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Rank is Nothing; Talent is Everything

“There are three enormous tasks that strategic leaders have to get right” Patraeus said one night in Baghdad. “The first is to get the big ideas right. The second is to communicate the big ideas throughout the organization. The third is to ensure proper execution of the big ideas.”
-From the book The Gamble by Thomas Ricks

To get what one wants one must have control and the first step in getting control is to know deep down that control is a good thing. No matter personal attributes and desire, without control one will not get what one wants. As I usually do, I go back to Ockham’s law and the truth that the simplest solution is invariably the best solution. Then, I reason, in this simplicity, the pathway to control is gaining the understanding, first, that the world we live in is mechanical and that those mechanics are linear. And second, those mechanics of the world – I call them systems – work perfectly 99.9% of the time whether we like it or not. They’re self-propelled; I like to say they have a “penchant for perfection.” This means that if a system is set up, either quietly by nature or overtly by a human, it has an almost innate desire to fulfill its purpose.

In understanding these fundamentals deep down, it becomes evident that to get what one wants there are steps that must be taken to optimize certain sub-systems, and those steps must be taken in the correct sequence. Very simple, yes? Yes.

I am just finishing a terrific book entitled The Gamble by Thomas Ricks, a Washington Post columnist. The book chronicles the failure of our presence in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, and then the success of the “surge,” the dramatic turnaround spearheaded by General David Petraeus that began in January 2007. It ends with some predictions for the future. Never mind the politics here. This is about mechanics.

In a nutshell, the original strategy in Iraq was to defeat the enemy by taking them on with a slash and burn methodology that entailed both massive and incisive strikes followed by pullbacks. Our troops would fight and then withdraw to fortified barracks outside the neighborhoods. Al Qaeda would immediately and violently reinsert themselves in the conquered and then abandoned neighborhoods. It was a vicious circle that was going nowhere as both sides suffered massive casualties.

The surge included adding more troops but more importantly, imposed a change of strategy. Our troops were to go from a “kill the enemy” mission to a “protect the citizenry” mode. To do this, the military went into the neighborhoods and established “local outposts” right inside the social network of the various neighborhoods. Our troops made personal, one-on-one connections with the locals. By establishing relationships and mending local social dysfunctions and misunderstandings, successes included recruiting former enemy militias and getting the trust of the populace. The military went inside, and one by one, fixed the local social networks (social systems) while offering security and a pathway to future peace. In addition, engineers were busy repairing mechanical infrastructure systems such as power, water and schools. Again, forget trying to figure this out from a good or bad stance. Keep it mechanical. This is about going inside, taking things apart, and then fixing the separate elements one-by-one. The context here, a nd the politics, don’t matter. What matters is the insight that the mechanics of the world are simple and they perform in predictable ways: Fix the subsystems of a dysfunctional entity and the overall system entity gets better; Mismanage an efficient system’s sub-systems and things go to Hell in a hurry. Very simple….

Here are some quotes from The Gamble. If you have read my book, Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less, and have internalized the systems methodology, these thoughts will resonate. Think of your own life as you consider these thoughts:

…even more significant than Petraeus’s military background is his determination. It is the cornerstone of his personality and a characteristic that seems to strike everyone he meets. One of his favorite words is “relentless.”

In the past (Patraeus) said, the Army had taught officers what to think. Now, he said, it needed to teach them how to think.

Rank is nothing; talent is everything.

Flexibility as applied to military leadership might be defined as being open to change as an opportunity and having a tolerance for ambiguity; adjusting rapidly to new or evolving situations; applying different methods to meet changing priorities.

The first and foremost task of a commander is to understand, with a steady head, the nature of the conflict in which he is engaged. In order to achieve that understanding a commander can be neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic; and especially not subject to…mood swings., seeing every minor victory as a triumph and every partial setback as a disaster.

It is axiomatic that good tactics can’t fix a bad strategy, but that a good strategy tends to fix bad tactics, because the inappropriateness of those individual actions becomes self-evident when seen against the larger scheme.

The surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them. General Raymond Odierno’s great accomplishment may have been making sure that all his forces were dancing to the same tune and at the same time.(

The danger of making policy on the fly and not vetting it through scrutiny and debate is that it may win short-term advances without recognizing long-term costs.

So, the mechanics are simple and they apply everywhere all the time. Get this book by Thomas Ricks. It’s a solid analysis pointing out some very fundamental basics of management.

If you haven’t read my book but want to know more, there’s lots of summary information at workthesystem.com. Also, see Facebook: “Work the System.”
-sam c.

About the Author: Sam Carpenter

In 1984, Sam founded Centratel, the number one commercial telephone answering service in the nation, located in Bend, Ore. With a background in engineering and publishing, he is a telephone answering service industry consultant, writer and speaker, and has served [...]