Monday, November 3, 2014

Institutional failure and my narrow military mind

Map of the path of the White House intruder

I spent five years of active duty in the Navy bouncing around the Atlantic Ocean practicing for things that were unlikely to happen and, in fact, never did.  I was Chief Engineer and later Executive Officer of a minesweeper.  If the Soviets had laid mines in Chesapeake Bay, we could disarm them.  Or, if a German U-boat had popped up in the Savannah River, we could help track it down.  Those things never happened; but, if they had, we were ready.

Does that seem foolish to you?  Well, not to me.  Readiness is critical to responding correctly when a crisis occurs. 

Perhaps it’s my military background that has caused me to have a common reaction to what many are calling institutional failure at every level of government. 

When a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, my first thought was…

… training and culture.

When an intruder made it into the White House despite five layers of Secret Service security, my reaction was…

… training and culture.

When two nurses who had treated an Ebola patient in Dallas, TX contracted Ebola themselves, I wondered about…

… training and culture.

What kind of training did Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson go through before someone pinned a badge on his chest?  Was it like we have seen on a TV show or movie?  You know, the trainee is tiptoeing through a faux urban landscape doing his or her best to separate the real threats from moms with baby carriages in a split second.  React incorrectly and you either kill the mom or get killed by a pistol toting drug dealer.   

Did Darren Wilson go through that kind of training?  How did he do?

My impression of the Secret Service has always been aligned with my view of an elite force, like the Navy SEALS or the US Marshall Service.  Longstanding tradition reinforces habits that lead to near flawless execution.  So, how does anyone hop a fence, run across the White House lawn and get halfway to the President’s living quarters before someone catches up with him?

Those trained for these professions go through some sort of thought reform aka brainwashing to reprogram the way they respond when faced with a deadly threat.  I am not engaging in hyperbole.  Our central nervous system is geared to trigger a fight or flight response when facing a threat, real or imagined.  Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, causing us to react according to nature’s programming.  To overcome the instinct, we practice and drill until our brains are rewired to respond differently.  Brainwashing requires isolation and control, an environment found in boot camp or a police academy.

Nurses don’t all work for the same organization obviously.  However, their training requires the same kind of rigor.  Their effectiveness is the result of how well they absorbed their training and how well they are supported and enabled by the institution for which they work.  So, when the head of the Centers for Disease Control says we’re “rethinking” our response to Ebola and nurses say they’re not ready, we should be concerned.  That’s tantamount to going to war when soldiers haven’t been trained to fire their weapons. 

Maintaining a strong institutional culture requires ritualistic behavior; a concisely worded, well-understood, oft repeated mission statement, and respect for the long-standing traditions of an organization.  It requires that leaders tell compelling stories that are repeated in the ranks.  It is essential that people at the top solicit the opinions of people at the bottom to ensure they are getting the right training and the right support to perform the mission.  As Colin Powell put it, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”.

Addressing these challenges requires a military approach to training and the visible presence of a credible leader with the authority to get the job done.  Imagine if the President had appointed the right person to be the “Ebola Czar”, he or she would have been on TV that day calming our nerves by telling us what will happen and how.  His or her mere presence and bearing would give us confidence.  We saw small samples of the impact of physical and visible presence when New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio visited the same restaurants and the bowling alley as Ebola patient Dr. Craig Spencer and when US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power visited West Africa.

Imagine if the Ebola Czar (what’s his name?) evoked the power of those images.



  1. John, good article … my Army experience showed me the value of consistency of policy.

    Best regards ... Hugh

  2. Perhaps the question in this instance should be, 'Who Wants to Lead?'.

    Under the current system of government, we end up with leaders who are completely untrained in any form of leadership. The electoral system provides us with people who make enough noise to be recognized, but are invariably totally inadequately prepared for the job in hand. The few who have the military, legal and economics training to do the job, wouldn't touch it with a barge pole!

    Without the 'training and culture' you refer to, our leaders lurch the nation from one crisis to another, seldom with a long term goal. Those who 'want to lead', and provide a smoke screen of lies to cover their own inadequate training for the job, are the winners in these races. We The People, however, are the losers.

