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DEF 2015 – the People and the Ideas are the Magic

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“We’re starting an insurgency of critical thinkers” – Darya Pilram, Red Team Instructor

Last weekend was my first Defense Entrepreneurs Forum conference, DEF 2015 . I came away extremely impressed by the diverse talents and intellectual firepower of the participants and their dedication to being positive change agents. Entrepreneurs mixed with active duty military personnel, senior leaders with juniors, Silicon Valley with Beltway, veterans with academics, journalists and authors; despite such obvious differences of perspective, discussion commenced not just with great civility but a sense of fraternity and esprit de corps. “Like a reunion” was how most attendees of DEF 2015 described it.

The conference received special support from The Atlantic Council, The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and their Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Bunker Labs.  Additionally, there was strong representation at DEF 2015 by the U.S. Naval Institute in the persons of USNI CEO VADM (ret) Pete Daly and LCDR BJ Armstrong, editor of the Institute’s 21st Century book series (Armstrong was kind enough to slip me some copies of Naval Strategy and Naval Tactics, edited by Thomas Cutler and Captain Wayne Hughes, Jr. respectively). DEF 2015 was held at the Booth School’s Gleacher Center and the itinerary can be viewed here:

1st Day Agenda

2nd Day Agenda

3rd Day Agenda

#DEF2015 twitter feed

The advantage of the DEF 2015 conference program was the array of interesting speakers and workshops available (more than are listed online) running different lengths of time; the downside was that at some point, you had to miss something cool to do something great. I invested the largest chunk of time in attending the excellent three-part Design Thinking workshop run by Major (ret) John Silk as this had the most added-value relevance to my job, but I would have liked to have also heard the Bitcoin case study, the DARPA talk and the DEF Consultancy by VADM Daly and Josh Marcuse of DoD. Fortunately, many talks were recorded and will be on the DEF site and YouTube once they are edited.

A few highlights from DEF 2015:

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August Cole of the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet gave the closest thing to a keynote speech with his talk Ghost Fleet and the Art of Future War. Cole delved into the utility of artists and science fiction writers in futurist theorizing about armed conflict (one such writer is ZP’s own managing editor, Charles Cameron whose contribution to Cole’s futurism project was War in Heaven) including ” urban warfare in mega-cities”.

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A textbook example of the high quality of F2F interaction at DEF 2015: A debate over the technical, tactical and strategic capacities of drones in non-permissive environments broke out during lunch between VADM Pete Daly (gesturing) and NDU researcher Joshua Steinman (far left) that drew in the rest of the table as well as August Cole and several passers-by.

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Richard Walsh of the U.S. Navy’s CNO Innovation cell advised everyone to “rock the boat” in a way that epitomized Boyd’s maxim of “Doing something” instead of “Being somebody”. Walsh explained his experience in terms of “grit” where people rise to an idea, a philosophy that resonated strongly with the audience.

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William McNulty of Team Rubicon gave one of the most inspiring and moving of all the DEF 2015 talks regarding American veterans who have stepped up to forge one of the world’s most effective, first responder, humanitarian NGOs. I saw McNulty speak about Team Rubicon number of years ago at Boyd & Beyond and it was stunning to hear how the organization has since grown in its reach and capacity to make the world a better place.

It is important also to emphasize that great value of the informal networking times built into DEF 2015 both during the conference and at the evening socials, respectively at 25 Degrees and Moe’s Cantina (both located in the Chicago Loop). I made new friends and met old ones I have known from the strategy-sphere, Twitter and Facebook F2F for the first time. Stimulating convos were had with BJ Armstrong, Nate Finney, Joe Byerly, Josh Steinman, Mikhail Grinberg, Rich Walsh, August Cole, Nick Kesler, “Micah of West Point and “Emily of Loyola”.

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Finally, thanks needs to be given to the DEF leadership team for making DEF 2015 an outstanding success, including but not limited to Ben Kohlmann, J. P. Mintz, Mikhail Grinberg, Jen Walsh and Joe “the Leaderboard” Byerly. See you all next year!

