At the U.S. Army Reserve’s 7th Intermediate Level Education Detachment, 7th Mission Support Command, in Grafenwoehr, Germany, we practice the concepts of “truth to power” and “ground truth,” both in the unit and in the classroom. These two models are critical to success as a military organizational leader.
The 7th Intermediate Level Education (ILE) Detachment develops and educates U.S. and NATO partner and ally senior military leaders across Europe, Africa and the Middle East to build and lead effective military organizations capable of winning America’s wars. The curriculum includes courses on organizational leadership, military history, Army doctrine, force management, ethics and unified action and joint operations.
As the only U.S. Army Command and General Staff College detachment overseas, the 7th ILE serves students from three combatant commands and over 100 countries, to include active-duty, Reserve, National Guard, Active Guard Reserve and international students.
Truth to power is speaking honestly and accurately about a situation, event or decision even if it’s not popular to the leaders of an organization. Essentially, truth to power is telling superiors what they might not want to hear. This is difficult, but critical. As speaker and author Megan Reitz states in the book Speak Up, co-written with John Higgins, “Speak[ing] truth to power means speaking what we believe to be true to someone in authority who might take it as a criticism or be offended and who has the power to punish us in some way.”
For mission success, it’s critical to speak the truth as you see it despite possible negative consequences and disagreements from others, to include those who evaluate your work performance.
However, speaking truth to power does not mean disobeying orders or riposting your senior officers or NCOs. A soldier must follow all legal, moral and ethical orders issued by a superior officer or NCO.
Speaking truth to power illustrates why it can be important to disagree and offer alternatives while realizing that, in the end, the commander makes the ultimate decision.
The Right Way
The commander of the U.S. Army Futures Command, Gen. James Rainey, has outlined the limits when disagreeing with a commander:
• Disagreement with your commander in private, both pre- and post-decision, is acceptable if it is done respectfully and accompanied by recommendations and/or alternate solutions.
• Pre-decision, disagreement with your commander in public (small groups) is acceptable if done respectfully and accompanied by recommendations and/or alternate solutions.
• Post-decision, disagreement with your commander in public is not acceptable. Disagreement in this form is not in keeping with the Army value system. Once a decision is made by a commander, public disagreement is disrespectful.
Speaking truth to power is only half the solution. The second equivalent essential element is seeking the ground truth. This is illustrated by senior officers soliciting input from junior soldiers to understand their primary threat perception, what equipment or supplies they need, and their morale and that of their peers. This is vital, as it allows the truth to be heard and, if necessary, acted upon.
In Speak Up, Reitz and Higgins write that the fear of speaking up comes from the power difference between two people or groups. One party feels they have less power, perceived or actual, than the other party. This creates fear of judgment and/or punishment. Additionally, the person or group that holds more power likely feels superior and therefore is less likely to listen to subordinates.
As a commander, I practiced both these fundamental concepts regularly. For example, I had an hourlong initial counseling appointment with every unit member, and soldiers had office calls with me frequently.
It’s not enough to have an open-door policy. It must be encouraged and prioritized to routinely talk with soldiers.
Instead of only discussing issues with my leadership team (senior enlisted leader, executive officer, operations officer, etc.), I talked to the instructors and support staff to learn their concerns, ensure they had the right gear/equipment, and let them know they are appreciated as soldiers and individuals.
I practiced truth to power by raising my concerns and the concerns of my soldiers to the commanding general. I pushed hard to ensure soldiers were given opportunities for growth and advancement as well as the proper resources for the unit. I was willing to change my point of view to a particular problem set if my staff showed the facts and value of an alternative course of action.
These are some of the ways I practiced truth to power and ground truth during my command.
Open to Questions
Leaders at all levels must strive to create a culture in which subordinates and colleagues can question their decisions or ideas when they have a legitimate concern or an alternate solution to a problem. However, this must be done in a respectful way, especially when the discussion is in a group setting.
Frequently, the junior soldiers in the fight who are meeting the enemy or problem face to face can more easily identify threats, complications and risks. When those closest to the fight or problem can voice legitimate concerns, heard by their leadership, it greatly enhances the likelihood of success on the battlefield or in the office.
Linear, one-way, hierarchical communication (top to bottom) has proven counterproductive and ineffective in a complex, multidimensional, fast-paced environment like the battlefield.
To be truly effective, today’s leaders must walk a narrow line between cultivating an environment in which subordinates are free to speak their truth as they see it, but at the same time, adhere to orders and their chain of command.
Lt. Col. David Gladish is commander of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 7th Intermediate Level Education Detachment, 7th Mission Support Command, Grafenwoehr, Germany. Previously, he was the training and exercise officer in charge, U.S. Army Reserve Element, U.S. Special Operations Command. He has led master’s-level field grade professional development education for U.S. and multinational senior military leaders across Europe and the Middle East and Africa regions. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.