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Developing next-generation leadership: An interview with General Martin E. Dempsey

October 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Sworn in as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on September 30, after serving as Army Chief of Staff, General Dempsey offered his thoughts recently on leadership in an interview for the  journal Academy of Management Learning and Education. The interview was conducted by Sim B. Sitkin, a professor of management at Duke University, and Devin Hargrove, a doctoral student there.
The interview appears in the Sept/Nov issue of the journal, which is published quarterly by the Academy of Management, the largest organization in the world devoted to management teaching and research.
In the excerpts below, General Dempsey talks about the major change that has occurred in the course of his Army career in  the direction of greater organizational decentralization and the challenges this poses in developing leadership for the future. The complete interview is attached in PDF format.
You have written that modern leaders need  to be inquisitive, draw on varied inputs, and be intellectually capable and curious. Why you think these features are especially important and do they vary across leadership levels?
We are looking at the attributes that we have discovered are necessary for the Army to be an effective multi-core organization...At the most junior level you want inquisitiveness. At intermediate levels it becomes adaptability, which I'll roughly define as the ability to see things changing and react. Then at the more senior levels, you need to innovate, which I would suggest is the ability to see things changing before they begin to change, so you can get ahead of it.
Given your emphasis on these modern leader characteristics, are you selecting different people? How fine-tuned is your selection process?
Our numbers are through the roof on applications for West Point, ROTC, and even basic recruiting...Right now if you are a living, breathing Captain you are probably going to make Major because we have such an overwhelming demand. When the demand begins to decrease in Iraq and Afghanistan, we intend to drive that down...
We do know there are certain attributes that generally are predictive whether young men or women are likely to succeed in the Army. We've got a list of those. The most interesting thing to me is that the attribute that tends to rise to the top in any discussion about that is trust. There are people who are just not capable of entering a trust relationship...which is especially important in a profession like ours that is founded on trust.
How does the Army currently cultivate inquisitive, adaptable, and innovative leaders?
I personally believe that what made me adaptive was being pulled out of my comfort zone...Should we allow officers to take a sabbatical from the Army? They might go to work in industry; go into academia; potentially at their own expense or potentially at our expense....
Isn't that a pretty radical idea?
It is. I don't have much support for it yet, but let me tell you why we are seriously considering it. When I look back on my career of 37 years, the most broadening experience I had was two years at Duke and three years teaching at West Point -- something that is not inherently military. In fact, it was inherently not-military. I came back a clearer thinker, a better communicator. I came to the conclusion that this career was right for me because I had seen other possibilities; interacted with some of the best and brightest of America; and came to the conclusion that I thought that the Army was right for me. I happen to believe that were we to do what we are describing, we'd have young men and women in the second decade of their careers apply a different kind of passion to it.
The Army has been at the forefront of creating what is sometimes referred to as "edge organizations." Why did this approach emerge, and how does it affect the kind of leaders the Army needs to develop -- and how it supports those leaders?
A conflict against a traditional foe or a near-peer competitor will tend to be somewhat centralized...In the other kind of conflict, the one like Iraq and Afghanistan, we're really imposing security over a wide area and then doing things like assisting government, civil authorities, building partners' security capability. What we tend to do in that environment is dramatically decentralized and we push authority, capability, and responsibility to the edge. For the last ten years we've continued to push as much as possible to the edge. What we've learned is that the edge knows more about what's going on than we do.
The military is far less hierarchical than outsiders think it is, but it is still quite structured and formal in many respects. How does one prepare individuals to effectively exercise upward leadership under such circumstances?
When I was growing up in the Army...the advice you would receive from mentors was to focus down and everything else will take care of itself. You were considered to be disloyal if you were focusing upward. You were considered to be excessively ambitious if you did that. But we've learned a lot in the past 10 years.
To live up to our responsibility to the nation, we must be able to accomplish two key tasks. In the first task, we've got to maneuver to seize the initiative -- to seize terrain, defeat an opposing force, or unseat a regime. That part of any conflict generally involves maneuver, the movement to seize the initiative. That part of our responsibility lends itself to more hierarchical centralized solutions. But having seized the initiative, you then have the task of consolidating your gains...That is where you have to do things in a way that is far more decentralized. So the way we're trying to convince the force and its leaders not to become too unsettled by the notion of co-creation of context is by pointing out to them that there are times when we very much want things to be withheld and centralized. And there are other times when we very much want things to be decentralized and distributed. You shouldn't put the institution in a false dichotomy of having to pick Peter or Paul. You're got to be able to do both.
Traditionally, if two of us are in different chains of command and wanted to talk, we would go through our bosses even if you needed to give me direct feedback on how I need to do things differently. Is leading laterally hard to encourage?
We are a profession and ours is an up or out system; you either continue to develop and are promoted at certain points along the way, or you leave. So what does that generate? It generates a competition. What does competition generate? It generally works against lateral leadership.So bottom up and top down is generally not as threatening as lateral leadership where you are competing. That is not going to change. It could change on the margins, but there is also something about beneficial about that competition.
That said, I will tell you come things we are doing. One of them is social networking. There were a couple of captains (now lieutenant colonels) who several years ago put together this site called They are actually quite famous for it. It is a forum in which this lateral coordination and collaboration occur. It is powerful. The other thing we are toying with -- and this is in basic combat training -- is peer-to-peer instruction. That appears to have enormous potential where you identify certain informal leaders very early on and instead of having the 40-year-old drill sergeant bludgeoning the learning into you, you allow peer-to-peer learning to take place, overseen of course by the expert. Those are two places where were are starting to think about this idea of lateral leadership, but we are not very far down the path.
Media Coverage:
National Journal. Gen. Martin Dempsey, The Quiet American. (Thursday, February 09, 2012). What Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, thinks about leadership. (Friday, October 21, 2011).

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