Leading Staffs: New and Persistent Challenges

“Operational planning groups (OPGs) are designed to tackle a problem; however, OPGs themselves are problems.” –Student, School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)1

This SAMS student’s observation, while specific to staff planning working groups formed to address military problems, are endemic of military staffs writ large.2 His observation indicates that the process of melding together people and processes of staff planning into a cohesive entity capable of producing a useful product is a persistent challenge.

Neglected component

The function of a staff, and particularly the performance and leadership of military officers responsible for executing staff functions, is a neglected component in military leadership doctrine and practice. This neglect is problematic for military organizations. The origins of this inattention are: (1) the lack of doctrine and leadership emphasis on staffs, (2) the new realities of exercising the art and science of control and (3) the eternal challenges of leading people and organizations.

All these issues limit staffs and military organizations from achieving their full potential. To improve staffs, the Army must invest resources in educating and training individual officers and staffs and create doctrine specifically directed at the skills required to function on staffs. The Army must change how it considers staff leadership in its doctrine and promulgate practical tools staff officers can apply in their daily duties to improve on staff performance.

Army leadership doctrine centers on the concept of mission command and places the onus of unit success on the commander. The commander is the central figure who drives the operations process, organizes teams and influences audiences inside and outside the chain of command.3 The staff must then coordinate, synchronize and share information.4 Doctrine then shifts to the mechanics of staff processes and the products that result from staff action.

Retired U.S. Navy CPT Ronald E. Ratcliff, a professor of national-security decision-making at the Naval War College, notes this command focus is not new or necessarily misplaced. He remarks, “The literature about military history and leadership is focused on a few great leaders who rose to meet the martial challenges of their time and place. Often forgotten are the subordinates who enabled these leaders to see their challenges more clearly and who helped them turn their decisions into action.”5

Ratcliff also notes that despite the frequency and duration of staff experiences in the span of an officer’s career, proficiency in staff work is often undervalued. Ratcliff writes, “Frequently, especially for those temporarily assigned to staffs, officers serve in important decision-making positions with limited experience or scant operational proficiency in areas for which they are directly responsible. Yet their commanders and staff peers will demand the same high level of performance that has characterized their careers up to that point.”6

The role of the commander has been and will continue to be essential in the performance of a military organization, but doctrine’s paucity of material on those traits required for effective staff leadership ignores this critical component to organizational success. GEN Matthew Ridgeway, in an article written in 1966 on leadership, addressed the particular demands and importance of staff leadership when he wrote, “The qualities of a leader are not limited to commanders. The requirements for leadership are just as essential in the staff officer, and in some respects more exacting, since he does not have that ultimate authority which can be used when necessary and must rely even more than his commander on his own strength of character, his tact and persuasion in carrying out his duties.”7

GEN Ridgeway and Ratcliff underscore the three principal institutional deficiencies with respect to leadership of staffs: namely, short attention in doctrine, an underappreciation of its unique leadership demands and inadequate preparation of those officers expected to execute this critical function.

Pathological organizations

As GEN Ridgeway indicated, the problems of leadership in this organizational context are not new. More recent scholarship, particularly by John Kotter, Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, provide more insights to the particular challenges of leadership on staffs and, in the case of Cohen and Gooch, inside military organizations.

Kotter, in his book Power and Influence, identifies the “pathological aspects of modern organizations.” These include bureaucratic infighting, parochialism and destructive power politics.8 Kotter traces the origins of these pathologies to greater diversity and interdependence in the workplace and a growing “power gap” where leaders no longer have the inherent power or authority over subordinates to accomplish tasks.

This concept of a “power gap” is particularly applicable to military staffs. It is an irony that, despite the military’s adherence to rigid rank structures and exercise of authority, the relatively high-ranking members of military staffs have little real power. Though Army doctrine specifies leaders of specific command-post nodes that, by virtue of their position lead identified staff entities, they in fact only exert limited control over cross-sections of individual staff sections with nominal staff section leaders.9 This cross-compartmentalization and imposed hierarchy creates conditions for integrated and functional tasked-based cells but also leaves the situation rife for Kotter’s “pathologies” to emerge.10

Cohen and Gooch, in their classic work on military failure, Military Misfortunes, add to the equation by stressing that whenever men form organizations and then have to operate complex systems, also of their own making, failures are normal outgrowths of this interaction.11 Cohen and Gooch illustrate how a “disaster environment” exists when personality and organizational inhibitors combine in unanticipated ways.12 Failing to account for these dynamics will deprive the commander of sound advice and timely information from his staff – and ultimately, mission failure.

