because I doubt the power of his methodology – similar approaches have worked in the past – but because Don and I differ on the role of the Army itself in fourth generation warfare. Frankly, I don’t see one. It’s quite likely that Don’s recommendations can create a better Army, but how do we judge “better” in a world where the threats appear to be nuclear-armed states on the one hand and shadowy, transnational “terrorist” groups on the other? It’s not clear that we would risk land combat against the former and it certainly isn’t clear what role the Army can play against the latter. To the extent that this view is correct, the Army doesn’t have much incentive to change its comfortable culture in order to become more relevant in the 21st century.

One group that can adopt Vandergriff’s ideas is modern business. Many of the techniques he recommends to create and evaluate adaptive leaders in the Army will work with obvious modifications for business. They are sorely needed: As Deming preached, virtually all the problems of US industry over the last generation can be traced to failures of leadership. It’s instructive to contrast senior military and civilian leaders on this point. The top generals of the Army really do see their people as their primary resource, and they aren’t reluctant to spend money to develop them. To be competitive for promotion, for example, officers need to spend four or five of their first 20 years improving their civilian and military educations at the Army’s expense. This is not a philosophy that permeates private industry: An executive vice-president at Wal-Mart, for example, complained to the board in October 2005 that workers with seven years experience at the company cost more than new hires but were no more productive, a statement that would flabbergast any military professional.

For those who do want to improve the performance of their companies by improving the capabilities of their people, Vandergriff’s little book cuts through the fluff and delivers a tightly packed duffel bag of philosophy, ideas, and techniques, many of which were tested by Vandergriff himself during his years of training future officers (he was ROTC Instructor of the Year in 2003).

Put it to good use – you’ve already paid for it.  

Other articles by Don Vandergriff

Return to DNI Home Page