September 1, 2009  

Technology’s limits

The best leader is a human, not a machine

Leadership, in its purest sense, is a human-to-human interaction. For our armed forces to remain the best in the world, it must remain a people-centered profession. We throw up this cautionary flag because of the ever-changing information technology (IT) world in which we live.

Have you ever received a last-minute tasking from higher up to complete (online) some type of mandatory training (risk assessment, sexual harassment, IT security, etc)? Perhaps you have received a requirement via e-mail for everyone in your unit to conduct a command climate survey? Have you ever had to complete a risk assessment, or have your automobile inspected, to travel less than four hours? At some level, our military is managing its service members by automated and mandatory knowledge management systems.

State-of-the-art knowledge management is an enormous force multiplier. Imagine the supply sergeant who can quickly get the sizes of every soldier in a unit by the click of a button, allowing a quick reorder of uniforms. Consider a corpsman who knows the blood type and allergies of a Marine as he heads back to a FOB on a medevac. Knowledge management is fundamental in any organization, and we do not argue against this.

However, we do argue against using mandatory knowledge management solutions instead of selectively using them to enhance an organization. Consider the combat-hardened platoon sergeant, who dispenses risk management daily to hundreds of soldiers, having to complete a mandatory risk assessment form to drive two hours on leave. Consider a Special Forces soldier, well-versed in guerilla warfare, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, forced to click through an annual online counterterrorism class. What about an all-male Marine platoon at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, being required to conduct an annual sexual harassment class? Are these examples of the best use of our time?

Do not misunderstand us. We do not argue that risk management, counterterrorism, sexual harassment and IT security training are not important. They are all vital subjects for our armed forces. What we do argue is that our commands should allow subordinate leaders the flexibility and judgment in how and when we receive the training and how to manage the systems that record this training. A Special Forces command sergeant major should be allowed to say, “Thank you for the PowerPoint deck on risk management, but my people have received other training on that subject.”

Technology at a cost

In terms of a specific piece of equipment, one of the purposes behind the new Future Combat Systems (FCS), whatever the capabilities of the final version, is to improve battlefield situational awareness, facilitate communications and enable real-time sharing of information across future battle spaces. There is no doubt in this age of technology that FCS will meet all these requirements, if not more — but at what cost in terms of leadership and the human capital enterprise?

When units begin fielding FCS, leaders from the brigade down to squad level will be “fully wired” to view the same digital picture that commanders throughout the chain of command can see in their command posts. In theory (and contractual statements of work), FCS will assist in the domination of asymmetric ground warfare. Also, again in theory, FCS will facilitate junior leaders to act independently and decisively without having to seek guidance from higher headquarters. Our military needs to seriously think through the second and third order effects of this future high-tech capability.

The Army is in the process of reassessing its leader development strategy, with one goal being to accelerate leader development. Because of all the incredible, and constantly changing, advances in technology and the capabilities of the FCS, the Army will have to implement a new strategy to educate, develop, and prepare soldiers and leaders in the domains of leadership, intuitive decision-making and the operational art. These developmental experiences will require innovative methods to influence soldiers through purpose, direction and motivation: the essence of leadership. “Visualization” and its mental processes in decision-making are all very important under conditions of battlefield uncertainty. Leaders need to be able to feel the battlefield, and their soldiers need to make timely and effective decisions. FCS will require leaders who can make correct and timely decisions while looking at screens with 20-plus icons involving combatants, non-combatants and friendly forces. Also, FCS will have the capability to delegate the command-and-control processes, a traditional responsibility of the ground tactical commander, to a leader at the squad level.

The human dimension

The one thing FCS cannot and will never replace is the human dimension of leadership. FCS is a “hard science,” while leadership is a “soft science.” Words such as “empathy,” “motivation,” “trust,” “commitment,” “brotherhood” and “hooah” cannot and will not be programmed into FCS. But these constructs are the intangibles that make up the difference between winning and losing. The bonds that service members build while enduring months of hardships together, under strong ethical leaders, result in winning, effective teams. FCS will never replace that.

FCS will allow units to gather, interpret and move information faster than ever before. However, we caution that fielding this new technology has the potential to completely change the dynamics of leadership in combat. In years to come, as FCS is fielded to the military, we recommend a simultaneous implementation of “intuitive decision making” at all levels of leadership — squad to brigade. Perhaps a starting point could be the required reading of “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Our all-volunteer armed forces are made up of some of the finest human beings in the history of our country. Its people deserve no less than the best leadership we can give them. It is often said (in jest?) that the Navy and the Air Force man their equipment with people and the Army and Marine Corps man their people with equipment. Leadership is about leading human beings — not machines and databases. Let’s keep it that way.

Lt. Col. Joe Doty is deputy director of the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic at West Point, N.Y.

Maj. T.J. O’connor teaches at the Army’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at West Point.

Maj. Joe Gelineau is a former Special Forces officer who works at the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Monroe, Va.

The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.