Six years ago, I sailed to the Persian Gulf as commander of the USS Benfold, a new guided-missile destroyer armed with $1 billion worth of sophisticated weapons and manned by a green crew of 310 men and women. We were on our way to participate in the military exercise aimed at containing Saddam Hussein. War looked likely. Casualties would probably result. I think back to that experience as I watch events unfold today and imagine what this country’s fighting men and women are going through now.
I don’t recall any of us feeling much personal fear, although it’s probably different now for those on the front lines who are dealing with conditions — such as the Iraqis’ use of fighters masquerading as surrendering citizens or suicide bombers attacking checkpoints — for which we weren’t necessarily prepared. I do recall all hands on board the Benfold striving to excel at their jobs, being determined to make that extraordinary ship the best in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, one that would be capable of handling any mission that we might be given. What we really feared was letting down our shipmates — and our fellow citizens.
Here’s what my firsthand experience in the U.S. Navy tells me: The men and women in uniform today are some of the best citizens that this country has to offer. They haven’t had anything handed to them in life; many join the military as a way to receive tuition assistance for college, because their families don’t have the means to send them. (But don’t underestimate their intelligence: One of my entry-level sailors scored a 1490 on her SATs.) Many in our all-volunteer force are married and have children. Few actually want to go to war. But when directed, they all willingly answer the call, because they believe deeply in their purpose.
I am reminded of all of this as I watch the latest war news — which, disturbingly, is presented as if this serious combat assignment were some kind of elaborate video game — and listen to talking heads offer sharply differing views on how we’re doing in Iraq. The debates take me back to the Benfold and my Navy career, including a Pentagon tour as military assistant to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry. From those years as an apprentice leader and as a warship commander, I learned hundreds of lessons. But one lesson heads the list: No matter how brilliantly the big brass plans wars, the outcome depends on the people who fight them. In war, all you’ve got is one person supporting the next person in a life-threatening situation. We keep hearing retired generals and other military gurus discuss war in bloodless abstractions, as if they were analyzing a chess match. Some say that the Pentagon underestimated Iraqi resistance. Others say that no war plan has ever been more sophisticated. Most of that misses the point. In my experience, any leader, military or civilian, has one priority: the quality of the people under his command. Without their skill and spirit, the best plans and policies turn to dust.
A leader’s job has to be all about growing people: turning self-absorbed individuals into a cohesive unit, bound to one another by their skills and loyalty. In the military, unit strength is vital: Fundamentally, war is a campaign to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. The first line of offense is an unyielding commitment to a clear, compelling mission. The second is unit cohesion. An army made up of units with well-equipped soldiers who are willing to die for their cause and their comrades is virtually invulnerable.
You cannot order people to become cohesive. You cannot order great performance. You have to create the culture and climate that makes it possible. You have to build the bonds of trust. In my time on the Benfold, I found that the only way to do that was one crew member at a time. When I took over command, I did something that was unusual in by-the-book command: I sat down with each man and woman, individually, in my quarters. As the ship’s leader, I wanted to get to know each of them as a person. I wanted each person to tell me what he liked, what he hated, and what he wanted to change about our ship. What I learned was what motivated them. And I learned from these first-hand conversations that, when it came to the Benfold‘s performance, they wanted to excel just as much as I did. And I learned something else that was even more valuable: They had useful, smart, important ideas about how to improve the way we did business.
Take our Tomahawk cruise missiles. Although we prayed that we would never have to employ them in anger, we knew that we had to be prepared to do so — and on short notice. But there was an operational problem: The whole fleet was having trouble meeting the strict timelines that we had been given to launch our missiles. The fleet commander was about to go back to the Pentagon and report that the mission was too ambitious. But several of my mission planners got together and came to the conclusion that by modifying our procedures, we could meet the deadlines. They were not required to come up with these new procedures. They wanted to — because they felt that they were the owners of the process. And they knew that their shipmates and their country were counting on them.
Leaders who are taking people into war have to ask themselves two questions. The first is this: “What do I want from my people — especially in a hard fight when all of my plans seem to be unraveling?” The answer, I believe, is that you want their best effort, their most creative response. You want them totally committed to your cause and to one another. But here’s the kicker: Your job is to train them to give that to you.
The other question that leaders must ask themselves is, “What do my people want from me?” Leadership is not a paycheck. Leadership means responsibility and accountability. More than anything else, your people want authentic leadership. You are about to take them directly into harm’s way. They need to believe in you as the living exemplar of a clear purpose that you communicate to them every day, in ways large and small. They need to know why you are asking them to risk their lives, how you define victory, and how they will be rewarded by following you to the end.
For the men and women in uniform today, the nation’s leadership has defined a goal and given a definition of victory: Regime change in Iraq with minimal harm to Iraq’s people and infrastructure. For superbly trained and equipped troops, this purpose is clear and achievable. The lesson for all of us is just as clear: Waging and winning war is all about your people. You can’t win unless your people believe in their purpose far more strongly than the enemy’s people do.
Michael Abrashoff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the recent best-seller It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques From the Best Damn Ship in the Navy (Warner Books, 2002).