Breakfast with Ret. Marine Commander, Lt Gen Van Riper - Immediate Engagement vs Holding back and acquiring pertinent information before acting - when do you know you are savvy enough for one or the other?
For those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you are likely familiar with Lt General Paul Van Riper. For those not familiar with Gladwell’s work or Lt Gen Van Riper, the book ‘Blink’ describes an intelligent experienced retired Marine Lt General who is asked by the Department of Defense to portray an enemy leader during a very expensive Joint Task Force war game in 2002. Using non-traditional tactics, Van Riper’s Red team is seemingly able to effortlessly overwhelm the well informed and well equipped “modernized” Blue forces. Van Riper explained to Gladwell that the notion that more information will lead the opposing force to success in reality is far from the truth; that is, in times of war, more information is typically paralytic. He explains that successful commanders should have enough experience AND training to have a repertoire of knowledge in their mental library such that they only need a minimal amount of information to react swiftly. Van Riper utilized this advantage to stay ahead of the informationally hindered opposing forces and quickly led the Red team to triumph. Sounds pretty simple right? Ok, too much information is bad and will cause me to become paralyzed so I must act on instinct using less information in a quicker time frame. No problem. Except what if I am a young surgeon? What if I am an old surgeon? Does that matter? Do I have enough information to proceed? What if I react too hastily? Would it not be better to call in the ‘grey haired’ and have them take over? For that matter, how do we think? That is how do we perform critical thinking in the midst of a dire situation? Is this the same or different than just getting into the car and driving to work? For that matter is driving to work really any different than trying to survive a critical moment in a crisis? Can you teach this? When do I know I have ‘’got it’? When does a leader trust that his subordinates have ‘got it’? Well I do not have the answers to these questions, BUT fortunately for me, Lt General Paul Van Riper (VR) lives down the road and agreed to meet with me for breakfast to help me understand this and pass this along.
To start we can eliminate the assumption that driving to work is a linear system. VR opened my eyes to fact that just driving to work is always a complex system. It is not that simple. I will never encounter the same series of events in the same conditions ever again. He pointed out that the statistics show that we face a potentially life-threatening event every 10-15 minutes while on the road! However, we simplify our task into getting from point A to B with little thought or effort regarding these potential dangers. Apparently, it is somewhat the same on a battlefield, except of course the danger occurs much more frequently and there is much more distraction. To simplify this, VR explains that a good experienced battlefield commander sees glimpses of the enemy, sees his own troops, hears gunfire and then using those very brief pieces of information, combines that with his prior experience into a ‘Story’ which he uses to develop a plan. That’s it… using our senses we assimilate 1. Visual input (the enemy) 2. Auditory input (gunfire or shouting) 3. Our innate library of information from battle planning, simulation and being in the field, and then 4. create a PATTERN in our head that accounts for all that information coming up with a plan of action. You may already know this as CRITICAL THINKING. Pretty easy if you: 1. Remember that life is not linear 2. Success comes to the prepared (Louis Pasteur) 3. To be creative you must be prepared! So that answered my question if a human wakes up one day and is an instantaneous successful commander. The answer is a blatant NO! It is a combination of being aware of your surroundings along with a significant critical training AND working experience in the real world. It appears that if you lack any of these three your response to a crisis will most definitely be retarded or potentially wrong. If you think just experiencing something in a high fidelity manner will quickly allow you to succeed, then you will likely be proven wrong. VR says that it is a myth that you can only perform in a lab environment and succeed in battle (or most other high risk scenarios) and you will need to combine high fidelity experience with real life repetition. You must build up muscle and mental memory and that occurs only thru 1st- training over and over in ideal conditions, then 2nd -learning to be adaptive and creative in non-ideal conditions.
