Keys to Success; Advice to Operational and Strategic Level Planners


At some point, every officer embarking on his or her first tour at the operational or strategic level experiences a level of trepidation. Indeed, leaving the comforts of tactical level planning can be a scary ride. Higher echelons f planning push people to level of mental discomfort they have rarely contended with in previous jobs. The following is a litany of advice on attaining success at higher staff levels.

First, get into a strategic mindset. This means staff officers should take the time to think about big problems, big ideas, and big solutions. Taking the time to pull away from daily business to reflect on the larger aspects of problem sets is the difference between mediocre and high levels of talent. This reflection time does not come easy, and high quality planners will ensure they

Further considerations in the strategic mindset are reframing understanding of time. At operational and strategic levels, the decision cycle slows down. When compared to decisions at the tactical level, getting a 4-star commander to make a decision can take eons. Moreover, attaining decisions from strategic leaders often means obtaining consensus within the rest of the staff. This takes time. Luckily, it takes time to get onto the calendar of said decision makers, which allows ample time to build the required consensus.

Gaining consensus should not sacrifice the quality of the product. Planners must understand and consider which hills to die on when moving papers and briefings through review. Solving issues at the action officer or O6 level is typically the best course of action. However, planners should cultivate an understanding on what is non-negotiable for their directors. When appropriate, let the flag officers have the discussion, and wait patiently for their guidance.

The consensus aspect is an underrated part of planning. The best officers know whose opinions are valued by the commander, and those whose opinions are nice to have. Some of this is dictated by personality, and sometimes this is dictated by position. For example, the public affairs section and the operational law section should comment on nearly every product or plan. Indeed, senior leaders will often ask at the onset of a presentation what legal or public affairs thought of the plan or product.

A second key to success at higher echelons is the ability to write. Operational and strategic level planners cannot rely on PowerPoint skills to get them through their time. The best planners communicate complex ideas through the written word. Planners exercise their power though writing commander’s estimates, position papers, information papers, and white papers. Moreover, these papers must be succinct and to the point.  

Pride cometh before the fall. In terms of writing, planners quickly learn that writing is a team sport. Every directorate and division within a staff must have the opportunity to comment on as well as concur or non-concur on every paper. Although papers that reach decision makers contain input from multiple people, there is one primary officer responsible for the paper. Key to navigating this nuance is writing fast enough to ensure all interested parties have the time to review and comment. Avoid emotional attachment to staff papers.

If you want to become a better writer, the first step is reading. If you find yourself assigned to an operational or strategic level staff, chances are you made the decision to become a lifer. Like it or not, the military is your career, and as a career officer you have a duty to continually mold your intellectual apparatus. This means reading.

Reading is not limited to professional journals and books. Staff officers must remain current on relevant joint and service doctrine. Officers on joint staffs should take the time to read new army, navy, air force or Marine Corps doctrine. Officers in a service level assignment should take the time to read both joint doctrine and concepts. Further, planners need to read new national level guidance such as the National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy. 

Planners at higher echelons of command should form their own professional development-reading list. This should include daily news articles, professional journals (both hard copies and internet sites), books covering a wide range of subjects from fiction to history, to economics, and warfighting.

Planners should invest their time improving briefing skills prior to their first day at an operational or strategic level staff. The old saying “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” holds steady vis-à-vis senior leaders. Fouling up a briefing early in an assignment often has cascading effects that will minimize the impact of a planner throughout his or her tour. It is vital to rehearse every brief, and to anticipate questions from the audience. Unlike tactical level briefings, those sitting around the table will have less knowledge on a subject than the briefer. Questions are not meant to test the briefer, but rather to develop a better understanding of a problem or a solution. In this aspect, “I don’t know” is better than providing inaccurate information.

Knowing the audience is a universal aspect of public speaking. The first brief should never be the best brief. Over time, the best planners adapt their briefing style to the desires of their senior leaders. Some senior leaders may pepper a briefer with questions on every slide; others will hold their questions until the end of the brief. Further, you will find that many senior leaders take the time to read their read-ahead packets, and skip right to the questions at the onset. As a planner, never shy away from asking other members of the staff with briefing experience how key leaders like their briefings. 

The best planners are subject matter experts in their own respective areas. This seemingly obvious statement has a deeper meaning. An Army officer serving on a joint task force or combatant command staff needs to be the expert in all things army.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” In a similar manner, you miss 100 percent of the information that comes out of a meeting you do not attend. The battle rhythm of every joint command fills up with a multitude of meetings. It is prudent to sit in on as many as you can. The various working groups and ongoing OPTs will help any planner in their ability to understand the commander’s priorities and major issues affecting the command. Further, attending meetings will allow a planner to offer their input into various projects as a way to advance their own priorities. Do not wait for an invitation to these meetings, and don’t wait for your boss to tell you to attend. This is a critical aspect of making yourself relevant.

Measures for success

At an individual level, the first measure of success is the speed at which your staff actions are approved. Over time, written products such as information papers or decision briefs will make their way through the approval process with minimal changes. Nothing ever gets through an entire “chop” with zero remarks or changes, but the successful staff officer develops a knack for  

The first measure of a successful staff officer is knowing whether or not people rely on you for information. If you find other members of the staff constantly coming by your desk for advice and information, or if other members of the command consistently call you asking for products, then you have attained success. When flag officers or the commander ping your desk, then your success is at a completely new level.

