local action and military intransigence: how to take down don’t-ask-don’t-tell

It’s been seventeen years since Bill Clinton first proposed, and then backed away from, allowing gay and lesbian members of the US military to serve openly.  Since then, 20 of the 26 members of NATO—the US’s closest military and cultural allies—have changed their policies to permit gay men and women to serve.

Organizational theorists spend a good deal of time looking at why organizations adopt new policies and practices.  Conventional wisdom holds that practices either acquire legitimacy and diffuse within an organizational field or organizational leaders calculate costs and the benefits and act accordingly.  But the status of gay people has been normalized both in American society and among western societies broadly for some time now.  Moreover, the costs and benefits have been exhaustively researched and show no downside and strong upside.  Still, the policy stands in place.

This strikes me as the flip side of isomorphism: some organizations actively resist influence of their environment.  Org Theory has long been concerned with the question of organizational inertia.  But inertia is different from intransigence.  Inertia is passive.  Intransigence is defiant.

In the case of the military, the tendency toward intransigence is precisely why the US and other advanced nations hold—fiercely—to the concept of civilian control.  Civilian leadership is invested with unquestioned authority; the military submits to a single “outside” influence.

Yet, civilian control also creates a very strange dynamic.  Bill Clinton, in the first attempt at addressing this issue, learned the pitfalls of taking the concept of “unquestioned” authority too literally.  So did Donald Rumsfeld and his campaign to shift the military away from combat and toward readiness built on the use of high tech weaponry rather than troop deployments.  In both cases, the civilian leadership got tripped up by military intransigence and suffered significant consequences.

Eric Leifer talked about this dynamic (almost literally) when he discussed the challenges that confront a fresh young lieutenant assuming command of a platoon with a seasoned sergeant.  The lieutenant has the formal authority to command.  If he overzealously asserts that authority, the sergeant can easily undermine him.  But the effect goes both ways.  If the lieutenant is careful not to be too overbearing, then the sergeant may overstep which offers the lieutenant the opportunity to assert dominance and claim the respect of the troops.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see this dynamic playing out in the recent back-and-forth between the White House and the Pentagon.  Candidate Obama promised to end the ban.  But President Obama and Secretary Gates have made it clear that they are “proceeding cautiously.”  Opponents of the ban have complained loudly about that.  So the Administration issued a statement assuring activists that discussions were underway.  Then under questioning from the press, the Pentagon spokesman contradicted this, stating that no such conversations were taking place and no change in policy was anticipated.  This, it now seems, was an overstretch.  The White House issued a “clarifying” statement to establish that they do, in fact, plan to proceed.

The serving and volleying across the Potomac over this issue is but a minor blip in an unfolding process of local action between a young President and his seasoned military.  It nevertheless seems to have given the White House a (perhaps temporary) opportunity to assert dominance.  Assuming the goal is to overturn the ban, Leifer’s notion of local action suggests it is the smart way to go about it.

So the Obama administration is right to proceed cautiously.  But not too cautiously.  The military may be intransigent.  But it is also an organization that has benefited greatly from the lessons that Org Theory has to teach.  Its structures and processes have been designed to handle this kind of change.  The Administration has a healthy respect for the amount of time and effort that must go into changing cognitive bases of action.  But the buttering up process has been going on for seventeen years.  The leadership and the rank-and-file seem ready.

The time is ripe and the Administration seems sophisticated enough to handle it.  I, for one, hope so at least.


Written by seansafford

May 22, 2009 at 6:30 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Maybe it’s about time we give Eric Leifer his own category here on orgtheory. The man has to have more influence/published paper than anyone in the field.



    May 22, 2009 at 6:40 pm

  2. An Eric Leifer seminar in our future? Count me in.



    May 22, 2009 at 7:32 pm

  3. Leiferpalooza!!!

    Think he reads these posts?



    May 22, 2009 at 9:14 pm

  4. […] local action and military intransigence: how to take down don’t-ask-don’t-tell « […]


  5. Круто, спасибо! ;)



    May 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm

  6. Right on.


    Safford, Sean

    May 23, 2009 at 9:26 pm

  7. […] This, in fact, seems to be the major objective of their industry structure. Eric Leifer’s (here I go again, another Leifer post) underrated book, Making the Majors: The Transformation of Team Sports in […]


  8. […] Sean Safford on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell […]


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