Wondering Where The Lions Are/Putting Leadership Back into Strategy: Chapter 1

By J. William DeMarco

DeM Banter:  For those tracking with the last 4 weeks–we’ve resisted a strategy and leadership paper I worked on in 2008.  In typical DeMarco fashion–we are posting the first chapter last.  

Chapter 1

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” –Sun Tzu

Where there is no vision, the people perish – Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States of America became the most powerful nation on the planet—and one of the most powerful nations in human history. Yet nearly two decades later, the United States has failed to develop a strategy reflecting its new position. The collapse of the Soviet Union set off a massive shift in the tectonic plates of international politics. American policy brokers have yet to fully appreciate this fundamental change in the distribution of power. As such, the nation routinely confuses preferences with priorities—America exists in a state of true strategic ambiguity.

Over a half-decade of blue-ribbon panels, think-tank research, and expert commentary have made it quite clear—since the end of the Cold War, the nation has had no grand strategy.1 Why not? In his controversial article “A Failure of Generalship,” US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling blames debacles such as the U.S. loss in Vietnam and our current crisis in Iraq on a failure of “an entire institution: America’s general officer corps.”2 Yingling further states, “American generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for the war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy.” 3

Iraq and Vietnam are merely operational symptoms of a much greater issue: not a failure US generals, but a failure of vision, imagination, audacity and of strategy provided from the highest levels of the US government as a whole. The current presidential administration in not the culprit here. Instead, America confronts a strategic break down in processes over a period of decades and Presidential administrations.

History clearly illustrates –no sole superpower or empire has existed very long before a nation-state or a coalition of states has arisen to defeat it. Rome, England, Spain, and France—all have had a fleeting time as a lone superpower. America is at a crossroads: it may find itself on the scrap heap of empire, or global civilization may conclude war is so dangerous and destructive that no nation can rise to counter American power. US leadership must deliberate each path with thoughtful consideration of the nation’s newly acquired position of dominant influence and visualize its global standing over the next 10 to 20 years.


The best way forward is often a look back. Today’s security strategy policymakers must examine lessons from the early days of America’s last generational struggle: the Cold War. History offers today’s strategic leaders insights as the country faces yet another generational conflict. America simultaneously confronts a global conflict, a presidential election, a generational change in senior military leadership, and emerging threats from other nations that might not share US interests. Strategic planning serves to synergize all of these agents of change. A cohesive strategy can propel the nation forward to yet unfathomed greatness–yet it requires, vision, and a clear path for future generations to aspire to.

The United States can ill afford to suffer another “lack of imagination.”4 In navigating these change agents, a roadmap is offered. First; the journey begins with the transition from the Truman to Eisenhower administrations—examining how the latter leveraged his successor’s triumphs while minimizing his shortcomings to bring forth the concepts of strategy that endured almost four decades. Second; leaders must grapple with the processes modern elected officials utilize in developing strategy today. Finally; if a leader unleashed his/her imagination and gathered the best and brightest from US government, military, academic, and the business world, what would American National Security Strategy look like? America deserves a quantum leap strategy looking beyond the current situation the nation now faces–what would the U.S. want the global landscape to look like in twenty years? These questions and dialog begin in the final chapter and attempt that quantum leap forward. Today’s leaders must embrace a vision now; start planning, learning from the past while visualizing the world of tomorrow.

The Making of Strategy:

In 1948 George Kennan defined national security as “the continued ability of the country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers.”5 National Security Strategy is defined as the art and science of developing, applying, and coordinating the instruments of national power (diplomatic, economic, military, and informational) to achieve objectives that contribute to national security. At times it is also referred to as national strategy or grand strategy.6 The definition sounds simple and as a science perhaps it is, but the art is the true puzzle. Leadership must develop a resonating vision, communicate those ideas, let the various instruments of power further develop the strategy inside of their perspective bureaucracies, and finally vet the concepts through the congress.

