In an organization in which … ‘manageR’ is an insult, it is not easy to convince people that defense management is valuable.

We are pleased to announce the publication of Defense Management: Primer for Senior Leaders, by the U.S. Army War College’s Department of Command, Leadership, and Management. (Download the primer here. Listen to a reading of the Preface here.)

Why do we need a primer on defense management?

U.S. military graduates of the Army War College spend much of the rest of their careers dealing with force development and management. A review of 1000 colonels who attended the War College over a five-year span showed that 84% arrived from tactical assignments but only 39% went back to traditional Army units after graduation. What were the other 61% doing?

  • As division chief in a service component command staff, combatant or sub-unified command staff, service staff or secretariat, or joint staff responsible for translating policy into strategy, strategy into programs, or programs into budgets
  • As a subject matter expert or military advisor rendering best military advice to a senior leader in an executive branch department (including Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)) or as a fellow to a national security-oriented civilian body
  • As a senior strategic planner translating strategies into requirements
  • As a program executive officer or other official within a major acquisition program responsible for developing and fielding new capabilities to the force within the boundaries of cost and schedule, or
  • As a division chief or senior team member preparing future doctrine, training, or education, or conducting high-level research into matters of policy and strategy

In other words, most Army War College graduates work in some way as defense managers. The old adage that colonels run the Army is absolutely true, and it applies to all O-6s and GS-13s through 15s. They devote much of their time and energy to developing requirements, participating in councils of colonels or other boards, providing data and information to decision makers, rendering advice to their commanders on upcoming strategic decisions, and spending a lot time in conferences and meetings with counterparts in Washington.

Despite these facts, in an organization in which “warfighter” is a compliment and “manager” is an insult, it is not easy to convince people that defense management is valuable. We have argued elsewhere for the importance of management education in the military. We will not repeat these arguments here. Suffice it to say that the Army War College has struggled to prepare officers to thrive in the strategic management environment that defines most of the work that goes on in the Pentagon.

Before 2010, the War College’s approach to teaching management did not help make the case for its value. In the core curriculum of the U.S. Army War College, Defense Management was long viewed as the unwanted stepchild of professional military education. The course was relegated to the end of the resident program’s core curriculum behind the sexier topics of leadership, theories of war and strategy, national security policy, and warfighting. War College graduates conditioned incoming students that Defense Management (DM) was a class to be endured, not enjoyed. If the phrase “death by PowerPoint” was not coined in Defense Management, its validity was repeatedly tested. Faculty members who were otherwise exceptional facilitators slogged through hundreds of slides displaying intimate details of major processes and systems in the Department of Defense.

Frameworks [like Nate Freier’s STUDY ON defense risk management] are useful for students and practitioners alike. We need more like them.

In the past decade, the Army War College’s Defense Management course has changed significantly, emphasizing a deeper understanding of the purposes of various defense management systems and the tensions inherent in managing those systems. The Defense Management Primer reflects this change.

As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work writes in his Foreword to the Primer, “The United States Department of Defense (DOD) is the largest business enterprise on the planet,” with a mission to “recruit, organize, equip, train, educate, exercise, retain, and maintain a Total Joint Force that is ready and prepared for war.” The Primer helps senior leaders prepare to operate in what Secretary Work calls “the swirling nexus of strategy, policy, operations, programs and budgets. The Primer encourages readers to think of the defense enterprise as a national asset, far greater than the Department of Defense itself. So much of what the military does or plans to do depends on the contributions of other U.S. government agencies, Congress, state governments, the private sector, and the American public. It requires more than mastery of internal systems and processes alone. 

The primer is now available for download on the U.S. Army War College Publications Website. This Primer was piloted with the 2018 resident class primarily to introduce them to the defense enterprise at the national, Department of Defense, joint, and service levels; along with explaining their likely roles as defense managers.

However, this represents only a first step, as this Primer was mainly focused on matters of practice. Theory still needs to be developed. An exemplar of the kind of theory-building needed is a recent War College integrated research project, Nate Freier’s At Our Own Peril that develops an excellent framework for risk assessment in the Department of Defense. Works such as these cannot be left alone in a single monograph but should be incorporated into defense management curricula across Joint Professional Military Education. These sorts of frameworks are useful for students and practitioners alike. We need more like them.

Educating our future defense managers cannot be done effectively with process slides. Not if we expect our military to be run better than it has been.



Tom Galvin is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the U.S. Army War College. Andrew A. Hill is the Chair for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Credit:  U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Dennis, 1st ABCT PAO, 1st Cav. Div.

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  1. Shakespeare’s Juliet spoke the immortal words: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Yet Shakespeare himself crafted memorable names such as Falstaff, Macbeth, Hamlet, Shylock, Othello, Romeo, and the crown jewel name of Juliet. As your article emphasizes, the very words “manager” and “management” have taken on negative connotations. Clearly every word or name has one or more literal meanings (denotations) and gradually evolving associated meanings (connotations). The words “manager” and “leader” have been paired and compared by countless books and articles. The effect has been a gradual elevation of the word “leader” and the seemingly never ending demotion of the word “manager.” Curiously, when we pair “manager” or “management” with a strong partner such as Risk, Strategic, Time, Data, Information, Financial, Systems, Sports, Consequence, or Threat, like pairing a weak dance partner with Fred Astaire, the resulting couple such as Threat Management or Data Manager manages to step out with gusto. Paradoxically, the word pair of “Defense Management” seems to have two left feet.

    Your article introduces the Defense Management Primer. Sadly, the chosen title seems to have three words with negative connotations. Primer seems insulting to readers or potential readers; whereas, Fundamentals, Principles, or Foundations would be stronger partners. One of my pet peeves is the proliferation of book titles such as “Adoption for Dummies” (observed recently at a local library). I would like to read a book called “Calculus for Dummies” or “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for Dummies,” but titles can easily have more thorns than rose buds. Three letter acronyms can also have cache or can be doomed to obsolescence. The MBA degree is possibly the best known academic accolade, but if universities had named the degree MBM (Master’s in Business Management) the degree probably would have been relegated to the wall flower dust bin before gaining incredible momentum.

    Perhaps the Defense Management Primer could be renamed Defense Enterprise Foundations and the image suffering Defense Management course could be reborn as Defense Enterprise Principles with four foundation modules in Diversity, Dynamism, Persistent Dialogue, and Adaptation. At Our Own Peril focuses on Risk Management. Let us mitigate risky word choices.

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