Experience as a military officer teaches values, and teaches them by a series of moves – with the early opportunity to see what works, what leadership is all about in a small unit, and to see what doesn’t work. As one progresses through a military career, first comes exposure to carrying out orders you might not agree with and needing to pass those along to your unit. Then gradually comes the awareness that an officer is expected to use judgment in carrying out those orders, to become not just a cog in the machine but a vital and thinking link in the chain of command. It is argued that the mission always comes first, but with a maturing awareness comes the realization that the mission actually comes second: first come the core values in the triad of “honor, courage, and commitment” that all services rely on as truly fundamental, more so than even short-term mission success. As promotion and seniority accrue, making decisions in detail while carrying out only broadly given guidance dominates day-to-day leadership, not only in combat but also in what are frequently hazardous training for that combat. Real risk, managed risk, not only for the individual but for the command, focuses the mind.
For those in command, what makes it all work is another indispensable triad: “authority, responsibility, and accountability.” Leadership only succeeds when all three are present and acknowledged by those above and below in the chain of command. Authority is the ability to tell those below what they must do, and to have the legal clout to enforce those orders. Responsibility is the acknowledgement that command success is your success, and command failure is your failure. And accountability is the corollary: success has its rewards, and failure has its punishments. Neither is necessarily immediate, but both are inevitable, especially when a pattern develops.
The Trump administration has hired a number of former military leaders, and with one notable exception they seem to be working out well. At the same time, at its core the new administration seems to be lacking in that experience, in the same way that the Obama administration initially was lacking. For the Obama administration, they soon learned to include top military leaders in their deliberations, something the Trump administration apparently has yet to learn. And one of the concepts our new President has yet to learn is how authority, responsibility, and accountability work. He has the authority, and is not shy about using it. He has yet to accept responsibility, at least in any public way, for his actions. And ultimately it will be up to the public, the voters who elected him, to decide about his accountability.
This administration is making decisions in a way that is new to the public, and it is quite obviously all new to the President, too. Here is hoping that, despite the odds, it all turns out well. Authority, responsibility, and accountability will in the end determine President Trump’s success – or his failure.