Tag Archives: sociology

The Culture & Leadership Conference: Building on Sand?

A Polemic

My interest was piqued recently an open invitation to the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference titled ‘Culture and Leadership’. The premise of the conference is:

The success of any organisation depends upon its culture – the values, beliefs, attitudes and ethos that shapes it’s collective identity. Culture, in turn, informs our behaviours and directly influences the ‘lived experience’ of our people.

The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference seeks to better understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership. It also seeks to ask the difficult questions. What is culture? Why is it important? Is our culture fit for purpose? What are our strengths? Where are our shortfalls, gaps and failures and what is being done to address these? Most importantly, what role do we as leaders played in shaping a better culture?

These are all laudable aims, and I looked with interest at both the speakers and the topics. If you are not planning on going, in person or via Zoom, then I would recommend that you give it serious consideration; the programme is excellent.

And yet.

Despite explicit acknowledgement of an “ever evolving social, political and economic landscape” and the “symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership” the conference fails to address the evolving culture of the society from which we draw. The topics are clearly focused internally, and yet our Army culture cannot be divorced from the culture of the society we inhabit; there is a symbiotic relationship between the army and society.

There are three aspects in particular that I would have considered worthy for consideration. Two are foundational to the type of society that we are and aspire to be, the third, a Pandora’s Box, is not yet foundational but is ubiquitous.

1. We live in a post-modern society.

2. An evolving moral framework. This post-modern society is post-Christian, yet our moral fabric, exemplified in our legal framework and in large elements of our moral outlook, is based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

3. The Information Ecosystem. We inhabit a society with a failing information eco-system characterised by information disorder.

Looking at each in turn.

1. The implications of of post-modern society. ‘Post-modern ‘ is a used here in its philosophical sense. Post-modernism is a critical movement, largely sceptical of the idea of constant progress by society. It is acutely sensitive to the idea and danger of universal truths, for if universal truths are claimed, then inevitably there follows the the universal police to ensure compliance. There are four pillars to post-modernism (according to Walter Truett Anderson, a US political scientist)

  • Pillar 1. The social construction of the concept of self. There is no such thing as a real or substantive human nature. A good example of this in modern societal discourse is seen in the concept of transgenderism.
  • Pillar 2. The relativism of moral and political discourse. The primacy of the individual expressing her or his will to power. Good examples of this is the current focus on the rights and feelings of the individual as opposed to the responsibilities to and sensibilities of the many, and the increasing tendency to create our own moralities.
  • Pillar 3. Deconstruction in art and culture. Things are not as they seem, truth is constructed not created, and so a dialect of deconstruction leads to truth. This can be seen in the critical approach taken to historical narratives and art, and in part, in the so called ‘cancel culture’.
  • Pillar 4. Globalisation. Borders are seen as a purely social construct; relegated in use and importance.

So what are the implications for the Army and our leadership? How do we lead an organisation where corporate values and standards are seen as at best anachronistic? How do we lead individuals where realities are self-defined social constructs, moral codes ambiguous and cohering narratives belong not to the institution or the nation state but to other entities or ideas? One only has to look at how the Covid19 vaccine mandate is playing out in the US armed forces to see this being manifest in the here and now.

2. An evolving moral framework. The increasingly relativist  framework of modern morality has been touched on already. One senior officer has already pointed out the need for PME to focus more on how to think and not what to think, including on ethics. We are a society in flux. Our personal moral frameworks are evolving quickly, yet our institutions of state and society are still founded on Judeo-Christian morality. Most do not give much consideration to ethics, and it is not taught at schools. But how can we lead by example in a complex fast paced and increasingly morally ambiguous world if we do not know what is right or wrong and why? We want critical thinkers, but are we prepared for when they challenge us on ethical grounds? In our modern diverse army the fact that Generation X has a fundamentally different moral framework to Generation Z appears to have passed most people by.  We ask our people to act with integrity and do the right thing – what happens when individual moral integrity runs foul of lawful orders? What does it mean to have personal integrity mean when everyone’s is different yet valid? How can our leaders extol us to ‘do the right thing’ when that ‘right thing’ is different for different people? Does the Army need to develop an ethical framework to buttress Values and Standards? 

