Army Wants to Let Troops off the ‘Digital Leash.’ That’s Easier Said Than Done.

U.S. Army

Gen. Mark Milley’s injunction against IT-enabled micromanagement will require leaders at all levels to re-think what it means to be part of the profession of arms.

Troops in future wars will have to think and act independently, especially as adversaries like China, Russia and Iran undercut American technological superiority with cyber warfare, jammers and anti-satellite weapons. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley knows this, which is why he recently castigated Army leaders’ tendency to use sophisticated information technology to micromanage troops.

It’s a noble goal, to be certain. But separating subordinates from the so-called digital leash works against several broad trends.

Historically, every improvement in information technology has led to more centralized and direct control—a phenomenon observed both on the battlefield and in business. Prussian generals griped about constant telegrams from higher headquarters during the 19th century. Ditto for American GIs and radios during the Second World War.

Today, satellite communications and surveillance drones allow so-called tactical generals to bypass several layers of leadership and send orders to individual soldiers on the battlefield.

Some researchers have noticed the same effect in corporate America. A study by Harvard’s Business School found CEOs had become more directly involved in the day-to-day affairs of their businesses between 1986 and 2006—generally coinciding with the introduction of personal computers in the workplace.

Milley recommends leaders accept a certain degree of failure in an attempt to stave off the effects of micromanagement. But that’s easier said than done—in the information age, errors and failures are much more apparent than they were decades ago.

In years past, trucks went without repairs, soldiers missed medical appointments, and some troops may have gone years without taking a physical fitness test without anyone being the wiser. Now, thanks to big data, it seems everyone in the Defense Department bureaucracy knows when a private’s wife forgets to show up for a medical appointment.

Big data is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it helps DOD recognize problems and root out inefficiency. After all, missed medical appointments boost wait times and cost the Pentagon big bucks. But for lower-level leaders, the attention can cause headaches.

It’s physically impossible for a company commander to comply with even half of the training, logistical and other administrative wickets he or she must complete. A recent Army study discovered such commanders are bound by more than 12 pages of regulatory requirements in single-spaced, nine-point font. Big data places many in the ranks on the horns of a dilemma: which requirements must be obeyed and which may fall by the wayside—or worse yet, which ones should they lie about and claim they’ve completed, as one Army study suggests? For the moment, Army leaders have yet to resolve that dilemma.

And though it’s admirable to let subordinate leaders off their “digital leash,” doing so counteracts strong tendencies in American society. Today’s youth has far less autonomy than its predecessors. The leash works both ways: Subordinates can now query their higher headquarters for guidance and instructions at any time and for any reason, whereas in previous years they’d be left to their own devices.

Breaking the digital leash requires leaders at all levels to re-think what it means to be part of the profession of arms. From day one, we’ve been taught we’re soldiers 24 hours a day, seven days a week; indeed, Army life has always involved late-night and weekend phone calls.

But those late-night messages have grown exponentially in the era of smartphones, becoming a bizarre sort of status symbol. And whatever productivity boost those late-night emails may provide must be weighed against the corrosive effect they have on the quality of life for employees. The current Army surgeon general has even spoke out against needless weekend and late-night emails—advice which has largely gone unheeded.

In the 21st century, perhaps the best style of leadership is a benevolent form of “absentee leadership.” Just turn off the phones and let leaders struggle to figure out the solution. That sinking feeling of failure can motivate troops to accomplish amazing things.

It will take strong leadership to break the digital leash—and that’ll have to start at the top.