Friday, May 24, 2013

The leadership enigma and sexual assault in the military

Leadership's problem is that it is an enigma. We know it exists, but what it is and how to teach it is as clear as Turner's London. We have a hard time describing what it is but we know when someone has it. It is the reason for an organization's successes, the cure-all to its ills, and the scapegoat for its faults. We prefer to empower people with leadership at the lowest level possible and yet invariably hold the highest levels of leadership accountable when the lower levels screw things up. Likewise, when institutions go awry higher-ups often blame the lower-downs (?) for their lack of leadership.  You have all seen this in the military and civilian worlds, first hand and in the press. What are we supposed to make of leadership from all of this?

Within the military and its circles, including armchair strategists, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prime examples of poor strategic leadership (mostly) and excellent tactical leadership (also mostly). Some of this is undoubtedly true. But many go further. There has been a call for pushing more power to lower leaders: company commanders, platoon leaders, squad leaders. Corporals, the lowest leadership rank in the Army, is now a strategic billet. And yet our generals are glorified tacticians. We need to let these junior guys do what the they think works, in the best traditions of Auftragstaktik, and even let them screw up a bit. The most serious impediment to our Army is that senior leaders -- battalion, brigade, division, corps, and higher commanders -- are standing in the way of the guy on the ground from doing his or her job through the senior leader's micromanagement inspired by his own career interests. You all know the tired, old saying: lead, follow, or get out of the way. We want our NCOs and company grades to lead, the Joes to follow, and everyone else to get the hell out of their way. Or so the argument goes.

But now we have a crisis in the force. Sexual assault, harassment, and rape is entirely too high for an organization that succeeds through its values, such as loyalty, duty, and the oft-maligned honor. No humans should do these things to other humans. Ever. These crimes become even more egregious when they are committed within an institution that demands mutual trust among its people. The stakes of war are too high for this trust not exist. And yet sexual crimes erode that trust in ways that no other offenses do, which is why it doesn't matter that sexual misconduct incidence in the military is lower than it is in the civilian world. The harm is greater in the military. We all know that eradicating sexual misconduct is impossible, but surely we can significantly reduce it through two supporting ways: policy and leadership.

So here we come back to that word: leadership. Leadership, particularly at the highest levels, has been blamed for this rash of crimes. This blame is partially right and partially wrong. Once you leave company command, you really don't get to know your people outside of your commanders two (or three) levels down and your staff. There are just too many people. General Odierno can't personally stop a Sergeant First Class at West Point from filming female cadets in the shower. He doesn't know this E7 and he has hundreds of thousands of people to look after. At the field and general grade levels, leadership is exercised principally in three ways: example, policy, and 'command'. We have a problem when lieutenant colonels, colonels, and generals are harassing, assaulting, and raping. I don't expect SSG Snuffy looks and BG Sinclair and thinks to himself, "General Jeff is doing it so it must be okay." But SSG Snuffy looks at Sinclair, Roberts, or any of the other higher ranking perpetrators -- of which there are too, too many -- and thinks to himself that his Army's leadership is broken and he loses faith in the institution. What sort of system allows predators to climb its ranks? In this way, the few very bad apples are becoming a failure of leadership from the perspective of leadership as exemplar.

Leadership through good policy is a bit harder to grasp. Biannual anti-sexual assault/harassment briefings are good policy in theory, but anyone who has sat through them know how utterly ineffectual they are. As everyone knows this, they question why they are made to sit through them. It reeks of leaders mandating briefings to cover their own fourth points of contact and be seen as doing something. I don't have the answer to the formal education element to the sexual crime problem in the military (I'll leave that to the experts), but the current system is a failure and that does reflect on the leaders who implement it. The other major element of policy has been with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically that generals and admirals have the authority to set aside sentences. This has been done recently in the trial and conviction of field-grade officer in the Air Force and this too smells bad. The perception is that senior leaders are taking care of senior leaders.  With no equivalent in the civilian judicial process, it is curious that this policy remains in military law. Even more curious is that some generals came out in support of the policy in spite of its negative effect on the institution. While many have said they support its removal from the UCMJ, the policy's use and its support has been another senior leader failure.

