FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Friday, February 17, 2017

How to Create a Successful Operational Commander--JPME Operational Art Essay

Link to all my grad school notes and papers here.

What traits or skills do you think an operational commander should have to succeed? How does a nation find and develop superb operational commanders? Is there a template for creating an operational commander?

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more.
These are the opening lines from the “Qualifications of a Naval Officer”—a verbose exhortation commonly attributed to John Paul Jones that all incoming plebes at the United States Naval Academy are required to memorize. Failure to instantly recall the qualifications in their entirety (at any point during the initial year) will not only invoke the ire and wrath of the upper class midshipman but will often yield a requirement for the deficient plebe to write out the qualifications as many as 100 times. While this sophomoric anecdote may be amusing on the surface, the importance attributed to John Paul Jones’ advice proves a useful starting point by which to examine the core requirements for a successful operational commander since the bulwark of success rests upon not just on tactical proficiency—but also a “great deal more.” The ability to evolve and progress beyond tactical prowess into excellence at the operational-strategic level is the single greatest skill required for a superior operational commander. The Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) syllabus was a byproduct of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1987 and serves as a partial template for creating future competent operational commanders. A complete standardized template, however, will likely never exist since the development of a superior operational commander requires significant initiative, professional curiosity and dedication by the officers themselves. A complete solution would involve using the JPME syllabus to equip tactical commanders with the necessary tools to evolve but would also demand some codification of the nearly intangible “superior understanding” needed to excel at the operational level.
In analyzing Dr. Milan Vego’s framework, mentorship, global situational awareness and an exceptional staff emerge as the baseline template to prepare an officer for success at the operational level. This preparation, however, is for naught if officers fail to plan and prepare for the personal challenges and familial sacrifices associated with operational command.


Dr. Vego offers three categories that provide a framework for analyzing the characteristics of a superior operational commander: personality traits, professional knowledge and command style. Central to his thesis is an emphasis on a requirement for officers to study, think and write about superb historical military commanders. While such study is important, young officers would be well-served to expand beyond Vego’s emphasis on 19th and 20th century leaders of large-scale armies to include contemporary operational leaders as well as those commanders in their immediate proximity. This expansion reframes the future leader’s focus from searching and recounting a laundry list of desired adjective personality traits (an overwhelming distractor in much of Vego’s writing) derived from leaders 100-200 years ago to evaluating those leaders that he or she would want as a mentor. The idea of mentorship should be central to developing successful operational leaders; developing officers must seek out those above them and leaders must be proactive in guiding, shepherding and developing those same officers. Because much of operational leadership cannot be taught in a classroom but is instead learned on the battlefield (or command center), it is imperative that this experience does not disappear into a vacuum but is instead captured and passed on. Finally, seeking out a mentor requires substantial humility (in embracing that help is needed for future success)—a trait sorely missing in many leaders—whose counterpart, pride, has proven to be the hamartia of countless leaders in the 21st century.
Global Situational Awareness
Much of the knowledge required for operational leaders today is institutionalized in the JPME system. The recalcitrance of the majority of the military leadership at the highest levels to reform during the battle to pass the Goldwater-Nichols Act, however, serves as both a reminder of the difficulty in reforming institutions as well as the periodic importance of it. This defense reform ultimately called for the subjugation (at times) of service interests for the greater good of the defense at large. The ability to acknowledge and manage this hierarchy and tension is at the heart of operational leadership. While JPME provides a starting point for an aspiring leader, this quest must expand further at the personal level to include not only one’s theater of operations but also to its adjacent peripheries (i.e. from the Area of Responsibility to the Area of Interest). Practically this means studying the history, culture, literature, language and politics within one’s theater. Over the course of a career this type of intellectual curiosity serves to ultimately enable situational awareness at the global level—a necessary attribute for a successful operational leader. While tactical leaders today may not know which theater may contain future operational leadership opportunities, they do can and should study national policy. Thus when the president emphasizes a “pivot to the Pacific” (where the Navy has already long been focused) young officers should take heed and begin studying potential adversaries or partners (i.e. China) early on in their career. Enabling what Napoleon called a knowledge of “the map” (i.e. the enemies limitations and possibilities) can only be the fruits of a decade -long holistic pursuit.

