In episode 2 of the series, Stephen Barden talks to Lieutenant General (Ret) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, to find out whether the US army, which - like all armies is built for conflict - has any room for balanced, partnering leaders. Or is it possible that, all the while, its ability to largely stand back from partisan politics and its stability as an institution has been down to it jealously guarding its...Power of Balance?
Stephen Barden 0:02
This is a series about power, and why it, and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it, affects every aspect of our daily lives. I'm Steven Barden. And I've spent most of my working life with power, and leadership. I'm a coach-mentor of leaders and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage.
Stephen Barden 0:28
My late in life doctorate was on how successful leaders manage power and my book due out in December 2020, is called 'How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World', which, of course, is also about power.
Stephen Barden 0:46
Episode Two, the story of battles balance and the fastest kid in Florida.
Stephen Barden 0:54
You may remember from the last episode, that one of the findings from the research that I did with a group of top leaders was that we all have a foundational assumption about the balance of power we have with our world.
Stephen Barden 1:09
And this is largely built up from our childhood as we explore our space in our families and later schools and communities. The key point that I found was if the child learns to assume that she and her world have a manageable power balance, she's much more likely to engage with it, to partner with it. And this I called the partnering starts.
Stephen Barden 1:35
If on the other hand, she learns to believe that the world invariably has the upper hand, then she'll be more likely to regard it as the opposition, something to compete against to win or lose against and that I called, yes, you guessed it, the oppositional stance. And unless we relearn that template, we take it with us into adulthood.
Stephen Barden 1:59
So fairly absurdly for sentient beings, an assumption that we formed while we were exploring our spaces as children, with very little power and very little experience, we take with us into our adulthood, and that child's experience can dominate the way we behave and manage for the rest of our lives.
Stephen Barden 2:23
When I did that research, I wasn't looking to find out what those leaders had gone through as children. I actually wanted to know how they'd experienced their learning during their careers. How did they learn to make decisions that led to their success? But, the more I talked to them, the more they kept referring to their childhood, tracking their accomplishments through a thread from their childhood. I finally took the hint and started to listen to what they were trying to tell me.
Stephen Barden 2:56
They all had had very different childhoods, which of course was to be expected. Some of them pretty tough childhoods, some of them fairly secure. Some had been sent away from home very early and some stayed close to the family. And they went on to objectively successful careers, making a big impact in again, very different ways, and in very different places. They were educators, corporate CEOs, and military leaders at the highest levels.
Stephen Barden 3:32
But after analysis, I did discover, and to my surprise, that they all had one thing in common. They all had a partnering start. Far from being the highly competitive, ego-driven individuals with which we have come to associate so-called strong leaders, competing against all comers and challenging the world, this group held a childhood assumption that they and their world were reasonably in balance. They could do business with it, they could partner with it. And they certainly could be curious about it and engage with it and they built up over the years, values, approaches, and immense skills to support that assumption.
Stephen Barden 4:20
And that partnering start showed up in many ways in how they managed and led. They were incredibly holistic. They lead the entire institutional corporation, rather than for vested interests, like the shareholders, the politicians, the staff, or powerful donors.
Stephen Barden 4:42
They understood the value of relationships, not just among people, but the linkages between organisations and contexts. And they even made it a point of encouraging and structuring challenges, including of themselves, to keep learning. Not just their conclusions being challenged, but their thought processes going into it and they didn't do that because they were lovely, cuddly people. They did it because they lived in their world. They were engaged with it. They were curious about it. And their strongest asset was working with all the resources they had available to them.
Stephen Barden 5:24
As one of them told me, you're out there touching, smelling, tasting constantly and feeding into yourself, your dipsticking into yourself, you're telling people what's going on, you're warning them about what's coming up next, because of that relationship you have with the organisation. He could have said, because of that relationship you have with the world. Another surprise was that probably the most consistently partnering of my research subjects were the military generals.
Stephen Barden 6:00
I had thought of the military as being largely hierarchical and unquestioning of its leadership. I couldn't imagine junior officers seriously challenging their superior's conclusions. And when you come to think of it, isn't the military's sole purpose conflict, opposition? Aren't they, in fact, the epitome of the oppositional stance?
