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In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

4 Responses to “In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    You’re pretty quick off the Mark, Zen! I’d just finished reading Fallows in the Atlantic and a couple of the pieces he linked to including Vandegriff’s truly impressive 2005 CV, and turned to ZP and found you’d already posted here.
    My best wishes to Vandergriff, whom I undoubtedly first heard of on ZP in a piece from 2008 that also mentioned me. Yoda I hope he becomes.
    About Andrew Marshall. I associate that name with wargaming, and sure enough I’ve found a Stanford paper — funnily enough, in a volume titled Collection, Laboratory, Theater: Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century, but also available online, Theaters of War: the Military-Entertainment Complex — that mentions Marshall and his interactions with James Dunnigan.
    I’d be very interested if anyone knows of a more detailed account of Marshall and the history of war games, or for that matter, any wargame of particular note.

  2. zen Says:

    Thanks, Charles!
    Andrew Marshall was at RAND in its golden age which may be the wargaming connection. Most of what he has written is classified and as a professional eminence grise, he was publicity-shy. Tom Barnett did a few seminars or projects with Marshall and reported to me that Marshall was pretty reticent with his comments, even in private workshops.
    Here’s a recent post that has some good Marshall links. Adam Elkus took a grad class on Net Assessment methodology with one of Marshall’s proteges and can probably be more helpful.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    John Robb on LinkedIn:

    Excellent! Don Vandergriff has his hat in the ring to replace Andrew Marshall at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA). He’s got my support. Anyone know who is pulling the trigger on this appointment? Also, who else is in the running?

    Wish I could figure out how to link to a LinkedIn post like this…

  4. Anthony Alfidi Says:

    Don Vandergriff would be an excellent choice to succeed Andrew Marshall. His books on leadership should be required Army War College reading in a just world.

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