Having To Be The Smartest Person In The Room—Or Not

strategy’s elegance

In his book The Gamble (the story of phase-two of the Iraq War counterinsurgency1), Thomas Ricks reminds us of the importance of carefully building a strategically planned launching pad for our soldiers and leaders. Ricks writes about the delicate process of growing an organisational culture of curiosity and learning. He shows that if leaders are to be approachable and to truly build a team of team-players they need to invite those under them into a decision-making process where robust argumentation and dispute are welcome, even if it does seem to be bordering on rebellion. He also points out the essential stepping stones of good training and an excellent education, especially in human relations and society; anthropology, sociology, history and leadership.

As examples, Ricks points out that General David Petraeus hired Emma Skye (a British peace activist) to be a key adviser with access to confidential briefings. Emma accepted the appointment and was skeptical at first but late in the war she said, ‘The US does not deserve to have an army like this.’ On another occasion Petraeus had a random conversation about the war with a Palestinian man: they were on their way out of a public toilet in a US city, Petraeus was in civilian clothes and the man had no idea who he was. The general later hired him as his number one interpreter in Iraq.

Ricks points to the necessity for two types of courage. ‘“Courage takes two forms in war,” observes Hew Strachan, the British military historian and interpreter of Clausewitz. “Courage in the face of personal danger where the effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success.” This second, more elusive form of bravery, (courage in dealing with strategic blindness) asks us to lay our career on the line—bosses will be offended.

The book also makes clear that—having been educated and trained—the soldiers were really only at the same place as everyone else and it’s what happens next that matters most, especially when they’re being pressured for ‘results now’ with superiors telling them the same old war stories from Europe and Vietnam and telling them to ‘hurry up’. More often than not, this kind of pressure will just get strategically dysfunctional light and sound shows, not patiently thought through and strategically intelligent action.

Ricks makes the following observations. ‘The Bush administration’s tendency was to paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who, with few exceptions didn’t seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy is about choices,” said one of the exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. “Yet,” he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don’t teach it, we don’t recognise it. The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.”

Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.” He quotes Maj. Gen. Fastabend as saying: ‘The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy you get aspirations.’

Many times in the book, Ricks shows how some of the senior leaders were inspiring fear instead of trust: one of them did this by always leading mysteriously from behind, always correcting but never making clear what they really wanted, another did this by always having to be the smartest person in the room.

The epidemic of hate, bad morale and casualties had commanders—from the President down— urging loyalty, courage and sacrifice like a cracked record, and even accusing faithful commanders of disloyalty when all that was being done was the citing of factual statistics. The leadership was looking and talking in the wrong places and as a result losing the respect of their soldiers and losing the war. Finally, a small group of men persuaded the President to consider the fact that strategy may be the problem and after years of argument and outrage, the strategy was changed to, ‘Protect the local population.’

Remember, in the long run, strategy by definition is the easiest and the best option but in the short term it frequently looks like the hardest or the mad-est. One of the first consequences of the ‘protect the locals’ strategy was that US casualties rose, as the leaders had anticipated—but the casualty rate of the local population fell and soon large numbers of Arab sheiks were joining the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The problem for leaders (everywhere) is to actually figure out exactly what the problem is and then what the right strategy is, and stick to it. For the senior leaders going into Iraq it was staring them in the face in old military books on counterinsurgency2. If the problem is counterinsurgency then ‘protect the local population’ the old books said. In the end strategy that’s taken everything into consideration is elegant.


1 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf ‘At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence.

2 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf ‘At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence. This armed struggle also involves eliminating insurgents who threaten the safety and security of the population. However, military units alone cannot defeat an insurgency. Most of the work involves discovering and solving the population’s underlying issues, that is, the root causes of their dissatisfaction with the current arrangement of political power. Dealing with diverse issues such as land reform, unemployment, oppressive leadership, or ethical tensions places a premium on tactical leaders who can not only close with the enemy, but also negotiate agreements, operate with nonmilitary agencies and other nations, restore basic services, speak the native (a foreign) language, orchestrate political deals, and get “the word” on the street.

Cool Love

You cannot truly love someone and simultaneously focus on being cool. It’s like offering to help a woman get her car out of a bog on the condition that you get no mud on your suit.


Be happy to do things that go nowhere

Be happy to open your mouth before your mind is in gear

Be happy to respond to whatever catches your attention

Be a cheerful event in their day

Keep ‘the spirit of the game’

Ask questions & listen

Be in no hurry

Save time by wasting time

Think more about whether God knows you rather than whether you know him.(See Matthew 7:22)

Remind yourself that life’s not fair

Assume that you are called to unhinge the forces of darkness and release a slave by making a sacrifice

Find out what it means to activate redemptive magic Owe no man anything except the debt of love.

Love Machines

Those who have given their lives to loving the weak and vulnerable can become so clever at heading off embarrassments and anticipating the ways of troubled people that it’s impossible for their friends or even their own children to ever have a good healthy quarrel with them about anything—and that’s not love, it’s suffocation.

The Music of the Elders

Music of The Elders

There’s an ancient understanding amongst tribal elders (who are the real deal) that they as individuals have a kind of music that can be of help to each other’s children—in a way that can only be described as beautiful. We in the west have a cool indifference to this, our organisational structures having deadened the instinct to feel a responsibility—before there’s even any hint of trouble—to step into the world of our mate’s teenage son, for example. It might be an invitation to a concert, to dinner or a hunting trip and it might be the conversation of a lifetime.

The Power of Presence and Silence

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid: the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing … At other time it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’1

‘When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle touch and tender hand.

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.’2

  1. Lewis CS 1968, A Grief Observed, Faber, p.7
  2. Nouwen H.




Quiet early morning birds talking—cool new day
Kitchen clock ticking—happy old floor boards
Far away friends—visiting laughing
Old friends close by—walking together grace
Wall paintings by daughters—singing daughters
Expensive guitar leaning—son’s playing
Never before heard voice—new granddaughter not far away
Bedroom wife sleeping—child whisperer woman
Imagine that!