There has been much dialogue in the 'blogosphere lately regarding information, from Andrew Exum's recent critique of JP 3-13: Information Operations at Small Wars Journal (h/t MountainRunner) to Chet Richards on "Orientation" (the central concept to Boyd's OODA loop) and "Virtual Water Coolers". Earlier posts by ZenPundit, John Robb, Shlõk, Don Vandergriff, Kotare and Coming Anarchy's brilliant series on the Principles of War are excellent contributions to the topic of "decisionmaking", which I believe is the cornerstone of command and leadership.
What makes good leaders? Is it success? Luck? Perseverance? Or is the "harmonious association of powers" that Carl von Clausewitz described in On War (Book I, Chapter III: "The Genius for War")?
Consider the image above. On the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863, Maj. Gen. George Pickett and his division of 5,500 Confederate soldiers formed the right flank of a three-division assault across the gently rising slope from Seminary Ridge toward Cemetary Ridge in the fields south of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. His shout, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia," is inscribed on a monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. By the time Pickett's men had crossed Emmitsburg Pike and neared the Copse of Trees by the "Bloody Angle", more than half of his division would fall: 3,000 casualties in a matter of minutes, including 15 regimental commanders, six colonels and two brigadier generals.
What prompted a gifted leader like General Robert E. Lee to risk such a venture? Did the loss of Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire two months earlier at Chancellorsville neuter Lee's maneuverist spirit (a spirit that was alive and well with Hood's Texans, who defied direct orders and seized Devil's Den and Big Round Top on the Union left on July 2nd)?
Or did Bobby Lee see something his subordinates didn't? Did his rational calculus consider (a) Ewell's inability to take Culp's Hill on the Union right, (b) Longstreet's misinterpretation of his orders, thinking Lee only wanted him to turn the Union left rather than assaulting it to build on Hood's success the previous day, (c) the lack of coordination across a 3-mile-wide battlefront amongst his artillery, cavalry and infantry that dashed his hopes for a three-pronged assault, and (d) the near-breakthrough in the Union center (at the Copse of Trees) by Anderson the previous day?
The point is, complex adaptive environments have no unique solutions. Martin van Crevald, in Command in War, described two options for organizations needing to act with imperfect information: either increase its information processing capability (the choice of our modern U.S. military) or redesign the organization to allow it to operate effectively with less information (the essence of Boyd's Discourse and his "Organic Design for Command and Control" and the German concept of Auftragstaktik).
Based on the advice available to him on the scene, and his perception of the unfolding battle, Lee made the best choice he could at Gettysburg for the strategic interests of the Confederacy. Similarly, General George Meade (Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac) made great use of his subordinates (particularly Reynolds and Hancock) and -- knowing the Confederate States Army had moved into Pennsylvania -- chose the best line of defense with the Pipe Creek Line in northern Maryland.
Our challenge today is managing an ever-growing bitstream of data, and balancing our own cognitive load so that we are able to make effective decisions in high-stress, high-consequence, time-constrained environments. Some tools are useful in the context of social relationships and temporal "snapshots" (e.g., Twitter) while others give spatial correlation of resources ("Common Relevant Operational Pictures"). But none are adequate for all requirements.
The basic question we need to ask ourselves is: How much control do we really need? The most effective leaders are able to inspire their subordinates to strive for a common goal, then get out of their way. While information technology is beguiling in giving managers the chimera of perfect awareness, that awareness is a mirage on an ever-changing landscape of perception. Instead of focusing on what our subordinates are doing, or who should NOT see what we know through anachronistic classification practices, we should rather be managing our OWN cognitive load in order to anticipate emergent opportunities. MountainRunner sums up the debate nicely in his review of Exum's IO piece:
Understanding the value of shaping and managing perceptions is critical today just as it was critical throughout history. The difference is today fewer people are needed to mobilize for strategic effects, arguably making the precision and result of influence activities that much more important. We can’t afford to ignore this or get it wrong, but then we don’t have to get it absolutely right on the first cut. We must move ahead and realize that everyone is a strategic corporal and everything we do has information effects, some more than others.Hear, hear!