Command is harder yet to hold accountable. It's having the legal authority (what separates it from the broader category of 'leadership') to tell folks to do things and it's being responsible when they don't do those things. This is where a lot of people, predominantly in my observations those who have not served, place the blame. Generals command the Army. The Army has a problem. Generals are to blame for that problem. This reasoning is not wrong, but it is not the whole story. Yes, Generals Odierno, Dempsey, Casey and Schoomaker bear some responsibility for this crisis because it happened on their watch. That is the burden of command. The question is: what are they supposed to do about it? Frankly, being a good example and instituting effective policy is their primary recourse. Lower commanders, field grades and division commanders, can exert their command influence here by crushing people who violate their unit's and comrades' trust. "Zero defect" is a dirty term in the Army, but it may be time to resurrect it.

Senior leaders do have culpability for the existence of sexual crimes in the force.  There are things, roughly outlined above, that they could do to help improve things. But they alone cannot fix the problem. The only way to get to a Force Zero, if you will, is to exert leadership and responsibility in the two groups that are usually immune from public scrutiny: low-level leaders and individuals. NCOs and company-grade officers clamor for authority and now is their time to really grasp it instead of the typical tongue-wagging about it. I'm amazed that these crimes occur in units and no one seems to know about it. The way to change the culture is for junior leaders to really (I mean really) know their people. To know what makes them tic, what they do off of duty, their opinion of women. They can show true leadership by not permitting misogynistic talk in the office or prohibiting pornography in the platoon area.* A good junior leader has his/her finger on his/her unit's pulse and should know when things are about to go bad or when they already have. The other group is the obvious source of the problem: individuals. Some people are who they are and too many are just bad at being people, that is why Force Zero isn't very realistic. This could crisis could vanish over night if people just acted like people towards each other. To say nothing of people in uniform acting according to the values espoused in that uniform.

The intent of this post is to ensure we, the American public, aren't having knee-jerk reactions about this very serious problem. Yes, senior leaders have responsibility for it happening and for fixing it in the terms I have outlined here. And yes, individual culprits should get the lion's share of the blame as they're the jerks doing this stuff. But it's time we give our junior leaders the responsibilities commensurate with the authorities they say they deserve (and that I argue they've generally had). You want to run your unit lieutenant or captain without meddlesome superiors? Then do it. These problems are on you. If you couldn't tell you had a problem in your unit after something blew up, then you were part of the problem. Tactics won't win wars, but stemming the tide of sexual crimes in the military starts at the platoon. This is a strategic problem that you can mostly fix merely by being there, understanding your charges, and understanding when you need to take action. When the seniors set a good example and provide good policies while juniors take charge of their units and their people, we'll have a better sense of what leadership should look like in the military instead of the finger pointing and soap-boxing we endure today.


*One of my greatest failures as a platoon leader was allowing my platoon sergeant to post nude pictures on the walls of his tank. Other than the flash fire hazard, it was quite embarrassing when we gave a couple of nice female nurses a tour of a tank and his was the only one not locked at the time. They were rightfully uncomfortable through what should have been something cool for them and I was mortified.

3 comments:

  1. Jason, while your comments make sense, there are multiple layers to the problem which are much more difficult to resolve from the top down. One of the biggest challenges we Army CID folks face every day is the high numbers of false or partly-false allegations. There are a lot of reasons for these false reports: fear of being caught committing adultery or another form of inappropriate relationship; intoxication; career extortion; payback for being disciplined; getting out of a deployment, and a whole host of other reasons.
    While we start every sex assault allegation with the presumption the reporting victim is telling the truth, when our investigation reveals otherwise that opens up a whole new can of worms. Why? Well, most commanders and JAG lawyers are reluctant to hold a false reportee accountable, even when there is clear proof of this. Their reluctance is certainly understandable given the long-running spotlight on the epidemic of sex assault incidents.
    Now add the lack of Political Correctness and sexually-charged atmosphere in the military. While there have certainly been improvements, when compared to our civilian counterparts we are still acting like it's the 70's. However, unlike the 70's (when I first came on active duty), there are substantially more women serving in close proximity to the guys. These factors exponentially increase the potential for sexual assaults, especially in our hormone-charged environment. Unfortunately, our culture and leadership at all levels hasn't evolved sufficiently to mitigate these factors.

    Until the Armed Forces adopt a holistic approach to solving this serious problem, we will continue to have politicians and media "experts" advocate knee-jerk, unrealistic fixes. Above all, we do need to create a culture where service members of both genders are free from harrassment and assault.

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