Successful staff officers are in high demand. More than a gathering around a desk, successful staff officers tend to have their calendars full. This occurs as the best staff officers get invited to other working groups and operational planning teams. The successful staff officer is not invited as a subject matter expert, but rather as someone who has developed a reputation for solving problems. People know rather quickly who they want applying brainpower to their

Finally, C.S. Lewis once described an inner ring. Belonging to this inner ring meant “It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.” Indeed, it is better to work on a weekend, than deemed irrelevant to solving a problem at hand. Successful staff officers know the call is coming.


A Comparison of Tactical and Operational Planning


When compared to operational and joint level planning, tactical and service level planning such as the army’s military decision-making process (MDMP) is quite easy. Before we look at the details of leading and understanding operational planning teams (OPTs) it is worth the time to discuss the differences between tactical or service level planning, and planning at the operational level of war.

Tactical planning, despite all the rave of mission command comes with clear guidance from higher levels of command. Indeed, MDMP calls for commanders and staffs to analyze the mission and intent two levels higher. Battalions, Brigades, and even divisions can cut and paste their higher headquarters mission statement into their own mission analysis and subsequent orders. Planners at the joint staff and combatant commands do not have this luxury. At the operational level of war, planners must translate strategic guidance that is often murky. This guidance may come in the form of presidential speeches, remarks from the Secretary of Defense, or from documents such as the National Security or National Defense Strategy. The latter two may be two or three years old and say nothing specific to the current problem

Tactical planning tends to be directive in nature. Once the commander decides on a way ahead, the staff and subordinate units salute and move out. At the operational level, planning and guidance is a dialogue. Officers working at the operational and joint level quickly realize that they are rarely the expert on any givin problem set. Planners at all levels must be comfortable with picking up the telephone to call planners at higher levels to discuss published orders to determine the intent or meaning of language in such orders. This demand is because planners at the operational and strategic level can be inexperienced and unfamiliar with joint level operations and processes.

At tactical levels, planners tend to have the backstop of experienced key leaders who have encountered similar problem sets in the past. Indeed, within a battalion and a brigade, the operations officer (S3) and the commander are normally the most senior and experienced officers within the command. Junior officers have the luxury of the assumption that the commander will guide planners in the right direction. For planners at the operational level, life it a bit more difficult. Officers serving on the joint staff or within combatant commands may be serving their first tour of duty higher than brigade level, away from their ship, or outside the cockpit. The ability to call higher headquarters or to ask senior ranking officers for the answers to the test is seldom an

Life is easy when everyone in the room works for the same boss. At the tactical level, planners often gather in a room, and the lead planner has control of the entire planning team. At the operational level, planners often seek consensus among individuals in the room. Members of the planning team not only represent the command, but can represent other combatant commands, other agencies within the government, or other allied and partner nations. The directive method of “the commander said” does not work so well at this


Not only must operational level commanders conduct a dialogue with adjacent and higher level organizations, said dialogue may lead to non-doctrinal solutions or answers. Civilians working at the Department of Defense are not tied to short and concise mission statements. Indeed, at the operational level, mission statements of a combatant command or multi-national task force are a form of strategic communication to the rest of the world. Planners at this level must be comfortable taking direction from men and women who do not care what is written inside of an Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP). 

Knowing and understanding capabilities is another critical difference between tactical and operational planning. Naval commanders, air force wing commanders, and army and marine battalion and brigade commanders along with their respective staffs have deep knowledge of the capabilities under their command. Further, these commanders and staffs tend to have detailed knowledge of where these capabilities lie on the battlefield and when they are available to employ. Operational planners must be comfortable with uncertainty in the development of their battle plans. Planners at the operational level request capabilities, and when those capabilities are assigned to the command, the timing of their arrival and employability is often uncertain. Indeed, operational level planning requires the language of capabilities requirements in lieu of naming the exact unit as done at the tactical

The last key difference between tactical and operational level planning is the speed of decision-making. The higher-level one works, the slower pace of decisions. While tactical commanders have the luxury of gut instinct type decisions, operational and strategic leaders must carefully weigh their decisions against known and unknown information. Moreover, this slower pace is critical, as the results of decisions at higher level tend to have a greater impact on both the mission and the force. Indeed, at higher levels of war, decision-making is more deliberate and dictated by a battle rhythm. At the tactical level, staffs can often walk into the office of the commander, while at the operational level, commanders schedule their respective schedules around the decisions they make. When decisions are made outside of the normal battle rhythm, it takes time for planners to get on the commander’s calendar, and to ensure the rest of the command and staff concurs with the recommendation. This takes time.

Despite the similarities in the service level and joint planning processes, the skill set required for each is unique. Leaders of OPTs need to take the time to consider and think through the nature and character of leadership and planning at the operational level of war. Operational planning demands patience, the ability to negotiate through complexity, and the ability to manage a variety of personalities each with their own sets of expertise.  

