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Gen John A. Shaud, USAF, Retired
The typical staff officer is a man past middle life, spare, wrinkled, intelligent, cold, noncommittal, with eyes like a codfish, polite in contact, but at the same time unresponsive, cool, calm and as damnably composed as a concrete post or plaster of Paris cast; a human petrification with a heart of feldspar and without charm or the friendly germ; minus bowels, passions or a sense of humor. Happily they never reproduce and all of them finally go to hell.
--Gen George S. Patton, Jr.
GENERAL PATTON'S rather astute observations may reflect some of your own concerns as you prepare to embark on the always challenging and sometimes rewarding path known as the "staff experience." That path is one well traveled. Those who have trod it include virtually all of the senior leadership of today's Air Force and the vast majority of past leaders who have helped make our Air Force great. Career patterns vary widely, but rare is the officer who avoids staff duty completely. And that is appropriate. Mastering the art of success as a staff officer is very much a part of the process of mastering the art of leadership that will propel you into positions of increasing challenge and responsibility in all aspects of your profession. This fact is well recognized and accounted for in the process of selecting individuals for promotion to general officer. The key factors in that decision process are that the individual's career provide evidence of weapon (and/or support) system competence, command competence, and staff competence. Each type of competence is essential, and all are interrelated by that common denominator for success--effective leadership! The purpose of this article is to share with you a philosophy of leadership that will play a major role in your experience as a staff officer.
Competent and effective leadership is not something you are born with. It is something you hone and develop over time in a wide variety of situations. The philosophy of leadership that I propose for your consideration has been developed from my own experience at the wing, Pentagon, and coalition staff levels and is comprised of three primary attributes: intelligence, compassion, and energy (ICE for the acronym conscious). They apply universally across all of the services. The traits required of an effective leader in the Air Force are the same traits that are necessary to lead effectively in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Taking a flight of fighter-bombers and rolling in on target takes the same "right stuff" that is involved in leading an infantry company in an assault against enemy defenses or challenging an opposing ship on the high seas. These traits also apply regardless of national allegiance. Fortunately, this helps take some of the mystery out of joint and international duty assignments.
Intelligence for the commander at wing level does not necessarily correspond to scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is more akin to "street smarts." It is the ability to quickly ascertain exactly what the mission entails and to articulate that understanding to subordinates in a way they will clearly grasp. This means being able to analyze the problem effectively, to synthesize its component parts into a coherent whole, and to communicate strategies for solutions. Throughout history, great military leaders have well appreciated this basic definition of intelligence. Napoleon considered it part of an equilateral triangle supported by courage and character. Clausewitz equated command determination with "intellectual bravery." A competent intellect is the cornerstone of effective leadership. The key task is translating that intellect into something your subordinates can appreciate, grasp, and act upon.
Compassion at the wing level means a sensitive caring for, and understanding of, the people in your command. It means "walking in their moccasins." It means appreciating where they are coming from, what their concerns are, what their families' concerns are, what motivates them, and what
fails to motivate them. It means ensuring that they understand not only what the mission is but also why they are called upon to carry out that mission. As commander of the Strategic Projection Force in the early eighties, I had to direct deployments frequently, often for long periods of time, with little advance notice. There was nothing I could do to change that requirement or to lessen the frequency or duration of such outings. What I could do was explain why these sacrifices had to be made. When the troops understand the "why" behind the taskings--and, at least as important, when the families understand--morale across the board improves tremendously. That was important for the people involved. It was also vital to mission success.
Energy, at every level, means "making it happen." It means doing all those things to see that the mission is accomplished. It can mean different tasks at different levels, but the heart of the matter is doing it, being there, being prepared, and making it happen. You can have the intelligence of Einstein and the compassion of Mother Teresa, but if you lack energy, nothing is going to happen. It involves your presence. For the operational commander, that means getting on the flying schedule. For the support commander, that means getting away from your desk and being out where your people are doing the work.
Assignment as a staff officer to the Pentagon or another headquarters staff doesn't mean putting the ICE principles on hold. It means adapting them to the new circumstances in which you find yourself. Each element continues to apply. The difference as a staff officer is that you have, for the most part, left behind the realm of the flight line and entered the less glamorous realm of the paper chase. However, even though it may appear to you to be less glamorous, it is no less important in the scheme of your professional development.
Intelligence at the staff level still means a clear understanding of the mission. It also means understanding what it will take, on a personal level, to succeed at accomplishing this mission. Your focus is now considerably different since the mission no longer involves sorties. Therefore, you must understand not only a particular issue, but also the structure of the staff organization--how it works. Not to understand the ins and outs of the organizational structure and process means risking nonparticipation by default. New officers on the staff frequently find themselves tasked with only the simplest missions, not because they lack academic acumen, drive, or personal competency but because they first need to become familiar with how the system works. A local-area checkout is always useful, especially in the Pentagon. Likewise, intelligence includes the ability to speak cogently and to write clearly. It means mastering the basic tools of the staff officer trade.
