Former Centcom commander advises IT sector on leadership

WASHINGTON -- On Sept. 7, 2001, Gen. Tommy Franks gathered his intelligence staff at the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to advise them on what he thought were the major threats facing America throughout the regions of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Relying on his nearly 40 years of service, including combat in Vietnam, Franks discussed the complexities of an area spanning 25 countries, dozens of religions and half a billion people.

When he finished, a young sergeant and asked, "General, what keeps you up at night?"

"The thought of one tower of the World Trade Center collapsing into the other tower, killing thousands of people," Franks responded.

Four days later, on Sept. 11, something eerily close to that happened. And while the thought of the words that fell from his lips still haunts him, that episode is now the basis of simple advice that Franks offered yesterday to a gathering of IT executives who are trying to deal with an unprecedented level of change and uncertainty: "Expect to be surprised," said Franks.

Speaking at the Networked Economy Summit, sponsored by the National Center for Technology and Law at George Mason University, the now retired Franks implored IT executives to "ask yourself what would you have thought on Sept. 12, 2001" when faced with critical decisions about security and staying the course on security projects.

"And when you make decisions, back up those decisions by recognizing that the next surprise the network sees and the next surprise the nation sees will not have been a surprise if we could have counted on it," said Franks. "Expect to be surprised. It's the new way of business in a global economy."

Dealing with change and ensuring effective management and leadership is about recognizing and understanding the "givens and the variables" in any situation, said Franks. "As we think our way through what we're going to do to restore faith or perhaps to build faith in networks, it's probably better to keep those things in mind."

Tough lessons

Franks learned the difference between leadership and management during his nearly four decades of military service.
"Leading is like managing, only the employees have to like it," said Franks. And although leadership traits can be learned over time, one of the most immediate requirements for all leaders is to establish credibility with those who are not leaders, he says. And that is accomplished not only through demonstrating proficiency at one's job, but sometimes through the implementation of other leadership traits, such as loyalty, respect, a willingness to take responsibility and acknowledging that simply because you're in charge doesn't mean that you know everything that is going on in your organization.
As a young lieutenant in Vietnam, Franks served as a forward observer responsible for calling in artillery strikes on enemy targets. After one such operation, Franks was left to look after the troops while his commander visited Australia on leave. Meanwhile, Army investigators arrived and began asking Franks questions about why certain targets had been destroyed.
Word soon reached Franks' commander -- a captain -- that the young lieutenant was being grilled by a three-star general as they walked through the location of one of the recent artillery strikes near Saigon.

"Then, all of a sudden, from the shadows, [the captain] appeared and walked between me and the three-star general," recalled Franks. "He said, 'Sir, your questions are the right questions, but the only problem is that you're asking them of the wrong person. I'm the commander of this lieutenant, and if there have been errors committed here, it's my fault.' "
For Franks, this was a lesson in the importance of taking responsibility. But in addition, "it was on that day that I learned a little something about loyalty," said Franks. "I learned about loyalty not only to the institution and the boss but to the people who serve within the institution."


By the time Franks pinned on his captain's bars, it was the mid-1970s and the U.S. Army was in what was perhaps its worst state of readiness since the American Revolution. Drug use was rampant and morale was at an all-time low -- even for some of the frontline units based in Germany, where Franks was in command of his own company of soldiers in the midst of the Cold War.
It was as a company commander in Germany that Franks said he learned both the importance of showing respect for subordinates and realizing that as a manager in charge of an organization, you don't always have all of the facts.
One day, senior noncommissioned officers sent a young soldier to Franks' office. The trooper had been accused of having a bad attitude and not living up to his responsibilities as a soldier.
"I gave him the lecture of my life," recalled Franks.
But when Franks finished, the private requested permission to describe his situation as he saw it. Franks let him proceed.
"When my grandmother died in New York six months ago and I went to your subordinates and asked if I could go home to see my grandmother who raised me and my little brother, your subordinates told me that we were too busy and that I could not be released," the soldier said.

"That is very sad," said Franks.
"And about two months ago, when my little brother was killed on the streets of New York because he no longer had my grandmother to look after him and I wasn't there to do it, I also went to your subordinates and asked if I could go to my little brother's funeral. I was told we were too busy and that there wasn't enough time. So, Captain, with all due respect, you can take the United States Army, you can take this unit, yourself and your pride, and you can put it in a warm place where the sun never shines, sir."
It was on that day, recalled Franks, "that I learned that even when one is in charge he or she doesn't necessarily know everything." In addition, Franks learned the need to show respect for people in order to get the best out of them. "This is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T," said Franks. "Have some appreciation for the feelings of those immediately around you. No one appreciates anything more than respect."

No plan is perfect

On Dec. 28, 2001, President George W. Bush invited Franks to to his Crawford, Texas, ranch for what Franks initially thought would be a social call and an opportunity for the president to size up the general to determine if he should be kept in charge of Central Command. The meeting turned out to be the first briefing given by Franks to the president on potential military operations in Iraq.
"The plan that I showed the president was one that we had for a long time," Franks recalled. "It was [basically] the 1990 plan," a massive logistical undertaking that had been used during the first Gulf War.
At the end of Franks' presentation, the president asked the general what he thought of the plan.
"I don't like it, Mr. President," responded Franks.
So what are you going to do about it? the president demanded.
"Mr. President, I'm going to go work on a different plan."

Eventually, Franks delivered to Bush what he described as "the other book end" to the existing plan. "It was a little-bitty plan with 30,000 people, a lot of bombs, precision, air power and not a lot of troops on the ground," he said.
Not surprisingly, the president repeated the same question he had after the Dec. 28 meeting. What do you think of the plan? asked Bush.
"I don't like it, Mr. President," responded Franks.
It was at that point that Franks and Bush started a process that Franks urges all leaders to master: charting the pathway between what he calls "givens and variables."
"The answer is iteration," said Franks. "Ask questions.
"We settled on a plan that looked to all of us like it had the greatest opportunity for success at the least possible cost. And that's the one that you saw unfold on March 19. A perfect plan? Of course not."

Need for standards

The brilliant aspect of the military operation in Iraq was not the plan, but the execution of the plan by those responsible for carrying it out, said Franks. "People ought to be given jobs in accordance with their ability to execute to standard," said Franks.
And when asked by Computerworld about how his philosophy on staffing applies to the thorny issue of IT outsourcing and the security implications of offshore software development, Franks said his views are unchanged.
"I'm not as concerned about who does the work as I am about the standards used to screen it," said Franks. "I believe we have the best technologies in the world. I'd like to be in the business of putting the screening framework in place that ensures whatever technologies for homeland security are deployed passes tests at a standard that will guarantee me as a taxpayer that I'm going to be [protected by] it."
And while he acknowledged that developing such a standard might be a tall order, there is hope, said Franks. "We need to focus on what it is we're trying to do," he said -- another core mandate of Franks' leadership advice. "After all, if we can solve the problem of spam, we can do damn near anything."


Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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