Reviewing "A Passion for Leadership; Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service"

Following his retirement from public service, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authored two books. The first was a memoir of his time as Secretary of Defense, his second detailed the leadership lessons he learned over a lifetime of public service. In A Passion for Leadership, Gates uses his lessons learned as the Director of the CIA, President of Texas A&M, and Secretary of Defense to write about leading change in large bureaucratic organizations.


Gates focuses on a leader's ability to build teams and break down stovepipes as essential elements of strategic leadership. In building teams, Gates reflects that changing an organization may require a leader sacrifice speed of change with a gain of getting change right. Slowing down the pace allows for greater buy in of a program, as well as better-developed recommendations from all those involved. Leaders attain buy in for a program thorough more than time, they do so by breaking down organizational silos.

In important aspect of leading change, according to Gates, is the ability to break down barriers internal to an organization. In the military, this means members of various J-Codes need to work together to solve problems. Gates advocates for the stand-up of cross cutting task forces to design and implement change. With the stand-up of task forces, Gates highlights that all parts of an organization will become part of the process for proposing and implementing change. Indeed, Gates used this method at Texas A&M, the CIA, and the Department of Defense to ensure every section of each respective bureaucracy had a stake in their institutional change. For example, as head of the CIA, Gates created multiple task forces to redirect the focus of intelligence away from the Cold War mindset.

Gates also reflects on the value of investing in personal relationships to help in gaining support for change proposals. This may mean frequent meetings with academics and state legislatures while serving at a public university, or taking the time to engage with people on the hill while serving in the Pentagon or at Langley.

Most leaders understand the need to elevate high performers, and those who add value to a team. Gates takes the time to reflect on the importance of this aspect of leadership, but follows this up with techniques on removing people who obstruct progress. Gates understands that public servants at high levels operate under different laws and regulations when it comes to removing people from their positions. Further, Gates details the importance of reflecting on the positives of previous public service (some of which last a lifetime) when an individual is removed from a position. Removing or firing people in Gates’s opinion must be done with respect and care. Indeed, offering people the flexibility to resign over a period of months allows the space to find new talent while keeping a semblance of continuity for an organization.

This book is a primer for military officers who look to lead at the operational and strategic levels. Further, it serves as a guide to career and appointed leadership in government on how to lead change in large organizations. It is a fast read, and a worthwhile addition to any leader’s bookshelf.

Creativity: The Power of Off Sites


Creativity generally occurs when two disparate ideas link together to form a new concept or way of performing. Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Leonardo Da Vinci comments, “Innovation is a team sport, creativity is a collaborative endeavor.”  Over the course of my military career I have found this observation be generally true. However, I would add on an addendum, that innovation, or creativity in our day-to-day work occurs outside the office and not inside of a conference room or between

At an individual level, some of the best ideas come to light while having off-hand discussions with other service members somewhere between the hours of 1100 – 1300. Open and candid discussion between peers over Mexican food on Taco Tuesday or in the food court on a random Thursday tend to enable new ideas at almost every level. This may mean squad leaders sharing ideas on the best counseling techniques, or company commanders discussing new ways to run their company command post. Having commanded for 22 months in 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, I can attest that the best ideas I followed through with never came sitting in my office, or walking through the motorpool, they came through discussions with soldiers in the dining facility, and in discussion with my fellow commanders over

At the collective level, the best opportunities to generate creativity come from off-site events. These events can range from a staff-ride at a local Civil War Battlefield, or a staff visit to a local war museum to name just a couple. More than just the educational aspect, the ability of staff rides to build teams can shape future discussions. Members of a unit who spend time with each other at a staff ride, will then grab a coffee, or a meal together during times of intense planning, or other high stress environments. Those follow-on discussions can change the trajectory of a plan or course of action under

To quote Isaacson again, “Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously.” As a U.S. Army Strategist, I spend most of my hours working in a SCIF, surrounded by planners from various J-Code directorates (J2, J3, J4, etc..). While working long strenuous hours either participating in or leading operational planning teams, I have discovered the necessity of team members having discussions away from the computer screen, away from the planning cell, and away from leaders who will instantly critique their ideas. Officers who lead planning teams should keep this aspect in mind when planning during times of

A key part of running any operational planning team is time management. Operational Planning Team leaders must acknowledge that their team requires time outside of the planning cell to think and reflect on their work. OPT leaders must recognize, indeed enforce upon their planners time outside of the planning cell with other members of the OPT. This may include lunch breaks, or even breaks to grab a coffee at the post Starbucks. Rather then view this as wasted time; it is paramount to think of it as a productive endeavor. Moreover, ideas developed during a break may not come to fruition until further in the planning process. The seeds of an idea planed during a coffee break in mission analysis may grow and mature in course of action development, or be tested during wargaming. As Lost’s John Locke can attest, we often accomplish most when we work the least.

Running a Meeting


The impression a leader makes on others contributes to his success in leading them. This impression is the sum of a leader’s outward appearance, demeanor, actions, and words.

- ADRP 6-22

                 Reflecting on my 17 years of active service, there one item I wish I had learned in the military’s professional military education (PME) program. How to run a meeting. Running a meeting is a distinct skill, and should be taught to our officers and non-commissioned officers throughout their careers.