3. The Information Ecosystem. In a world of ideas where the individual and not the state is supreme, where reality, truth and morality are relative, cohesion is challenged. We are in a crisis of trust and truth. This crisis is brought about in part by the ideas we build on, but also by the information ecosystem that sustains us. An ecosystem that is decaying. We are living in a time, a crisis of information disorder. Information disorder, denotes the broad societal challenges associated with misinfor- mation, disinformation, and malinformation (“The Commission on Information Disorder, Final Report.” page 9, The Aspen Institute, Nov. 2021. CC BY-NC. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/ by-nc/4.0/ )

As the Aspen Institute’s  excellent report makes clear, there are no quick fixes or easy answers to address information disorder, or repair the crisis of trust that strains our civil fabric. The core problems and challenges of this era are deeply rooted and indicative of larger issues our society is struggling with across modern life (page 14), and misinformation and disinformation expose society’s failures to overcome systemic problems, such as income inequality, racism, and corruption, which can be exploited to promote false information online (page 15). Information disorder exposes systemic issues within society, yet in a manner that exploits systemic weaknesses in our information ecosystem to deliver corrosive effect. A systemic problem requires a systemic solution, more than the military could or should deliver. However our leadership and culture must acknowledge the environment within which it operates, the symbiotic relationship between information, culture and leadership. I wonder if we understand this fully, let alone comprehend the implications for 21st century organisational leadership culture and praxis.

The CAL leadership conference looks excellent, but we need to cover the societal fundamentals first. This polemic is aimed at starting the conversation.



Fiction and Our Fractured Future


Good science fiction is often a great window in the future. One of the best science fiction books I have recently read is Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red:First Light‘ which is set in the near future. The book concerns the exploits of a US ‘Linked Combat Squad’ and explores in part the fusion of exo-skeleton technology and advanced data communications on the battlefield.  This technology is already in development and is expected to be fielded in the near future; the book is worth reading from this aspect alone.

Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit
(Photo by Jen Judson/Defense News staff)

However what I found most interesting in the novel (the first of a trilogy) is its look at the impact on society of the diffusion of information through social media, and with increased reliance on Artificial Information, just how far we can rely on what we are told:

“People are dividing into smaller and smaller groups, while the number of widely shared memes – ideas or facts known to just about everyone in a large, related group, like the population of the US – is in steep decline…”

“It’s about perspective. It’s not that what we know is necessarily wrong or incomplete. It’s that what we know and what we believe to be apparent to everyone, isn’t.”

I have previously blogged about the impact of social media on societal cohesion and its attendant impact on military operations; ‘First Light’ illustrates this dynamic beautifully.  Also worth listening to are three podcasts from RAND on what they term “Truth Decay“. For those interested in the information environment in which we operate these are a must listen.

Lastly I have not done ‘First Red’ justice in this blog, it is an excellent read and I enjoyed it immensely – get the book!


It Happened Here

Francesca di Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer, c. 1855 [Louvre, Paris]
It Happened Here

It Happened Here is a little known masterpiece of the British Cinema that looks at the aftermath of a German invasion of Britain in World War Two. Unsurprisingly we behave in much the same way as the Europeans did. Some support the Nazis, some fight them and most just want a quiet life. We are not that different from those around us.

In the United States there is a growing scandal over the posting online of sexually explicit materiel involving service members. I would be surprised if something of that sort has not happened in the UK as well; we are not that different from those around us.

The queenofthinair philosophy blog has an excellent post on the affair which looks at it from an ethical stance. Fundamentally I am in agreement with much of what she says, where I disagree (albeit tangentially) is where she states “The first suggestion is this is indicative of the state of the larger sexual culture in our society that we cannot expect our military members and veterans to be exempt from. I see this as a variation on Socrates’ argument about the lack of morals in the youth and the general moral decay of society; this is hardly a new argument. Sexual mores change yes. Does that explain this? It may be part of the picture, but it is not sufficient.” I would agree with her absolutely on this, but where I disagree is that to my mind without addressing the issue of pornography in society I fail to see how we can effectively deal with the issue of the treatment of women in the military.

