Some Further Perspectives on the “Jeansgate” Affair
By 12570 Mike Kennedy
As another academic year draws to a close, it is interesting to look back on the recent flap over the “Jeansgate” affair, and the fallout that has apparently resulted from it. It has been likewise interesting to read the perspectives offered in articles such as the one by Ocdt Navarre Hebb, and the comments these articles have elicited from readers of e-Veritas. In thinking about “Jeansgate” and its aftermath, I’m starting to wonder whether this whole business is not simply about a violation of some possibly out-of-date dress regulations, but rather, a symptom of a much deeper and more significant problem at RMC.
In the summer of 1977, after I had been informed I was being released from the Canadian Forces following BOTC, I was obliged to spend about three weeks at the College waiting for the necessary paperwork to be processed. In contrast to my frantic experiences as a recruit less than a year earlier, much of this time was spent basically sitting around, waiting to be sent home once and for all. I was accommodated in Fort LaSalle, and passed the time with a fellow classmate who was in the same predicament that I was.
I remember that one day, having little else to do, I went into the Wing Orderly Room in Fort LaSalle, and opened up a filing cabinet in which were stored copies of the charge sheets that had been submitted over the preceding year by the various squadrons throughout the Wing. The drawer was basically filled almost to overflowing with hundreds and hundreds of the old yellow forms that had to be filled out whenever a cadet was placed on a charge. Reading through these various documents, it quickly became clear that while in a few cases the charges involved were for serious offences, the vast majority of them involved infractions that were so trivial they would be almost laughable today.
A good example of the latter instance was a cadet who had been charged for falling asleep in class. I knew the guy who was involved in this particular case; he had been in my platoon in BOTC, where he received an “A” on the course, and he finished his career a few years ago as a General officer, one of a very few in our class to attain that rank. Evidently, somewhere along the way he must have figured out a way to stay awake.
Did the plethora of charges that had been laid during the 1976-77 academic year mean that the cadets of that era were a bunch of irresponsible and mutinous rogues ? Somehow I don’t think so. If that had really been the case, it would be hard to explain the impressive successes that so many of them have had in their lives after the College. I’d suggest that a more realistic characterization of that situation might be the fact that the seemingly innumerable number of charges laid was a reflection of the larger circumstances that we found ourselves in.
To be sure, the “Truth, Duty, Valour and don’t get caught” mentality was alive and well in that era. Given the environment that prevailed at the College at that time, it almost had to be. The reality we were faced with was, in order to maintain our pride and our sanity, there were times when it was almost necessary to break rules and disregard orders that did not make any sense. You knew what the risks were, and if you got caught, you paid the price. It was that simple – and we all accepted that it was all part of the game back in those days.
So, 40-some years later, back to Jeansgate. Much has been made over a matter that, at least on the surface, seems like a pretty harmless transgression. In the aftermath of this affair, a lot of different opinions have been voiced. For what it is worth, I’d suggest that the questions we now need to be asking ourselves are, what’s the real problem here ? What do we need to do about it ? And perhaps most importantly, what can be learned from this experience, and how do we move forward from here ?
As a management consultant over the past 25 years, I have worked with organizations of many different kinds. Based on my experiences, I am a firm believer in the notion that poor discipline, in any organization, is invariably a symptom of poor leadership. It is a sign that people either do not understand what is expected of them, or else do not believe that the expectations that have been imposed are fair and realistic, and appropriate for the organization’s larger mission. Of even greater concern is the fact that poor discipline is a clear signal that people have lost confidence in the leadership of the organization, and are no longer willing (if they ever were in the first place) to follow the direction of those who are supposedly in place to take proper care of them.
I am not necessarily suggesting that I believe this to be the case at RMC today. Fundamentally, I would imagine that the cadets of 2018 are much the same as their predecessors of any era in the College’s history: they are intelligent and motivated young people who come to RMC prepared to take on a significant challenge, and seeking to improve themselves in life. Many if not most are perfectly willing to abide by rules that are sensible and reasonable, and have no desire to deliberately go looking for trouble. But when a situation arise where even a small minority begin to flagrantly defy the authority of the chain of command, that tells me we have a problem. And it also strongly suggests that it is a problem that can only be solved with the right kind of leadership.