                Every officer, in nearly every position will run a meeting. Platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and company commanders run training meetings. Executive officers run staff meetings. Action officers at every level run their own internal staff meetings. Operational and strategic planners run Operational Planning Teams (OPTs). Within joint commands, every J-code runs some kind of Board, Bureau, Center, Cell, or Working Group (B2C2WG) within the command’s battle rhythm. More often than not, and for better or worse, leaders learn to run these meetings by way of mentors or self-learning.

                The Army defines three attributes of a leader within leadership doctrine (ADRP 6-22). These traits are character, intellect, and presence. The ability to run a meeting relates to the latter two. An individual may have presence in front of a formation, but can rapidly lose confidence of his or her staff when they flail through a meeting. Often, fumbling through a meeting where the outcome is nothing of consequence can deflate the morale of anyone in attendance.  

A leader’s first impression on members of his or her team can often occur at a meeting. Further, a meeting may be where an individual has their touch points with their rater and senior raters. Failing to run a meeting properly, either by having no purpose, not controlling the tempo or topics of conversations, allowing one “A type” personality to dominate discussion, or not sticking to timelines can harm a leaders reputation within a command.

                At the tactical level, Army doctrine does discuss the importance of training meetings. ADPR 7-0 refers to the training meeting as “the single most important meeting for managing training in brigades, battalions, and companies.” TC 25-30, A Leaders Guide to Training Meetings does discuss some inner working of unit training meetings, focusing on the company level. It is a useful guide for those looking to understand training meetings, but useless in the development of leadership skills required to actually run the meeting.

                On the positive side, there is some level of recognition in the joint force, that organizing meetings within a battle rhythm, each with a distinct purpose that eventually leads to flag officer touch points is paramount to a command’s success. The Joint enabling Capabilities Command (JECC), located in Norfolk Virginia hosts a knowledge management course where tools such as the 7-minute drill and skills such as battle rhythm analysis are taught. Indeed, officers skilled in assisting a command’s chief of staff to organize a battle rhythm are in high demand.

                Other options to improve a leader’s ability to run a meeting include operational planning teams is the Red Team University at Fort Leavenworth. Although the objective of the Red Team School is to promote critical thinking, and create leaders who can provide alternative analysis, the techniques taught at the course are certainly applicable to OPT leadership and overcoming toxic personalities in meetings. Further, leaders throughout the joint force should seek self-improvement in their ability to run a meeting through various business literature such as Harvard Business Review.

                Each of the services should consider adapting the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the JECC’s knowledge management enterprise. Moreover, emphasizing the skills and abilities it takes to run an efficient meeting through a NCO and officers professional military education. The joint force and services can start with distance learning through joint knowledge online (JKO), as a prerequisite prior to arriving at a command. Moreover, commanders at the tactical level should use time and resources to develop this skill in their junior leaders. Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Professional development programs should reach out to experts in the business community to teach running a meeting to junior leaders (and in many cases senior leaders). 

                Based solely on my observations over the past 22 years in the military, our educational model should adopt a method to teach leaders at all levels the science and art of running a meeting.

The Predictability of War


We have a history of hoping for the best. We hope for the best because war, of all things on this earth, is predictable.

Both Napoleon and Hitler understood that invading Russia would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and eventually lead to their respective downfall.  They knew and communicated this risk to the citizens of France and Nazi Germany.

We can look to obscure wars such as Russia’s war with Japan back at the turn of the twentieth century. The Tsar sent his fleet into the Pacific only after a proper net-assessment of their adversary. The Tsar knew his fleet would be destroyed, and that the war would lead to the outbreak of Japanese colonialism over the next four decades.  

As Germany, France, and Britain went to war in 1914, each nation foresaw the horrors of the Somme, and Verdun. Military planners clearly articulated the risk of invading Belgium to Kaiser Wilhelm, and the statistical probability that 750,000 German citizens would die from starvation due to the allied blockade.

Accurately predicting the outcome of war is not unique to foreign nations. When Eisenhower and Kennedy pushed advisers into Vietnam, they did so with an understanding that the conflict would turn into a war, and that an enemy so clearly outmatched in terms of technology could kill over 58,000 Americans. President Johnson and his Best and Brightest Team prepared the public for the horrors of Mai Lai. Moreover, when congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, each voting member knew how the ever-expanding war would divide the nation and have impacts on foreign and domestic policy that still resonate today.

In 2003, America went to war with the Army we had, because that is exactly the Army we needed to invade and occupy Iraq. Indeed, not only did we have the army we needed, but we wargamed against the exact enemy we would fight. I distinctly remember going to war, and receiving briefs on what would occur in places like Avu Ghraib, Yusifiyah, and Haditha.

 When, in 2011, America left Iraq, we had the understanding that a Junior Varsity Team could never conquer large swaths of territory and incite fear and violence across the globe. Thank god that never happened.

When we think about possible conflicts with North Korea, Iran, or any other nation, we should keep in mind how war always moves in unexpected directions.

Reviewing Behind the Bench

A book Review of Behind the Bench; Inside the Minds of Hockey's Greatest Coaches by Craig Custance

There is a dearth of books on hockey. At the top of any list of the greatest hockey books, Ken Drydan’s The Game is at the top of the list by 31 lengths. Hockey books that come into the discussion at number two include Jack Falla’s Home Ice and Open Ice and Wayne Coffey's The Boys of Winter. With the publication of Behind the Bench, Craig Custance puts his work into the discussion for number two on the list.



