"The traumatic lesson the military learned from Vietnam is: no more interventions.
Rather than, how best can we intervene? And you have to plan so you're
not stumbling into things or making them up as you go along."
Gen. George Joulwan, former NATO supreme allied commander
A most interesting piece outlining the complaints of a former NATO supreme
allied commander, one Gen. George Joulwan, appeared on the front page of
the Sunday, May 9th, Saint Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press. He echoes a
theme I find myself frequently sending. The theme is about the responsibility
of each professional to both tell their truth and to interpret directions
in responsible ways.
Imagine managing a project with nineteen sponsors, each with their own
unique, personal, political agendas. This is the situation the present
NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark, faces. Imagine the
quality of direction you'd receive as a military commander working within
this system. The whats and hows would get pureed into an indistinguishable
mess. I guess that the sponsor "coalition" insists upon deciding things
that they have no business deciding, making decisions on issues requiring
extensive technical experience and the attending judgment that only extensive
experience brings. They will, like all sponsors, imagine strategies that
have no chance for success in the real world. They will, again, like all
sponsors, insist upon the impossible even to their own demise.
Joulwan comments: "In a democracy, you owe it to your political leadership
to really lay out the military options and what the risks are if your military
advice is not taken. You have to become part of the conversation. Disagreement
is not disrespect or disloyalty. Or do you just go along to get along?"
There is a notion, ancient and certainly wrong, that a good soldier
follows even bad orders. Current military theory says that a good soldier
has a higher responsibility than simple abrogation to the chain of command.
Each soldier must filter orders through their highest sense of professional
responsibility. "Follow orders, yes. But follow orders informed by your
blunt military advice," Joulwan advises.
Project team members experience this dilemma daily. How should you respond
when directed to do something that makes no sense? If you have learned
to stuff your offended sense of professionalism, you'll serve your leader
as poorly as you serve yourself. Leadership never was about making all
the decisions. Nor was it ever about being omniscient. Leadership is about
helping the community make coherent sense out of the disparate perspectives
surrounding them. Leading is impossible without the benefit of dissenting
perspectives. Going along to get along is first unprofessional and ultimately
Each of us is clueless in our own way. The most clueless among us are
those who believe themselves to be clued in. Leaders who assert their superior
perspective usually prove just how clueless they are. Followers who wait
for wise direction wait a very, very, very long time.
The Spanish colonial viceroys learned how to manage as Joulwan suggests.
Each viceroy reported directly to the king. Imagine the difficulty reporting
to someone who lived half a world away, with whom a single message might
take eighteen months between query and response. The viceroys learned that
they could rarely implement the king's direction without first interpreting
it in a way that best served the king's intent. Their justification for
this intervention was simple. "The king is wise," they reasoned, "and since
the king is wise, he would never ask us to implement an order that did
not best serve his interests." To preserve the king's wisdom, then, each
viceroy took it upon themself to interpret the king's direction in a way
that best preserved the king's unassailable wisdom. The alternative was
to make the king less than wise, and few things rival the frustration of
working for a stupid king.