“In Command and Out of Control:” Sir Graeme Lamb

Introduction by Major (Retired) Jason Criss Howk

Today The Bridge offers some sage advice on leadership and strategic thought that was originally given in the form of a speech in 2010 by Lieutenant General Sir Graeme C.M. Lamb, at a gathering of British senior military and civilian defense leaders convened by the U.K. Vice Chief of Defence. I was LtGen (retired) Lamb’s military assistant at the time it was delivered and always kept a digital copy of it handy over the years as many people still ask him for the text of that speech and he will often ping me for it, (you never really stop being an aide to a General Officer). Graeme always asked me to keep this document close-hold so the tattered paper copy covered with red ink and tabs from me, or my colleagues who borrowed it, is a bit worse for wear. I am glad he has allowed its publication so that you too can find out how basketball, a Harold, mission command, and Clausewitz are connected.

Before jumping into the speech text let me give you some insights into Graeme Lamb’s career as no book or article has been specifically written about him and unless you served in the UK Army you may not have heard of him. He has commanded numerous conventional, airborne, and special forces units in the British military and started his career in 1973 when I was born. General Lamb is also known as Lambo and is a somewhat controversial figure but one that Soldiers like to follow and leaders like to emulate. A few stories will demonstrate how his style of leadership earned the respect of his teams and how he affected the UK Army culture.

  • Lamboisms was a new expression I learned during our year together. The “Chuck Norris facts” were very popular that year so the junior Soldiers had created a few for Sir Graeme because he developed a bit of mystery around himself. My favorite was, “I heard that when General Lamb’s daughter lost her virginity he punched her boyfriend in the face so hard that she got it back.” When I shared that one with his daughters they thought it was great.
  • Every British military member I met during my year at his side was envious of my job and often told me it was going to be the best year of my Army career. They also warned me not to try to exactly imitate Sir Graeme’s techniques as he was a one-off in their service and it would likely ruin me as an Officer in the U.S. Army (I should have listened — nah, glad I didn’t). It should come as no surprise that he often studied three very well-known British military leaders, Field Marshal the Viscount Slim, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, and Admiral Lord Nelson.
  • Sir Graeme was different from other senior officers I have met as he was very…well thrifty with government money. So when we traveled near his home in London on business instead of me paying for a hotel he invited me to stay in their spare room. Likewise when we had to travel to Fort Bragg we avoided hotel fees and he stayed in my home’s spare room. Not that the home-cooking and a chance to see our better halves wasn’t a big draw in both places.
  • A few days before I stopped working as his assistant he was summoned by the British Prime Minister to his Camp David equivalent at Chequers in England. That morning he was supposed to go to the meeting, we found out it was only for principals, he said &#%^ that Jason you’re coming to meet the PM for all the work you have done. So there I stood in a borrowed suit, the only American in the room and the only person below the rank of Ambassador, General, or Minister. I did get to meet the Prime Minister and take a tour of his home before heading back to the U.S. Army for my next assignment. The funniest part was not one person in the room tried to tell Sir Graeme that he couldn’t have his American military assistant with him. That was the type of leader he was known to be: loyal to the core and someone whose methods you just didn’t question if it wasn’t really important.
  • Finally there may, or may not, have been an intra-unit alcohol-fueled brawl at his wedding adding that finest of military traditions to his patient wife’s special day so it will never be forgotten.

In 1996 I wandered the same drop-zones with then-Colonel Lamb when we took part in Joint Forces Operation Exercise Purple Star/Royal Dragon at Fort Bragg where he commanded the 5th Airborne Brigade and I was an Infantry Sergeant leading a fire-team in 2–504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. We wouldn’t formally meet until the late summer of 2009 in Kabul Afghanistan. General McChrystal loaned me from his personal staff to, then-retiring, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb to assist him in forming a new unit. Our mission was to help the Afghan government to design a reintegration, reconciliation, and peace program and then help them gain international support to launch it. You may think that an odd assignment for a retiring British General and a Captain in Foreign Area Officer training but General McChrystal knew what he was doing when he asked Sir Graeme to come to Kabul to build a team on the fly, partner with a yet-to-be named Afghan government official, and to span the globe on diplomatic missions to secure the deal.

General McChrystal had known Sir Graeme since they were Field Grade Special Operations officers in the First Gulf War and had just worked with him a couple years earlier where Sir Graeme was charged by General Petraeus to deal with the Sunni leaders in Anbar Province, Iraq and build the foundation for the Sunni Awakening and set the conditions for the surge. In this endeavor he put his years of expertise in Special Operations and his insights about how “small wars” end to good use. General Lamb, as the Deputy MNF Commander, was the catalyst behind General Casey and later Petraeus moving the campaign towards a counter-insurgency model.