Behind the Bench is a look at the minds and methods of eleven of the best hockey coaches in the game today. More than a discussion of Xs and Os, Custance takes a unique perspective, and turns a hockey book into a leadership book, similar to what one would find in the business section of the local Barnes and Noble. Custance leadership themes that run throughout the book include the ability to manage talent, the role of luck, and the role of self-reflection, enabling leaders to engage as lifelong students of their profession.

As an Army Officer, I found many of Custance’s insights similar to what I have observed in the military (I wrote this a couple years back on how hockey prepared me for life in the military). For instance, coaches had their own theory and ways of managing talent. At the professional level, this seems to be key to success. Each coach from Dan Bylsma and Jack Sullivan who coach Sidney Crosby and Geno Malkin, to Joe Quenneville who has coached Blackhawk teams with the talent of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kaine developed a method to motivate the greatest players in the world. Moreover, each coach had to find ways to encourage the second and third tier players in their respective championship runs.  It becomes apparent that the ability to manage talent in professional hockey relates to the ways that commanders and leaders manage men and women serving under them.

A second insight Custance brings out is the aspect of luck. Indeed, the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, in his seminal book On War, wrote of the effects of Fog, Friction, and Chance. Specifically, Clausewitz wrote that chance is the unpredictable circumstances that consistently occur in war. In each game, a lucky bounce of the puck or a missed call can be the difference between victory and defeat. Indeed, Coach Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks stated, “That’s a part nobody ever wants to talk about when winning a Stanley Cup. Luck is such a big part of it.” Chance, in war and in hockey reigns supreme.

A third insight worth mentioning is realizing that nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. Custance writes that the best ideas on advancing the game come from rookies and veterans alike.  While interviewing Mike Babcock, Coach Babcock states, “That’s how you create change. You steal ideas from CEOs. You steal ideas from other coaches. You steal ideas from the person who serves up the coffee at Tim Hortons.” The best military leaders understand this powerful philosophy. From the rank of private to four star general, everyone has something to offer.  

The book is not without its shortcomings. Custance is all over the map in his interviews and discussions with some of the coaches. Although Custance articulates the philosophy of each coach, they go back and forth between philosophies on coaching, leadership, and life. A better structure within each section could make this book even better. 

A second shortcoming is the reliance on current coaches. Although some of the great coaches such as Al Arbour and Bob Johnson have passed, an improvement on the book would have included an interview with Glen Sather, coach of the Oiler’s 1980s dynasty, or even Scotty Bowman, coach of multiple Red Wing Stanly Cup championship teams. Understanding how these men managed the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Each of these men would meet Custance’s criteria of having won either a Stanly Cup, World Championship, or Gold Medal.

Coach Melody Davidson of the 2010 Canadian Gold Medal Hockey Team

Coach Melody Davidson of the 2010 Canadian Gold Medal Hockey Team

In terms of selection, Custance limited his interviews to coaches of men’s teams. Both the United States and Canada continue to field the best in women’s hockey. Ben Smith coached the USA team to a gold medal in 1998, while team Canada won on home ice in 2010 under coach Melody Davidson. At the very least including, a chapter or two on women’s coaches could lead to a wider audience.

What Custance leaves on the table is a desire for a follow-on book. His interview with John Tortorella exposes an aspect of professional coaching few people consider. Spouses and children tend to make enormous sacrifices. With Tortorella, his wife gave up a solid and well-paying professional career early in Tort’s career. This was a risk, as professional and financial success would come much later in life. Further, this success was not a sure bet. As Custance states, “John Tortorella took a job that paid him next to nothing, even when his wife had one that could have set up his young family for years.”

Family sacrifice seems to be an unexplored topic of professional coaches. Head and assistant coaching jobs typically last a few years before a team moves in another direction. A head coach and his or her family must be comfortable with uncertainty. Even at the highest levels, where salaries can mitigate the impact of these decisions, kids still make friends at school, and the constant moving from city to city takes a toll. This topic is near and dear to my heart, as it is to so many other military families who pack up and move every three to four years.

Overall, Behind the Bench is a worthwhile investment to add to any leader’s bookshelf.

How Football Prepared me for a Military Career


What we learn in our youth on the gridiron translates directly to life in the military. When describing the game, television announcers, color commentators and comedians often use military analogies to describe what occurs between the sidelines. George Carlin’s routine on football and baseball aside, I offer the following litany of analogies to describe how football prepared me for a military career.

Acceptable levels of failure

Anyone who claims to have never failed at anything is probably trying to sell you something. Learning to fail on the football field is in fact one of the most valuable life lessons I learned. Everyone needs to experience failure at some level throughout his or her lifetime. Some failure you can recover from, others will haunt you for the remainder of your life.

There is a difference between a 3-yard loss on first down, and giving up a 100-yard kickoff return. Football prepared me to deal with failure. Not only to accept certain levels, but to overcome failures with a better performance on the next down, the next series, or the next game. Everyone fails at some point in his or her military career. It could be as simple as blowing a brief to a commander, getting recycled at ranger school, or losing accountability of unit property. Again, there are many layers to failure in the military. We can bounce back from some failures, but a failure that involves compromising morals or ethics can destroy a career. Fortunately, over the course of my time in football, and in the military I have been surrounded by friends, coaches and collegues who helped me avoid, and when necessary recover from failure.

