Friday, February 06, 2009

Do You Be Somebody? Or Do Something?

An interesting snippet from a speech given by our Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama, last April, where he talks about Col. John Boyd, the "architect" of the American victory in Desert Storm.
As this new era continues to unfold before us, the challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.

Let me illustrate using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant and a Secretary of Defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War. Boyd’s contributions will resonate today. Many of you have studied the concept he developed called the OODA loop– and I understand there is an “OODA Loop” street here at Maxwell near the B-52.

In accomplishing all these things, Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character – had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: “one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”

For the kinds of challenges America will face, the Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders – men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.

This range of security challenges – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers – cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success to a large extent will depend less on imposing one’s will on the enemy or putting bombs on target – though we must never lose our will or ability to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others – friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that, until recently, was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles in the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, Texas A&M, and now the Department of Defense, the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change. The really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission. All of the Services must examine their cultures critically, if we are to have the capabilities relevant and necessary to overcome the most likely threats America will face in years to come.
Secretary Gates may have been speaking to up-and-coming military officers, but his observations fit with any organization that (as nearly all do) develops a bureaucracy, large or small: business enterprises, schools, social service organizations, churches, etc.

Hat tip to Gary North's Specific Answers.

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