Compassion at the staff level assumes many forms. In today's Air Force, it is particularly important to be sensitive to how people are affected by structural reorganization. The good news is that--with enough qualified people--any organizational structure will work. Some structures, of course, work better than others. But the bad news is that the trauma that accompanies any restructuring affects everyone involved and is inevitable. People who direct reorganizations must be sure that the desired result is worth the inherent trauma. Every level of the staff organization must be sensitive to the effects of restructuring.
It is important to be well aware of "who's who" in your particular area of responsibility on the staff. Be sensitive to where your people are on the learning curve in terms of staff competence and ability. The measure of an individual's competence is much more readily observable in an operational arena. It's easy to know who is flight-lead qualified and who is still flying with an instructor. Staff competence is less readily apparent. You cannot determine it merely by gauging an individual's rank, time in service, or background. On the staff, which is something of a meritocracy, competence manifests itself in subtle stages. In year one, the new action officer attends meetings looking every bit the part of the seasoned staff professional while inwardly praying, "Please, Lord, don't let them ask me any questions today." By year two, the action officer is not only eager to answer questions, but stands ready to "build a watch" whenever offered half an opportunity. By year three, the officer is combat ready, crisp, and concise, and can frequently provide answers that are better than the questions asked. Some officers move through these stages faster than others. Some are less adroit at manipulating the staff maze. The challenge for you as the leader on the staff is to know where your people are on the learning curve. If you don't, you may have a staff "flight lead" working for you and not fully utilize and develop that officer's talent. That would be unfair to the officer concerned and to the mission with which you are charged.
Energy at the staff level means just what it meant at the wing level. Understand what must be done and then do it. Make it happen. Learn the organizational structure. Become adept at the drill of staff work. Don't avoid the tough coordination. Don't take the easy way out. Find out what the other players are thinking and doing. Learn what your boss and other key players need and, importantly, when each one needs it. Providing information without allowing sufficient time for your leader to assimilate it is not useful. That would be like briefing new targets after departing the initial point. Work out at the base gym or the Pentagon Officers' Athletic Club. Take care of yourself. No one else will. Crew-rest rules are permanently waived. Make time for your family if you happen to have one. They need you to survive in northern Virginia, and you need them for your survival. Unfortunately, Patton's comment about the typical staff officer does have a certain truth to it. Staff work, especially at the Pentagon, can be impersonal. Because you are part of such a large enterprise, it is difficult--but not impossible--to see the results of your labor and thereby derive much feedback and personal satisfaction. Worry about your appearance. Don't look tacky by wearing uniforms you would have discarded years ago if they were part of your civilian attire. Lead from your strengths. Do those things that worked for you when you were a leader on the flight line. Keep your self-confidence up. However, don't be too proud to learn and use new insights you will observe at the Pentagon--a real plus resulting from a tour there. Do your job with enthusiasm, and you will soon be a staff leader--and might even get to go back to the field early. Pentagon bosses also return to the field and remember people who were the most helpful.
By following these principles of successful leadership at the wing and headquarters staff levels, you will be rewarded with positions of increasing challenge and responsibility. Although the possibilities are nearly endless, one example of such a challenge might involve assignment to a joint coalition staff. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) is one such staff which has evolved over more than 40 years. In three years as the SHAPE chief of staff, I learned that the principles of ICE continued to apply. And the likelihood of your participation in a joint coalition staff in this post-cold war world has increased by an order of magnitude.
Intelligence on a coalition staff means, as always, a clear understanding of the mission at hand and the ability to convey that understanding to others. On the coalition staff, as is the case with any new leadership situation, new variables enter the equation. My primary mission was to coordinate the activities of the staff to produce the best possible support for the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). In addition to what you might normally expect that to entail, I found that I also had to be a negotiator, diplomat, taskmaster, and cheerleader. I learned also that on the SHAPE staff (as well as on most coalition staffs), some of the most important factors to be considered were appreciating inherent differences in culture and language and possessing a solid sense of history.
A vital component of international street smarts is realizing the cultural differences among nations. Their officers, like ours, are part of a military hierarchy. They will respond to your leadership the same way they respond to that of their own officers of similar rank. But most nations are much more hierarchically oriented than the United States. You will like this at first and get the impression that you must be a more gifted officer than you realized. But then it will occur to you--hopefully not as the result of a disaster--that one reason you are so comfortable is that your people are not asking you questions. No one asks the "Why are we doing this?" question of superiors as readily as Americans. You must get your people to do this, or they will waste incredible amounts of time doing ineffective work. In addition, for hierarchically minded nations, putting opposing views on a staff summary sheet is a flagrant act of disloyalty. Promote the idea that in a "commander's estimate of the situation," analysis of opposing courses of action is a requirement and is always useful. As we say in the game of bridge, one peek is worth two finesses. Convincing your international staff of all this may be the difference between victory or defeat when you debate a major issue.