Reliance on Others

Football taught me that success and failure is a team effort. Miss a block or forget an assignment in pass coverage and the opponent will capitalize on the error. Even worse, a teammate can be injured. In the military, we learn quickly that success is a team effort. Teamwork can mean knocking down targets in an assigned sector of fire, or contributing to an operational planning team. In the military, failure at the individual level can lead to mission failure, or even worse getting someone close to you killed.

Football was my first experience of being a part of a cohesive group of individuals over a long period. We had teams in little league baseball, but the players on each team changed year after year. Our football team had a core group of players who began playing at the age of 8 through the end of high school. The bonds we developed remain intact today. Similarly, in the Army I have been a part of units that spent over a year preparing for, and then a year serving in combat. The importance of team chemistry and developing relationships that go beyond the workplace is paramount to warfighting units.

The Army’s National Training Center…performing well here can lead to success on the battlefield

The Army’s National Training Center…performing well here can lead to success on the battlefield

How you practice is how you play and How you train is how you fight

The ability for the American military to provide realistic training is an asymmetric advantage we hold over our adversaries. The importance of this was emphasized to me early in my childhood. I first heard the quote “how you practice is how you play” in my first year of organized football as an 8-year old. The amount of effort teams put forth on the practice field easily translates to success or failure on game day. Over the past 16 plus years, I have been witness to this concept in war. Indeed, during the first Gulf War in 1991, tank crews stated that rotations at the National Training Center (NTC) were more difficult than actual battle. Hard, realistic training at home station and at NTC and JRTC enable better combat performance for tactical level units. High levels of mental preparation and planning in events such as Combatant Command exercises and division or corps level warfighter exercises are critical for military success in times of crisis. In both football and the military, the more effort you put in on the front end, the better the chance of success on the field.

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield

Every week our team would spend Monday afternoons in the film room. It was a religious experience, in that every one of us would pray that our coaching staff somehow missed the plays we knew we screwed up.  Following the review of our past game we would watch film of our next opponent. We would take the time to understand their formations and what plays would most likely be called in a given situation. This was my first exposure to an enemy doctrine template. In a similar manner, we would do our best to understand the filed we would play on and the expected weather on game day…a situation template. Sun Zsu, in his book The Art of War pressed the imperative that to be successful, you must know thy enemy, and know thy self. A deep understanding of an opponent’s capabilities and most likely course of action allows a force, or a football team to focus its preparation. However, understanding that the opposing force is conducting the same preparation, watching your team on film, or studying your doctrine leads to the next way football prepared me for a military career.

A living, thinking and adapting adversary

Relying on the weakness or incompetence of an enemy is a key ingredient to failure. War is the most complicated of human endeavors. A key aspect in the difficulties of warfare is that no nation or army conducts operations against an inanimate object. Enemies and adversaries constantly adapt to the environment while doing their best to defeat you. Adversaries have strategies and adjust them on the fly. Those who fail to adapt often face defeat. This description fits both warfare and football. I learned early in life that no matter how well prepared our team may have been on the practice field, or in the gym, our opponents were doing the same thing. Planning to defeat us, and putting in time at the gym to out-muscle us on the field. They made adjustments to their game plan on every series, and went to the locker room at halftime to refine their gameplans. Success was defined by who could stay one-step ahead in this first exposure to an OODA Loop. In a similar plane, understanding that adversaries adapt leads to the wisdom of never underestimating an opponent.

Enemies adapt just as we do

Enemies adapt just as we do

There is a life after football, there is a life after the military

As an 18 year-old young man, my football career reached its zenith. On a cold November night, the Nassau County Finals game clock approached zero, and we were on the losing side of a 31–0 blowout. After ten years of playing ball this was the last time I put on pads to participate in an organized football game. I knew this fact as the clock ticked to zero in the fourth quarter, and I teared up on the sideline. I was not the only one in this category. Our team had a couple players that would play some ball in junior college, division III and one player in division I. Nobody made it to the NFL, and within 4 years, all my peers were out of football. As adults, some have moved on into coaching, but nobody is putting on the pads Saturday mornings. To this day, I still play tennis, and I compete in men’s league hockey at the local rink. I hope to continue these for many years to come. Football however is a young man’s game. I believe this experience, prepared me for the inevitable conclusion to my military career sometime in the future. As I pass though my 17th year on active duty, the reality sets in that there will be a life after the Army. I'll probably tear up in my retirement speech, just as I have witnessed scores of others do during their time at the podium. It will be emotional, but it happens to everyone, from those who leave after their initial 4-year enlistment, to flag officers who retire after 30 years in service.

Reviewing Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations

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In January of 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promulgated Joint Publication 3-0. This was approximately five months prior to the release of Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning. At a minimum, Joint Planners look to two points of doctrine, JP 30, and JP 5-0. To compliment my review of JP 5-0, here is my review of Joint Operations doctrine.