I had a brief one-on-one meeting with General McChrystal one week before Sir Graeme arrived in Kabul to get his guidance on starting the reintegration process and to find out more about my new boss before Graeme got on the ground. His faith in Graeme’s abilities was evident as I only had three lines of notes written on my 3x5 card when I left the room.

  1. Jason get the ball rolling to give him a place to work and start to build a unit for him to advise. You’re going to like working with him.
  2. Graeme gets right to the heart of the problem.
  3. He is very skilled at cutting deals. Good luck.

That type of faith in your subordinate’s understanding of your vision demonstrates the hands-off approach to leadership at the very heart of this speech. Good leaders learn to command through trust and know how far they should try to control events. Sometimes trust can get you in trouble but that is the risk of command.

During our year I watched first hand as Sir Graeme, with no rank or academic degrees to rely on, built a small but powerful joint, interagency, and multinational team (about 50 people at its peak). We started as a two man unit and he skillfully and slowly enlarged the team at just the right moment to deal with the mission needs. I learned that senior leaders need to know when to hire the right type of leader during the lifespan of an organization — the early start-up experts are not the same ones you want to exploit a fully established organization. I watched him outmaneuver diplomats and crush obstacles in the way of mission success with no expression on his face and fire in his heart. He showed me what it was really like to trust your team-mates when some very serious diplomatic and policy fallout was a possible outcome of their actions. Sir Graeme didn’t just talk-the-talk he believed in what he was saying in this speech.

Graeme led troops from the platoon level upwards until he culminated as Commander Field Army. He took part in nearly every British military operation for almost four decades. After retiring from the military, this once Army snowboarding team-mentor, became a trustee of Walking with The Wounded Charity, was selected as Colonel Commandant of the Special Air Services and joined the RUSI Advisory Council. Now alongside his friend General McChrystal he is a senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and he speaks regularly on military and foreign affairs topics. He is also involved in various business organizations; most notably with C5 a UK investment group that shapes technology opportunities with an emphasis on Cyber Security.

Over the years since our adventure in Kabul I have regularly referred to my copy of this speech and often shared it with my fellow leaders and my team-mates when we had discussions about leadership. Today I asked Sir Graeme (right now learning more about American football at Yale) if I could publish his speech so that it can be seen by a larger group of leadership and strategy scholars. He said in his usual way, “why not…this piece resonates with a bit more sophisticated view than the one Stan pulls together in his book Team of Teams.”

I would suggest reading this speech in a Scottish accent and occasionally (by that, I mean a lot) inserting a colourful word or phrase to give it some Lambo flavor — especially the last word. Also a glass or two of scotch can help bridge the Queen’s English to American English language divide — even better if its scotch that you convinced someone else to buy for you.


Photo Credit: Graeme Lamb

My sense of humour.

A bold title — but I would have disappointed myself with anything less.

It is my experience that military operations and the field of battle are governed by three influences — Luck, Opportunity and Unfairness to which I would add — none are easily captured or explained by either the science or the art of war — a point on which we should not be surprised since that rather dull — but at least well quoted Prussian General Carl Phillip Gottfried Von Clausewitz reminded us that war is neither a science nor an art but is a social activity born of an intimate relationship between that Wonderful Trinity of the People, the Armed Forces and our Government — and our actions abroad are never more than an extension of that relationship and always return to that political arena. This is the self-evident but all too often forgotten context in which we the Armed forces march to the sound of gunfire, this is the context where we are asked to right a wrong it is also the context that any networked system must recognise and ultimately compliment; including our applications of command and control.

Command I would suggest is also set in a three way contest that between the Commander, his Commanders (both superior and subordinate) and that of the Command itself and it too — above all else is and will remain a Social Activity. And I am not sure that we get all this — so I would challenge ourselves that we may be guilty — just a touch — of approaching a Networked Enabled Era with less than a clear understanding of the part and place that a technological control network takes up — and the part and place the neural command network occupies — in the complicated business of 21st century campaigning.

