The Thinking Combat Brigade: A Dominant and Prestigious ForceBy Callum Muntz February 11, 2020
Our command teams are charged with constant decision making, on which hinges the success and failure – the life or death – of battles, operations and campaigns. Thankfully these teams are flush with knowledgeable individuals who possess broad experience, are well trained in the science and art of military manoeuvre and who are honed with specialist skillsets. Their training, delivered by our professional institutions, and our prominent culture and values ensures these command teams are equipped to make the best possible military decisions. But what if this is wrong. What if the frames of reference we all possess, imposed on us from our similar training, experiences, and culture, could be hindering our ability to make the best decisions? What if we are not as smart as we think we are?
The cognitively diverse team
The smartest groups are cognitively diverse. Potentially no greater example of cognitive diversity in the Army is at our ab-initio training schools. Our new recruits (or cadets) bring with them an inordinate amount of unique experience and methods of thinking, drawn from their history and education, and enhanced by their (often) juvenility that keeps them open to new experience. However, as we progress through a career’s worth of training, we become closer to each other in our thinking. We share the same training methodologies, witness the same successes and defeats, are susceptible to the same memory distortions and perceptual illusions, and are tempted by the desire to conform to, and be accepted, by our team. Through a process of assimilation, within a short time we all converge in our values, attributes, biases and thinking.
Most readers will appreciate how comforting it is to be around people who think and behave in the same manner as you, particularly when you are given an acceptable ethos to abide by (the Army’s values, as an example). These desires and social processes occur naturally (probably for the purpose of survival) and have been noted in human behaviour as far back as ancient Greece. As we progress in our Army journey, we gain great levels of expertise in our skills and knowledge, but we risk losing our cognitive diversity. We are remoulded to ‘fit’ our organisation (Syed 2019). The impact of this phenomena is somewhat mitigated at higher levels of decision making, where Corps, trades, service types (specialist or generalist), and services meld together; but what about inside the Army’s tactical ‘unit-of-action’, the Combat Team? These command groups rarely benefit from an inherent cognitive diversity. Indeed, even their immediate headquarters at the battlegroup rarely have such luxury. But there is a trainable skill that may just help mitigate some of this issue – critical thinking.
Critical thinking - more than just a slogan
Critical thinking is a slogan that has come to saturate our education industry. Its importance is often bellowed from the highest authorities and the accolade of ‘critical thinker’ is coveted in many professional fields – including the military – and rightly so. Being better at thinking is a central theme to an Army in Motion able to compete or cooperate in an era of accelerated warfare. All of us think, in varying capacities, nearly every waking minute. But much of this thinking is reflexive, often subject to our biases, and even deceptively lazy. We view the world through the lens of our experience and, left to our own devices, we will not choose to attempt to alter this view. How terribly unfortunate given much of what we ‘produce, make or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought’ (Paul. R & Elder. L, 2008). Most people who never pursue enhancing their critical thinking are, at best, likely to suffer some unnecessary discomfort and, at worst, never reach their full potential. For a select few, critical thinking may even save their lives.
There is no single accepted definition of ‘critical thinking’, but most agree that it is a mode of thinking that seeks to challenge your thought structures and improve your ideas. The first implication here is that you must drop your thoughts or claims if presented with contradictory evidence – it is never acceptable to carry on thinking the same thing purely based on feeling. Critical thinkers must continually challenge their own beliefs – they treat their thoughts as if they are hypothesis waiting to be tested. This in turn means nobody can be a complete critical thinker because we all possess blind-spots, biases and tendencies. The second implication is that critical thinking thrives in environments where thinkers can challenge one another. By holding each other accountable for our thoughts, the process of refining ideas is strengthened through (hopefully) rigid testing.
Critical thinking begins and ends with the individual. It can be developed through collective training but remains a solo endeavour that will never succeed without the commitment of the single person. The ability to understand and challenge your own thoughts, as a skill, arguably must start in ab-initio training where the imprinting of our culture and institutionalisation begins. However, beyond our trade and recruit schools our commanders must foster the attributes and ethos necessary for critical thinking to develop. We must readily acknowledge the power of better thinking and encourage it with the same value as many of our martial pursuits. If the expression that ‘platoons seal the fate of armies’ is true - and I believe it is - then it is in our interest to develop the best small teams possible. This starts with the individual being empowered to understand and challenge their thoughts, and those of their peers, within an accepting and encouraging environment. Nobody holds a monopoly of knowledge, and certainly not correct knowledge. Accepting the above, what can we do within Combat Brigades to better understand and improve our critical thinking?
