The following essay was written by one of my mentors, COL Mike Wyly USMC (ret.). I was very fortunate to have Mike as one of my teachers in graduate school. He taught Advanced Tactical Thought, which was really how to teach decision making and tactics. He used tactical decision games almost every class. That is where I got my ideas when I taught (well LTC John Scmitt UMSCR also contributed taking the time to give me ideas from when he ran the NROTC program at Northwestern). Mike and I also taught together with Dr. Chet Richards and Mr. Dale Stewart at an Adaptability workshop at Greenville, SC in March.
Mike wrote this in response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates speech to Air Force officers appealing to them to be more like COL John Boyd, who have based much of my work on. Gates used Boyd throughout his speech as an example of risk taking and moral courage. I see this as a good thing, but as many do in Washington D.C., they love to use rhetoric, but does it match actions? It is a positive start. But, many of the factors that lead to careerism lie in an out of date personnel system built upon out of date assumptions (for the details of this, see my briefing “Revolution in Human Affairs” on www.d-n-i.net under “people”).
Armed Forces Journal
In praise of mavericks
A true professional will strive to do something, not be someone
BY COL. MICHAEL D. WYLY (RET.)
Civilians who serve as defense secretary rarely inspire the military men who serve in uniform. It is the profession of arms itself that has the job of exhorting, leading and studying the art of war. From time to time, however, it becomes the job of the civilian overseer to deter the military from stagnating and to prompt it to keep up with the times to serve the needs of modern war. We live in one of those times.
Robert Gates felt called upon to prompt uniformed officers accordingly when he addressed Air War College students at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in April. His speech was more than a prompt; it was an inspiration. “The Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders” who “want to do something, not be somebody,” Gates said.
The secretary continued by quoting Air Force Col. John Boyd: “If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself.”
For a defense secretary to quote a maverick colonel who left the Air Force as a pariah was a bold and risky step. But like the fighter pilot he quoted, he turned into the fight by describing Boyd as “brilliant” in his abilities “to overcome bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility.” The secretary referred to Boyd as “a historical exemplar,” tracing his impact on our military from 30-year-old captain through to his continued intellectual contributions after retiring in 1975. And he praised Boyd for more than his intellect. He championed his character, quoting the colonel, who said, “One day you will take a fork in the road. … If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself.”
After they graduate and leave Maxwell, Gates warned the students: “You, too, will eventually face Boyd’s proverbial fork in the road. You will have to choose: to be someone or to do something.”
I knew Boyd as a colleague, a mentor and the most loyal personal friend. His contributions to the strength of our country ranged from airplane design through tactics and strategy air and ground, and the ethics of leadership.
THE PROFESSIONAL CLASS
We can consolidate all of the secretary’s descriptions into a single word: professional. That’s what Boyd was. And he was one because of what he did. “Professional” is a word we bandy about carelessly, so much so, we lose track of its meaning. Boyd exemplified its meaning.
It was during the European Renaissance that the professional class emerged and defined itself. It was during the Renaissance that the birthright nobility began to give way to a society led by persons respected for their merits – for what they did instead of who they were. Each profession had standards for entry, they professed something, and their study of it was daily, continual and life-long. They served their society. Medicine, law, the clergy and military leadership became during the 15th and 16th centuries – and still stand as – the classically defined professions. When we speak of a professional ball player or a professional musician, we are corrupting the term, for it means far more than getting a paycheck for what you do. A profession must be applied for and joined after being accepted, and its moral standards are as important as its philosophy.
The product of years of schooling, examinations, moral discipline and tests of character, the essential elements that define a profession was, and continues to be, trust. A physician, let’s say a surgeon, works on his own. Certified by his profession, he does not need a boss looking over his shoulder or a textbook in one hand as he works. He knows his profession and we trust him with our lives. The lawyer in a courtroom thinks on his feet, able to counter arguments with the knowledge he has stored over years of study. We trust our clergy to have studied, more than we have, the tenets of our faith, and to listen to our cares and laments. “Reposing special trust and confidence in the abilities of [officer’s name]” are the words read aloud when a Marine officer is commissioned – “co-missioned” with his country and entrusted to make life-and-death decisions without supervision, continents away.
Professionals have to listen, too; the physician to his patient, the lawyer to his client, the clergyman to his parishioners, the officer to his men.
Boyd embodied these traits and held to them uncompromisingly. I learned from him, and I never offered an idea that he did not hear out in detail. The many, many ideas he injected or tried to inject into the military intellect he had invariably studied, thought out, footnoted and referenced. He did his homework – as a professional.
We can think of examples from every profession where its members have strayed from its principles. But integral to the profession’s definition is the ability to expurgate, disbar, revoke license or de-commission. This can happen when a member fails to keep up intellectually, or if he fails on moral grounds. Professionals are idealists by definition, and the Boyd I knew personified idealism.
One more adjective Gates used to describe Boyd was “maverick,” and those of us who knew Boyd understand why. Yet it is unfortunate that we have to think of him as a maverick. He should have been the norm: an independent thinker who did his own research on a daily basis and espoused his views regardless of convention because he had the courage to do so. Courage is a virtue. In the military profession, courage tops the list of virtues required and demanded. My experiences in combat demonstrated that you can’t have the physical kind of courage without the moral kind. Officers with Boyd’s degree of moral courage need to be the norm, not the mavericks. Another way of putting it is that we all need to have the courage to be mavericks when institutional thought stagnates. But we have a responsibility not to let it stagnate. And that is Gates’ stern message to our officer corps.
When I taught in our Marine Corps Professional Schools in Quantico, Va., I often alluded to the old military class of medieval times, the warriors – the knights. We called them nobility. A favorite question I asked my students to ponder was, “Have we, the U.S. officer corps in the 20th and 21st centuries, descended beneath noblesse, or ascended above it?”
The answer lies in whether or not we rise to the responsibility we incur when we dare to accept our commissions and call ourselves professionals. Gates has set the standard through his courage of conviction and the daring to articulate it. In so doing, he evoked the name of one who challenged us all to ascend beyond who we think we are, by doing the work a profession demands, in the purest sense of the term “profession.”