Competence vs. Character – The Army Dilemma
Recently, the top two generals in the United States Army, Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, told the Associated Press that the Army has suffered from a loss of focus and a failure to balance character with competence
….Sometimes in the past we’ve overlooked character issues because of competence and commitment…General Ray Odierno, U.S. Army Chief of Staff
General Dempsey, not to be outdone, denied that a 12 year-long war was the cause.
…it is not the war that caused this,…it is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time…
Seriously? General Dempsey has been the Chairman since October 2011. Prior to that, he was the Chief of Staff of the United States Army from April 2011 to October 2011, United States Army Training Command from 2008 to 2011, Deputy Commander and Acting Commander of Central Command from 2007 to 2008, and Commander of the Multi-National Force, Iraq from August 2005 to 2007.
What was General Odierno doing for that past 10 years when competence started beating character? Nothing much, except for Army Chief of Staff since September 2011, Commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq from 2008 to 2010, Commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq from 2006 to 2008, and Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff from 2004 to 2006.
For you folks out there who just looked at the past two paragraphs and can’t make heads or tails out of it, I’ll spell it out. There are arguably no other two generals currently serving in the United States Army today that have served in positions that would have provided the opportunity to affect the state of the Army today in such a way so as to not be in a position to make the preceding statements .
The choice of competence versus character is one that has bedeviled organizations for years. The very image of the Rogue succeeding against the establishment is a Hollywood trope that goes back to the dawn of film. America has always been torn on this topic, valuing its rugged individualism over conformity. As I have said before, on a team, that is a false choice.
General Odierno’s use of the terms character, competence, commitment is no fluke. Those are the accepted “three C’s” of the Army profession as established by Training and Doctrine Command (which General Dempsey once commanded).
Dr. John Townsend noted “…these two elements rest on each other. You must have both..an individual who has competence and a character problem can ruin the culture of an organization…”.
And that my friends, is where you leaders come in. Much of the leadership 101 resources available speak to adult learning, matching the right leadership style to situation, and developing an effective performance feedback routine. All of these are designed to address competence in the task at hand. However, the leader, new and old, committed to the mission and direction of their team, must aggressively defend against perhaps the more dangerous enemy.
Conversations about character can be tough, much more so than reviewing performance. As General Schwarzkopf noted in a famous speech at West Point in 1991, “…leaders who possess great competence but lack character can achieve many missions, but in doing so, place the entire organization, and people, at risk.”
Leaders in an organization must start with hiring for character first, ensure that leadership and influencing positions are filled by character-driven souls, and foster an atmosphere where discussions about “doing the right thing” are expected and encouraged between supervisor and subordinate.
The late Steven Covey stated that the best leaders build trust. He defined trust as confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Talk straight, demonstrate respect, deliver results, confront reality, and practice accountability.