Constant change is one of the most common causes of complaint in the military. Changing priorities, shifting strategies, and unpredictable programs are the norm. Grumbling about all this is so routine that it is believed the military is resistant to change. Such is not the case, but a cynical belief has developed that most changes are unnecessary and designed only so that leaders can create a legacy.
The nature of military assignments is partially to blame for this. Command leadership rotates every couple of years, sometimes more often. This leads to continuously different situations, often with a sense of instability.
It is sometimes said that a new commanding officer takes six months to learn the command, a year to operate fully, and six months to prepare for turnover to the next CO. This results in a short period during which commanders can truly make progress toward their goals for the unit. Since each leader wants to leave her or his mark, many disruptions take place during that middle period.
Command members become so accustomed to this constant state of flux that many changes, or the results they seek, never come to pass. Long-serving command members slow-roll modifications as they “wait out” the new leader, aware that much of what’s been done will be undone or altered in the near future.
So how do we avoid some of the constant change that has become a dreaded part of military culture? Perhaps the wisdom of another civilization holds the key.
The United States has celebrated Native American culture every November since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush proclaimed National American Indian Heritage Month. Have more than 20 years of observances under various names taught us anything? One useful aspect on which we should focus is the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The principle is simple but profound, requiring that tribal elders take a long view of their decisions. “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Not only does this concept sustain the tribes within the confederacy, it signifies leaders’ great responsibility. They cannot consider only the immediate or short-range impact of their resolutions; they must account for long-term effects.
Rapid technology development makes it difficult to think about the impact of our decisions 140 years from now, but the wisdom of the Iroquois Great Law remains valid. Perhaps it could be modified for our purposes.
In what ways would decision-making be different if we thought through potential effects on multiple successors? What consequences will tomorrow’s determinations have for the next seven secretaries of the Navy and commandants of the Marine Corps? What influence will this year’s decisions have on the next seven master chief petty officers of the Navy or the next seven cutter skippers? All this may be difficult to ponder, but it can be done.
Last month’s “Now Hear This” column offered a refreshing perspective from leaders who take the long view. Rear Admiral Barry Bruner and Captain Michael Cockey argued that “our planned 12 ballistic-missile submarines will provide strategic nuclear deterrence into the 2080s” (see “We Must Have Nuclear Deterrence,” February 2014). Whether this statement was by design or happenstance, it is great to see leaders analyze how actions taken today will affect national strategy 65 years hence.
To do this requires truly visionary leadership, a learned behavior that may not come naturally. We are instinctively more likely to consider immediate impacts. We want to see the results of our achievements, and we are more likely to benefit from instantaneous results. This is why we need to teach and reinforce leadership and decision-making based on the long view.
Mohawk Indian Chief Oren Lyons spoke of the Great Law in December 1992, during opening statements to the United Nations General Assembly discussion on “The Year of the Indigenous Peoples.” Chief Lyons said: “Our leaders were instructed to be men of vision and to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation to come.”
Like any positive leadership behavior, long-view decision-making must be learned, particularly through observation and participation. Native Americans have practiced this as a cultural norm for generations, and we can incorporate it in the military as well.
We should start by recognizing those who honestly consider lasting organizational improvements, those who are willing to put aside personal gratification and keep their focus farther down the road.