Six Ways to Fix the Army’s Culture

September 6, 2016

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On September 21, the Atlantic Council will publish our major report, The Future of the Army: Today, Tomorrow, and the Day After Tomorrow. It includes 50 recommendations to help the U.S. Army prepare for the long-term future while still dominating a broad range of current and near-term conflicts. Our most important recommendations are not about fielding advanced weaponry, improving urban training, or even retaining the best talent (though those are all necessary). Instead, we believe the most critical prescriptions involve changing parts of the Army’s culture — those elements of the Army’s self-identity that are problematic, outdated, or both. Those cultural changes must happen if the U.S. Army is to remain the best in the world over the next decades and beyond. And these moves need to begin now, because they will undoubtedly make today’s Army stronger as well.

Without question, there are many positive aspects of the Army culture that should be maintained, including the Army Values, the Warrior Ethos, and an enduring outlook of “mission first, troops always, get it done.” However, other elements of its culture are becoming substantial liabilities as the Army faces an increasingly dynamic and challenging operating environment. Cultural standards that value process over substance, muffle the ideas of junior personnel, and disparage education and critical thinking must be eradicated and replaced with new norms that reward willingness to think creatively, innovate, and change. As a preview for “Strategic Outpost” readers, we offer the six most important recommendations for changing Army culture that will appear in our report:

1. Accept More Risk

Warfare is inherently dangerous, and especially so on land. Armies at war kill people and destroy things, and their leaders must master that chaotic and risky business in peacetime. Yet the Army’s overweening approach to safety has created a widespread culture of near-total risk aversion when troops are not in combat. Leaders at all levels are held to impossible standards in a misguided, centralized attempt to limit every imaginable accident or error, whether on duty or off. One need only to review the recent Army messages cautioning soldiers on the dangers of crossing streets while playing Pokémon Go or plow through the safety paperwork required for a weekend pass to see how the Army has lost its moorings on the appropriate balance between risk tolerance and safety.

The inability to manage risk prudently and underwrite smart risk-taking by subordinate leaders deeply corrodes the trust that enables mission command — the Army’s warfighting philosophy built around decentralized command and control. Left unchecked, the Army’s camouflaged version of helicopter parenting will inexorably destroy the initiative and judgment of its junior leaders and ultimately debilitate the way the Army fights. Senior leaders need to seek feedback from their subordinates to help identify the worst of these practices and enact common sense approaches that treat soldiers like the professionals that they are.

2. Reinstitute “Power Down”

The initiative of junior leaders is also being threatened by technology that increasingly enables senior leaders to micromanage even small unit actions, from peacetime gunnery qualifications to combat assaults on enemy compounds. Micromanagement in garrison is also rampant, undermining the very principles of mission command that the Army then expects its soldiers to practice when fighting. A 2014 Army study, for example, found that 41 percent of junior NCOs did not believe that they were empowered to make decisions, and only 59 percent were satisfied with the amount of freedom they had to perform their jobs. Yet on the future battlefield, where communications networks are likely to be degraded, even Army junior leaders will have to be comfortable operating with unparalleled autonomy, guided only by their understanding of mission and intent.

To right this balance, the Army should reenergize the concept of “power down,” pioneered by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer in the 1980s. This involved decentralized leadership based upon trust in subordinates and greater autonomy of junior leaders in garrison as well as combat. Virtually none of today’s garrison procedures — from auto safety checklists to high level-directed wear of reflective belts (beautifully mocked in the Duffel Blog) — are consistent with this philosophy. Expecting audacity among junior leaders in combat while micromanaging them in peacetime garrisons is a recipe for battlefield failure. The Army must restore its commitment to decentralized leadership and frontline leaders’ authority and practice what it preaches in garrison as well during operations.

3. Decrease Tolerance of Bureaucracy

As we’ve argued at War on the Rocks before, the Army is inundated with more regulations and bureaucratic processes than any other military service. Its dense and ever-growing thickets of regulations, rules, and processes cripple innovative ideas, retard creative thought, and slow decision-making to a snail-like pace, especially within the institutional Army. In both today’s and tomorrow’s world, however, effective organizations must make decisions almost instantaneously in response to data that flows at the speed of light. The Army simply cannot continue to tolerate such excessive levels of bureaucracy and cumbersome industrial-age processes at the same time it trumpets agility and adaptability as essential attributes necessary to the warfighting force. Senior Army leaders should continue to reduce non-warfighting headquarters and staffs, and demand streamlined and truly automated processes to realize the promise of information technology. For these efforts to succeed, they must be led from the top while also engaging junior soldiers and leaders to identify roadblocks to reform and generate solutions.