Lack of doctrine

Army doctrine and practice spends little time in addressing these challenges. Leadership and staff doctrine focuses primarily on the role of the commander and staff-officer responsibilities in the processes of staff work. Army doctrine charges the commander to lead the staff, while the staff is responsible for supporting the commander.13 The concept of mission command directs the commander to drive the operations process, develop teams and influence internal and external audiences14 while “encouraging” collaboration throughout his organization.15 Though these functions are important, it grossly underestimates the leadership required within staff sections to see this support come to fruition and to simply keep staff and unit processes running.

Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22, Army Leadership, stresses the importance of informal leadership and aligning collective efforts that are critical to unit success, but spends little time in providing some solutions to what it calls the “challenges” to unit cohesion.16 Given only the comparative lack of leadership doctrine on the execution of staff tasks, the problem could be solved in a relatively straightforward manner. Army practices, however, compound the problem by not paying enough attention to how staffs are trained and organized, and to how officers are selected to serve on staffs.

Doctrine’s focus on developing teams, while acknowledging some of the inherent fractures within staffs, underestimates the high degree of friction staffs encounter on any given day. The modern realities of individual staff augmentees, joint-manning documents and the eternal “hey-you” have conspired to create not staffs, but loose amalgamations of people who must be continuously formed into working units.17

Lack of preparation

Compounding the ad hoc approach to assignments is the chronic underpreparation of officers in assuming their duties. A U.S. Army Research Institute study completed in 1991 found that more than half of company-grade officers assigned to battalion staffs were not career-course or Combined Arms Service and Staff School trained.18 In another study of battalion and brigade staffs in 1997, the lack of training was further compounded by the high frequency of turnover among staff members.19

Though some may challenge this assessment as dated and say that we are a far different Army today than in 1991 or 1997, the author’s personal assessment across three combat deployments witnessed nothing in present staff-assignment processes that would counter this ratio in today’s Army.

The problems of doctrine and staff assignment could be partially blunted by paying more attention to staff training. Staff work is detailed, complicated and, particularly as it reaches higher echelons, frequently deals with very complex issues. In our current complex operating environment and in the application of the elements of combat power across a broad spectrum of tasks, staffs can be easily overwhelmed even when very well prepared.

As retired GEN Fredrick Brown noted in his analysis of staffs, staff officers must not only come to grips with tasks required within their own specialty, they must master the synchronization and agility required to perform tasks across many specialties to simply accomplish a unit’s mission.20 GEN Brown went on to caution that “these teams must be trained as rigorously as any individual soldier or leader, for their collective judgment and following actions will permit success by competent, brave platoons.”21

Evidence from the Army’s combat training centers and other exercises demonstrate the levels of training and cohesion have been quite low.22 Too frequently, staff training is not a deliberate process focused on honing problem-solving skills, but is relegated to day-to-day operations tasks or reserved for major unit evaluations or exercises. GEN of the Army Douglas MacArthur observed, “Skilled officers, like all other professional men, are products of continuous study, training and experience. There is no shortcut to the peculiar type of knowledge and ability they must possess. Trained officers constitute the most vitally essential element in modern war and the only one that under no circumstances can be improvised or extemporized.”23 Doctrine and training focused specifically on staff work and leadership are essential to organizational success.

Unique leadership demands

In addition to the institutional barriers to effective staffs, military organizations must also be ready for the “human” challenges of staffs. Military organizations are made up of people and therefore must be ready for the frictions inherent in human interaction. The three most challenging tasks for staffs and units involve dealing with selfish behaviors, toxic leadership and the impact of complex problems.

Selfish behavior can take several forms. Most prominent among these are avoiding responsibility and exploiting one’s position for personal gain. In the diffused structure of staffs, officers can disassociate themselves from support of the commander and accomplishment of the unit’s mission and focus more on the preservation of their individual equities.