What’s Right

Few things rate as high to a staff as the commander’s intent. In previous joint doctrine, there was little direction on what a commander should include within his stated intent. The latest edition of Joint Operations mandates that commander’s intent “includes the purpose, endstate, and associated risks. While these remain a minimum of content within the commander’s intent, it is paramount for staffs and subordinate commands to have this direction to conduct planning. Further, a well-crafted intent enables a semblance of mission command, where subordinates have an ample amount of direction to operate in the chaotic conditions of combat.

Inclusion of the Electromagnetic Spectrum as a part of the “Information Environment” as well as a section on Command and Control of Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (JEMSO) are welcome additions. These changes are a direct result of the heavy conceptual lifting during the writing and publication of the Joint Concept for Electromagnetic Operations in 2015. This is a recognition that we must integrate EMS operations with Information Operations (IO) and cyberspace operations to account for future operations in what has been labeled “the fifth battlefield”.[i] The EMS is no longer a free-access medium. It is a battlespace where forcible entry and maneuver warfare are required to support operations in the other physical domains. By establishing the EMS as a within joint doctrine for operations, the joint force demands commanders and staffs plan for and execute spectrum operations.

Previous joint doctrine included broad discussions on Strategic Communications and their subsequent Communications Strategy. Ove the past six or seven years, there was broad pushback against this terminology. The new JP 3-0 changes to the term and definition to Commander’s Communication Synchronization (CCS). The new definition narrows the purpose of CCS, and focuses the wide array of communication forms (messages, plans, programs, products, and actions) for the commander, as directs joint commanders to synchronize their communications with other instruments of national power. This is a prudent update, but as I discuss later, should have gone further. 

Finally, the inclusion of global strike as a key consideration under joint fires (pg III-31) aligns with current practices of each combatant command. Indeed, most combatant command staffs employ global strike planners with dedicated planning resources. The discussion in JP 3-0 is short, but this mission does not occur within every joint command. It was prudent to include this discussion and recognize the need for this capability. 

Joint Strike sends a message. We should understand what message national leadership wishes to convey before we execute these types of missions

Joint Strike sends a message. We should understand what message national leadership wishes to convey before we execute these types of missions

What’s Wrong

Although I praise the change from Strategic Communication to Communications Strategy, how joint staffs consider messaging in the formulations of strategy, plans, and operations remains inadequate. Indeed, most joint staffs have a couple experts working on themes and messages, which eventually translate to an Annex Y of an operations order. We need to flip this paradigm, present what message strategic leaders wish to convey to ourselves, our allies, and our adversaries, and then proceed to develop options or courses of action that align with said messages. For example, a commander’s intent could include the messages he or she wishes to send to an adversary, thus enabling his or her staff to develop multiple options in line with those messages. We all laughed at the kids majoring in communications back in college, but now as a senior officer and experienced joint planner, I realize communications is life’s most important skill. The joint force can do better in this respect.

Within joint planning, the development of options for commanders and policy makers is the best place to lead off with the intended message. Each specific option within DIME, be it in the development and execution of Flexible Deterrent Options (FDOs) and Flexible Response Options (FROs) relays a message to the homeland, to allies and partners, and to our enemies and adversaries. Insteadd of developing a message to corrospond to an option, or course of action, we should look to form options and courses of action to desired messages. 

Throughout the revised Joint Publication 3-0, there is discussion on phases. The new Joint Operations doctrine describes in detail multiple types of missions, from Stability Operations and DSCA to FHA, NEO, COIN, Global Strike and Large Scale Combat Operations. There are diagrams that seem to break some of these operations into phases according to the old 6-phase model. However, the revision of JP 3-0 does not label each phase. Moreover when discussing the balance of Offense, Defense, and Stability Activities, the diagram reverts to the previous 6 phases of joint operations model. The way in which JP 3-0 lays out these activities does not line up with the re-write of JP 5-0, which left out the phasing diagrams. This could create confusion for joint planners looking to reference doctrine.  

Phasing Construct Depicted in JP 3-0 (pg V=8), this is completely removed in JP 5-0               I foresee many arguments in joint planning staffs on the "proper way" to phase an operation

Phasing Construct Depicted in JP 3-0 (pg V=8), this is completely removed in JP 5-0             I foresee many arguments in joint planning staffs on the "proper way" to phase an operation

A well thought out Operational Approach is one of the best forms of communication from one level of command to another. When the commander and staff put time and effort into an operational approach at the onset of planning, the rest of the Joint Planning Process flows downhill. Unfortunately, the revision of JP 3-0 has one paragraph dedicated to the operational approach, with little description of its elements. An effective operations approach should include the problem statement, current conditions, Lines of Effort (LOEs) or Lines of Operation (LOOs), an endstate, along with decisive points, decision points, and possibly objectives and effects. Indeed, these elements should go into the initial operational approach, which is then updated throughout each step of the Joint Planning Process.    


The revision of JP 3-0 is a welcome addition to the family of joint doctrine. The updates are timely, and reflective of current practices at Combatant Commands and other joint staffs. 

[i] J. P. London, "The New Wave of Warfare -- Battling to Dominate the Electromagnetic Spectrum," Journal of Electronic Defense 38, no. 9 (09, 2015), 68-76.       

Reviewing Joint Publication 5-0

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On 16 June 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promulgated Joint Publication 5-0. This joint doctrine update was six years in the making, and reflect both lessons learned and new paradigms of planning and operating joint forces. Here are my thoughts on the latest in joint planning.

