Leading With Two Minds

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, ours, The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, and several recent columns by David Brooks speak to the notion that culture matters. All three authors also support the notion that cultures can change – sometimes very quickly.

Gladwell writes of the cabin crews at Korean Airlines that dramatically improved airline safety after David Greenberg was brought in from Delta Airlines to change the cockpit culture. The Golden Age describes how Jewish culture was permanently altered when the Diaspora caused rabbinical Judaism to make literacy mandatory for all Jews.

David Brooks’ May 7, 2010 New York Times column (below) speaks to how quickly the culture of the U.S. Army has changed – in part because of the work of General David Petraeus.

They say that intellectual history travels slowly, and by hearse. The old generation has to die off before a new set of convictions can rise and replace entrenched ways of thinking. People also say that a large organization is like an aircraft carrier. You can move the rudder, but it still takes a long time to turn it around.

Yet we have a counterexample right in front of us. Five years ago, the United States Army was one sort of organization, with a certain mentality. Today, it is a different organization, with a different mentality. It has been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye, and the story of that transformation is fascinating for anybody interested in the flow of ideas.

Gen. David Petraeus, who had an important role, spoke about the transformation while accepting the Irving Kristol Award Thursday night from the American Enterprise Institute. I spoke to him and others about the process this week.

The transformation began amid failure. The U.S. was getting beaten in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Captains and colonels were generally the first to see this, but only a few knew how to respond. Those who did tended to have dual personalities. That is, they had been steeped in Army culture but also in some other, often academic, culture. Petraeus had written a dissertation on Vietnam at Princeton. H.R. McMaster, then a colonel, had also written a book on Vietnam. Others were autodidacts and had studied the counterinsurgency tactics that had been used in Malaysia, Algeria and El Salvador.

They’d been trained to use overwhelming force to kill bad guys. They’d been trained to see terrorists as members of networks, almost like computer networks, and to focus on disrupting the nodes where networks joined. But in the theater they sometimes saw that the more force you unleashed, the more enemies you generated. The network metaphor could be misleading because it ignored geography, the importance of holding ground.

Dissenters, nicknamed COINdinistas, arose, but it was hit or miss. (COIN is military-speak for counterinsurgency.) There was no overarching Army doctrine. In 2005, Petraeus left Iraq and was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to write a counterinsurgency field manual.

After Vietnam, there had been a tendency in the Army to regard the news media and academia with suspicion. But at their seminars, the COINdinistas welcomed academics, journalists and human rights activists.

A university is structured differently than the Army, but the COINdinistas adapted. Their magazine, Military Review, became a military version of Partisan Review in the 1950s. They sponsored essay contests. When the British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster wrote a scathing takedown of U.S. counterinsurgency practices, it was not only published, but distributed among the brass.

The manual, published in December 2006, celebrated paradoxes like, Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be. It codified best practices, but it still faced opposition  from generals who wanted a light footprint in Iraq, from others who wanted to keep blasting away without getting mucked up in community-building.

Petraeus and others had to go on a base-to-base campaign tour, selling the approach, especially down the chain of command. Many people join the Army to kill bad guys, not to build fisheries. The COINdinistas had to persuade them to get out of their trucks and wear less body armor. Soldiers often became receptive on their second or third tours of duty, after they had killed plenty of insurgents without result, and seen buddies lose limbs.

Then there was the institutionalization process. Some of the training programs were still preparing soldiers for tank battles or big urban warfare. They were scrapped. A course at Artillery School at Fort Sill in Oklahoma was shut down because the students, back from Iraq, knew more than the instructors.

In the new courses, officers practiced negotiating with sheiks. Bands of bloggers were set up to help those in Iraq and Afghanistan share information with those about to deploy. Gen. Ray Odierno adjusted the balance between combat and community operations.

There are still gaps, but now when you talk to soldiers, you see that the counterinsurgency doctrine has been bred into their bones. Now some say that the approach codified at Fort Leavenworth has become so dominant that it is actually stifling innovation. This is a complete intellectual sea change.

The process was led by these dual-consciousness people,” those who could be practitioners one month and then academic observers of themselves the next. They were neither blinkered by Army mind-set, like some of the back-slapping old guard, nor so removed from it that their ideas were never tested by reality, like pure academic theoreticians.

It’s a wonder that more institutions aren’t set up to encourage this sort of alternating life. Business schools do it, but most institutions are hindered by guild customs, by tenure rules and by the tyranny of people who can only think in one way.


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