30 October 2014

The Kind of Guys You Go to War With

Though I finished Moneyball during the early Fall, a perfect time to think about baseball-- I wasn't really reading a baseball book.

Its author, Michael Lewis, was no doubt fascinated by the sport. It's hard not to be for Bay Area resident, I suppose. But Lewis made his name as a financial writer, and his previous book was about an eccentric tech entrepreneur named Jim Clark, who founded Netscape and took it public in 1996.

When I first started teaching at an entrepreneurial charter school network in 2005, our hyper-creative management team recommended Moneyball as a textbook for understand data-driven decision-making.

What could any of that have to do with military operations? At its essence, the bestselling baseball book is probably more appropriate as a case study about how to approach classic problems in new ways. And the military always has classic problems.

A few insights from the way Billy Beane made the underdog Oakland A's one of the most competitive teams in Major League baseball are appropriate for leaders in all organizations-- particularly the Army.

Beane Took a Unique View
When one of the Oakland Athletics' outfielders asked his team for a desk job in 1990, management was perplexed. The GM, Sandy Alderson, was brilliant-- an Ivy League lawyer and former Marine-- and decided to include Billy Beane in on his new style of mangement. So he hired Beane, who in turn tried to learn everything he could about running and organization from Alderson, who didn't have much of a history with the particular organization he was trying to transform. By 1997 Bean was the general manager. 

Bill James was the godfather of sabermetrics, an insurgent movement caused baseball as a social club to become more exclusive and defensive for a while. But Beane didn't let his pedigree as a blue-chip baseball recruit and young athletic phenom, or his status as the general managers of a storied and successful baseball franchise to prevent him from looking at the social club form the perspective of an outsider. He was the ultimate insider, but chose to break the rules. 

Too many leaders get conservative once they are put into a position to actually make a change. Beane has enacted certain rules to prevent him from becoming a victim to caution and conservatism:
  • No matter how successful you are change is good.
  • The day you say you have to do something, you're screwed.
  • Know exactly what every baseball player is worth to you.
  • Know exactly who you want to acquire and go after him.
  • Ignore the newspapers.
The third and fourth rules might not have much bearing to organization generally, or the Army in particular (though they certainly might). But one, two, and five seem like they could be chapters in a Peter Drucker book.

Change is good. If nothing more, forcing change requires leader to perpetually assess strengths, weaknesses, assets, and capabilities.

Hatteberg the Mindful
Lewis uses the word, "thoughtful" to describe how Hatteberg approached hitting. As a Red Sox, Hatteberg was frustrated by his team's preference for aggressive, reckless hitting, rather than his predisposition to bat informed and patient.

The most reliable organizations rely on the Hatteberg types, at least when it comes to high-stakes operations. Scholars call it "mindfulness," rather than "thoughtfulness," but it describes the same thing-- purposiveness and deliberation. These are the hallmarks of getting things done. When Soldiers are at their best, they are mindful.

Scott Hatteberg was the epitome of Oakland's system, which was implementing a plan and executing it systematically.

Guys You Go to War With
And about Hatteberg, he became a pretty good first baseman, despite the fact that he was scared to death standing there. One of Oakland's coaches, Ron Washington, was skeptical that the former catcher could turn himself into a respectable baseman. Writes Lewis:
Wash what he made of the transformation of Scott Hatteberg into an above-average first baseman, he just shook his head and smiled. "He made a liar of me," he said. "Now he goes out and does what he does and he's a ballplayer, reacting." Then he'd think about it for a moment and say, "These are the kind of guys you go to war with. The Scott Hattebergs."
Would you go to war with Scott Hatteberg because he could catch balls and tag runners out at first? Maybe. But Washington would go to war with him because he could put his mind to getting the mission done. He didn't dwell in his weaknesses, but worked hard to overcome them. The best leaders get guys to do this every day, and the best Soldiers make a lifestyle out of it.

This is likely my last Moneyball post, but I'll read it again and again.

26 October 2014

The Legend of the Kosovo Eight

Sometimes a one-hit wonder needs to let well enough alone.

We had a major hit back in 2009, when our group toured Kosovo. We were known then as the 69th PAD, and we were rockstars. Great leadership, energy, and moxie. The chicks really dug us.

A certain COL Cooper didn't have much use for us, except for s few silly command photos and slices of Anthony's pizza (that he got by crashing our pizza party), but we got pretty big audiences with our photos, videos, and the mother of them all, The Guardian East magazine. Think of it as our White Album.

The magic and Glory came to end end around December 2009. The band fell apart, each of us going our separate ways. The leader, CPT Jonathan Masaki "Mahalo" Shiroma got promoted and went on to a solo career. MSG Paul Wade also left, then there was no keeping us together.