4. Reduce Excessive Deference to Rank and Position

Encouraging new and diverse ideas or soliciting controversial opinions from junior people is a significant challenge for a hierarchical organization with clearly displayed rank and authority. Open disagreement and divergent views tend to be deeply discouraged within the Army, ranging all the way from its smallest units to the highest levels of the Army staff. This culture grows out of the understandable need to limit disagreements in tactical units. No one wants privates or lieutenants to argue with their commanders about how to carry out a night attack or to debate orders during a firefight. But such constraints outside combat can prevent Army leaders at all levels from hearing different points of view and being able to consider the widest range of options, which they need in order to innovate, adapt, and make good decisions in a fast-changing environment. Army leaders must find more protected ways to encourage open debate and legitimate (if tactful) disagreement, such as designating a “devil’s advocate” for all discussions. Seeking out conflicting ideas and encouraging genuine dialogue must be seen as prized components of good leadership, instilled in doctrine and evaluated in fitness reports when assessing leaders’ future potential.

5. Reject Army Anti-Intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism in the Army is not new, but it has grown as an unintended consequence of the recent wars. Since 2001, deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan have effectively become the only valued duty assignment for rising leaders. Spending time earning a civilian graduate degree, teaching at West Point, or serving in a broadening assignment away from troops was quietly denigrated as “taking a knee” and often harmed the career prospects of those who had done so. Such sentiments may be understandable during wartime, though they inevitably have harmful long-term consequences. Now, however, Army senior leaders must actively reverse this trend. They need to mentor the service’s rising stars to invest in and value educational and broadening pursuits — and, even more importantly, ensure that promotion boards recognize, incentivize, and reward these choices as vital contributions to the future of the service. They should increase the opportunities for officers to attend civilian graduate school, which enable students to develop deeper critical thinking skills and to learn from a diverse set of faculty and classmates in ways than can never occur in a purely military degree program. (Extra bonus: The Army wouldn’t need to pay for many of these opportunities, thanks to the generous educational benefits provided by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.)

The Army should also reinstate the requirement for every career officer to develop skills in two specialties, rather than to focus narrowly on one. This would produce officers with a much broader range of talents, who would be educated and then employed effectively across more than one skill to support the Army’s disparate needs. These measures would help rising Army leaders think more creatively about the wide range of challenges facing the Army and contribute more effectively at the strategic level within the Department of Defense or the wider interagency arena.

6. Strengthen Ethics and Integrity

The cornerstone of the Army as a profession rests upon the uncompromising ethical standards and integrity of its members. Yet an explosion of bureaucratic requirements means that Army leaders at all levels are often forced to compromise their integrity in order to meet an ever-growing list of recurrent demands. In a previous column, we wrote about a report called Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, authored by two professors at the U.S. Army War College. It found that it was “literally impossible” for Army officers to meet all the requirements imposed on them by higher headquarters, yet also found that failing to meet those same requirements was professionally unacceptable. The result is a pattern of pervasive dishonesty, false reporting, and widespread rationalization of cheating across the service. The Army, which imposes most of these requirements, is thus profoundly violating some of its own core values — especially honor and integrity.

If unquestioned integrity is to remain a cornerstone of the Army profession, senior leaders must aggressively correct this very serious problem. They should seek input from their subordinates to better understand the demands that promote unethical reporting and decision-making across the force. They must then systematically review all existing requirements to pare them down to only those that are essential, realistic, and achievable. Finally, they must put tough new systems in place to vet any newly proposed requirements to ensure that these three standards are always met.

If you’re interested in learning more about the report, it will be available on the website of the Atlantic Council on September 21. We are also holding a public launch event at the Atlantic Council that morning at 9:30 AM, which you can attend by registering here or watch as it is livestreamed. We hope the report will stimulate lots of discussion, creative thinking, and new ideas to help ensure that the U.S. Army remains the preeminent fighting force in the world in the years and decades to come.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

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25 thoughts on “Six Ways to Fix the Army’s Culture

  1. Embrace and empower the young in your ranks–
    J.F.C. Fuller:
    “the more elastic a man’s mind is, that is the more it is able to receive and digest new impressions and experiences, the more commonsense will be the actions resulting. Youth, in every way, is not only more elastic than old age, but less cautious and far more energetic. In a moment youth will vault into the saddle of a situation, whilst old age is always looking round for someone to give it a leg up.”

    1. An old retiree told me his take: advancement in the USAF for him meant not only NOT “thinking outside the box” but demonstrating how consistently and happily you stayed inside it.

      1. As a Marine GO once commented to me, “I’ve discovered that many of these folks calling for ‘thinking outside the box’ actually don’t have anything inside the box.”

  2. Excellent article.

    However, just resolving to change culture is not sufficient. Incentives have an enormous influence on the development of culture.