Stephen Barden 6:21
So, had I just been terribly unlucky and picked a sample of military generals who were atypical? Someone who I thought was ideal to answer that question was lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. Ben retired from the US Army in 2017 and is currently the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European policy analysis. Before that, he was commanding general of the US Army in Europe, a top adviser to NATO, and worked, and served, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stephen Barden 6:59
Ben was not part of my original research, but read and reviewed my book, and is therefore familiar with my model of the partnering and oppositional stance. I started by asking him whether what I had found in my model fitted in with his long experience in the US military.
Ben Hodges 7:18
So my experience is that the expectation was for me to use initiative to take risks, to accept responsibility. And the times I got in trouble were usually when I failed to do that, not when I failed to follow a specific order. The type of units I was in, 101st Airborne Division, but also even in a mechanised infantry unit in northern Germany, this was always the expectation. These were the examples, the historical examples that we're always putting in front of us or when other leaders in the organisation were recognised it was typically because they were willing to take risks and yeah, use initiative to be innovative. So that's, that's always been the expectation and that does, in a way, seem at odds with the stereotypical you know, Prussian "we all follow orders, unquestioning obedience", that sort of thing but actually, that's the opposite of the training, as well as my own personal experiences. My favourite, Clausewitz quote is "happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently; it is a luxuriant weed that indicates the richness of the soil." So even Clausewitz, the ultimate Prussian advocated, you know, young leaders who were willing to take a risk, and you just had to help that mature
Stephen Barden 9:03
What do you think is the role of the military within a nation?
Ben Hodges 9:10
Well, still sticking with Clausewitz, and the Trinity, of course, you know, the state, the people, and the military. It's had a role for thousands of years to protect, of course, it can be misused as a weapon. And so, as a member of the United States Armed Forces, in our history, our founding, if you will, the army is actually one year older than the country. The army was officially started one year before the Declaration of Independence, and without an army, the Declaration of Independence would have been an empty political statement.
Ben Hodges 9:55
But the founders were so intent on ensuring civilian control of the military that the army would not become an entity of its own and so our oath as officers and soldiers in the military is to the Constitution of the United States. I have had this small copy of the Constitution with me for decades as a reminder that our oath is to the constitution, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And so we as part of communicating as leaders, we reinforce this at every possible opportunity, when a soldier is promoted, or an officer, or at the reenlistment ceremony when they sign on for another two or four years or whatever. We always reaffirm the oath in front of everybody as a means of reminding us. This is why, frankly, with the current administration of the United States, the Trump administration, you know, that you will remember a few months ago, there was a very important, significant crisis, where the President was, there was a lot of talk about bringing the military to quell civil disturbance. And every single soldier I know, had a visceral reaction to that like, no, this is not, we do not want to do that.
Ben Hodges 11:26
Now, there have been a couple of times in our history, where I thought it was appropriate. Where President Eisenhower used the army to help enforce integration, for example, in a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. But in general, that's law enforcement, and the National Guard has those kinds of responsibilities. The regular army, we all really had a bad reaction to that. And I think you saw when General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, our top uniformed officer apologised two days later in a big venue. He said, hey, I was wrong, I should have anticipated. He should have anticipated he was going to use us as a prop, understanding the political situation. And he was and I thought it was important that he so quickly apologise in uniform and I was worried that that day was my old friend's last day on the job. But fortunately, I think the power of his integrity is what protected him.
Stephen Barden 12:29
It's a very clever thing isn't it, having an oath to the Constitution? Because that means that your oath is to the foundation, to the founding principles of the country and the remaining principal of the country, rather than to the commander in chief or to the political party, that it's in power or to the administration. It's first and foremost in the Constitution, isn't it? That's basically what maintains that stability, I think. Is that right?
Ben Hodges 13:02
Yeah, you're exactly right. You know, the Constitution is organised, where it says Article One, that's where the responsibilities and authorities of the Congress, the legislative branch are laid out. Article One, the first article of the constitution gives priority, the primacy of place to the legislative branch.
Ben Hodges 13:27
Article Two is the powers of the executive branch, the president. And so everybody always talks about the President's Commander in Chief, but the Congress has authorities and responsibilities as well, which, at times, it can be a little bit uncomfortable for senior officers, whether you're admirals and generals, or whatever. But the Constitution is what allows you to when you do testimony, for example, and the Senate Armed Services Committee says "Do you have enough to do?" and the chairman can say, absolutely not. You know, even though the budget was put forth by the executive branch.