    Today's election will probably give us yet another two years of bungling by incompetent amateurs. If The Dems retain the Senate, the GOP will continue it's blockade of every effort The President makes. If the tables are turned, I can see The President vetoing almost every move of the Republicans.

    Perhaps the time has come for a new system? Perhaps, those that lead need to be schooled for years? Perhaps The People could vote online, on much of the work currently done by Congress?

    The current system might have been ok when it was originally developed, but methinks it's time for a complete rehash. It's broken down, and is irreversible. Not so? Just think, President Obama, duly elected twice, yet completely hamstrung by Congress. The will of the people has not been heeded. It's broken!

  3. Earl Nittskoff
    Computer Networking Consultant and Professional

    Training takes money. Politicians are reluctant to spend money until a crisis emerges.

  4. Sounds on target to me. Culture is about is the environment you live or work in. Training is how you prepare for life or work.

  5. Josephine Giaimo
    User Experience Researcher, Strategist; Technical Writer; IT Professional.

    There is how things appear, and what is behind how things appear. These two things are different

  6. David Aitken
    Computer Software Professional

    Earl said: "Training takes money. Politicians are reluctant to spend money until a crisis emerges."

    They have plenty of money, but they spend it on frivolous things - studies of fruit fly sex, the effects of watching Seinfeld reruns, etc. They don't know how to lead, and until lots of people get fired (cold day in hell), that won't change. The top 4 or 5 layers of management in every government bureaucracy need to get fired. Unlike the military, they don't know how to train for serious stuff.

  7. Andy Williams
    Purchasing Manager at Southdown Homes

    You fight how you train.

  8. Gerry Geddings CFCAL
    Living the Dream at USA

    John I suspect that a military training model just won't work in a civilian environment. It requires a level of commitment that just isn't going to happen. In the ebola case, I suspect that the better solution was to keep untrained and unprepared people from being exposed to it in the first place. It was ridiculous IMHO to bring the infected people back to the US population anyway. They should have been treated and quarantined in situ so that they would cause no health risk to the population here. They could hardly cause a risk there since the disease is already present.

    On the subject of the military, does anyone understand the reasoning in sending US troops to fight an epidemic??????

  9. David Aitken
    Computer Software Professional

    Gerry said: "On the subject of the military, does anyone understand the reasoning in sending US troops to fight an epidemic??????"

    It's called "Doing Something". Dealing with Reality is not Obama's strong suit. He's a narcissist.

  10. Jason G. Ramage, MS, MBA, RBP
    Deputy Program Manager at BAI Inc - Meeting Client Challenges with Vision and Innovation

    Gerry - the military is involved because of its command of logistics, which is definitely needed in addressing a large-scale effort like the Ebola epidemic.

  11. Jack Leyden
    Designer, Spectacular Signage

    Gerry - (John, sorry for the continued off-topic)

    "On the subject of the military, does anyone understand the reasoning in sending US troops to fight an epidemic??????"

    2 separate facts. 1):West Africa is experiencing an Ebola epidemic; and, 2): the US is sending military troops to West Africa.

    The "why" conclusion regarding the genuine mission might differ between those people who see the US as a humanitarian super power, and those people who see the US as an imperialist super power.

    Cui bono?

  12. Glenn M. Watson 1st
    Investor, Corporate and Municipal Finance, Building Value
    Thoughtful and useful, as always, John. I just last night had a conversation with a friend about the young officer embroiled in the MO mess, and when you evoke "culture" into a discussion, it begged the question in my mind of what kind of law enforcement management policy sends a young, small rookie out in a unit alone? Or turning to the Secret Service, their culture has seemingly failed to either a) advocate a change in operation so as to not divert essential protection resources to broad and time consuming investigative resources and simply focus on their protection duty, or b) seek more resources to deal with an evolving responsibility and one that is seemingly not possible with their current resource allocation. Management must evolve, ask questions, rethink the status-quo regularly, and that task is, in and of itself, one of organizational culture.

  13. Robin Fehrenbach Scala 1st
    Collector of Intelligence, Problem Solver
    Perfectly explained.

  14. Keith Hartman 1st
    Market Development Director at Vistage International, the world's largest CEO private peer advisory board organization.
    Very well-put, John. Excellent post.

  15. Jack Craven 1st
    Photon Medical Communications, Inc.
    Another insightful post, John. Great article....