What’s Right     

The updated version of Joint Publication 5-0 has a multitude of changes that planners operating at the Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, Joint Task Forces, and other joint commands should understand. Some are simple, and do not require detailed discussion such as the name change from “Joint Operational Planning Process” to “Joint Planning Process.” Some of the more significant concepts in the joint planning doctrine update include the expansion on the discussion of risk, the expansion on the discussion of assessments, and the addition of an appendix on red teams. These changes and additions reflect the joint planning community’s ability to learn, reflect, and adopt some of the best practices taking place in the joint force.

Few things are as powerful to a commander as an effective Red Team. Employed properly, a Red Team will challenge the assumptions of a commander and his or her staff. Effective Red Teams do not kill the plan, rather they help the commander and staff identify weaknesses and holes in a plan, thus making said plan stronger. The discussion of Red Teams begins on Page IV-3, where there is a discussion on the role and actions of Red Teams in planning. This short discussion expands into Appendix K of Joint Publication 5-0 “Red Teams.” Within the Red Teams appendix, there is a detailed description on the role of the Red Team in each step of the Joint Planning Process. There are a limited number of dedicated Red Team personnel throughout the joint force; the Red Team Appendix recognizes this force limitation, recommending that Joint Commanders prioritize Red Team Support.

                In Chapter III, Strategy and Campaign Development, the 2017 version of JP 5-0 expands the discussion of risk. With this updated doctrine, there is a requirement for Combatant Commanders to assess strategic risk, combine it with the military or operational risk, and include an assessment of the two in Commander’s estimates and in the Annual Joint Assessment (AJA). Paramount to understanding the discussion of strategic risk is the directed timeframes. According to the 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0 “For strategic risk, CCDRs identify the probability and consequence of near (0-2 years) and mid-term (3-7 years) strategic events or crises that could harm US national interests, and they identify the impacts of long-term (8-20 years) trends and future adversary capabilities.”  This is an astounding aspect, as historically, Combatant Commands rarely looked past the 5-year timeframe of POM[i] Cycles, leaving it to the services to think about the mid to long term future.  

                Since General McCrystal delivered the standard three courses of Action to President Obama, Combatant Commanders have been providing a menu of options for the execution of various plans. The 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0 recognizes this aspect of planning, and formalizes that Combatant Commanders “provide multiple options to the civilian and military leadership so they can better understand how their decisions (to include timing of those decisions) can impact an operation.” Th recognition that the purpose of Joint Planning is to provide civilian leadership with military options to exercise in conjunction with other elements of national power provides clarity to what men and women working in windowless rooms sacrifice their time and energy for.

                As a plan moves from a concept and into execution, an assessment of said plan is critical. The assessment process is not new to joint planning; however, the updated doctrine on joint planning expands and updates the discussion. Indeed, similar to joint targeting, strategy, plans, operations, and assessments operate in cycles. Joint force commanders and their respective planners must understand how actions positively or negatively affect movement towards an objective or end state. Effective assessments ensure joint force commanders can adjust plans as operations unfold. The expanded discussion and emphasis on assessments is another welcome addition to our joint doctrine.

What’s Wrong

The 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0 removes “deliberate” and “crisis action” planning terms. The theory behind this change is that both “crisis action” and “deliberate” planning use the same processes. In my opinion, this is wrong. Any planner who has spent time in a Combatant Command J35 or J5P Division can tell you that “crisis action” and “deliberate” planning both use the seven steps of JPP, but that is where the similarity ends. Historically, crisis action planning occurred within a time-constrained environment while deliberate planning took place over an extended timeframe, often spread out over the course of two years.  Moreover, in crisis action planning, various planning products from the Pinnacle OPREP 3 to the Commander’s Estimate, through publication of Execution Orders took place over the course of days and weeks.

The 6-Phase Model  Rather than limiting creativity, is brought clarity and a common language to joint planning across the plans community. 

The 6-Phase Model  Rather than limiting creativity, is brought clarity and a common language to joint planning across the plans community. 

                The constant of every Combatant Command numbered plan is the 6-phase planning model. Over the past couple decades, the 6 phases of joint operations has served as a common reference point, or terminology for joint planners. Indeed, when any planner or commander speaks about Phase III, other planners instinctively understand what part of an operation the discussion is centered on. The 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0 maintains a detailed discussion on phasing, the purposes of phases and transition between phases to name just a few. However, this updated doctrine removes the 6-phase planning model. The removal of the 6-phase model is a mistake. This will lead to various Combatant Commands and other Joint Forces developing their own phasing construct. Doctrine provides a common language, and veering away from a common phasing model creates an unnecessary risk to the joint force.


                The 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0 is a welcome and much needed update for joint planners across the force. The addition of an appendix on Red Teaming should provide a powerful tool to enhance contingency plans. Further, recognizing the difference between strategic and operational risk is paramount to get planners to look up and out, in lieu of down and in. On the downside, the elimination of the six-phase model has the potential to generate risk in coordinating and synchronizing global operations.


[i] POM: Program Objective Memoranda; the resource allocation decisions of the Military Department in response to, and in accordance with, the Guidance for Development of the Force (GDF) and Defense Planning Guidance