Ben Hodges 14:05
So it's a challenging but also a good construct. And, you know, when we hear the President, talk about my generals, right, no, sir, we're not your generals. We're generals, of the Army or the Air Force, or admirals of the Navy. And I think that also helps prevent situations where a President may consider using the military and pushing those bounds. Now, by the way, every president, republican, democrat, has pushed the very limits of their executive powers. You know, there are examples where they tried to work around troop limits, for example, in Afghanistan or in the Balkans by using contracts. You know, to find ways around congressional invitation so this, this is not new, but I will say that what the current administration has done has been the most concerning for me.
Stephen Barden 15:04
Is your universe friendly? Did you grow up thinking that your universe was friendly?
Ben Hodges 15:11
Yeah, I absolutely believed that my universe was friendly even if I didn't think of it, in that sort of, in those terms. My parents were both always optimistic, not not in a Pollyanna sort of way but they were always optimistic, had high expectations that you know, hard work and a little bit of luck you could accomplish things, you can make a difference. And, and I mean, I didn't come from a military family, my father was a private for two years, like, most men were of his generation and that was a positive, high expectation, sort of thing. And my mother especially, she loves people, I mean, she's the kind of person that would, she would get on the elevator and by the time the elevator was at the ground floor, she would know everybody on the elevator where they were from, and would have sort of, you know, established a contact with them. It's been a family joke of ours for decades.
Ben Hodges 16:13
So that was what I grew up in and fortunately, my experience at West Point as a cadet, and then in the 40 years since I graduated, that's generally been the experience. Not that every day was fun but I had fun every day.
Stephen Barden 16:33
One of the things I basically advocate in the book is that parents should, you know, not, on the one hand, overprotect their children, but on the other hand, they need to be able to give them a reasonable space, or safety if you like, in which they can take chances. There's a thing that you were talking about earlier on about being told in the army to take the risk.
Stephen Barden 16:55
Did you find it when you were a kid? Were you enabled to take chances as a child? To go form your own experiences rather than inherit the experiences of your parents or your elders?
Ben Hodges 17:10
Yeah, you know, of course, I've played American football and sports and that sort of thing. In fact, you were expected to participate in sports. In the summertime, I would go off to, we lived in North Florida, but I would spend the summer up in North Carolina, at a boys camp. Either as a camper, you know, when I was a kid, or as I got older, I was part of the work crew. You know, I loved the mountains of western North Carolina. And I remember the biggest adventure I think I ever had with my father was my father saying, alright, I'm gonna let you drive the summer, you're gonna take the car.
Ben Hodges 17:24
We had this Dodge Rambler, no not a Dodge Rambler, but it was a Dodge car and he said, you can drive. I was 16 and he said, you can drive! Now, of course, there was no GPS, there were no iPhones, there was none of that, this was 1974. And we went over the route on the map and he said, you know, have a good time, have fun. And I was, honestly, even to this day, I'm a little surprised he let me do that. But it was that was a huge confidence boost for me to know that I could travel across from Florida to North Carolina. Be responsible for the car, stop and get gas, do all the things necessary, and then bring it back safely.
Ben Hodges 18:45
In fact, I even gave a guy a ride back, halfway back so that was the kind of thing and then there's another funny story. Every Thanksgiving, all of us would go down to this hunting lodge, out in the middle of nowhere in North Florida and my grandfather and his five brothers had built it back in the depression time. And now it's where we all go every Thanksgiving. I mean, there'll be 100 people there, a gigantic family reunion. And my father and I would always go down early and stay late. And the water came from a well that was out in the woods, down close to this river. And so of course, it means you had to fill up milk jugs with spring water to bring into the house for drinking and cooking.
Ben Hodges 19:31
And so one night, I swear it had to be 10 o'clock at night, and I was only about ten or nine at the time, and one of the old uncles he goes, "Hey, Ben, we need more water." Now I know at this time that they did not need more water. This was a test. And I looked at my father. He said "Yeah, bud, you need to go down. We need more water here for tomorrow morning." I'm like, the last thing I wanted was to walk out into the forest. And then I say, "Can I take a flashlight?" And he said all right so I was the fastest kid in Florida that night. I ran down to that well, filled up that jug with water, and ran back.
Ben Hodges 20:08
But now I know what was going on.
Stephen Barden 20:11
Going back to the military, one of the things that I found with that, that they were pretty good at was scenario planning, battle plans.
Stephen Barden 20:22
Is that something that you did, that you experienced? And is that something that you keep on doing now that you've retired and you're doing?