A strategy development process does exist, but it amounts to nothing without powerful leaders behind it. Some argue that every well-defined National Security Strategy is developed in response to a crisis. Crisis provides the incentive that demands not only strong leadership, but also imagination and a clearly communicated vision echoed throughout the US Government and people. Obviously with a bureaucratic government, politics are an enormous factor. This demands succinct leadership—leaders that place the greater good of the nation above personal power. In today’s political battlefields, political cooperation sounds close to impossible. People of goodwill and intelligence must place national interests above selfish personal ambition, political, or even organizational concerns if they are to serve America well with a coherent and appropriate strategy. Such efforts demand leaders with strong convictions, imagination and audacity, cut from a different fabric than that of the average person—A lion.

Lions & Leaders:

Stellar leaders throughout history earn the moniker of lion. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan–names echoing in the halls of greatness and considered among the lions. Lions enjoy depiction in culture as strong and noble. Commonly represented as “king of the beasts”; the lion is a popular symbol of royalty and stateliness, as well as a symbol of bravery. “Lion” served as a nickname for medieval warrior rulers with a reputations for bravery, such as Richard I of England, or Richard the Lionheart,

Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Robert III of Flanders nicknamed “The Lion of Flanders” – a major Flemish national hero up to the present. William Manchester refers to Winston Churchill as “The Last Lion” in his 1988 book. In Christian tradition, the lion is often assumed to represent Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah—by Christian faith the quintessential leader.

A few years ago I came across a song “Wondering Where the Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn.7 The song may not define strategic leadership, but it did cause me to wonder, as I look around our political, military and diplomatic leadership… where are the lions?

The United States possesses the largest military, economic, and diplomatic capacity in the world–the metaphoric lion…in the global jungle. Yet, as Michèle A. Flournoy notes, “For a country that continues to enjoy an unrivalled global position, it is both remarkable and disturbing that the United States has no truly effective strategic planning process for national security.”8 Of course the world has changed in a highly accelerated manner during the last half century. The Cold War was metaphorically a deadly game of checkers, but in today’s world of globalization, radical religious ideology, and a 24 hour hyper-media—America is engaged in a four dimensional chess game, where moves against one’s opponents are sometimes made while glancing backwards into a mirror.

Which strategic direction the U.S. should adopt is the topic of many articles, augmented with a myriad of leadership books du jour filling the shelves at any bookstore or library. Where do leadership and the ability to visualize strategy come together? American democracy, by design, creates a bureaucratic road block of party politics in the creation of strategy. A leader who produces an unpopular strategic vision faces consequences in the polls and in the next election. Politicians tend to enslave themselves to polls; as such strategy can not be made in a democracy unless all parties agree on it. Hardly! Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower formulated strategies that lasted beyond their terms in office and were not popular with congress or, at times, their own political parties. Yet these lions achieved long lasting effects and advanced peace on earth due in part to their strategies.

This lion’s vocation is threefold. First, domestically—develop ideas, forming a vision that further coalesces into strategy. Next, gather, discuss, debate, dialog with others in the bureaucratic arena to ferment the best ideas and bring them onto the global stage. Finally, internationally—these same leaders must take that coherent strategy, and guide and direct these ideas through the jungle of bureaucracy in the world’s capitals.

There are three capabilities or concepts a strategic leader must posses to attract these domestic and international leaders. First a vision–the ability to articulate an inspiring picture of the future—powerful speeches are important, but anyone can produce a wish list. The political seasons of big elections make this extremely evident. Effective visions must accurately diagnose the world situation, balancing realism with risk and ideals with capabilities. The second is emotional intelligence, the self-knowledge and discipline that allow leaders to project personal magnetism. Finally, communication enables the leader to inspire both domestic and foreign audiences.9

A lion requires three additional abilities in the implementation of this strategy. Organizational capacity is the leaders ability to manage structures of government to shape and implement policy, including supervising advisors in order to ensure a flow of accurate information regarding the inputs and outputs of decisions. Leaders, who lack organizational skills easily fall prey to the emperor’s trap, hearing only how beautiful are their new clothes. Second: political skill, the art of finding the means to achieve the ends set forth in one’s vision, whether by bargaining, buying or bullying, is crucial and engagement is key. A leader cannot achieve goals just for narrow groups of supporters; he/she must use successes to build political capital with wider circles of followers. Finally, a successful lion needs what theorists of business leadership call “contextual intelligence,” the ability to understand an evolving environment and to match resources with objectives by moving with rather than against the flow of events. Contextual intelligence allows a leader to act on hunches based on informed intuition.10