Another US Military blog also covers this in some detail. Again this blog states “And while I agree that rape culture is a growing issue nation-wide, the problem with this argument is that it 1) somehow alleviates the military of responsibility for policing itself and 2) ignores the fundamental issue here: Marines see other Marines (or service members see other service members) as “not Marines”. In short, some Marine men do not think that women Marines are Marines.” There are some fundamental problems with his argument here. Firstly in no way does accepting that there is a wider issue in society absolve or alleviate the military from policing itself. Secondly there is a flawed assumption that on becoming Marines (or any servicemember) people become asexual, they don’t. One can be a Marine and a man, or a Marine and a woman, one does not become a Marine and neither. The implications of this are that militaries will continue to have to deal with sexual behaviour patterns and issues for the forseeable future. Where this blog absolutely nails it is that this is about “training your troops to treat each other with dignity and respect.”

My moral upbringing and education taught me that all pornography was morally wrong. Pornography objectifies the subject as a means (object) to an end (sexual gratification), it is inherently degrading. It does not matter whether the person is a willing participant in pornography or not, pornography reduces the subject to the role of an object, stripping them of their intrinsic dignity as a person in the process. Two generations ago this was the accepted moral majority position on pornography in Western society. Yet pornography now is largely regarded as amoral in Western society. Sexting is as acceptable as texting and in some quarters the argument is made that pornography is both empowering and progressive. If as a society we continue to condone pornography, then we have to accept that there are consequences of doing so (note, this is not the same as saying that we accept those consequences).

The military too objectifies people in the sense that we value our service personnel as a means to an end (military performance). We get round the degradation of an individual’s self-worth through objectification, by giving them inherent self-worth as a servicemember. We state that we will esteem all alike as members of the service community, recognising no other denominator save that you perform your duties effectively. This approach works well, and means that the military simply has to police those elements of behaviour which detract from military effectiveness.

In terms of behaviour the military has often maintained different standards from civilians, but the substantive difference has normally been one of standards, not of type. The military have largely been held to the same or higher standards of behaviour than their civilian counterparts, but not to different types of behaviour. The problem for the military will be if de facto standards in wider society continue to drift away from those required for the effective functioning of the military. If this happens then correcting such behaviour will take increasing amounts of institutional energy.

I think that we are beginning to see this already with the unfolding scandal in the US. The US military will now have to actively enforce a code of behaviour that the chain of command likely assumed was inherent within its people. This would have been a naive assumption, I know that my sexual ethics are not those of my junior soldiers. The situation is exacerbated by the nature of modern social media. The proliferation of social media forums means that different generations often inhabit parallel cyberspaces with little overlap; again to police this will require an active effort.

The solution is remarkably simple, but also remarkably difficult. One has to inculcate junior commanders with the necessary values and they need to know their troops and guide, mentor and police their behaviour. This is top down driven and bottom up implemented. The hardest part will be the first part, inculcating the necessary behaviours.

Three points to finish with:

1) Do not underestimate the severity of the crisis within the USMC. This scandal exposes a fundamental breach in core values and standards within a sizeable element of the Corps, and a similar gap between generations. The role played (or not) by junior leadership in this scandal is one that bears the most scrutiny, where were the squad and section commanders and what role did they play?

2) This scandal also presents a fundamental opportunity for the USMC to reform itself.

3) Without doubt there is similar behaviour within the British Armed Forces; It Happened Here.

The Debate On Women In Combat

When I think of the debate over women in close combat, and especially dismounted close combat roles, I am mindful of Chief Vitalstatistix: the sky is not going to fall on our heads simply because we introduce women into close combat roles. I am also mindful that introducing women into these roles is not going to have the effect of Getafix’s magic potion either. The truth is that there are both risks and opportunities inherent in this change, as there are with most changes. Much will depend on the degree of change and how it is managed.

I am however frustrated by the character of the debate on women in close combat roles. It seems to me that this debate has been largely ill-informed and marked by mutual fear and hostility; in this sense it bears remarkable similarities to the ongoing US presidential election contest. This is not altogether surprising because the nature of this debate, like political debate gripping the US at the moment, is primarily a sociological debate, albeit this one is clothed in the emperor’s new (and entirely inappropriate) clothes of military effectiveness.

In one sense Colonel Laurens is quite right “it is so bloody obvious that we should do it”. That is because war is a social construct and the way war is fought always reflects the societies that wage it. Our society has changed and the ways and means that we fight will (and should) change with it. To me therefore it is a non sequitur to place the argument for or against women in close combat within the context of military effectiveness against which it is currently playing out. A society wages war in a manner that reflects its values; it reaps the benefits and pays the costs accordingly.