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Recommended Reading: Five Notable Posts

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Recently, several notable posts have continued, or amplified the ideas introduced by Lt. Benjamin Kohlman’s post at Small Wars Journal calling on “disruptive thinkers.” I’ll be sharing five posts: three are serialized and offer a historical example of disruptive thinking in the U.S. Navy and the resultant lessons. The fourth is written by LTG Walter F. Ulmer, Jr. (USA, Ret) and defines a major obstacle to the disruptive thinker, namely, “toxic leaders.” The fifth is an current example of a young active duty officer, Richard Allain (USMC) thinking deeply about his profession and offering ideas on adaptability and innovation.

VADM William Sims

Navy Lieutenant Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong wrote a three installment post at the US Naval Institute blog, and his topic was an example of not only disruptive thinking, but of courage, persistence, and what LCDR Armstrong calls (correctly) “grit.” Here is an excerpt from the first installment describing then-Lt. William Sims:

In 1900 he was a Lieutenant, fresh off staff duty in Europe as an intelligence officer.  He had orders to China Station to join the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, the USS KENTUCKY.  He arrived aboard the battleship having studied the early Dreadnaught battleships of Europe and the gunnery practices of both potential allies and potential adversaries alike.

Sims checked onboard and discovered that the Navy’s “newest and most powerful” may have been new, but it certainly wasn’t powerful.  There were a number of problems with the ship.  The hull was armored under the waterline, but the sides and gun turrets were open and un-protected.  The gundecks were so low to the waterline that when the ship was fully loaded and took heavy seas water would pour into the turrets.  And there was no separation of the magazines and the weatherdecks and gundecks, so a hit from an enemy shell could directly access the magazines.

Sims was incensed.  He set about recording the deficiencies.  In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The Kentucky is not a battleship at all.  She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.” 

In the second installment, Lt. Armstrong describes then-Lt. Sims “grit:”

Sims had submitted 13 reports in all, over the span of two years, each one continually improving his method and technique.  When he heard that the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a test and proved that what he claimed was impossible, he finally had enough.  He knew that if the United States Navy went up against a force that was using continuous aim fire it would be decimated.  Destruction of the fleet would open up the U.S. coast to invasion, as the Brits had done in the War of 1812 (a war that was roughly as distant to him as World War I is to us).  He believed that the nation’s security depended on his success.

Lieutenant William Sims did something that he later characterized as “the rankest kind of insubordination.”  He wrote a letter to the President.

Writing the President is is pretty disruptive, and the President read the letter and acted.

LCDR Armstrong, in his final installment called, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look at the Possible:

Finally, we all need to learn to listen.  This is especially true as we become more senior.  Today we may be the junior leaders, but that means tomorrow some of us will be the mid-grade leaders, and in the future some of us will be the senior leaders of the Navy.  Sims is proof that when you remember it’s not about you but instead it’s about the idea and about the Service, you can continue to innovate as you are promoted.

These three posts are exceptionally relevant, and highly recommended.

LTG Ulmer’s essay in Army magazine, June 2012 issue, is titled: Toxic Leadership, What Are We Talking About? General Ulmer defines toxic leadership:

Defining toxic leader is the first priority before addressing numbers, impact, cause and solution. Webster’s defines toxic as poisonous, not far from destructive or harmful.

Toxic leaders are a major obstacle, and according to General Ulmer’s essay, make up almost 10% of the Army’s officer corps. General Ulmer goes on to define precisely toxic leaders in the military context, explain how they continue to survive, and offer solutions. His analysis is lucid and spot-on. The other services could learn from the Army’s lesson, and take positive action to separate toxic leaders using indigenous resources—essentially using the personnel system to weed these folks out:

A very good soldier and scientist, LTC Larry Ingraham, now deceased, commented on the dramatic differences among subordinate reputations of senior officers, saying that the personnel system that cannot distinguish between the revered and the despised must have a fundamental flaw.

The final essay comes from today’s Small Wars Journal. The title is Innovation in a Small War, and is truly an exercise in deep thinking on how the Marine Corps plans, adapts, innovates, and fights. On creativity, Allain says:

Current theories of creativity support a process consisting of four key themes.  Creativity results from the invention and bounding of a problem, deconstruction of existing mental concepts, synthesis of these concepts in a new way, and test and development of the novelty to become valuable.

Allain recognizes the institutional obstacles to innovation:

It is clear that we need both innovators and adaptors within the Marine Corps to execute our doctrine.  Without a balance we can stagnate or fluctuate wildly, rapidly finding ourselves unable to cope with structured or unstructured situations.  While Marines are elite, they still have a spread in distribution of natural talents and attributes and exercise a spectrum of adaptive and innovative thought processes.

He concludes:

The field of military innovation studies must expand its orientation and re-examine the interconnectedness of adaptability and innovation, appreciation and leadership, and military effectiveness.  Specific focus should be given to the aforementioned instances of resistance to innovation.  It created stagnation and inhibited learning, a sign of ineffectiveness under this theory, and deserving of analysis.

Allain’s essay, along with the other posts, should be required reading for all are instructive, and all offer examples and solutions—and I would offer, an inspiration to those members on the fence about wading into the debate.

Well done to all!

ADDENDUM to original: Mark Tempest over at EaglesSpeak links to some insightful posts (duplicating a few above), and makes a good point about age (us old guys), illustrating you can teach an old dog new tricks—if the dog is paying attention…

Cross posted at tobeortodo.com

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