    For example, one of the reasons that commanders micromanage is because one of the biggest threats to their career is having a safety incident on their watch.

    Furthermore, DOPMA creates a very constrained career model, and “outliers” often don’t get through the next promotion gate.

    So I agree that the culture of micromanagement and pencil-whipping requirements is awful. However, the incentives have to be changed if the culture is to be changed.

    1. At army hospitals whenever anyone– a new 68W medic straight from AIT or a LTC brain surgeon/chief of this or that dept or a graduate of the interservice CRNA programs—wanted to take leave ea and every one had to submit google map, Risk Reduction Assessment, vehicle inspection etc. Unquestionably some folks need to be led by the hand and micro-managed. But for others its entirely inappropriate given their professional credentials and a significant turn off

  3. “…..plow through the safety paperwork required for a weekend pass….”

    The Travel Risk Planning System (TRIPS) is not an onerous requirement and is only necessary if the Soldier is traveling outside the local area.

    Considering that a senior Army NCO was recently struck and killed by a train while running down the tracks wearing headphones and approximately twice a year Soldiers are struck by vehicles when crossing the street texting or wearing headphones it is not illogical for the Army to warn Soldiers on the dangers of crossing streets while playing Pokémon Go.

    1. A Marine gunnery sergeant, when asked why officer candidates at his recruiting office were not wearing reflective belts for an early morning run: “If they don’t have the awareness to not get hit by a car, they’re probably not going to be Marine officers.”

    2. are you kidding me? why should you have to warn people about common sense? if a person is runni9ng down train tracks (stupid to start with) with headphones on (even dumber) then they deserve what happens to them. now, the kicker, this was a senior NCO? what example did he show or demonstrate to his subordinates and leaders? maybe, stupid is as stupid does? is that correct Forrest?

    1. The military has historically been a social engineering laboratory. Deal wth it. Think back to Agincourt, and an English King from the feudal era with his hopelessly outnumbered army of peasants, serfs, craftsmen and aristocrats. Those peasants, serfs, craftsmen and aristocrats were from across an English/Welsh union that was highly stratified not just by class but by culture, geography, dialect (and in the case of the Welsh, by language) and occupation. What they had in common were things like loyalty to the King and task cohesion. The Union Army had black regiments in it, and it won anyway. In WWII, the Red Army had units from as far afield as Siberia and its Muslim, ethnically Asiatic Central Asian Republics, many of whom didn’t speak Russian. It also had all-female tank crews, let them serve as snipers, fighter and bomber pilots, and a small number of women served in the infantry. The Red Army won in the east, too, remember? Quit banging your ideological drum. Pick the best people for the job, and don’t assume that they’re all going to look like Captain America.

    2. Excellent point with social engineering. It should be left in the past as other EEO/EO programs address the new Army. Is War on the Rocks a liberal or “progressive” organization? Noticed a lot of Anti-Trump articles whereas Trump would confide in the military leaders first.

  4. There’s a pretty simple way to achieve most of what is suggested here: prune the top ranks, both by reducing the size and getting rid of dead wood.

    If you have fewer senior officers, you will get more a lot less micromanagement.
    If unimaginative officers aren’t promoted and the correct-but-otherwise-incompetent ones are fired, you will get much more dynamic leadership, willing take risks.

    Dumb Soldiers (and Sailors, Airmen, and Marines) will still do dumb things, but you can’t fix stupid, and at a certain point there is no return in further trying.

  5. I feel part of the armys,problem is it wants to put all of its a compliments in the past ,look at how the self pride has gone from uniform apperance,no fault of the troops,the tacky cheap garbage dress uniforms,shirts ,boots ,and everything else they are issued,kinda like the made in China Army,so sad , who used to look sharp look like they have wash and wear look, (I give them credit for what they are expected,to wear,so sad so,so,sad,no more class As,or Bs, (khaki) dress uniform today looks like a bus drivers attire,maybe if you work on these BASICS all else might fall into place!

  6. #6 is a service wide issue that is a HUGE problem. I was in a USMC AAV platoon some years ago and this problem was rampant. In order to cover senior leaderships rears they made PMCS work sheets that had to be done on a regular basis. Thing is these PMCS guides would take days if you actually did them right…. but of course the time limit was more like hours. So how many vehicles went down and continue to go down because crew chiefs are afraid to not finish the checklists and effectively “pin whip” them.

    Stop the unrealistic time lines, and insane and mundane PME requirements all it does is breed cheating, lying, and unsafe conditions.

