Just doing it by the book just won't do it anymore

ON EXCELLENCE

December 14, 1992|By TOM PETERS

Today's military academy graduates are entering a volatile world, as are their business school counterparts. Technology is changing the battlefield as much as the marketplace. And national borders are anything but stable. National Geographic expected its 1990 atlas to last five years. No such luck. A new edition, incorporating 14,000 changes, has just been published.

Add it up, I recently told 4,300 midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the young officer must be flexible, devoted to perpetual learning, disrespectful of the status quo and a little crazy -- uncharacteristic qualities for young people who keep their shoes spit-shined and probably salute the family cat during home leaves. I offered the following advice, which I think applies to most of us:

* Stick your neck out. "You can't worry about your career," says the commanding officer of a top-performing Navy ship. "You must be comfortable with yourself. You can't have both the security of 'doing it by the book' and the energy that comes from doing it the way it should be done."

In his stellar autobiography "It Doesn't Take a Hero" (written with Peter Petre), retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf reports bumping heads with conservative Army brass time and again. (On one occasion, his climb to the top was set back years.) Then there's the military officer who probably contributed the most to the postwar defense of the United States, Adm. Hyman Rickover, father to the nuclear Navy. Several chiefs of naval operations tried to fire him and more than one president tried to retire him, but the feisty Rickover stuck to his contrarian beliefs.

* Delegate. Researchers have identified exceptional delegation TTC as the chief trait of successful Army, Navy and Air Force commanders. The best platoon commanders delegate to the corporals who lead eight-person Army squads, and the idea goes from there to the top. President Bush's willingness to let the field bosses make the calls during Desert Storm was in marked contrast to President Johnson's micromanagement of the Vietnam War.

* Put the troops first. Schwarzkopf's lifelong dedication to soldiers is deeply moving. As an adviser to the South Vietnamese army, for instance, he took a stand for decency. Following a tense engagement, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot refused to take out the dead bodies of Vietnamese troops; he claimed it would mess up his aircraft. Schwarzkopf leaped onto the helicopter skid and shouted, "Either you take those bodies or you stay here on the ground, because I'm not going to get off this skid. . . . If you try to take off, I'll shoot you." While Schwarzkopf admits he was bluffing, the pilots got the point -- and the word spread instantly among the Vietnamese.

Every effective leader I've studied enjoys being around soldiers, sailors and clerks, and understands that the front line wins battles -- no matter how sophisticated the new technologies may be.

* Think smart. "To have any hope of victory," Schwarzkopf writes, "[modern] army units would . . . have to be prepared to exercise greater intelligence, flexibility and initiative than could be developed by rote. [The] solution was to take an army whose grand tradition of drill stretched all the way back to . . . Valley Forge and turn it into an army that could think." Agility and brainpower are now the clarion calls of the wise military commander as well as the wise corporate chief.

The Navy, like most large organizations, is reducing its size. For some I addressed, that will mean a brief, unhappy career. On the other hand, I argued, there's never been such opportunity. The military -- like commerce -- will have to be reinvented. Victory will go to those who have the nerve to test the limits, to fail with flair, to keep trying. Got that, civilians?

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Medi Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)

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