Perry Says Military Needs Bold, Daring Leaders
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 1996 Zero defects. It's a mindset, an attitude, a climate or an environment. It means make no mistakes, don't question decisions and, at all costs, don't be the bearer of bad news.
According to a 1995 Army survey of 24,000 soldiers, when a "zero defects" mentality exists in a command, telling the truth ends careers quicker than making stupid mistakes or getting caught doing something wrong.
This type of a command climate should not exist in the military, according to Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
"A successful military leader will have a certain amount of daring in his character," Perry said during a recent interview. "We should find ways of encouraging that daring instead of stomping on a person every time his daring has led him to a mistake."
Fortunately, the military continues to attract bold people, Perry said, and "it's that boldness which leads to the most successful war fighters that we have."
Expecting zero defects leads to failure, Army Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, commander in chief, U.S. Central Command, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "While the American people have every right to demand competence, character and leadership from our military commanders, they should not expect zero defects," he said.
"Demanding such a rigid standard produces timid leaders afraid to make tough decisions in crisis, unwilling to take the risks necessary for success in military operations," Peay said. "This zero defects mindset creates conditions that will lead inevitably to failure in battle and even higher casualties."
Perry, Peay and Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate committee July 9 to answer questions about the terrorist attack at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Perry said Peay made a very important point during the hearing.
"The American people should not expect zero defects from the missions American forces conduct, not just deployed overseas but also training in the United States," he said. "As they conduct these missions, particularly if they're operating at the edge of the envelope, on occasion, there will be errors. They will make mistakes."
Perry said when he evaluates commanders, he looks at their leadership, character, courage and confidence, not whether they've ever made any errors. Errors are lessons to learn from, Perry said.
"We have airplane crashes every month, in fact every week, for example," Perry said. "We study and we learn from every one of these crashes. As a consequence of what we've learned, we have had a truly amazing reduction in the accident rate over the last 10 to 20 years."
Good leaders learn from mistakes and incorporate what they've learned in their training. They teach their people to do better, he said.
Stifled initiative, micromanagement, lack of trust in subordinates -- these are reported symptoms of a zero defects climate. According to Perry, these symptoms are the exact opposite of effective leadership skills.
"A good commander will use his initiative and all of the resources available to carry out his mission," Perry said. "We judge how good a commander is by his ingenuity and his tenacity in overcoming obstacles to carrying out a mission. We place a very high premium on initiative."
Commanders should not be afraid to ask for help, Perry said. If commanders judge they cannot carry out their mission due to a lack of resources or political constraints, they have a responsibility to notify the chain of command they cannot carry out their mission, he said.
"Ultimately, [the request for help] can come up to me as secretary of defense, and then I have the responsibility of either providing those resources or providing the assistance to overcome political barriers," Perry said. "If I can't allocate the resources or overcome the political barriers, I will tell him he is not to try to do that mission. I will change the mission to one that can be accomplished with the resources allocated and within the political parameters agreed upon."