15 September 2009

Trapped in an Army Box

Sir Arthur Clarke is best known for his novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A science-fiction writer and futurist, he is also known for the Law that bears his name: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Clarke is saying that when experienced people see possibility, they are being visionary. When they see limits, they are just plain shortsighted and stubborn.

Experience is supposed to bestow all sorts of wisdom, and nowhere more than in the Army. Senior leaders are to guide and mentor younger, less-experienced soldiers and prepare them to meet any kind of challenge.

Unless keeping one’s boots laced up tightly is what passes as challenging in today’s Army, then our leaders are failing us.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously urged warriors to think creatively: “An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers," Secretary Gates told Air War College students in 2008.

"For the kinds of challenges America will face, the armed forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders."

The secretary conceded that it will be difficult. "Virtually every institution is organized in a way to stifle out-of-the-box thinking," he said.

That’s an understatement in the Army. We have built the walls up so high that we’re suffocating.

People can only imagine what they know today, and it takes creativity and humility to consider what we haven’t experienced. The Army needs to encourage such thinking more, and admit that, very often, the most creative minds are at the bottom of the totem pole.

That’s what makes Gates’ admonition so tough—it assumes that current leaders aren’t doing enough. They are, after all, the most rigid and least humble of all.

And Clarke? Well, in the real world, elderly scientists are very near their expiration.


  1. You should read Peter Drucker. His timeless commentary on organizations (mostly applied to businesses) are similar to your thoughts.

    Nice "out of the box" visual!

  2. I read Peter Drucker, and I absolutely loved his collections. His view on the "second half of ones life" comes to mind. I'll set aside my business books for you to read when you get home, Rich.

    As for the picture - very cool! I love what you are accomplishing with Adobe. You’ll have to show me.

    As for the subject matter, I can't help but wonder if the problem is beyond the individuals that lead you in the army. A lot of times, ill-prepared leaders are thrust into position of power with inadequate tools to succeed. Some struggle at first but eventually find their footing (greater purpose) and go on to become exemplary leaders. Others, well, what can I say, abuse the power and forget they even had a purpose other than bossing everyone else around. BUT you have to love the democratic society you live in, though – all things being equal, things will EVENTUALLY check out.

    That is, you have the opportunity to play the “boss” in your life time and instill your philosophical views in the minds and hearts of others.

  3. I just bought Peter Drucker, what a coincidence.

  4. Most people forget that 'When something is stupid and it works, it works'. The previous sentence is also considered one of Murphys Law's. Most people and most leaders err on the side of caution and ultimately will gain nothing. Just watch the first part of Troy and see why people will remember certain leaders and why some will be forgotten and not just make a difference, but ultimately just even attempt to make a difference. Better to try and fail than not try at all. Not trying at all 'is' failure.

  5. Absolutely. While we shouldn't look forward to failure, we also shouldn't be content with mediocrity jusr because it feels safe. The poor leader is one who accepts a job poorly done just because that's the way it's always been done so no one will notice anyway.

  6. I agree, as a private I was always shot down regardless of what my ideas or input was. The NCO with the highest rank gets what they want and how they want it even if there were better ideas thrown out there.

  7. Rich,
    I really enjoy your thoughts and insights (this coming from someone elder but not a scientist). I just want to add my one comment for Esther.... Adobe???? I thought he was standing in a box!!! :)

  8. Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.

    Let your sanity be saved by knowing there are those of us in uniform who greatly appreciate the gravity of our committment. I"ve met them and so have you. How about a post that honors those who care rather than the bottom echelon of our ranks?


  9. I agree. I will post such a piece. There are a lot of good Soldiers who are great leaders, examples, and teachers. I wish their stories were told more often in the Army. We spend so much time filling out forms, completing certifications, and covering leaders arses that we forget about the Army Values. I work in public affairs and try very hard to tell the good story of outstanding Soldiers. In the meantime, I encourage you to watch the NCO profiles I have done here in Kosovo: youtube.com/user/69PADonline