In the improv world of theatrics a ‘Harold’, as it is affectionately known, is an unscripted 30 minute play born from a random suggestion. Those thespian’s amongst you will understand exactly what I am getting at but to the unenlightened to watch 8 people on a stage without a script for a safety net creating, not just a play but a great play is at best unsettling, it defies our common operating logic, we seek form but cannot find it and the performance has none of the routine safe guards that we are so comfortable with. On the one hand it flows quickly and effortlessly but on the other appears random and chaotic; the truth of its success lies with the former — for the actors are most serious players they are professional heavy hitters, they reflect upon and debrief in depth after each performance and then rehearse, critic and do it again and again, they train constantly and are ultimately judged by their peers — and a sceptical audience to have succeeded or failed in the uncompromising arena of a public stage. Improv is a social interaction governed by a series of rules, in sport it is a little like basketball a game which draws from, but is not dictated to, by hours of repetitive, extraordinarily dull and structured practise — perfecting the shot, dribbling and passing. And yet the game when played is opportunist, it is about seizing the moment, grasping the initiative it is quick and flows effortlessly and is above all else spontaneous — and spontaneity is not I would offer at all random. How good people’s decisions are under fast moving, high stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of rules and rehearsals. Improv works because of delegated and recognised authorities and the underlying concept agreed by all parties that no idea can be denied, in doing so it creates the conditions for success by putting in place a discipline that allows for and empowers spontaneity. In my book, if you are waiting for direction while looking up rather than at the crisis you are immediately impeding your ability to resolve the situation.

Improv provides a framework for thinking of what to do, rather than how to do it, it provides the framework in which self synchronisation can flourish, it captures the spirit of a plan not the plan itself and is the nearest practical example I can find that encapsulates that illusive and much misunderstood military goal of mission command; and mission command is the neural network that we the military employ at all levels of our decision making process be that Strategic, Operation or Tactical but struggle to engage it with our other Department of State Actors especially at the National level of authority.

We all recognize the term ‘mission command’ and sagely nod when it is mentioned but do we — let alone the other Government Departments of State really understand what it asks of us? It is to paraphrase our military doctrine an approach which aims to balance unity of effort with freedom of action at all levels. It works on trust and mutual understanding between commanders and subordinates throughout the chain of command. The commander’s intent at the highest level well in my book that would be the Prime Minister binds the activities of a dispersed force that would be all the principle Department of States into a whole while maximising his subordinate’s authority the Ministers of State to act in a timely manner using their initiative and creativity. The underlying requirement is the fundamental responsibility to act. It promotes decentralised command, freedom and speed of action. And all of this makes eminent sense to us in the military, which is hardly surprising as it’s our damned doctrine; it becomes, and we recognise it, more difficult to apply in multi-national operations where unity of command is often challenged and national agendas begin to rear their unhelpful and ugly heads but generally it works — well it works for us the military in our relatively simple single dimension uncluttered by other competing authorities sort of problem, a tactical assault — the military phase of an unfolding operation type of stuff, but if you do not embrace its discipline, train and educate your department in its application, understand the authorities that need to be delegated and are prepared to shape your work force around them I would question its utility other than as a compliant language merely ‘talking the talk’ between partners. And my reading of the other Government Departments is that no one seems to want to or be prepared to walk the mission command talk. And yet in spite of this the End States of our campaign adventures invariably look towards political, social and economic outcomes rather than the simplicity of military victory.

The dilemma we face I would suggest is straightforward — only the military really embrace, train and educate our people for mission command and that approach is a direct result of our hard-won military experience which concludes that the nature of conflict and campaigning is one of continuous complexity, uncertainty and friction. And we would go on to imply that like our theatrical ‘improv’ world there is probably not another command system that works as effectively in the chaos model when attempting to deal with the over complex and ‘wicked problems’ that are inherent in modern day campaigning. And campaigning is, as we know the world of cause and effect, a world overlaid with the real ‘Harold’ that is Prime Minister ‘Harold’ Macmillan’s reflection on what drove political life — — ‘events dear boy events’ and one that needs an operating system that can deal with these unintended and intended consequences, a system that is able to deliver the intended effects while synchronising a response for the next game play. To create an effect as we know requires no more than being able to identify and then cluster a group appropriate actions; to deliver a series of responses to a complex campaign, I would suggest requires no more than to lay down an outline approach to the crisis to set out a broad , non-prescriptive operating framework which follows Boney Fuller’s advice that it is the spirit of a plan not the plan itself that matters and then to delegate appropriate and wide ranging Departmental authorities to empowering and trusted individuals who are deployed into the theatre of operations from across Government and who, to borrow a line from our command doctrine understand that their first duty is the responsibility to act — not ask.

This is not how we appear to be doing business today so I would suggest that we might have drifted from our military glossary interpretation of mission command, a term we use far too liberally amongst others that do not understand it while fooling ourselves that it underpins our way of campaigning. In truth I believe at the National Level we find ourselves creeping towards doing something very different, something which I would suggest is more akin to mission control rather than mission command and I am not sure we have recognised the shift and the inertia it creates; emerging technology, the control stuff in my opinion can if not structured to support our doctrine potentially add to this sluggishness by just adding more and faster processes and yet this technology is often held up without too much forethought as a holy grail and a better way of modern warfare. For me the danger lies in misplacing control as the dominant or supported function; if you want to explicitly control a series of broadly predictable actions such as a space shuttle launch that is fine — but be careful for if you go beyond that which can be reasonably predicted and if you throw in a little pressure, an unpredictable human dimension, an unexpected delay, frozen fuel pipes a few unknown facts, a number of interested parties — oh and an overdue deadline forced up against a funding crisis and call it Columbia you might just be surprised when control fails to capture the totality of the over complex problem and disaster ensues.

