Quickie: Senior Officers and Intellectual Leadership

Excerpts from USAF Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap Jr.’s piece in the Spring 2009 issue of the Strategic Quarterly Studies. A must read not just for officers in our military but also for those aspiring for leadership roles in our civilian agencies, including our Foreign Service:

[I]t is imperative that those of us involved in formulating and executing national security policy educate ourselves broadly about our service and our agencies, about other services, and about national security matters writ large. Advocacy is not, however, a risk-free enterprise; it is an intellectual contact sport of the first order. Leaders should expect their views to be hotly contested. In many instances the counterpoints will be expressed thoughtfully and at length—but also unsparingly. Such exchanges nevertheless can be productive, because it is often through engaging opposing perspectives that truth can emerge.
The reality for senior officers is that their advocacy puts more than just the individual officer at risk. It is the family, as well as all of those within the organization who are looking to that person for leadership and mentorship, who will likely suffer if a penalty is to be paid.

For all the well-intentioned rhetoric about encouraging “out of the box” thinking, it is naive to believe that the “system” necessarily protects innovators or intellectual iconoclasts. Being “right” is no insurance policy either.26 In the real world, happy endings are not guaranteed. In his speech to the Air War College in the spring of 2008, Secretary Gates was candid about this truth.27 Using the legendary Air Force reformer Col John Boyd as a “historical exemplar,” the secretary eulogized Boyd’s contributions to airpower thinking while recognizing that he was “a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character” who engendered much resistance in the Air Force’s bureaucracy.
Leaders need to lead. In the case of generals especially, that sometimes means speaking and writing about doctrines which they find ill-serve the Nation by failing to fully utilize the capabilities of the whole joint team.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? In my nearly years of service I’ve experienced some terrible things—I can still recall, for example, the stench of rotting corpses in Somalia. Yet the most heartbreaking scene I’ve personally witnessed was at the Dover AFB mortuary. To see the bodies of young American Soldiers neatly laid out in their dress uniforms—but forever to be silent—is something that will haunt me forever. Do not we—all of us—owe such heroes our level best to try to find a better way?

The Contact Sport Senior Leaders Must Play (pdf)
Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap Jr., USAF
Excerpted from Strategic Quarterly Studies