These concepts are important, but often it takes a crisis or a unique opportunity to free a leader from the constraints of pressure groups, bureaucratic inertia and the status quo. In the case of World War II and the Cold War, a perceived “death sentence” enabled Presidents to blaze new paths in strategy. In the absence of a crisis, even a significant threat may not galvanize public and institutional support for a leader’s strategy or vision.


The crisis of 9/11, at times, seems forgotten. Can the American media-dominated, democratic society, fixated on the short term and the next election—not wanting to give up or pay for anything—deal with a silent, slow-motion, long-term challenge that has no painful, palpable symptoms? Or does it require yet another crisis? And a costly crisis it would be.11 In the collective memory of the nation there is significant opportunity, albeit crisis, to propel a transformational vision for the United States through our next president, and this is the leadership challenge of the next US President.

George Kennan, in describing democracies and the roots of World War I, once said:

“But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.”12

As a nation—the U.S. stands at a nexus, six years into this current conflict, very similar to where we stood six years into the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman departed office and handed the Containment Strategy to President Dwight D Eisenhower. Eisenhower took firm hold of those reins, reached across party lines, enabled Truman’s strategy to a much deeper and analytical level and launched the U.S. on a course that lead to eventual Cold War victory. The 1953 Solarium Project illustrates the difficulties associated with crafting long-term policies and today serves as an excellent case study. Containment was not spontaneously created. As policy cycles continue to accelerate and policy timelines are shortened, it is worth remembering that a policy which most textbooks now summarize in two sentences took six years to mature and forty more to implement.13 With the prospect of this long war…it would be wise for policymakers to concentrate their efforts on first designing a comprehensive process for defining and prioritizing America’s long-term objectives, then developing practical policies to achieve those objectives.


1 Nathan Freier, “Primacy without a Plan?,” Parameters, Autumn 2006, pg 5, on line, Internet, 1 December 2007, http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/parameters/06autumn/freier.htm.

2 Paul Yingling, LtCol, US Army, “A Failure In Generalship”, Armed Forces Journal, May 2007, on line internet, 15 August 20007, http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2007/05/2635198.

3 Ibid.

4 9/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, (US Government Printing Office) on line, internet, 2 September 2007, http://www.gpoaccess.gov/911/pdf/fullreport.pdf, 336.

5 George F. Kennan, “Comments on the General Trend of U.S. Foreign Policy,” (George F. Kennan Papers, Princeton University, August 20, 1948) pg 14 , on line, internet, 12 September 2007, http://www.princeton.edu/~ppns/report/FinalReport.pdf.

6 The Free Dictionary.com, on line, internet, 1 October 2007, <a href=”http://www.thefreedictionary.com/national+security+strategy”>national security strategy</a>.

7 Bruce Cockburn, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, 1979 “Wondering Where the Lions Are”.

8 Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn W. Brimley, Security Planning for U.S. National Security, A Project Solarium for the 21st Century, The Princeton Project Papers, pg 1, on line, internet, 15 September, 2007, http://www.princeton.edu/~ppns/papers/interagencyQNSR.pdf.

9 Joseph S. Nye, “Transformational Leadership and U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, July/ August 2006, on line, internet, 4 October 2007, http://fullaccess.foreignaffairs.org/20060701faessay85411/joseph-s-nye- jr/transformational-leadership-and-u-s-grand-strategy.html.

10 Ibid. 

11 Maurice Greenberg, “A Fistful of Dollars”, National Interest, Jul/Aug 2007, 21.

12 Dan Reiter, Allan C Stam, Democracies at War, (Princeton Press, Princeton NJ, 1967) 118.

13 Tyler Notberg, Once and Future Policy Planning: Solarium for Today, (The Eisenhower Institution, Gettysburg College,) on line, internet, 1 November, 2007, http://www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about/living_history/solarium_for_today.dot.

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