In the late nineties, Korean Airways had an statistically high number of plane crashes. The reason? Because of a strict Asian culture with a low tolerance for failure, co-pilots hesitated to inform their captains when they made critical mistakes. As a result, planes crashed. The culture of Korea, and Korean Airlines, was to blame for the high crash rate.
Two weeks ago, I praised Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success for its insights. In that post, I wrote about how individuals become successful; today, I will expand into what makes cultures successful.
Outliers asks a very basic question: how does culture influence success? The US Army has a distinct culture: technologically-oriented, maneuver-focused, leadership-driven, top-down. And this culture has struggled for eight years to defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Their own plane crashes if you will.) Outliers, of course, never mentions insurgencies or the army, but asserts an idea every Army officer should understand: your culture defines you. Only after understanding your culture can you break out of its confines.
An example: from the end of Vietnam to the Iraq invasion, maneuver commanders trained to lead battalion and brigade sized operations. There is a reason for this, large operations in a high intensity environment are difficult and complex operations. As I have written before, though, counter-insurgencies are no place for large operations. Our Army culture--through doctrine, leadership and practice--wants to continue conducting large scale operations, counter-insurgency be damned.
The US Army needs to ask if it has a culture of success, and I don’t think it is. Gladwell argues that certain cultures breed intellectual curiosity and intense work ethics. Is the Army one of those cultures? Do we care about reading military history? Learning languages? Developing new ideas and tactics?
Or do we care about physical fitness and fantastic PowerPoints?
Another example: Outliers mentions that Southern culture tends to respond violently to personal insults. The upshot is that Southerners believe in honor, and have a willingness to fight for that honor. 23% of the Army is from the South, and its cultural influences run even deeper. How does this affect the Army's culture? Or how we wage insurgencies?
The theory of “power-distance" is another important idea. High power-distance relationships discourage direct confrontation; low-power relationships allow subordinates to challenge their leaders. Is the US Military a low or high power-distance organization? America is a low power-distance nation, but the Military has some distinct high power-distance characteristics (rank, customs and courtesy, and saluting all reinforce high-power relationships). I have a feeling many in CENTCOM and DoD knew invading Iraq would turn out poorly, but high power-distance relationships discouraged honest discussion. Like Korean Airways, staff officers at CENTCOM saw the US Military plane crashing, but could not communicate that to General Franks.
Outliers: The Story of Success has a simple theme: think about what makes people successful. The Army should examine what social science tells us about how success really works, not how it worked in the 1950s. We are an industrial Army fighting information wars. We need to adapt.