Enabling critical thinking within the Combat Brigade
The Combat Brigade is a melting pot of skills, knowledge, experiences and opinions. Few organisations have the opportunity to benefit from such a natural and incredible diversity; even fewer realise the potential such a culture offers. However, like the military, all organisations (and groups) are constructed of hierarchies.
The discussion of hierarchies and their impact on military performance is a deep and important topic worthy of further discussion. However, for our context, there are two types of hierarchy I believe worth mentioning. The first is a ‘ubiquitous feature of human social groups’ and is referred to as a dominance hierarchy (Maner 2017). Traditionally, dominance hierarchies are characterised by the achievement of social standing through strength, force, or ability to intimidate. As Dr Maner aptly puts it, ‘with dominance, high social standing is not freely conferred by others; it is seized and maintained through the use of power, fear, intimidation, and coercion’. Commanders who employ an authoritarian leadership style are often using dominance to achieve social standing. Furthermore, the military command structure enables dominance hierarchies to thrive. Ever observed, or even served under, a ‘toxic’ leader? One fuelled by narcissism? Then this may sound familiar to you. Ultimately, what makes the military’s command structure so incredibly effective in combat may very well defeat the chance for cognitive diversity in other situations.
The second hierarchy relevant for this discussion is based on prestige. In contrast to dominance, social standing is given for displaying skills and attributes valued by the group. This varies from group to group, but for the context of the Army it is safe to say prestige is given to soldiers and officers who display the Army values – and then skills relevant to their individual profession. A brand-new platoon commander can often be granted a degree of initial ‘prestige’ by being very fit, as an example. Individuals that are conferred high prestige are often well-liked and respected and, in turn, typically prioritise the well-being of the group. Because of this, prestige-focused leaders often encourage positive relationships between their personnel. This fosters an environment conducive for cognitive diversity, as team members feel more comfortable in sharing ideas as well as safe to challenge others.
Both types of hierarchies are important for the military, and are useful across the spectrum of cooperation, competition and conflict. When faced with conflict or war-like circumstances - which are often characterised by simple, violent tasks - a dominance-focused leadership style would likely be preferred at the tactical level. For our purposes this is the Combat Team. We see this in the basic section attack, where the soldiers must respond immediately and without question to their commander’s orders. We see it in a Combat Team action that contributes to a Brigade action, where often ruthlessly pursuing your directed objective, with tempo and violence, will lead to victory. In a brutal contest of wills, a well-discipline and trained team following a dominance hierarchy is more likley to succeed. All of us know this, and history reinforces it. But what about when in competition, or even cooperation? How successful is our decision making going to be in hyper-connected, information rich, constantly evolving situations populated by a multitude of different actors if we rely on a dominant leader and their competence? Regardless of how proficient, I cannot see how it could even come close to optimal.
The recent Operation Augury (deployment of training teams to the Philippines) is a perfect example of such an environment, which blended cooperation and competition. Success in this uncertain environment, with largely open scope and unknown boundaries, was a result of critical thinking at all levels – from soldier to Commanding Officers – that was enabled by a prestige-focused leadership style that disregarded the authority of rank to favour and promote information sharing and foster a ‘competition of ideas’. Furthermore, because the boundaries of what were possible were largely unknown, commanders at all levels were encouraged to seek and develop opportunities to enhance the mission. They were encouraged to critically think, as a group, on how success could be found. The positive results speak for themselves. In an unfamiliar international arena, the tactical actions of junior commanders in a prestige focused hierarchy, who were encouraged to continually review and reflect on their performance and thinking, has had lasting strategic effect in our near region. Seeing how both hierarchies can benefit tactical units of action further highlights the importance of mental flexibility and being able to transition between dominance (or authoritarian) and prestige (or inclusive) focused hierarchies (leadership style). Critical thinking is an important skill, but so too is knowing when to use it.
Developing critical thinking skills
So, where to from here? Developing critical thinking in all of us requires individual effort. It can start with educating our personnel on just what critical thinking is, including understanding biases and ego. In the exceptional book Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning, the authors provide sound advice for training metacognition (or thinking about thinking). This includes frequent use of testing (specifically, retrieving information) to verify what you really know versus what you think you know, as well as peer instruction and peer review.