Ben Hodges 20:31
Yeah, for sure. We were constantly Wargaming courses of action. As technology improved, for example, we were preparing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a Brigade Commander and by this time, we had a visual methodology that you could actually see the terrain. Now, this is 2003, obviously, it's a million times better now. But even in 2003, you could kind of get a pilot's view, if you were flying in on a helicopter to seize an airfield, which we were preparing to do. Thank God, we never had to do that because it would have been a mess but you could visualise it. And then you could think about what needed to be done. So those kinds of tools have developed and everybody knows that the plan is almost never gonna turn out exactly as you hope because you've got a thinking enemy and I mean, we know from Clausewitz, there are a thousand things that can go wrong, and half of them will go wrong. And you know, and I had hundreds of teenagers with weapons under my command.
Ben Hodges 21:39
So I mean, there's a lot of potential for things to go wrong, but the Wargaming, the going through the planning process, was necessary to number one, figure out the timing, the logistics, what would be required? And then to figure out, you know, what do we want to do to have the best chance for success? At the end of the day, it was gonna be a lieutenant with a group of sergeants and soldiers that were going to be the key on the point so it had to be something, they couldn't be long you know, obviously, they would rehearse multiple times but at the end of the day, it needs to be something that they understood when they get there and if the situation looks different from what we thought they still knew what the end state was.
Ben Hodges 22:28
And so they would retask themselves, that was the expectation, that they would retask themselves. Because the purpose was more important than the task. You know, seizing a place is the task, but the 'in order to', the purpose, is by far more important. And if you can accomplish the purpose without having to seize this, then that's good.
Ben Hodges 22:53
Then, of course, all the training that we did all the leader development was based on that. Where a young leader feels confident, in fact, my goal was always that lieutenant sergeants and captains would say, if Colonel Hodges was here, and he knew what I knew, and he saw what I saw, he would probably tell me to do X, so I'm going to do that.
Stephen Barden 23:17
Did you at any stage in that scenario planning, did you ever make provision for them, you know, the ones who are going to be in the field to say, what about this? Have you thought about this? In other words, the critique coming from the bottom up? Did you ever make provision, and is that something that the ministry does in the US? Where make with a critique from the bottom up?
Ben Hodges 23:40
Yeah, in fact, part of the process is, when you issue the order, you know, there's been a lot of parallel planning going on already. I mean, the staff are talking and, you know, so people have as much time as possible to start movement, to begin to prepare things that can be done without knowing the full total final plan. And then, once you've reached it, you've given the order, then your subordinates will come back brief you on how they're going to do it. And this is their opportunity to point out, I'm going to need more trucks, or I'm going to need more time or I'm going to need this or, sir, I think we can accomplish it if we do this.
Ben Hodges 24:27
And of course, this is especially important when you're in multinational formations where you get allies. It's not just US Army, it might be you know, other Americans, Special Forces, Marines or Air Force, or Polish or British or German allies that are part of it as well. And so having that back brief to eliminate as much misunderstanding as possible, and then there's also where they can come back and say if you can't give me... Here's the risk of failure or losses, if I don't get what I've told you, I need, and so, and then I own the risk, then I say, okay, sorry, I've got no more trucks.
Ben Hodges 25:16
In modern warfare, you have to be able to conduct distributed operations. You've got young leaders all over the place out interacting whether it's with the local populations, their own soldiers, Allied, or in partner formations, and of course, the enemy. And so they've got to be confident, able to act independently, which means you've got to communicate to them in such a way that they feel confident that they can make decisions and take risks in order to carry out their assigned purpose.
Ben Hodges 25:48
Now, of course, they don't come in a box like that. You have to invest time in that. And so one of the things that was, that I think the leader has to be conscious of and prevent is the gravitational pull of his or herself. It's natural, particularly in the military, but I think also in big businesses, that people will gravitate towards the boss, the leader, in social situations, as well as in training or in operation.
Ben Hodges 26:26
And so I think, consciously going out of your way to not be the centre of attention, even at a social event, you know, when you have the normal monthly or quarterly team-building sort of things, or Christmas party, or whatever it is to not let yourself be the centre of attention for the whole thing.
Stephen Barden 26:45
How do you do that? Because that's really difficult.
