As Conflict Changes, Military Redefines Leadership

April 24, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,

In a crowded classroom above the lawns of the U.S. Naval Academy, midshipmen are getting a dose of reality from a muscular Marine officer in desert fatigues.

"You have to have the willpower to make a decision even when you don't have all the answers, even when your decision is going to get someone killed," growls Capt. Ted Greeley. "Everybody's going to be scared, physically exhausted, unwilling to go on ... but you have to."

Greeley led a Marine rifle company through fierce fighting in Fallujah, Iraq. Now he is at the academy teaching leadership, a subject that has undergone a retooling as the role of military officers in battle evolves.

Driven by the hurricane of change in the kind of adversaries the United States faces today, and in the way wars are fought, the military is increasingly relying on small-unit leaders in a way not seen for generations.

Great fleets once fought naval engagements; today, a single officer decides when and how to execute three hostage-holding Somali pirates. In Afghanistan, huge armies have swept the plains seeking to subdue tribesmen; today, most patrols and firefights are conducted by a few dozen soldiers or Marines and perhaps a single officer.

In response to the growing demand for officers who can command successfully under extreme conditions, the military schools, including West Point, the Air Force Academy and Annapolis, are taking unprecedented care to turn military students into leaders.

"This is core to why we're here," says Navy Cmdr. Stephen C. Trainor, a veteran helicopter pilot with a flock of advanced degrees who chairs the academy's leadership department.

The environment in which today's midshipmen will serve as commissioned naval or Marine officers is described as "hybrid warfare," a lethal brew of extremism, terrorism and more conventional warfare in which stalwart leaders will be valued.

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, warned last month of the increasing risk of foreign conflict ignited by financial collapse and growing Islamic extremism, especially in Europe.

"Our enemies' capabilities will range from explosive vests worn by suicide bombers to long-range precision-guided cyber, space and missile attacks," reads a recent report by the Joint Forces Command. "The threat of mass destruction - from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons - will likely expand. ... "

Old timers say that not long ago, when the military threats were more simple, the academy taught leadership by having the mids read about such masters as Adm. Chester Nimitz, then throwing them out into the fleet to see how well they had learned.

Now, leadership is recognized as having a basis in science. In a recent class, Greeley discussed parasympathetic backlash, the physical and emotional weariness after a firefight, and he offered this warning about decision-making in combat:

"Under severe stress, 70 percent of your blood goes to your extremities. What does that do to your ability to think? How will you prepare for that?"

The academy's answer is, in part through required academic courses in individual and organizational behavior, theories of motivation and group dynamics, science that is linked to the study of such moral philosophers as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle.

This shift in curriculum was overseen by Trainor, who holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Maryland, where he studied with David R. Segal, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization.

Segal said the Naval Academy "for years resisted the notion" that leadership has a basis in science and can be learned from a book.

Now, the officers selected by the academy to directly supervise midshipmen are first sent to the University of Maryland for a master's degree in leadership.

But academy officers acknowledge that leadership can't be learned only from a book. "The only way you can do it is through experiential learning," said Trainor, by linking academic science and practical experience.

The practical experience comes in the academy's vast Bancroft Hall, where all midshipmen live and where they direct all aspects of student life through squads, platoons and companies, and are graded on their leadership performance.

Navy Lt. Bill Lehner, who advises a company of about 200 mids, said his student leaders have had to confront difficult problems: " 'My dad's a Vietnam vet and will be homeless in about two weeks, how do I handle that?' And, 'My girlfriend has been raped.' "

Having sharpened their leadership skills during the academic year, mids are sent out to the fleet during the summer, and they might find themselves having to give orders to smart-aleck, deck-savvy sailors.

"We make sure they are living and breathing leadership everywhere," says Navy Capt. Matthew L. Kunder, commandant of midshipmen.

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