Compassion on the coalition staff includes keeping thefactors of language and history in mind. Consideration of others in the staffing process means helping to make sure that everyone operates from a common base. Each member of the staff has to help in this important regard. English is the lingua franca at SHAPE, and all staff members supposedly possess a working knowledge of English. This, incidentally, is very good news for most Americans. But it's important to remember that fluency in any language is relative to each individual. In the coalition staff, a leader must consciously--and sometimes subtly--ensure that real communication takes place as business is transacted. Should the leader not know the language comprehension of immediate subordinates, they may fail under pressure when the time lines get short. No matter how good the command and control system, equipment does not guarantee understanding. At a staff meeting, for example, all heads may be nodding in agreement and all faces smiling. Does that mean that all souls on board fully understand what is transpiring? Not necessarily. The concerned and prudent leader must help ensure that all players are on the same wavelength without condescending to or embarrassing them. I learned that a casual question or request for comment can be the best way to sample the level of understanding around the table. If you sense that an individual (or individuals) may need some assistance in better grasping the proceedings, do your best to help out and make a note for the future.
Compassion also means appreciating the role that history plays in the views of others. Your fellow officers will come to the staff from different nations and will have been molded by significantly different cultures, customs, and traditions. Appreciating those differences goes far beyond learning the social courtesies, such as calling cards and handshakes. A strong military ethic provides a vital and cohesive bond--high regard for the chain of command. But the staff leader of the coalition must constantly remember that every issue between nations that the staff addresses has a history that sometimes goes back hundreds or even thousands of years. This history has played a major role in shaping and influencing the officers with whom you will serve. They will always be conscious of the historical significance of issues under discussion, even when the American officer may not. Unfortunately, history is not the average American officer's best suit. Whereas the typical American relies often on sports analogies (e.g., "this task is a six-inch putt"), his allied peer will frequently invokehistory to form the analogy. Even when an American is aware of history, he or she may not always be fully conscious of how that history is viewed by people raised in different cultures. The good news is that Americans are almost always viewed as "honest brokers" because we do not carry a lot of historical baggage, and others will often defer to our judgement. However, the point is that history will always play a major role in the ability of the members of the coalition staff to work together harmoniously to carry out the assigned mission. At least once during your experience on an international staff, you will be on the receiving end of a well-rehearsed national speech delivered with incredible emotion and incredibly bad timing. Coalition staffs are the wave of the future. As a member of the staff, you must remember that history is an omnipresent player, and you must appreciate how that history is viewed from the different vantage points of your superiors, peers, and subordinates. If you ignore this basic fact, you do so at your peril--risking, at best, minor embarrassment and, at worst, unnecessary losses on future fields of conflict.
A final element of compassion on the coalition staff is avoiding arrogance, which is rarely a virtue in any culture. Although arrogance can be a less-than-desirable trait of any member of the coalition staff, Americans in particular must be careful to avoid this tendency. At SHAPE, for example, the SACEUR has been an American since the alliance's inception. The United States, with all of its commensurate wealth and resources, is the largest nation represented. American officers on the SHAPE staff may, if they are not careful, unintentionally display a certain arrogance that is not warmly received by their peers on the staff. Arrogance is never helpful. In this regard, compassion means being sufficiently sensitive to avoid offending someone while you are trying to get your message across. You may lose the debate and never know why. After all, in a coalition, every nation gets a vote. Your effective leadership is expected. Do it, but don't get cocky about it.
Energy in the coalition staff scenario remains essentially the same as for any other scenario. It means doing what it takes--making what must happen, happen. You can understand that a knowledge of English and an appreciation of history are vitally important. But if you then fail to expend the energy to do appropriate study and research, you wind up being ineffective. Intellectually, you can understand why your subordinates should be proficient in the appropriate language, but if you don't find a way to measure that proficiency and act accordingly, the mission will suffer. You will discover that getting anything done on a coalition staff is somehow harder--much harder--than equivalent work, even at the Pentagon. Such staffs are the wave of the future, and they will tax your energy.
Intelligence, compassion, and energy--and all the things each entails--are the keys to developing your professional leadership. They apply to any leadership scenario in which you can be placed. Their careful application at every stepping-stone in your growth better prepares you for the challenges you will face on behalf of our Air Force. Your assignment to staff duty is not a time-out from your leadership development. It is very much an essential part of it. Make the most of the opportunity.
Gen John A. Shaud, USAF, Retired (BS, USMA; MS, George Washington University; PhD, Ohio State University), is director of the Air Force Aid Society, Arlington, Virginia. He retired in July 1991 as chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, Mons, Belgium. He previously served as commander of the 57th Air Division, Minot AFB, North Dakota; of the 92d Bombardment Wing and 47th Air Division, Fairchild AFB, Washington; and of Air Training Command, Randolph AFB, Texas. General Shaud, who accumulated more than 5,600 flying hours as a command pilot, also served at Korat Royal Thai AB, Thailand, and Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam. General Shaud is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and National War College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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