  7. “Yet an explosion of bureaucratic requirements means that Army leaders at all levels are often forced to compromise their integrity in order to meet an ever-growing list of recurrent demands.” Really? I’m very surprised that statement was in this article. No one is ever forced to compromise their integrity; it’s a choice made either willingly or unwillingly, but still a choice made by the individual. Which ultimately means they are making that choice for the advancement of their own career. If more leaders did the hard right and didn’t inflate or pencil whip things and kept their integrity in tact, it might just make the leadership realize that the requirements levied down the chain are untenable and they may then make the appropriate adjustments to the requirements.

    1. In 20 years 2 months and 21 days active army one of the most interesting men I ever knew declined to compromise his integrity. He ETS’d from the army after 16 years. He was deliberately cryptic about what he witnessed which prompted the departure. Suffice it to say he DID refuse to compromise his integrity, he would NOT “go along to get along”. And I applaud him.
      However this E6-P was single. He had a college degree and his army training landed him a contractor job at Brooke Army Medical Center which later morphed into an un-fireable GS job.
      As a single man blessed with several decades remaining of productive work ability his transition didn’t impose too high a cost. I have to wonder would matters been different had he been married with dependents. Those tend to constrain your career options as many might attest.

  8. Institutional change is on a good day glacial at its pace. This article will resonate with many and I do hope it is shared formall or informally far and wide at CGSC, ALC, SLC etc.
    A great pastor friend in Austin was tapped by a then declining-church to come in and turn it around. His options were either grow the church –ie make people want to be part of it, contribute to it etc– or shut it down/disband it. He encountered a lot of “Well that’s just the way we’ve always done it”-style pushback. Let’s all concede that there are things about the army we need to preserve and pass on. The dilemma is– while as we identify the what and why of those things which we want to be unchanging– we are in a swift-flowing torrential river of change taking place both domestically socially here in CONUS and abroad and those will continue to exert pressure/create frustration on leaders at all levels in the chain of command and in the NCO support chain.
    I could change up the jargon and continue on with my friend’s success at changing the culture of his church. (He will retire after having been pastor there for 22+ years) but readers would do well to read the experiences and obstacles encountered and overcome by Chief Bratton when he took command of the NYPD. It’s generally a great case study in organizational leadership and focuses on the task of achieving buy-in and consensus amond both subordinates within the dept and outside on-lookers like then Mayor Giuliani and the NY Times editorial staff.

  9. Audacity is the key trait of any risk-taker/entrepreneur type. But risk-takers will chafe in any hide-bound risk averse organization. It might be different if the link between risk-taking and potential reward was stronger if not guaranteed.

  10. I was going to leave this alone as a former squid, but…I had two sons who left after single tours, both served with pride. One left for college, basic incompatibly with any chain of command, maybe. I was surprised PT was used as corrective measures once you were out of basic, but what do I know. Not a Navy thing for sure. No one smoked a fleet sailor that didn’t want to talk to the Captain.

    The other was very happy with his tanks, although garrison life in Germany was dull. Impressed his chain of command and got scooped up for West Point. He was very impressed with and admired his chain of command.

    West Point he found another world, as you would expect, but not in good ways.

    The action directed at him was familiar and expected from basic.
    Not expected was finding leadership he did not feel adhered to the code, under charges, being allowed to serve out rather than punished.

    A demoralized, checked-out leadership structure below, enjoying family time and spending the minimum time on base.

    Multiple failures unpunished or much corrected, concerning protecting female cadets, and a cadet core suffering lack of leadership and guidance, or supervision if you prefer.
    He departed a year later and was able to give up anti-depresessants as he walked out the door.

    The Army had problems. I fear years of them to follow given the hesitation to deal with problems at their leadership institution.

  11. While I agree with the problem identified in 6, I don’t agree with the solution. There will always be conflicting priorities. Indeed when the bullets start to fly, it is always impossible to do everything “required.” The right answer isn’t to lie your way to “success” OR to eliminate those pressures in garrison. Rather it it to reward those who successfully prioritize the most important priorities ahead of the less important ones.

    Of course a real difficulty is that despite the “train as you fight” mantra, that is just impossible in some cases. The toleration for risky accidents is lower when training than it is when the enemy is already shooting at you.

  12. I also read Atlantic Council’s Future of the Army. I am concerned that anyone would see the US future resembling Great Britain in the 1930s. They appear out of touch based on the results of the recent presidential election. BTW, power down to a millennial means to turn the switch off, in a correct way, bringing an orderly end to system operation. When the military can recruit from 29% of the population qualified to serve and the social engineering has alienated 70% of the population professing a Christian preference, no wonder there is a downward Darwinian evolution to a middle school mentality that looks at the age kids ride bikes and drive cars, which rest rooms to use and how to treat transgender sensitivities, and a weak statement about helicopter moms and that we must let these millennials drive. These elites need to look at a more positive future. Does anyone see a serious disintegration of the “Warrior Ethos”? According to Col. Nightingale, the grunts didn’t like what they saw and have voted.