American national security policy is in a time of transition. The wind-down of the war in Iraq and the continued (if lately delayed) decrease of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have coincided with a major shift of national focus and resources to the Asia-Pacific, an increasingly aggressive Russia, and now-ubiquitous cyber threats. Five years after the start of the Arab Spring, moreover, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa remains uncertain, a paradigm exacerbated by the rise of ISIS and the controversial first steps toward nuclear détente with Iran. All of this has occurred with little or no change in the seriousness or persistence of the asymmetric terrorist network threat that has pervaded the American consciousness since 2001.
These realities make this an especially interesting period for those military officers whose most profound career transition – from the role of a junior officer in a tactical position to that of a more senior officer who must lead an organization and shape strategy – aligns with these external geopolitical and global security shifts. The manner in which these officers confront their new roles will be critically important: experienced enough to know the consequences and tribulations of leading operations at the “tip of the spear,” they are the only individuals in the country who will have the ability and opportunity to shape and lead the respective branches of the American armed forces as they enter a new era.
Of course, leading an organization through external transition while simultaneously undergoing personal and professional transition implies some unique difficulties that emerging leaders must confront. Foremost among these is the fact that the threats and military operations that the U.S. must now prepare for are in many ways different from those that junior officers have faced over the last fifteen years. A proliferating and diversifying set of global threats will mean that these officers will likely be forced to grapple with novel situations, and even be motivated to shape distinct organizational cultures, as they move ahead in their careers. While their experiences are what make them the right people to lead the military into the future, it will be their ability to think and act in a much broader context which will ensure their success.
But how can one accomplish this? How can an officer ensure an approach to organizational leadership that is both rooted in important personal experience and open to being shaped by emergent circumstances? While the exact answer to that question cannot be the same for every individual, there are three important elements that each officer should incorporate into her or his approach to making this leadership transition: (1) while your particular operational experiences are unlikely to be exactly replicated, they have taught you important lessons; drawing from your years of practical leadership, ensure you know which values, policies, and ideals are unchangeable; (2) the knowledge of what is unchangeable is the greatest aid you have in being able to make change – once you know what cannotbe altered, by definition you know what can be adapted to address new circumstances; (3) having come to an awareness of what can and cannot be changed, steep yourself in the widest possible variety of information and expertise, and use it to fearlessly pursue the organizational change in which you believe.
“All courage is a form of constancy” – Cormac McCarthy
Adherence to given principles is an inherent part of military service; core values and organizational features, such as the chain of command, give armed services their identity, ensure they have the trust of the American people and its political leaders, bind individual service members to each other and to their predecessors, and, perhaps most importantly, allow for mission accomplishment in the most trying of environments. Strict observance of these unshifting aspects of service can often be difficult, involving hard decisions and physical danger, but it is absolutely necessary.
Those service members now rising out of the “junior officer” ranks have undoubtedly proven their staunch adherence to organizational and ethical fundamentals – their continued promotion would certainly be proof of that fact. Paradoxically, it is that very adherence to the unchangeable that actually frees the individual to become adaptable and effect meaningful change. This is because an individual endowed with a strong identity can maintain a consistent, positive character and purpose through any challenge. Knowing whom oneself is and what one’s organization stands for gives an individual wide latitude in achieving established goals.
Indeed, the American armed forces have repeatedly acknowledged and sought to build upon this phenomenon in their most important strategic guidance. The most recent revision of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, for instance, notes the need to “[develop] leaders who personify their moral obligation to the naval profession by upholding core values and ethos,” while also advocating an “approach that adapts to the evolving security environment,” and stating the intention to “create more adaptive and agile warriors.” The 2015 Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Planning Guidance begins with a list of “Enduring Principles,” stating immediately thereafter that “these principles define our identity as Marines and a Marine Corps…Our shared responsibility is to remain true to these enduring principles as we innovate and adapt for the future.” The Coast Guard’s Commandant’s Strategic Intent 2015-2019 recognizes that “the Coast Guard’s leaders…must be grounded in the core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty,” while noting that “a leader should have the flexibility and resiliency to succeed in dynamic situations.” In short, while junior officers have already proven commitment to unchangeable standards in difficult circumstances, they will be expected to seek ways to adapt their organizations to face new challenges as they graduate to more senior ranks.
“My favorite definition of leadership is the ability to reconcile opportunity and competency” – ADM Thad Allen, USCG
Once an officer is armed with a strong sense of what is changeable and what is not, he will realize that the realm of the changeable is vast, while the scope of his own knowledge is inevitably narrow. Because of this, education and exposure to new ideas and perspectives are critical in building the capacity to lead change and take action in areas and contexts. Speaking of his leadership of the federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen emphasized this idea: “good leadership requires flexibility, agility, and curiosity”; “the more you’re a lifelong learner, and the more intellectually curious you are, the bigger the base of potential you’ll have to build on when the opportunity presents its