Protecting the Valuable Assets of the U.S. Military
I’m fortunate to work in an environment that is not inherently profit-driven: the U.S. military. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re not motivated to a great degree by costs—costs of fuel, costs of labor, costs of materials, and costs of war. These costs, reported to Congress and figured into next year’s budget (and the year after, and the year after, ad nauseum) are the tangible, measurable costs that show up on ledgers as expenses. The advantage to our position as a government entity entrusted with keeping the sea lines of communication open means that we don’t necessarily measure these costs by what they bring back into the national coffers: we don’t have to constantly look at increasing profits.
The U.S. military isn’t a business in the traditional sense. Our return on investment must be measured in other ways. We must measure our effectiveness in people, in their personal development and their commitment, and certainly their contributions to mission success. Our assets, far and above the buildings, ships, and supplies, are the humans who volunteer to serve and who therefore entrust themselves to the traditionally established military institute. These assets, unfortunately too often are perceived mostly as part of the machine, and all too often are not regarded as sentient, feeling beings. This is understandable within our traditionally authoritarian military, which must achieve victory over the enemy at almost any cost.
But what are the costs and how do we mitigate them?
The U.S. military—at least the parts of it that I’ve been associated with during the past 30 thirty years—faces the same challenges in organizational development as industry, commerce, and education. How do we deal with the humans? What is the value of people in a traditionally authoritarian organization—a governmental institution that cannot afford to fail? How do we, as leaders and managers in an institution with nearly a half million members, consider the individual needs and desires of the most valuable assets we control—the sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines? The chain of command, from the unit level all the way up to the national command level, must not only recruit and invest in people, but must recognize them and provide for their desires in a complicated, lightning-paced environment that is evolving so rapidly that we can barely adjust tactics, techniques, and procedures (or TTP) to address real threats.
Maslow, in his influential work, Maslow on Management, crafts a useful, concise definition of the problem I’ve described. Substituting the inscrutable U.S. Navy "chain of command" for Maslow’s "accountants," the military’s quandary is illustrated in the following paragraph from the book:
The problem for the [chain of command] is to work out some way of putting on the balance sheet the human assets of the organization: that is, the amount of synergy, the degree of education of all the workers in the organization, the amount of time and money and effort that has been invested in getting good informal groups to work together well… the development of loyalties, the cutting down of hostilities and jealousies….
All of these critical investments and measures of effectiveness in the "human assets," which in military-speak would fall into the category of "training," are designed to maximize the probability of realizing that mission achievement, or that "victory over the enemy." Still, experience has shown a decided lack of attention, indeed consideration, of the value of those individual contributors beyond how they perform in achieving mission effectiveness.
The difficulties in instituting humanistic processes in the defense world are culturally injected, but also practical. In the book Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise, the authors restate McGregor’s wise thoughts "...that managers question their core assumptions about human nature, and that they see how these mental models lead to managerial practices." In my experience with military leadership, this concept cannot be too heavily emphasized. Within the U.S. military, leaders must absolutely reach down in self-reflection and consider how we apply our own frames of reference in carrying out management functions.
We must, in short, show care in protecting our finest assets—our people and ourselves.