Past experience shows that even in a deeply troubled organization, effective and inspiring leadership can make a huge impact in terms of setting things right. Consider the case of Colonel David Hackworth and the 4/39 infantry battalion in Vietnam, whose story is told in Hackworth’s 2002 book Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts. When Hackworth took command of the 4/39th in 1969, it was a disaster – a demoralized, poorly led unit that was fraught with disciplinary problems and widely considered to be the U.S. Army’s worst fighting battalion.
Hackworth, who had previously been highly decorated in both Korean and Vietnam, quickly set to work turning things around. He started by making small and seemingly insignificant changes, such as ordering his soldiers to reverse their helmet covers to conceal the graffiti that many of the men had scrawled on them. Hence, the 4/39th became the only battalion in the U.S. Army whose helmets were brown – the colour of helmet cover inner linings- as opposed to the standard camouflage green.
Initially, Hackworth’s insistence on tightening up standards did make him popular, and for a while, he reportedly had a price on his head. But over time, as Hackworth demonstrated fair and steady leadership as well as his own personal courage under fire, attitudes began to change, and along with them, the battalion’s effectiveness saw a dramatic improvement. The eventual result is that by the time Hackworth’s tour as their commander ended, the brown-hatted soldiers of the 4/39th were well-known – and with good reason, widely feared – by their North Vietnamese adversaries.
Another similar example is the experiences of 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea under the command of General Hank Emerson in the early 1970’s, discussed at some length in General Colin Powell’s memoir My American Journey. In the difficult years following the Vietnam War, when the U.S Army was making the transition to an all-volunteer force and military service was deeply unpopular, Emerson’s division was a textbook example of a dysfunctional organization. Manned largely with soldiers drawn from the bottom rungs of society, and charged with a primary mission of sitting around waiting for a possible but unlikely attack by the North Koreans, it was no surprise to anyone that the division was a fermenting hotbed of trouble.
It was in this environment, that Powell, then a battalion commander, witnessed an astonishing transformation under Emerson, whose mantra was that “If we don’t do our jobs right, soldiers will not win.” To promote camaraderie and ease racial tensions, Emerson ordered the troops to watch Brian’s Song, popular 1970’s movie about the first interracial roommates in the NFL. To prepare the soldiers to more effectively fight the North Koreans, he was an advocate of “reverse cycle” training, wherein soldiers trained throughout the night and rested mainly during daylight hours. Finally, to improve their chances at finding eventual civilian employment, Emerson organized programs to help the many soldiers who were high school dropouts to earn their General Equivalency Diploma qualifications.
The end results of these efforts were impressive. As one example, Powell notes in his book that as a direct result of the initiatives Emerson put in place, morale soared and his battalion was successful in qualifying more men for the Expert Infantryman Badge than almost any other in the Army. The remarkable transformation that had taken place was the result of Emerson’s passionate and practical leadership to which the soldiers readily responded; punishment had nothing to do with it.
So what’s the bottom line here ? I’d suggest that maybe “Jeansgate” is about a lot more than just blue jeans – or for that matter, about obedience of lawful orders. Maybe we have a problem that will not – that cannot – be solved simply by imposing the kind of collective punishment that took place last month. Maybe the time has come to do something about the leadership at the College. Maybe what Jeansgate really tells us is that RMC and the cadets that it is in business to train are in desperate need of the kind of leadership that would be provided by a David Hackworth or a Hank Emerson.
The fact of the matter is, cadets may be young, inexperienced, and in some cases naïve, but one thing they most definitely are not is stupid. They can readily see what is B.S., and what is not. They can instinctively sense the difference between the leaders who genuinely care, and the leaders who care only about themselves. They will respond to leadership that sets highs standards but treats them with fairness and respect, and that they know ultimately has their best interests at heart. But at the same time – like every generation of cadets who have gone before them – they will resist by whatever means available the demands imposed by leaders who care first and foremost about their own self-importance, and who are mainly preoccupied with exacting mindless and unquestioning subservience from their subordinates.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a retired General who had served as Commandant during one of the most challenging periods of RMC’s history. He remarked that one of his biggest frustrations during his tenure was the feeling of being compelled by Ottawa to accept individuals as Squadron Commanders who he personally felt were unsuitable. If that indeed was the case, then it is a state of affairs that I find deeply troubling. As an institution charged with the mission of producing future leaders for the Canadian Forces, RMC is a place where the services should be sending their very best officers and NCO’s. The College (and for that matter, any other military training establishment) should absolutely not be used as a convenient dumping ground for deadwood that the Forces otherwise don’t know what to do with.