The late General “Boney” Fuller put out a note in 1933 on the Disease’s of Generalship — it was surprisingly short but what he saw as one of the principle failures of the Great War of 1914–18, during which as a subordinate commander he observed from the trenches was the British High Command becoming increasingly isolated from reality by the false possibilities of explicit control and its precise co-ordination — which in slavishly following that discipline this high Command wasted the greater part of a generation on Flanders fields. So you may have thought my title ‘In Command and out of Control’ therefore no more than an amusing play on words — it is not for it captures exactly what I believe to be the essence of effective campaign command and its bedfellow control and we are forgetting or have forgotten how to do it. More worrying is the fact that we the military have merely assumed and failed to recognise that our best practise does not necessarily read across Whitehall and we — a bit like trying to talk to a German tourist are just shouting louder at our partners in the other Government Departments that they are not complying to our way of working — nor to our plan.

The difficulties of campaigning were not lost on Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke whose War diary captured just how difficult the political military interface is, and if I am any judge of character Alanbrooke was no slouch in the field of Grand Strategy, equally his partner in crime Winston Churchill was no lightweight either, for he had not only fought wars from the trenches in Flanders but also from the back and the front benches of Whitehall — and yet throughout the war they both struggled to deliver the broad direction that this political and military campaign needed. By the mid 1940’s the discourse of war and the dialogue of campaigning between the military the political authority and the other Departments of State, albeit never comfortable was both intimate and comprehensive.

Maybe I am just naïve but I have the impression that we do not get or have forgotten the campaigning idea — I think it was President Eisenhower who said if you have a tough problem enlarge it; I reckon the same applies to a complex one and they have become significantly more complex. General Charles C Krulak in his paper titled the strategic corporal and the 3-Block war in which he described a situation where the armed forces are to quote the good man “confronted by the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and within the space of three adjacent city blocks.” Now Krulak was talking in very specific terms — his concern was that the Cold War focus of major regional warfare failed to take account of what his US Marines were actually required to do and it did not prepare them for the stresses, complexity, uncertainty and dangers they faced. The reality in 1999 when he presented his work was that military operations in the Balkans and Somalia were exceedingly complex, volatile in nature and highly unpredictable on which their outcome hinged often to quote “on decisions made by small unit leaders and by actions taken at the lowest level.” His view was that Marines would have to be better prepared and better supported for the complexity and the new responsibilities which came with this new age conflict.

Today Krulak’s 3-Block War has spread far beyond three adjacent city blocks. Operations in Afghanistan and across Iraq bear witness to this. The scale is just much greater but his model I would contend still holds true if we accept that Block 1 is where war fighting or major combat operations take place, Block 2 is the domain of stability operations, nation-building, counterinsurgency and the messiest, not necessarily the bloodiest, most complex set of problems the soldier, sailor and airman can face, and Block 3 is where the peace can be kept, where it may have to be enforced but, by enlarge, where consent or tolerance rules. And Block 3 offers the untidy but respectable prospect of an interim campaign closure and the return home of our Armed Forces, which will almost certainly always be well short of the intended end state.

So we have the wicked problem of complex campaigns by which those in theatre are exposed to the long media and public scrutiny screwdriver, and whose actions — taken in or out of context — complete the Clausewitzian loop by placing increasing pressure on our political authority to be — and be seen to be controlling events. Blame is randomly played-out in the Kangaroo tabloid and television courts and its stigma costs votes and popularity, which in turn increases the pressure on the political authority to attempt to control those intended and more importantly unintended events that are unfolding in front of them. And all the while the Other Departments of State an essential part in solving the wicked problem don’t — because they do not have the time, training, doctrine and education to match not necessarily duplicate the military way of warfare — mission command. And furthermore this style of command does not necessarily suit their normal working practise which is unable to handle this rapidly changing problem. Unless we capture across Whitehall an agreed way to campaign and all of us remain focused and engaged in that endeavour we will end up in my opinion falling without a parachute by default towards an unstructured doctrine of mission control as the basis for 21st Century campaigning — so for the time being I would suggest we are probably stuffed.

Jason Howk is a retired Army Foreign Area Officer. He holds a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, was a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies. He has worked extensively in Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, Multi-National, and NGO operations and has been involved in international foreign policy and strategy development.

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