No Commander is an Island

While education, experience and mentorship play pivotal roles in preparing officers for operational leadership, no single factor has a greater influence on their success than their staff. It is through this relationship that a leader’s operational command style emerges. This style is markedly different from command at the tactical level as it requires the leader to educate and encourage subordinates to make their own decisions. Such delegation is paramount as it gives the operational leader time and space to focus on the wider campaign/theater operations. Such a relationship is impossible, however, without open and clear two-way communication. Former Defense Secretary Gates assertion is apt that the leaders of the 21st century must reflect candor, credibility and dissent. For the operational commander this means creating a climate in which staff members opinions are not cloaked in political platitudes but instead embody earnestness and truth. The commanders themselves must be forthright in leveraging their own tactical credibility to disagree with the civilians above them (privately) but also be loyal in carrying out their ultimate decision. The staff members themselves play a crucial role in the success or failure of an operational commander. While a good officer may spend his career dutifully studying China and the Pacific, he could find himself as an operational leader in Africa. In these scenarios the military is well-poised to advise the operational leaders with their Foreign Area Officer Corps. A long-time branch within the Army, these officers begin their careers at the tactical level before transitioning to the FAO community (in the Army and Navy). As a senior staff member, a FAO provides decades of regional theater experience and knowledge to the operational leader. The leader must ensure that he or she is familiar with the experience and background of his staff, however, to full realize its potential.

“In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.”

These final words from Jones’ “Qualifications” serve as sage advice for the operational commander. Such perfect estimation, however, is difficult given the path and requirements to attain such command. This challenge is amplified given the contemporary media environment in which the operational commander must not only maintain the esteem of his military subordinates and counterparts but also that of the public. The work ethic necessary for placement and promotion to operational command requires the officer to subjugate his personal life (i.e. his spouse and children) to a secondary or even tertiary tier. The effects of this choice may be evident in the proportion of commanders relieved for sexual offenses in the past eight years (30% of all firings). While true causation would be difficult (and largely fruitless) to prove, it is a monumental task to be successful as both an operational commander and as a spouse and parent. While often sensationalized, recent news headlines should still serve to reinforce that operational commanders must be on guard at even the appearance of impropriety. When an operational commander is relieved, the military loses decades of investment and the public’s good faith. The majority of lurid news headlines could have been prevented had the commander followed something as simple as ensuring they were never alone with a member of the opposite sex—a maxim that should be widely distributed amongst an operational commander’s staff. The personal challenges for an operational commander are myriad and to be successful it is imperative that the commanders actions and words are beyond reproach.

Ultimately the mark of a successful operation commander is the ability to plan and connect major operations and campaigns to operational and strategic objectives. Operational vision encompasses not only this ability to plan and execute but also to apply this acquired wisdom to emerging and still unforeseen challenges. Successful operational commanders of the future must build this vision through two-way mentorship, a global intellectual curiosity, strategic staff selection—all while proactively balancing the personal and professional in an exemplary manner.
Combining these groomed traits and skills with a baseline of joint professional knowledge (i.e. JPME) during peacetime exercises and wartime campaigns will create officers prepared to transition from the tactical to the operational level of command.
One must acknowledge, however, that as the nature of warfare changes, so must the professional military education. The map that a future operational commander must master will include dimensions far more complex and dynamic than that of commanders from even two decades ago. His or her success will hinge on an ability to predict and prepare for these dimensions.

Reef Points: Naval Academy Customs and Traditions. Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Academy, 2012.
"Sex is Major Reason Commanders are Fired." Associated Press, accessed January 20, 2013, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=169830619.
Gates, Robert. "Reflections on Leadership." Parameters no. Summer (2008): 5-13.
Jones, John P. "Qualifications of a Naval Officer." United States Naval Academy, accessed January 20, 2013, http://www.usna.edu/StrategicPlan/naval_officer_quals.php.
Salmoni, Barak A., Jessica Hart, Renny Mchperson, and Aidan Kirby Winn. "Growing Strategic Leaders for Future Conflict." Parameters Summer, (2010): 72-88.
Vego, Milan N. Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2007.

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