Whilst training critical thinking is not an easy task, creating the right environment just might be. More so than ever, our people are exposed to novel ideas and information on a broad range of topics. This ‘age of information’ has empowered personal interests and learning to unprecedented levels. Whilst our level of connectivity does have its downside, such as increased anxiety and depression (Lukianoff & Haidt 2018), it does promote expansive thinking and encourage creative exploration. In turn, our people can contribute with greater, more diverse knowledge and experience than ever before. We must then encourage and reinforce them to be diverse in their learning – in other words, to have hobbies which are different to their day jobs.
Broad experiences allow us to ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas which ultimately strengthen our endeavours or lead to new solutions (Judkins 2016). Many of us are alive today because of this concept, demonstrated in the way the scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and antibiotics thanks to his pursuits as an artist (Judkins 2016). Furthermore, in possibly the most comprehensive study of scientific papers in history, it was found that “the highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations” (Uzzi, Mukherjee, Stringer, & Jones 2013). Cross-pollination is about connecting ideas never done so before, and can lead to exceptional results. Better yet, in our hyper-connected age this trend is only accelerated as all of us have access to levels of unprecedented knowledge. Our commanders and their teams must create environments that encourage sharing ideas and, just as importantly, challenging them – regardless of the position the presenter holds.
Food for thought
Coming back to the Combat Team command group, I offer the following ‘food for thought’ on how we can improve critical thinking and cognitive diversity. Firstly, we should adopt and promote a mindset ‘based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts’ (Dweck 2007). Secondly, we must model the right environment, culture, and behaviour that supports critical thinking. Make it safe to ask questions and reward such behaviour; promote self and group reflection; continually message the team’s purpose to promote higher engagement; be humble in your authoritative position – accepting you don’t know everything; and establish open and effective means of communication across the team. Whilst only a starting point, all of these are characteristic of environments within which critical thinking thrives (Hess 2014).
To close, if we understand and accept the importance of cognitive diversity then we should resist the urge to create binary thinking within our commanders. The adage that we should teach ‘how to think’ not ‘what to think’ continues to be true. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, to find the balance between fostering cognitive diversity but also maintaining our ever-important culture, should we adjust our ab-initio training – perhaps with different methods of teaching and learning? Secondly, if our culminating and pinnacle collective training exercise (Ex Talisman Sabre / Hamel) pits two like Brigades, led by commanders of similar training, experiences, and culture, against one another and who both employ planning processes that are largely dominance driven – are we truly exercising our decision making? Perhaps we are just rehearsing our biases.
‘Enhancing Capability Through Diversity’ by Greg Colton, the Cove.
‘Make It Stick’ by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, & Mark McDaniel.
‘Learn or Die’ by Edward Hess
Jon K. Maner’s work, at https://www.jonmaner.com/publications.
Dweck. C, 2007 ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’, Ballantine Books
Hess. E, 2014, ‘Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization’, Columbia Business School Publishing
Judkins. R, 2016, ‘The Art of Creative Thinking’, Sceptre Publishing
Lukianoff. G, & Haidt. J, 2018, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, Penguin Publishing
Maner. J, 2017, ‘Dominance and Prestige: A Tale of Two Hierarchies’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 26, Issue 6, accessed 27 Sep 19.
Paul. R & Elder. L, 2008, ‘Critical Thinking: The Nuts and Bolts of Education’, Optometric Education, Vol 33 No. 3, accessed 28 Sep 19.
Syed. M, 2019, ‘Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’, John Murray Publishing
Uzzi. B, Mukherjee. S, Stringer. M, & Jones. B, 2013, ‘Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact’, Science Magazine, Vol 342, accessed 28 Sep 19.
 Chapter 5 – Avoid Illusions of Knowing. ‘Make It Stick’ by Brown. P, Roediger III. H, & McDaniel. M
 Dangerously leading to ‘Group Think’ – ‘mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal. Groupthink reduces the efficiency of collective problem solving within such groups.’ – Encyclopedia Britannica
 Assimilation describes the process of social, cultural, and political integration of a minority into a dominant culture and society… Assimilation usually involves a gradual change of varying degree. Full assimilation occurs when new members of a society become indistinguishable from native members. – LumenLearning ‘Introduction to Sociology’
 Known as Homophily Bias. ‘People tend to interact with similar others (homophily). They also tend to treat others of shared social identity more favorably (in-group bias).’ – Currarini. S, & Mengel. F, 2016, ‘Identity, homophily, and in-group bias’, European Economic Review.
 In Plato’s Republic, the expression ‘birds of a feather flock together’ speaks to the effect of being attracted to others that demonstrate identifiable similarities to oneself.