One member (He Who Must Not Be Named) departed before we finished touring. SGT Pepper, Swatts, Smith, Samudio, and I went home to fading memories of our greatness.

Our bassist and rhythm guitarist-- Samudio and Smith-- found new band to tour with. They played much bigger venues, like RC- East in Afghanistan. Places with crowds much bigger than we could have dreamed in Kosovo.

Kosovo was intimate, like the club scene of the Beatles' early Liverpool days.

But Afghanistan? Tough. Samudio came just after Kosovo. The man re-classed to get here. That's Army-speak for, he went to school to learned a new trade so he could deploy with a combat unit. So he's one of the few triple-qualified military police/ public affairs Soldiers in the Army. I'm pretty sure he volunteered just so he could make a cool documentary, but carried a big gun and saw combat.

Nevada Jack Smith went to a different state to get on an Afghanistan deployment. It was Hawaii, so we can't give him too much credit for sacrifice, but they did deploy to RC-South where things were a bit hairy. Less coffee and yoga back then.

Swatts went on to a tour in Iraq, which was probably then like Afghanistan is now. But these places are always risky, and it was no Kosovo. the pressure was high. It was the big time for all of them.

I bring this all up because I get teased for having it easy. Guilty as charged. I would not wish for combat action, and every time I here someone in operations tell me they're having a boring day I reply, "Good. Means we're doing our job."

Most deployments for most Soldiers are not year-long versions of Lone Survivor. They are more like bad vacations.

And public affairs Soldiers have it particularly easy. We complain about not having enough compact discs and limited access to YouTube. I wouldn't do any other job in the Army, though, unless of course I was ordered to. But no one orders us not to complain, because it is what Soldiers do best.

But these guys volunteered for the fight. That's the mark of a true warrior.

As our good captain (he is a major now, but he will always be "commander," to me) put it in more or fewer words:
Whether you get into a gunfight or not, whether you primarily reside on a FOB or go out of the wire everyday, you wear that uniform in support of our operations overseas. You should be proud of what you have done and our nation thanks you for it. I personally am proud of you in your respective roles in OEF. You have stepped up to do something very few other Americans your age have. 
I should also mention that MAJ Shiroma did a previous tour in Iraq, where his job as a HHC commander and PAO did not spare him the horrors and stresses of modern combat.

 am enormously proud to have played with these guys, and I respect them for standing up to fight. I think of them often as I enjoy iced coffee inside the wire at a relatively safe Bagram Airfield.

Man, the band should really get back together.

21 October 2014

Engineering and SeaBeeing in Kabul

It looked just like "the point of the mountain," a colloquialism in Utah for the Jordan Narrows, Draper, and the boundary between Salt Lake and Utah Counties.

The similarities-- geographic-- are uncanny. But the architecture is other-worldly, to me. The suburbs of Kabul are like an ancient mockery of South San Francisco-- tightly-packed row houses in dingy pastels cubed together in neatly lined streets that defy the mountain terrain.

The flight from Bagram Airfield to the place called NKC (New Kabul Compound) was about 15 minutes. I may have written before, and I will certainly write it again-- a Black Hawk flight will always be cool. Only two of us left the bird at NKC, and CPT Packer was there to greet me.

I was invited (read, "ordered") here to cover an important milestone in the westernization of the Afghan military. A special engineer unit of the Afghan National Army constructed a Mabey Johnson bridge. Now I'm not sure how momentous that is in the grand scheme of the War on Radical Islam, but it's a big enough deal to send me up to cover it. 

And I think it's kind of a big deal because it's a concrete step toward Afghan self-sufficiency. The larger mission of getting these guys to operate independently is really the culmination of thousands of these steps. And too often Soldiers forget that the step doesn't just happen because we are telling the other guys that we are leaving and they'll have to do it on their own. 

If I tried that approach in a high school math class ("Better learn this stuff or you'll be screwed next year in Trig!") without actually teaching, evaluating, and reteaching, I'd be fired.

Imagine how difficult it would be to stand up a modern Army along American lines. Or, just read the news about Afghanistan and you'll get a pretty good idea. Of course, culture and language are easy scapegoats, but the sheer monstrosity of the task is the biggest challenge. 

We're asking them to build an organization of a half a million personnel, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of totally foreign equipment, develop systems from scratch, and oh, fight a war while they're doing it. 

Robert Gates notes glibly in his memoir (I've got an only slightly lame "review" of it here) about similar phenomena in Iraq and Afghanistan. He complained about American politicians' impatience with the governments in our two war zones, and pointed out that it has taken the U.S. a couple hundred years to get some of these systems working. And Congress is still as dysfunctional as ever!

