Being a troubled commander

There is no need to search. Everything has already been written, in a clear and straightforward manner. Almost like an instruction manual – you just need to copy and paste. The terrible failure of October 7, 2023 will be investigated by a state commission, yet already experts and consultants propose insights on improving the military system. Endless conclusions and lessons learned will be written regarding the conduct of senior officials in order to prevent the next failure.

But as I said, everything has already been written.

The Shamgar Commission report which investigated the Kishon Diving Affair and submitted its conclusions in April 2003 stated: “We are facing a general phenomenon of a mental barrier in understanding the situation all along the line, and a lack of risk assessment of the risks that arose and required active intervention as opposed to routine. […] Closing one’s eyes, stemming from shortsightedness, illogic, or overblown self-confidence in the face of the nature and essence of the risk, and the passiveness of non-response to everything that constituted a clear warning and failure to draw the necessary conclusions, are a failure of the command and professional elements at all levels.”

It’s as if the conclusions were written by the future state commission investigating the current failure.

For decades, the special unit’s training occurred in the Kishon River, which was an industrial waste. The committee wondered how no commanders or doctors accompanying the dives raised concerns; how nobody put “one and one together” and asked such an obvious and straightforward question – is it not dangerous to continue training amidst chemical and biological waste?

One is compelled to ponder, how did such organizational blindness to the risks arise among those whose duties should have led them to foresee, think ahead, be alert, ask questions and raise doubts. This question disturbed many of us, because this is about the IDF, an organization guided by an ethical code that attaches tremendous importance to the sanctity of human life.

“The things were constantly in front of our eyes, but we didn’t see,”  explained the   Navy commander. “I think we had a certain mental fixation, [admitted UMI Commander  (the unit for underwater missions], although physically, it is impossible that whoever dived there did not sense the smell and did not see the mud and oil floating on the surface of the water.”

Organizational blindness and a mental barrier to understanding the risks are still present in the system.

The articles in the various media channels reveal the failures that led to the October 2023 disaster: failure to pay professional and in-depth attention to the warnings of the frontline observers; disdain in the face of warning signs they placed in front of the senior command and severe deficiencies in the flow of information and data analysis, which intensified the dimensions of the disaster.

[…]” A military framework needs to be informed in order to understand that it is impossible to deal with reality without examination, without drawing professional conclusions and without reference to reality.” The duty to equip oneself with the professional knowledge and skills required to carry out the job and to constantly show involvement, initiative, diligence, and caution, is defined in the IDF Code of Ethics. This duty rests first and foremost with the commanders, especially on the senior ranks, who were appointed to their positions based on their experience and skills. Their responsibility is to see the big picture, analyze  it from all angles, and reach the right conclusions.

Professionalism” and “responsibility” imply making decisions not solely based on the conception we have formed for ourselves, nor relying primarily on perceptions, personal interpretations, and past experience, but always acting based on systematic, in-depth, and up-to-date knowledge and in accordance with the organizational values. Examining perceptions and norms regarding their roles and tasks, and identifying discrepancies between the declared and the actual, may assist decision-makers in identifying ethical deviations and professionalism norms, and lead to the required changes in operational routines.

As with other systems, the military organization  is prone to conservatism, fixation, and adherence to concepts. Organizational blindness, as we have learned from the  inquiry’s commissions, is  also found among good commanders.

From now on the question is how the military system can produce skills of thinking outside the box

First and foremost, attention must be paid to the organizational and situational contexts that may lead to rationalization and/or motivation for lack of vigilance, for not casting doubts. The system should be aware that positions and perceptions often turn into professional opinions over time and then define the nature of “truth” and “reality” in the organization, even if they are not based on objective data. It is important to realize that working in  fixed patterns and according to  specialization might  reduce vigilance, even for things right in front of us.

Practically, it means allowing your subordinates to challenge paradigms and assumptions. Asking “why?” every morning, rather than settling for the answer, “But that’s how we always do it,” nor for the answer, “If this is our practice for so long, it’s probably correct.” To this Chief of Staff Kochavi said that being a troubled commander is the opposite of a smug and contented commander.

Troubled commanders are those who check what is not yet final, what is not yet compatible, what was not understood correctly and what could be further improved. In short, commanders who don’t fall in love with what they do. It is also possible to demand that at the end of  day each of the commanders ask  some simple and seemingly trivial questions: Did I carry out my tasks today in an ethical and professional manner? What message did I convey to my subordinates? Do my choices and decisions reflect the values of the IDF spirit? In the complex and dynamic reality in which the commanders operate, the requirement to look in the mirror as a norm and ask questions about what is right and appropriate to do, is challenging. Some would argue that it is illogical and not feasible. But there is no other way.

Organizational blindness is not a natural disaster but a human-made eclipse. Refining the system and changing paradigms will take time. But we can and should start tomorrow morning being alert, attentive, thinking of the impossible as reasonable, and most of all, most of the time being a troubled commander.

About the Author
Tzippi Gushpantz lectures on Applied Managerial Ethics at Reichman University Herzliya, in the Law and Governance Program. As an expert, she also lectures in this field to senior IDF commanding officers and staff, as well as public and business sector executives. Last year she was Guest Editor of a special issue of the journal Democracy & Security devoted to the theme: A Perspective on Military Ethics and Society in Israel. Her book, “Diving in murky water: The Diving in the Kishon Waters Affair as an Organizational Phenomenon” was published in Hebrew, (Pardes,2021) with a foreword by Prof. Asa Kasher. The book is now part of the reading requirements in several academic programs.
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