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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

Military of Millennials

It hardly needs saying that Gen Y is better prepared than any previous generation to do battle in cyberspace. To prevail, however, it will need the proper resources, as well as the proper military structure. Authority and decision rights will have to be more broadly distributed, so that those fighting on the information front can act in real time, as their enemies do. This does not require replacing or negating decisions made by top leadership; rather, in an environment of networked warfare, people in the field and at computer monitors need greater leeway to carry out those decisions. In effect, it means re­designing military structures and processes to distribute authority and accountability more broadly.

Increased empowerment is a natural outgrowth of any well-designed, well-executed reengineering initiative. In the corporate sector, for example, good organizational redesign accomplishes much more than reducing head count and cutting costs; it also flattens the organization and brings people throughout the enterprise closer to the problems they are being asked to solve, giving them the authority to act in pursuit of organizational goals. The problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in its treatment of wounded soldiers are somewhat typical of bureaucracies that have become too layered and impersonal. The best cure for such problems is to infuse the organization with a sense of urgency and unified mission and to hold people re­sponsible for taking commonsense actions, instead of passing the buck to some other faceless part of the bureaucracy.

Current leadership is well aware that the military needs this kind of empowerment and esprit, even if such goals seem elusive. A few years ago, Marine Corps leaders and their staffs visited a Wall Street trading desk. “These are the dynamics I want us to have in battle,” declared one general, pointing to the traders’ seamless communications, speed, agility, and ability to multitask. Happily, members of Gen Y already seem to possess such dynamics, almost as a birthright.

In short, the military’s greatest human capital need may be the structures and leadership techniques with which to leverage the inherent strengths of its new generation of people. Some might argue that the U.S. military has already delegated too much responsibility, and with disastrous results — witness the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Such incidents of abusive behavior, however, result not from delegating responsibility but from poor leadership, inadequate training, and lack of accountability.

The Leadership Challenge
Leadership is, of course, the all-important key to empowering a military soon to be dominated by millennials. And leadership must begin with recruiting people who are highly enthusiastic from the start — much as the Marine Corps, Navy Seals, and Army Special Forces have traditionally done. Lately, the U.S. military has been struggling to fulfill its recruitment mission. In addition to a rising rate of voluntary attrition among the Army’s junior officers, the enlistment and retention of African-Americans in all four services has been declining since well before the United States began its engagement in Iraq. Such disturbing trends may point to something more than the unpopularity of the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan; they may also point to a breakdown between the promises that the military makes to its recruits and the actual value that it delivers.

Until recently, the military has offered its enlisted men and women a strong value proposition — preparation for a better way of life through continuing education; practical training in useful skills; the inculcation of strong, wholesome values; and the opportunity to forge strong peer relationships. Now, not only are troops made to serve more combat tours in dangerous circumstances, but they also may not always receive the strong life-preparation skills that were provided in the past. If so, military recruiters are working against the grain of Gen Y’s strong commitment to family and community.

 
 
 
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