NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland ― It’s time for senior leaders to let go of the reins and allow small unit leaders the freedom to make decisions, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger says.
For the past 15 years to 20 years senior leaders have had access to an unprecedented amount of data on every inch of the battlespace while deployed, Berger said Aug. 2 at the annual Sea Air Space conference hosted by the Navy League.
Information tied with the natural desire of control has hurt the Corps’ ability to think ahead and has reduced the independence of junior leaders, he says ― an independence that is necessary to cultivate for the future of dispersed operations that Berger envisions.
Small unit Marine leaders “are ready to make decisions, I think at their level we are shackling them,” Berger said.
The Corps is undergoing a revolutionary force design change aimed at moving it away from the past 20 years of wars in the Middle East to one focused on near-peer opponents like China and Russia.
Berger sees the future of the Corps as a small, light, maneuverable force widely dispersed within range of the theoretical enemy’s weapons and rocket systems.
The dispersion and maneuverability will prevent the hypothetical enemy from landing any knockout blow against the Marines, while a location near the opponent will allow them to track the enemy’s naval movement and accurately direct missile fires.
The dispersion will put extra pressure on junior leaders with future companies, potentially having them take on the responsibilities currently residing with battalions or even regiments.
“I think the best commanders I’ve seen actually sit outside their command centers because they sense, ‘I can’t get overwhelmed by what’s happening in the moment I need to think ahead,” Berger said.
While Berger trusts those junior leaders, he is unsure if his generation of leaders are capable of handing them the reins and if the structure of the Corps encourages leaders at that level to take risks.
The commandant said one of the main driving forces in his vision for a future Corps was an order sent by former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King in January 1941.
The letter, popularly known as serial 53, calls out the Navy’s culture of “flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ to do to such an extent and in such detail that the ‘Custom of the service’ has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command — ‘initiative of the subordinate.’”
King goes on to cite the anxiety of commanders to perform their duty so “smoothly that none may comment unfavorably,” as the main cause of the micromanaging of commanders.
Berger said the Corps could lift King’s “diagnosis” and apply it to the modern-day Marine Corps.
“If we give them broad guidance and let them make the mistakes, let them run, we will have much better small unit commanders,” he added.
To help junior Marine leaders be more comfortable making decisions the commandant has set about reforming both officer and enlisted schoolhouses, allowing Marines to take on more responsibility from the very start of their careers.
The Corps is implementing changes that will use “YouTube” style videos, online flashcards, issued laptops or tablets and other tools to help Marines pass courses at their own pace and take greater ownership of their own learning.
The strategy already has led to more than 100 Marines graduating from the Network Administrators Course at Marine Corps Communication Electronics School.
The so called “21st century learning” model also was implemented in the Corps’ new infantry school, where the focus was on creating future squad leaders and platoon sergeants, rather than just competent trigger pullers.
Graduates from the first pilot program ran at the School of Infantry–West on Camp Pendleton, California, left the course more proficient in many infantry skills, but most importantly they were free-thinkers capable of solving a problem without the help of instructors or noncommissioned officers.
“By accident we created tacticians,” Lt. Col. Walker Koury, commanding officer for Infantry Training Battalion–West, told a group of reporters in April.
Berger suggested the Marine Corps re-evaluate how it performs its after action reports once in the fleet.
Instead of immediately critiquing a decision made by small unit leaders, Berger said every after action report, from a training scenario, should start off by thanking the leader for simply making a decision.
Berger also wants to put new technology in the hands of captains and majors, allowing them to develop uses and protocols for the new tech that may have been missed by top brass in the Pentagon.
“We’re at a disadvantage at my grade and age,” Berger said.
“That’s the sweet spot, just give them the tools, don’t tell them how to use them, they’ll probably by the end of tomorrow figure out seven ways you had never envisioned,” Berger said.