Change the Culture If I could Only Change One Thing by Don Vandergriff

The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army… The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances causes us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.
Von Scheekt, Chief German General Staff, 1925

Change the culture from today’s top-down, authoritarian and centrally controlled linear culture to a superior command culture called Auftragstaktik . It is the “how to” as they say that is not so easy. The techniques and principles are the base line in developing adaptability in which a culture of Auftragstaktik enables an effective practice of the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop. It is a constant motion recurring, evolving and improving.

The strategic approach and tactical techniques inherent in adapting Auftragstaktik will force and require major changes in the way the U.S. Army accesses, promotes, selects, educates, employs, builds its structures and trains its future forces and leaders. A good start is to broaden professional education – from initial-entry training to the top war-college level – to deal with the wide spectrum of issues that commanders will confront in in future complex environments. Fortunately, there are recent examples of how to do it. What the Army Reconnaissance Course (ARC) or USMA’s Department of Military Instruction (DMI) does for the tactical level can easily translate for operational and strategic level courses. But the dramatic change here is that adaptability had to begin at initial entry, not later when people are already set in their ways by the culture of conformity.

Senior leaders, both military and civilian, must also understand that even in competent conventional warfare, the Army builds trust on high levels of professionalism and unit cohesion. As one captain put it, leaders must be prepared to “group together from a new perspective a number of measures that have been used before but were viewed separately.”

Critically important to the institutionalization of Auftragstaktik in the Army will be superior education and training or simply development. Not only will the Army need to produce leaders that possess adaptability, but the institutions tasked to develop leaders will need to become adaptive as well – to evolve as the future operating environment evolves.

The Outcomes Based Training and Education (OBT&E) training doctrine using the Adaptive Course Methodology (ACM) will provide principles that allow implementation of central ideas “top-down” as well as “bottom-up” (the Army is using watered down version called Adaptive Soldier Leader Training and Education or ASLTE). It is so central to the future of the Army that it applies to squad leaders as well as to the joint-force commander. The leaders of the future Army should have to make a truly gross error to create a negative blotch on their careers. Evaluations and performance reviews cannot continue to haunt adaptive leaders throughout their careers if they have only made an honest mistake.

Moving the Army toward a learning organization structure, where its institutions as well as its leaders are adaptive, will bring the collective creativity of their personnel to bear in solving problems at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war and as it applies to policing.

The culture will become one that rewards leaders and personnel, regardless of rank, who act, and penalizes the ones who do not. Today’s culture needs to evolve so that the greater burden rests on all superior officers, who have to nurture – teach, trust, support and correct – the student who now enters the force with the ability to adapt.

These organization’s future leaders will also have the responsibility to self-police their own ranks, particularly early on if they become teachers of adaptability within an ACM. This makes evaluating, “racking and stacking” of graduates easier. It will also help determine early on who will have the character and traits to become an adaptive leader. The criteria should include observations of the student leaders in several scenarios.

Before selecting or promoting subordinates, a superiors should always be asked, “would I want this person to serve in my unit?” Throughout a course whose POI is ACM based a TA will instill in students the importance of accurate reporting and taking action when the situation demands it. The Army’s culture of the future will not tolerate inaction. Indecisiveness or the inability to make a decision will become the culture’s cardinal sin, not playing it safe.

Adaptability will become a product of the future organization that practices Auftragstaktik; it will depend on what appears to be a relatively simple change in teaching technique in order to deal with the increasing complexities of war with the drastic reductions of policies and regulations that state the obvious or eliminating all the agencies that have vetoes in simple things commanders should manage on their own. The grasping, understanding and mastering of adaptability will come through rigorous education and tough training early on – quality, not quantity – to produce adaptive leaders.

Leaders’ ability to be adaptable will guide decisions on how to accomplish their missions, while also helping them to recognize and compensate for differences in the temperament and ability of other an organization’s officers, NCOs and civilians through unit training and professional development. Adaptability will provide a stable support structure to infuse and sustain Army leaders’ initiative in future operating environments.

Today’s Army leadership must understand that by simply using the word “adaptability” or “Auftragstaktik” in Power Point presentations, saying they are going to implement them, or repackaging curriculum's and personnel policies to include rhetoric about adaptability, while leaving the substance unchanged, will not adequately prepare leaders to be adaptive. The entire Army must be prepared to support, nurture, and reinforce it. Dramatic changes to today’s personnel management policies and how the Army trains and educates it personnel will occur. Prepare for it, or it will not work, and the Army’s people will continue to be frustrated.

There is a desire to evolve the culture of the Army so it can deal with the increasingly complex problem solving of the future of conflict. The reality of how hard it is going to be to achieve this by changing its culture founded and that remain in the Industrial Age, while enhanced with the latest communication technology. This tension will result in a short-term crisis where the Army may find its most promising junior leaders voting with their feet and leaving. Why? Because it is all too likely that these future leaders will discover that the leadership of the Army is ignoring them due to their low rank and grade, despite their abilities to think and act at higher levels of responsibility.

If this “trust problem” is fixed then the Army will find that it has also solved other problem. The Army will wind up retaining the “right” folks – those with a “calling to the service” who can prepare and lead them in the 21st century. Establishing OBT&E to enable success in Auftragstaktik and allowing it to continue to evolve into the future is the first step in changing current cultures to truly prepare these organizations to deal with the complex battlefield environment of the 21st century.

The Army, as always, is saying the right things regarding change. But when are they going to begin to execute ideas evolving from its rhetoric. Cultural change is generational and occurs with the understanding that “critical thinking is a learned behavior that is underpinned by education. Their educational systems, moreover, can be our most effective lever of cultural change. Many of our most important cultural shifts can trace their origins to the school house. A thorough review of the institutional educational system is required to assess its effectiveness at engendering critical thinking.

Donald E. Vandergriff U.S. Army retired recently returned from two years on the IJC staff in Afghanistan. He served for 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer. He is currently a consultant for several US and NATO armies and law enforcement organizations. Vandergriff is a recognized authority on the U.S. Army personnel system, Army culture, leadership development, soldier training and, in the early 21st century, the emergence of asymmetric warfare, also known as 4th generation warfare (4GW). His book Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptive Leaders to Deal with the Changing Face of War is the foundation for many programs of instruction changes throughout the US Army and Marine Corps. He has authored or co-authored over 60 articles, numerous briefings and five books. His next book is Preparing Leaders for Mission Command: A Superior Command Culture (2015). He can be reached at