Preparing for a New World Order

Tom Peters

Today’s military academy graduates are entering a volatile world, as are their business school counterparts. Technology is changing the battlefield as much as the marketplace. And national borders are anything but stable. National Geographic expected its 1990 atlas to last five years. No such luck. A new edition incorporating 14,000 changes has just been published.

Add it up, I recently told 4,300 midshipmen at the U.S Naval Academy, and the young officer must be flexible, devoted to perpetual learning, disrespectful of the status quo, and a little crazy—uncharacteristic qualities for youth who keep their shoes spit shined and probably salute the family cat during home leaves. I offered midshipmen the following advice, which I think applies to most of us:

1. Stick your neck out. “You can’t worry about your career,” says the commanding officer of a top-performing Navy ship. “You must be comfortable with yourself. You can’t have both the security of ‘doing it by the book’ and the energy that comes from doing it the way it should be done.” In his stellar autobiography It Doesn’t Take a Hero (with Peter Petre), retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf reports bumping heads with conservative Army brass time and again. (On one occasion, his climb to the top was set back years.) Then there’s the military officer who probably contributed the most to the postwar defense of the United States, Adm. Hyman Rickover, father to the nuclear navy. Several chiefs of naval operations tried to fire him and more than one president tried to retire him, but the feisty Rickover stuck to his contrarian beliefs.

2. Delegate. Researchers have identified exceptional delegation as the chief trait of successful Army, Navy, and Air Force commanders. The best platoon commanders delegate to the corporals who lead eight-person Army squads, and the idea goes from there to the top. President Bush’s willingness to let the field bosses make the calls during Desert Storm was in marked contrast to President Johnson’s micromanagement of the Vietnam War.

3. Picture the result. Premier ship captains “know what excellence looks like,” one study claims. When Schwarzkopf became a division commander, he wrote down five simple statements that became his credo; they ranged from battle readiness to taking care of soldiers’ families.

4. Put the troops first. Schwarzkopf’s lifelong dedication to soldiers is deeply moving. As an adviser to the South Vietnamese army, for instance, he took a stand for decency. Following a tense engagement, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot refused to take out the dead bodies of Vietnamese troops; he claimed it would mess up his aircraft. Schwarzkopf leaped onto the helicopter skid and shouted, “Either you take those bodies or you stay here on the ground, because I’m not going to get off this skid. … If you try to take off, I’ll shoot you.” While Schwarzkopf admits he was bluffing, the pilots got the point—the word spread instantly among the Vietnamese.

Every effective leader I’ve studied enjoys being around soldiers, sailors, clerks, and understands that the front line wins battles—no matter how sophisticated the new technologies may be.

5. Remember the spare parts. In one of my first columns, I chronicled Gen. Bill Creech’s quick turnaround of the 115,000-person Tactical Air Command of the U.S. Air Force. His secret: Creech made heroes of the noncommissioned officers and airmen in supply and maintenance, giving them billing equal to the pilots.

The Desert Storm success was as much a product of superior logistics as of tough front-line combat troops. In fact, I told midshipmen that if I were in their shoes, I’d consider a career in the Navy’s Supply Corps. It sounds mundane. It’s not. Battles are won when the soldiers’ food and the planes’ spare parts and ammunition are where they’re supposed to be—on time.

6. Think smart. “To have any hope of victory,” Schwarzkopf writes, “(modern) army units would … have to be prepared to exercise greater intelligence, flexibility, and initiative than could be developed by rote. (The) solution was to take an army whose grand tradition of drill stretched all the way back to … Valley Forge and turn it into an army that could think.” Agility and brainpower are now the clarion calls of the wise military commander as well as the wise corporate chief.

7. Watch for Cowgirls in the Kingdom. “I kept reminding myself that I had a lot of guys who could do the military planning,” Schwarzkopf says of Desert Storm, “but I was the only one who could assure the Saudis that Dallas Cowgirls were not going to come over and corrupt the Kingdom. … So every night at 10 o’clock I went to Prince Khalid’s office at the Ministry of Defense. The conversation would frequently stretch past midnight. … I’m not known for being patient, but to do the job there, that’s just what I was. … We sipped coffee, told stories, and philosophized.” The point is, tomorrow’s leaders will frequently depend upon those from other cultures. Learning to do business away from home is a universal requirement.

The Navy, like most large organizations, is downsizing. For some I addressed, that will mean a brief, unhappy career. On the other hand, I argued, there’s never been such opportunity! The military—like commerce—will have to be reinvented. Victory will go to those who have the nerve to test the limits, to fail with flair, to keep trying. Got that, civilians?

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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