War can be a crucible to make things happen quickly, too. But if left to their own devices, these guys would fight it the old fashioned way-- the way we asked them to fight the soviets. Isn't that interesting? 

Anyway, it's fascinating to catch a glimpse of what "Train, Advise, and Assist" really means in one particular unit. Today it means that an engineer company can complete a fairly complicated, if routine, task on its own once ISAF leaves.

Maybe the reason this was so successful is because the Navy did it. It was a Navy Mobile Construction Battalion that got the ANA engineers up and running. Fun fact: The name, "Seabees" comes from CB (construction battalion). 

I was thoroughly impressed with them. And that's not to take anything away from the engineer Soldiers who advise the ANA brigade, but it has always seemed to me that Sailors are more systematic and particular about things because working at sea has a way of forcing efficiency and reliability. (Karl Weick began his illustrious career in studying reliable organizations on an aircraft carrier). 

Also, I was invited to eat with the honchos. I'm certain it was by accident, but I quite enjoyed the rice nonetheless. 

Tomorrow I fly back to BAF. It's fun being expeditionary for a few days. It was fund hanging out with the guys who wear "Don't Tread on Me" on their shoulders, and it was fun to see Kabul. 

07 October 2014

They Laid out the Red Carpet for Me in Bagram

Travelling to a new base is a lot like a vacation. Except it's not fun, and you have to carry your own bags. And you always depart or arrive in the middle of the night. And you are responsible for two weapons along with your bags.

So it's not like a vacation at all, come to think of it. The flight on the C-130 is exquisitely uncomfortable. Net seating doesn't recline, the roar of the motor isn't muffled, and I am wearing 25 pounds of body armor and have 45 pounds of carry-on on my lap.

We land early that morning and lug our over-sized bags up two flights of stairs in our conex tenements.

I learn that Prax is sharing a room barely big enough for one with two other Soldiers. Of course neither of them have any idea that she is coming. It must be really fun to wake up at 0500 hours to discover you have a new roommate. With four bags.

I also have four bags. And I also have two roommates. I wonder who is more annoyed-- them or me. Prax, at least, gets a wall locker. I get my lap again.

Two days later we are beginning to settle in. BAF is huge, but we don't realize it quite right away. The main drag is called Disney. A nod to the reach of American culture, I assume, like "Hotel California" (a large tent where transients stay). We feel sheepish on discovering that it is name after a Soldier killed here in a heavy equipment accident in 2002. SPC Jason Disney was a transportation specialist from Nevada. The street signs take on new meaning, to us, at least.

On Sunday we get a longer tour, and some introductions, from a broadcaster on his way out. He takes us to the US Army Corps of Engineers compound and a nearby villa that is used for jirgas and other high-level meetings. We stop and smell the roses—the first we have seen since leaving the U.S. Then we visit the guys in "Dustoff," the operational name given to every medevac unit I have ever met. It seems, I don't know, ironic, that American troops occupy these structures built by the Soviets 30 years earlier.

We also drive by the secret prison that has been the source of some controversy. It looks like every other secret prison I have seen.

It is much cooler up here. And I feel more comfortable, as the weather probably mirrors the Wasatch front almost exactly. I don’t sweat unless I mean to anymore. The food seems better, too, but that might just be because it is different.

By the fourth day at BAF, one third of the occupants of my little unit has left. Suddenly I am like the wealthy gentry of US Forces – Afghanistan, what with my own wall locker and a bottom bunk. My other roommate, an Army captain, is in the same spot nearly every time I step into the room—legs in a sleeping bag, sitting on his bunk, typing away on his laptop. He says he is leaving soon, so I assume he is sending off hundreds of emails to friends and family eagerly awaiting his return. I’ll have to start doing that soon, I guess.

A new assignment brings new opportunities, and so I begin a new workout regimen. The gym is quite inviting—a new hardened structure that makes me feel like I might be paying $69 a month if I were back home.

Our office is hardened, too, which means that during a rocket attack we don’t have to evacuate to one of the hundreds of bunkers outside. We came under such an attack the other day, but I just kept working merrily.

It’s a strange time to be here, at the world’s largest forward base. Americans are leaving in droves, and all the talk is about Resolute Support and how NATO isn’t doing anymore combat and how it’s really great that we’re giving the Afghans a bunch of MRAPs. It’s great not because the equipment will help them in their fight against the Taliban, but because giving them the vehicles makes the U.S. seem less wasteful.

Speaking of waste, we should be here about seven more weeks. Then we get to travel again. Back to the U.S. It’s like vacation, except…