Ben Kohlmann.jpg Mintz.jpg Embedded image permalink Jennifer Walsh Joe Byerly


Military Reform through Education

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

Don Vandergriff facilitating Adaptive Soldier/Leader exercises at Fort Benning

Fred Leland at LESC Blog recently had a guest post up by Dan Grazier from the Project on Government Oversight regarding the important work Don Vandergriff is doing to reform professional military education and training:

Military Reform Through Education: From The Straus Military Reform Project, Something We In Policing Can Learn From

….I had the privilege of experiencing this process with a group of 30 soldiers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians learning about adaptive leadership and mission command. All were teachers from various courses at Fort Benning sent by their senior leaders seeking to infuse new ideas into their organizations. They spent a week learning how to incorporate adaptability into their courses during a seminar taught by CDI military advisor Don Vandergriff and his colleagues with Yorktown Systems Group.

The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists. Instead, the seminar shows soldiers how to incorporate creative and interactive methods that challenge both students and teachers. This results in empowered soldiers at all levels able to adapt to any situation. [….]

….Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, has been on the front lines of personnel reform for many years. While he is most noted for his work at the service level, these seminars seek to transform the Army from the bottom up.

Approximately 20 soldiers and 10 civilian educators spent the week learning various teaching methods through experiential learning, which flips the traditional method military students are used to. Most training today follows the “crawl, walk, run” theory all service members are familiar with. Students are generally expected to complete reading assignments, sit through a PowerPoint lecture, and then finally conduct field training to reinforce what they have learned.

The seminar exposed students to new methods by putting the practical exercises first. For example, the seminar uses several Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) to encourage students to rapidly develop a plan for a military problem presented by the facilitators. TDGs can be created for nearly any kind of a situation, but this course mostly used actual battlefield problems like how to capture a bridge or defeat an enemy force entrenched on a hilltop. While working through these problems, the students are exposed to such concepts as Mission Command and the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act decision cycle, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle.
It is only after the practical exercises that they receive reading assignments about those concepts. Because they’ve encountered them during the exercises, the concepts become more tangible. The OODA Loop, for instance, explains an individual’s or an organization’s decision-making process. It is a difficult concept to truly understand, but it becomes easier when one first sees how it works and then reads about it. The idea is to give them a moment of discovery, that “Ah ha!” moment. Success using such methods is to have a student say, “So, that’s what you call that,” while reading.

Don is making use of several powerful learning methodologies in his Adaptive Leadership philosophy – and I saying “learning” and not “teaching” because Don has properly put the emphasis on the student actively thinking and doing rather than on passively listening to a lecture or discussion. Lecture has a place in education, to explain or to set the student up for new learning experiences, but it should be used sparingly and in short bursts of time when the instructor has carefully set up a “teachable moment”. By having the students doing active problem solving first, they come to Vandergriff armed with their own questions, eager to have feedback.

The use of games are also a very powerful learning tool, perhaps one of the most effective because the situational learning. tends to be transferrable rather than be compartmentalized and isolated information. The right kind of decision games are serious practice for life. This was noted by RAND social scientists way back during the early days of the Cold War:

“The gamers argued that insights arose from immersion in play. In 1956 Joseph Goldstein noted that the war game demonstrated ‘ the organic nature of complex relationships’ that daily transactions obscured.War-gaming gripped its participants, whipping up the convulsions of diplomacy ‘ more forcefully…than could be experienced through lectures or books’.”

” A team from the Social Science Division [ at RAND ] posed a number of questions which they hoped the unfoldig month of gaming would resolve. Chief among them was whether gaming could be used as a forecasting technique ‘ for sharpening our estimates of the probable consequences of policies pursued by various governments’. Would gaming spark “political inventiveness“, and more importantly, how did it compare to conventional policy analysis? Did gaming uncover problems that might otherwise be neglected? And invoking the emerging touchstone of intuition, did the experience impart to policy analysts and researchers “ a heightened sensitivity to problems of political strategy and policy consequences?”

  Sharon Ghamari- Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn

Back to the article:

….Vandergriff’s teaching method incorporates recent research into adult learning, designed “to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress.” This creates a situation where the students learn from one another. Unlike most other military classes, the ASLTE teachers use very few PowerPoint presentations. They also end up speaking far less than the students themselves.