In a study of staff performance, the Army’s Information Management Support Center noted common staff errors as not reviewing tasks, inadequate coordination, not understanding the impact of requirements, conflicting priorities, selective compliance and giving the impression of unwarranted assumption of authority.24 A recent paper on service cultures suggests “occupationalism” as a possible source of this behavior. Individuals trained in a particular military-occupational specialty frequently discount inputs not consistent with their orientation and seek only to protect their position within the organization.25 Similarly, in an interview given by GEN Martin Dempsey, he noted careerism and competition as key inhibitors to effective communication and integrated action.26

Ratcliff also notes that staff officers can also be negligent in their duties by being too loyal to the commander and not providing the critical thinking required of an officer. He writes, “Among the most demanding ethical questions officers face is the choice between honesty and loyalty – when it is right to be obedient and when it is wrong. Loyalty in military service is almost always the essential attribute of a trusted subordinate. Yet it is often the subordinate willing to risk being considered disloyal – who asks the frank question that might give the commander pause to reconsider a decision. The limits of one’s loyalty is a decision that every officer must make, especially one who aspires to being more than a ‘yes man.’”27

Both the study of staff challenges and Ratcliff’s assessment of loyalty touch upon the second challenge of human interaction and the related concept of toxic leadership.

ADRP 6-22 defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance.”28 Recently there has been a proliferation in the identification and discussion of toxic leadership among Army leaders. Although its causes are not immediately evident, its impact on the organization is clear. Toxic leaders create hostile environments and disrupt the formation of teams by their focus on individual performance and self-aggrandizement. It is a trait apparent in all leaders, not limited to commanders. Toxic leaders are usually invisible to their superiors, as they frequently deceive, intimidate and coerce to achieve goals and accomplish missions in the short term.29 In a large staff with limited formal oversight, toxic leaders can thrive in meeting short-term expectations but cause long-term damage to the cohesion of the staff and effectiveness of the unit as a whole. The presence of self-centered and toxic leaders only complicates an already complex problem.

Impact of complexity

Staff leadership involves the exercise of leadership on the organizational level, where competencies are applied on increasingly complex situations.30 This is an evolution from the basic or direct leadership level, where leaders are initially introduced to and expected to exercise at the entry levels of the Army. Though still required to exercise direct leadership, the organizational leader deals with more complexity, greater uncertainty and a greater number of unintended consequences.31 The result of this ambiguity is that results are not always discernible, and values, policies and directives are frequently distorted as they move vertically and laterally through an organization.32

Retired LTG Walter Ulmer notes that not all leaders can make this transition. He writes that the Army’s hierarchy has “a good share of well-intentioned non-leaders who cannot – by virtue of their personality, limited capacity for trust, lack of self-confidence or improper definition of success – perform at the executive level.”33 Service on staff may be an officer’s first introduction to organizational-level demands and a first indicator that their personal traits and competencies are not suited for this level.


Reform of the Army’s staff-effectiveness problem must begin with an acknowledgement that a problem actually exists. It then requires modifications to Army doctrine that incorporate individual and staff-specific guidelines, better training and a shift in the cultural attitudes toward staff. Doctrinal changes will likely be the easiest goals to attain.

Army doctrine first needs to accept that personal foibles, human limitations and team dynamics will more readily thwart the development of the planning process and staff products than enemy action. Kotter’s “pathologies of modern organizations” are real impediments to effective military staff work. Kotter identifies, particular to the Army experience, the widening gulf between the aspirational tenants of mission command and its user-level application on a military planning staff.

Military staffs, with multiple, assigned skill specialties, cross-functional teams and diffused responsibility epitomize the concept of a “power gap.” Army doctrine should treat the leadership on staffs as its own competency and adopt Kotter’s identification of what a leader’s “real job” is within this context. Kotter states that the real job of a leader is “to identify all relevant lateral relationships, assess who will resist and how strongly, develop good relationships and vary other methods if relationships do not work. Fundamentally, the leader must determine where cooperation is necessary and where is compliance necessary.”34 Army doctrine should deal directly with this “resistance” that will be inherent to any staff setting.

Ratcliff offers another guide to this pragmatic approach to staff-leadership attributes when he suggests that “officers also need a firm grasp of three essential aspects of military service: a well-developed personal and professional ethical framework, a solid hold on formal and dynamic decision-making processes and a sophisticated understanding of risk management.”35 Explicitly stating these attributes within doctrine, specific to the staff experience, will form a tighter linkage between the staff process and leadership requirements.

In an even more practical vein, leaders should carefully consider how staffs are organized. A leader, when organizing a staff, must take individual skills and personal motivations into account when forming separate planning or action teams. Understanding roles and relationships of the actors involved allows the leader to supervise and manage work while considering the procedures and hardware necessary to facilitate communication between potentially disparate groups. Even considerations of group-planning team size and physical location will weigh on the overall effectiveness and productivity of the staff grouping.

Implementation of these principles will likely require a shift in Army culture that currently downplays the utility of staff integration and stability. To attain the cooperation and teamwork stressed by Army doctrine, the right people have to be assigned to staffs and kept together long enough to build trust and capability. The success of the staff depends on trained individual contributors and their effective combination as a collective entity. Staff integration allows the unit to focus its energies on accomplishing tasks and achieving objectives.36 Integration requires sustained cohesiveness, training and practice. Treating the staff as a dumping ground for officers proven incapable at other echelons or a temporary waystation to other positions are short-term perspectives that ultimately diminish unit capabilities and hinder the exercise of mission command.


Development of teams is not new, nor is it ignored in Army doctrine. ADRP 6-22 clearly states, “Forming effective, cohesive teams is often the first challenge of a leader working outside a traditional command structure. … Cohesive teams accomplish missions more efficiently than a loose group of individuals.”37 Taking on a new perspective on staff selection, training and longevity will help Army leaders translate doctrine to actual practice.

The study of leadership on Army staffs has been a neglected topic in professional discourse, and this has been to the organization’s detriment. Lack of specific doctrine, inattention to staff collective training and poor assignment practices serve to undermine the development of this key component that a command and Army units have to solve complex problems. As the Army transitions to a new era where it is not consumed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it must consider the evolving realities of leadership on Army staffs and how to prepare its officers for the challenges that will certainly follow. Change will require a new appreciation about ways to lead people without formal authority and change the current Army culture that downplays the role of a staff.


1 Class discussion, Advanced Military Studies Program, SAMS, Fort Leavenworth, KS, July 15, 2014.

2 Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Task Force Headquarters, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (GPO), 2012.

3 ADRP 6-0, Mission Command, Washington, DC: GPO, 2012.

4 Field Manual (FM) 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, Washington, DC: GPO, 2014.

5 U.S. Navy CPT Ronald E. Ratcliff, “Becoming an Officer of Consequence,” Joint Forces Quarterly 44, No. 1, 2007.

6 Ibid.

7 GEN Matthew B. Ridgway, “Leadership,” Military Review, October 1966.

8 John P. Kotter, Power and Influence, New York: Free Press, 1985.

9 FM 6-0.

10 Ibid.

11 Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, New York: Free Press, 1990.

12 Ibid.

13 ADRP 6-0.

14 Ibid.

15 Army Doctrine Publication 5-0, The Operations Process, Washington, DC: GPO, 2012.

16 ADRP 6-22, Army Leadership, Washington, DC: GPO, 2012.

17 Ratcliff.

18 Thomas J. Thompson, George D. Thompson, Robert J. Pleban and Patrick J. Valentine, Battle Staff Training and Synchronization in Light Infantry Battalions and Task Forces, Fort Benning, GA: U.S. Army Research Institute, 1991.

19 Mark L. Curry, “Integrating Automated Normative Analysis into Brigade Battle Staffs,” SAMS monograph, 1993.

20 GEN Frederic J. Brown, Battle Command Staff Training, Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, 1992.

21 Ibid.

22 Gary G. Sauer, “Battle Staff Integration: the Key to Battle Tracking in Battalion Command Posts,” SAMS monograph, 1996.

23 GEN of the Army Douglas MacArthur, quoted in H.F. Harding, “High Polish for High Brass,” Vital Speeches of the Day, Ann Arbor, MI: Rotary Club, Aug. 12, 1953.

24 Information Management Support Center, Command, Leadership and Effective Staff Support: A Handbook Including Practical Ways for the Staff to Increase Support to Battalion and Company Commanders, Washington, DC: GPO, 1996.

25 George R. Mastroiani, “Occupations, Cultures and Leadership in the Army and Air Force,” Parameters, Winter 2005/2006, Vol. 34, No. 4.

26 Devin Hargrove and Sim B. Sitkin, “Next-Generation Leadership Development in a Changing and Complex Environment: An Interview with General Martin E. Dempsey,” Academy of Management, Learning and Education, 2011, Vol. 10, No. 3.

27 Ratcliff.

28 ADRP 6-22.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Walter F. Ulmer, “The Army’s New Senior Leadership Doctrine,” Parameters, 1997.

34 Kotter.

35 Ratcliff.

36 Sauer.

37 ADRP 6-22.