Ben Hodges 26:48
Well, you know, one of my favourite things to do when we would have a promotion ceremony or a farewell ceremony for somebody, of course, you do, you know, if you're the commander, you're going to officiate, you're going to pin on the new rank, or you're going to give them the oath or whatever, but they have their family there and so you, you try to position everything, and they're part of this is positioning in the room is put the family, the soldier there and then as soon as the ceremony parts are done, and the soldiers finished, I would always move off to the side. Then everybody in the room would kind of fall by and shake hands, punch them on the shoulder, you know, do all that kind of stuff. That was my favourite part of the ceremony was to watch the interaction between the friends in the soldier who was being honoured or promoted, or whatever. I loved doing that.
Ben Hodges 27:45
The other thing and this is a, it's a simple technique... The norm in a headquarters, when you issue the order, the staff would always set up the briefing room where you, the commander, are sitting right in the middle, and you'd become the focus.
Ben Hodges 28:01
And I thought, I remember looking at that, like, wait a minute, I'm the one issuing the order. This is my order to my subordinates. Why is the room, or if when we do it outside on a training model, why is it set up so that I'm the centre of attention?
Ben Hodges 28:17
So by a simple technique of putting everybody, my subordinate commanders, in the front row, and I would sit off at the end, would number one, it would cause the staff to brief them because they're the ones that have got to execute it. And then also I can kind of look down the row and watch their faces, and I can see, Mark, he doesn't get it, or she doesn't see what it is that's expected, or okay, they got it. And it was a completely different dynamic and made us, I think, much more effective and, and also these guys, I mean, they were all now on it. I mean, I've just been told what I've got to do. I'm the centre, I'm the centre of attention and I own it. And those are simple techniques.
Stephen Barden 29:04
How did you make sure that you got a really honest critique of what you were doing?
Ben Hodges 29:13
Well, first of all, you can be sure I was not totally successful in this. I am sure there were times where I thought okay, everybody feels confident they can come to complain to me, they can criticise, I'm sure they feel that way... Only to discover later that I was wrong. That's what I wanted to believe but it wasn't always the case. Even when I thought I was emphasising this.
Ben Hodges 29:38
You know, I still think of myself as Lieutenant Hodges, not general Hodges, you know and there was a 25 or 30-year difference between me and these guys and I had to be conscious of that. And so I still would, would go out of my way to emphasise things. And I was old enough to know that I could look around the room and see that people were, they were grimacing, or that I could see the doubt. And so I would call them out. You know, Tim, obviously, you disagree with me What? What's the goddamn problem here?
Ben Hodges 30:11
And then everybody else will feel comfortable like, okay, the boss is serious, he really does want push back. Sometimes I handled that well, I mean, I'm human, too. I didn't like it, to be told, you know that, but most people got accustomed to the fact if I did erupt or get really angry, almost always, it would be over very fast. And so the, you know, most of them were like, okay, ah, it'll pass. Then, of course, because I knew about that about myself and about the human dynamic in the army I had to have other mechanisms. Of course, you know, one of the great developments in the army is the Sergeant Major, and the Command Sergeant Major, somebody that's about my age, you know, they are at the top of the enlisted rank.
Ben Hodges 31:03
They can't go any further. And you pick them so that they will be that person knows like, sir, you got a problem down in Alpha Company are in First Battalion are over in this directory. You need to go check into this or that thing you said that that was terrible, what you just did, you know, and fortunately, I always found that Sergeant Major that was willing to do that.
Ben Hodges 31:30
In this last little war story, but when I was a captain, I had been the company commander for about three months, maybe two months and I thought I was the best captain in the army. I mean, I just knew I was like, Napoleon and I was giving instructions to all my lieutenants, I had four lieutenants in the company and First Sergeant.
Ben Hodges 31:55
We're in the room together and I mean, I'm laying out, this is burning bush stuff. And they're all yes, sir, yes, sir, yes, sir. And after it's over, they all stand up and salute, leave the room, and then I notice it First Sergeant Roseto... He's an old Puerto Rican Vietnam veteran, he was about at the time, he's about 15 years older than me, I noticed he's kind of hanging back. I said, First Sergeant, know what's wrong? And he kind of slowly he shuts the door, and he says, in his real thick Puerto Rican accent, he'd been in the US Army 20 years, it still sounded like he had just arrived. He said, Sir, I tell you this if we do your plan, we're fucked up.
Ben Hodges 32:43
I said, so what do you mean? And then he lays out like five fatal flaws. I'm like, get those stupid lieutenants back in here right now and that stuck with me forever that you know, in the future, get the old first sergeant in on the plan from the beginning. And then to the lieutenants hey, if it's stupid, tell me, you know, raise your hand.