Let’s go back to driving. We learn to drive in a linear format in ideal conditions. We simulate, then drive with an experienced instructor in ideal conditions. We are told ‘go from point A to point B using this route’. Well, we do not limit ourselves to that in real life. In real circumstances, there are a lot of variables. Conditions may warrant a different route than the one that our navigator tells us. Traffic may change and a course alteration may be warranted. We only pick this up…… BY DRIVING A LOT! You drive… you make mistakes…. You learn from them and move on. Hopefully by using simulation and instructor lead training you are able to recognize you are about to make a mistake or mitigate that mistake before something bad happens. But you create that muscle and mental memory. VR tells me about an associate Gary Klein who attempted to extract this exact process (how does a person think through and survive a dire situation) from fire fighters. He quickly came to the notion that if you ask a fire-fighter to “tell me how you made your decisions while moving from point A to B to C during that fire and saved the structure or lives” the answer he received universally was “We don’t think, we just do it” (similar to what surgeons tell us when asked the same question). They totally miss that they ONE obtained sensory information, TWO accessed their library of experience THREE created a picture of what is in front of them and finally FOUR made a plan of action based on all three of those. Another lesson learned during this process is what boils down to the creation of successful vs dysfunctional team dynamics. In a dysfunctional combat team, you are told to just shut up, listen and ask no questions. So, when you hear gun fire, that is what you do… you just drop and say nothing till you receive orders. That can prove disastrous. Functional teams practice communication so that when they are under fire, they drop to the ground and then talk to one another, and increase their odds of surviving.
So back to my original question: are successful military commanders just born that way? Well VR describes three types of commanders. The ‘HOT’ one who takes no information from subordinates and questions nothing, but will in the end likely end up with more casualties than needed. The ‘COLD’ commander, who just cannot make a decision and is bogged down in information until forced to make a decision or someone takes over. And finally, the ‘JUST RIGHT’ commander, who takes in information, assesses his library and WHEN appropriate, solicits input from others, then makes a decision.
Does that mean that you can take some Wall-Street Traders and make them into fantastic commanders? VR explains that you can take a Wall-Street Trader and put him in a simulation room and they can rapidly assume control and make spot-on decisions and succeed. What if they actually have to experience the real results of war? Are they as good? VR says they took the traders to the field and let them experience the projectiles flying overhead and witness injuries so they fully understood the impact of their decisions (ie the sound of bullets over their head and explosions). Back in the simulation room, they slowed down quite a bit and began to question their decisions more frequently. To succeed in any high risk field you just simply must utilize a combination of simulation (that vicarious experience) AND real action (where you see the consequences of your actions and learn how to avoid them or accept them and move on).
Lastly, we need to be cautious of what we are asking of people. For one, if we are not crystal clear of our intentions, then a person will hear our request and create a potential mental picture that is distinctly different than what we intended. If all we do is tell someone what to do but not the purpose then the result could likely be completely different than what we intended. That is, often the intent is more important that the task. It could be that a different task will accomplish the intent. As I have stated before, we can become so focused on the task, that confirmation bias causes us to lose sight of the intent (ie the paper clip experiment by Feuerbacher) and fail miserably. As VR tells me, we only hear a bit of what we are told, then create a mental picture, and go from there. If our picture is totally wrong, well then, we will fail. He used the example of telling students to “think about D.O.G” then ask what they see… they describe their favorite pet or something concrete, but not the specific letters D- O- G. Or even better yet, (I love this example of his) tell someone an acre is “43,560 square feet” and they will forget immediately. But tell them an acre is about the size of a football field and they will never forget… (by the way I had to go look up how big an acre was just an hour after we had that conversation). You can read many examples of where a SEAL team is provided a task but not a clear objective, resulting in disastrous consequences in Dick Couche’s book on the history of the SEALS. Without front loading the information you can end up with avoidable casualties (ie do we just blow up Noreiga’s plane and airfield or do we need to control the field so our forces can use the field?).
So let’s summarize my two hour breakfast with this unbelievable military leader, thinker AND teacher: