The millennial generation often gets a bad rap from people in the military and police communities for stereotypically asking their leaders “why” they are doing something instead of blindly doing what they’re told to do. While there are situations when there simply isn’t time to answer this question and you truly just need to trust the person to perform the task without asking questions, I never completely understood the criticism of people who ask the question, “Why?” Almost all of my training and experience as a Marine Infantry Officer taught me to seek out an understanding or the purpose for what we were doing, as the times when there wasn’t time for an explanation were infrequent. The pursuit of knowing why we were going to conduct any operation is summarized in the Marine Corps’ doctrinal publication, MCDP-1: Warfighting, where we were taught that there are two parts to a mission; there is the task to be conducted and the desired result from that action. The reason for the two parts is because the leader can only assign tasks based on the information currently available to them at the time. Yet, as the situations that police officers and military service members operate in are dynamic, the commander needs to allow for flexibility in how the task will be performed in case the situation has completely changed. By making the intent for the operation explicit and explaining why the task has been assigned, it allows the men and women on the ground to adapt to the situation when the initial task is no longer the best way to accomplish the mission. While tasks may become irrelevant, the intentions for the action don’t. So, for someone operating on the ground, failing to know why you are doing something and not implicitly understanding what the purpose is for an action is incredibly dangerous, as it means you eliminate your ability to adapt to any new conditions you face.
Staying committed to a certain task without understanding what that task is supposed to accomplish is dangerous because it means you are operating in a way that reveals you have been taught “what to do” and “what to think” instead of being taught “how to think” and “why to do.” Being tied to a task without a purpose requires that you get permission or guidance to do something because you are unsure of what your goal is. You become incapable of exhibiting initiative because the task was provided without context. The commander’s intent, which is the explanation of why a task should be done and what end state the commander is looking to accomplish in the operation, is the most important component of the mission because it allows for those on the ground to adapt to the changing circumstances. If this is the case, then why are people who seek that understanding considered insubordinate instead of being recognized as a professional in their field?
In the numerous articles that I’ve read about how to lead millennials, I’ve found that there are two types of people who fill the ranks as commanders in the military and police forces. There are those that embrace the opportunity to explain their intentions for an action (true leaders) and there are those that will always view junior members of their unit who ask why with contempt (dictators). A dictator might answer questions about why something is being done with phrases like “that is the way we have always done it here” for a number of reasons. This might be because they actually don’t know why they are doing something and are simply repeating the actions that they saw the person who had the job before them do. Or, it could be because the ability to step back from a situation and truly explain the purpose for something requires that they step off the path of least resistance and perhaps they are too lazy to put in the mental effort. While it’s frustrating to realize that, in this case, your own chain of command will not be a source of professional development for you, this shouldn’t hinder your pursuit of understanding what the purpose of your tasks are. You should instead focus yours effort on learning how to find these answers for yourself.
While it is perfectly logical that someone who wants to understand why something is being done would turn to the person in their chain of command who assigned the task for that answer, a critical skill for professional warriors is the ability to find the answers to these questions on their own. There are other sources you can turn to as you seek to develop yourself and your ability to define why something is being done that is completely within your control. The most accessible form of that wisdom within your control is in books, which is why many military leaders release recommended reading lists for their unit, as they often times provide the answers that the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen might have at various points in their career.
As an example, consider the historical fiction book Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which has found a home on many of these recommended reading lists, including the Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Professional Reading List for new Marines, both for new enlisted Marines and new officers. The story is about the 300 Spartan warriors led by Leonidas who stood up to over one million Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. The story is told Continue reading »