I recall that when I was a cadet 40 years ago, the members of the military staff who made the greatest and most lasting impression on me were the drill instructors. These men were all seasoned senior combat arms NCO’s who demanded the utmost effort from all of us, but at the same time, who looked out for their boys, and who led by their own example. The quality of the commissioned officers who were posted to the College in those days was much more uneven. There were certainly many who were clearly very competent officers and who were respected as such by the cadets. Unfortunately, however, there were also a few others whose leadership qualities were much more suspect, and who as a result were considerably less successful in earning the confidence of their subordinates.
I’m thinking that may the time has come to re-think the current practice of continually rotating members of the military staff on postings of a few years, and go back to the system wherein commissioned officers and NCO’s were hand-picked for their exceptional leadership abilities, and assigned to the College for the long term. Think back to RSMs such as Coggins and McManus, and to officers such as the immortal Major Danny McLeod. These men served at RMC not in terms of thinking about punching a ticket towards the next rung on the ladder of career advancement, but rather because they were doing a job that they loved and believed in, and because they cared very deeply about the training and development of the cadets they were responsible for.
Coggins, McManus, McLeod, and others like them set high standards for themselves and expected nothing less from their cadets, and to be sure, they would not tolerate any disobedience or insubordination. But at the same time, over the course of their many years of service, they made a profound impression on the lives of countless young men who were fortunate enough to benefit from their guidance. And today, they are remembered as being not only highly respected and much loved leaders and role models, but also as true nation builders who sent forth from their care many thousands of Ex-Cadets who have since helped to make Canada the country it has become today.
As we think about Jeansgate and its implications, I am reminded of the timeless phrase from the Citadel Knob Knowledge, “Discipline is the state of order and obedience, derived from training that makes punishment unnecessary.” Or, as the indomitible Sergeant Major Fournier once told me, “You train them right, you treat them right, they will go to hell and back.” Wise words indeed from a man who knew from experience what he was talking about, and who was highly respected by all of us who knew him.
I’d suggest that the deal should be the following. We have every right to expect cadets to give their best effort to all aspects of their training, and to comply with rules and orders that are sensible, appropriate, and necessary for the effective functioning of the College. This is perfectly reasonable, given the value of the educational opportunities the cadets are being provided. As Ex-Cadets, we, in turn, have a responsibility to do everything we can to guide, mentor, and encourage those who are coming up behind us. This is our opportunity to give back what we ourselves were given, during our own time as cadets at the College.
In my view, the overall objective of the system should be to develop people, not destroy them. But we must never allow ourselves to lose sight of what kind of people we should be seeking to develop. The goal should not be to produce automatons who will slavishly follow whatever orders they are given (however lawful those orders may be), but rather mature and disciplined leaders who can think for themselves, who are able able to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions, and who are willing to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences that result from them.
So when we look to the future, what I would like to see – and I believe I am not alone in these sentiments – is a state of discipline grounded in a collective sense of acceptance of responsibility, rather than driven by a fear of punishment. Achieving this won’t be easy; it will require a commitment to making real change, and a willingness to get rid of petty rules and outdated policies so as to focus on what’s really important. And above all else, it will require leadership and inspiration of the kind that can only be provided by people who approach their duties with common sense and compassion, and who can visibly show that they genuinely care about those they are responsible for.
Yes, this poses a challenge. But I believe it can be done. And if it can be accomplished, I’m confident there probably won’t be a need for any more collective punishments of the kind that recently followed in the wake of Jeansgate. But much more importantly, it will also contribute to making RMC the kind of unique and special institution that all of us can be proud to be a part of.
Note: The opinion expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the RMC Club Executive; RMC Club Executive Director or the membership of the RMC Club of Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author…..