Vandergriff ran the class through the first TDG and led the discussion afterward. From that point forward, students took turns leading the class through After Action Reviews. Students gained confidence in leading such an exercise while the rest of the class bounced ideas off each other. The interactive nature of this kept the entire class engaged and gave all of them ownership of their own learning.

The concept of ownership was a consistent theme throughout the seminar. According to Vandergriff, a good teacher “works to make his students better than himself and encourages them to take ownership of their development, to make them life-long learners.”

Here Don is making use of the social pressure and reinforcement of a Peer to Peer (P2P) dynamic to maintain maximum student engagement while having them practice critical intellectual reflection, something that is a vital constituent of a professional culture of learning. A true professional embraces an honest discussion of ideas and both accepts and gives critical feedback on performance in hopes of learning and improving.

Read more regarding Don Vandergriff’s adaptive leadership methods here and here.

New Book: Relentless Strike by Sean Naylor

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor

I just received a courtesy review copy of Relentless Strike from John at St. Martin’s Press

Increasingly viewed as a “must read” book in the defense community, Relentless Strike is also extremely controversial among its target audience because Naylor’s dissection of the rise of JSOC reveals operational details, TTP and names to a degree that many current and former “operators” view as too granular while others welcome the confirmation and credit of JSOC triumphs that would normally be shrouded in secrecy. David Axe of War is Boring opines that Naylor, an award winning journalist and author, “ …may know more about commandos than any other reporter on the planet” while Jack Murphy of SOFREP has a full interview of Sean Naylor here.

Flipping open to a page at random, I find discussion of a special operator attacked in Lebanon while under unofficial cover during circumstances that remain classified. Foiling an attempt to kidnap him, despite suffering a gunshot wound, the operator covered his tracks, eluded further detection and crossed several international borders before receiving medical care. This gives you some indication of the kind of book that is Relentless Strike.

Full review when I finish reading, but I suspect many readers of ZP will pick up a copy on their own.

New Article: There Are No Tea Leaves to Read About the Mosul Plan

Friday, March 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

There Are No Tea Leaves to Read About the “Mosul Plan”

I have a new piece up at War on the Rocks ( which, by the way, is doing an important Indiegogo fundraising drive):


A mostly forgotten Arab adversary of American influence in the Mideast, the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, once said “The genius of you Americans is that you make no clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them we are missing.”

The Obama administration appears determined to live up to Nasser’s estimation of our strategic acumen.

The latest evidence for this proposition would be the ill-fated affair of the administration’s former battle plan to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the butchers of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Problems began at the inception when the anonymous but official Central Command (CENTCOM) briefer revealed a plethora of sensitive operational details to reporters, a move described by journalists in their stories as “odd,” “very unusual,” “rare.” The stories provoked a firestorm of criticism from members of Congress, the Iraqis, and within the Pentagon itself which predictably led the administration’s numerous admirers in the media to mobilize andtake up a defensive crouch, speculating as to the clever hidden motives for releasing the plan. [….]

Read the rest here.

The dust-up over the Mosul Plan is, in my view, symptomatic of dysfunctional organizational problems, especially with the senior White Hose staff and NSC.  The latter of which is now of enormous size, estimated 400-500 people, depending how you count various civil service employees and military personnel on “loan” from their agencies and departments ( a “mini-State Department”, in the words of one member of the natsec community).

By contrast, Brent Scowcroft helped the collapse of the USSR to a soft landing and managed the Gulf War with an NSC of about 50.

Don Vandergriff on The Break it Down Show

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog Don Vandergriff, author of Raising the Bar and co-author (with Fred Leland) of The Adaptive Leadership Handbook, was a guest on The Break it Down Show:

The Path of Don Vandergriff 

Don Vandergriff is an author of several books on leadership and development, especially as it relates to military strategy or law enforcement.  He served in the Marines and the Army, and still consults for organizations in both the public and private sectors.  

This week he talks with us about where our military organizational structure came from and where it’s headed, and why we need it to evolve like everything else.  Take a listen.  And click on the link below to check out his book, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs

Listen to Jon and Pete interview Don here.

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