Parting Wisdom

Pentagon change agent’s legacy sets Defense leaders on a new course.

In one of his final interviews before his death last fall, Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski talked with analyst Daniel Forrester about what makes a transformational leader. The father of network-centric warfare offered some tough marching orders for leaders who want to make a difference-and a surprising way for them to measure their success.

Forrester, director of government services for Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm Sapient Corp., interviewed Cebrowski last April for a white paper titled "The Government's New Breed of Change Agents: Leading the War on Terror," released in March. In the paper, Forrester identified leaders helping to transform government to better fight the war on terror. He asked them about the leadership practices they use and the way they measure success.

He was naturally drawn to Cebrowski, a 37-year Navy veteran who headed up the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation from 2001 through 2005, until cancer forced him to retire. Cebrowski pushed military leaders and civilian Defense Department execs to rethink how they organize the armed forces, arguing for a transformation from an industrial-age, hierarchical military to an information-age, networked force. "Cebrowski's will and vision forced the DoD to look outward and then inward and ask these questions: 'How relevant is the DoD given the new threats we face as a nation?' and 'Where and how much must DoD innovate in order to create a different future?' " Forrester said.

Leaders across government should be asking those questions. The answers that Cebrowski and others at Defense came up with have required massive change in the way Pentagon leaders think and in the way the mili-tary operates. The Pentagon is actually changing its ways as a result of Cebrowski's efforts, such as integrating various military branches' systems and relying more on small, agile units instead of large forces. But to prevent such rethinking from being simply an academic exercise, Cebrowski described to Forrester three key-and unconventional-pieces of advice to leaders:

  • Be bold. "Don't try to do it unless it looks impossible. You have to pick up the things that look really hard. Other people will have done everything else."
  • Be fast. "No transformational leader ever looks back and regrets moving too fast."
  • Be specific. "If you lack specificity, your subordinates will be able to change your message to suit their own purposes."

Also unconventional is Cebrowski's measure of success: a new language. "Network-centric warfare," "self-synchronization" and the many terms that he and others coined to describe the future tactics of the American military were adopted both inside and outside the department. "Language conveys culture," Cebrowski said. "In order to change the culture, you must change language. You cannot expect old language to carry new ideas." Cebrowski said transformational leaders know they're successful when people start using their language-especially the people who are opposed to their ideas.

"His advice to other change agents around inventing new language is a lasting legacy, and the language he invented itself will last until it fades to conventional wisdom," Forrester said.