Information Provides Order: A Leadership Fundamental

By Colonel Brian Russell (@OIE Col)

Part 3

“They’re on our right, they’re on our left, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us; they can’t get away from us this time.”

LtGen(Ret) Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller

Up to this point in my responses to the Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) Call to Action (CTA), I argue we need an easily applicable concept of information to be successful as Marine leaders. In my last post, I settled on the concept of information as order but remarked that the modern information environment seems anything but ordered. Our duty as leaders is to bring a sense of order to any operational environment and the information environment should be no different. The defining mark of our profession is operating in the most chaotic environments mankind will ever experience: the application of violence among two or more irreconcilable wills.  Friction and uncertainty will be enduring characteristics of the operating environment, including the information element of it. Leaders, therefore, must establish a semblance of order for Marines as we operate together in the chaos that exists across both competition and conflict. Order is the fundamental nature of information but I’ve come to realize information provides order as well.

This conception about the power of information to create order came to me in an unexpected way…a Canadian psychologist. Dr. Jordan Peterson argues in his book 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos that creating order in your life comes from cleaning both your literal and metaphysical room. Or in his words (see Rule #6), “Set your own house in order before you criticize the world.” Marine leaders are familiar with this concept as we’ve been charged with fostering good order and discipline in our units for generations. Or as my former Sergeant Major used to opine…garrison discipline instills the mental and physical habits we need to be successful in combat. Even Admiral McRaven recently counseled on the power of making your bed every day to mentally hedge against the uncertainty of life. As an Organized Gold temperament, the ordered room = ordered mind idea is really appealing to me.  But spending more time learning from Dr. Peterson really opened my eyes to the power of information itself in establishing order…

In his second lecture on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories, Peterson notes most ancient creation stories share a common theme of an omnipotent being(s) who orders the world out of a formless void of chaos and potential. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God literally speaks creation into being (God said let there be light, and there was light, Genesis 1) through his word (In the beginning was the word… John 1). Think about that: the power to bring order out of chaos through spoken or written information. Hmm…

I think this is why we tend to revere leaders in our Corps with the gift of both the tongue and pen.  Those who can reframe a situation to encourage or motivate the hesitant or the fearful.  Much like Chesty Puller did when surrounded by multiple Chinese Divisions. Even before combat, a leader’s words can instill a sense of order for the unexpected. Isn’t this the power of commander’s intent?  An ordered representation of how he or she sees the battle unfolding towards the end state and a foundation for Marines to rely on when the plan completely falls off the tracks (chaos). 

This same leadership is expected today but with a couple twists and why I think information has assumed more importance of late. First, the environment is different than the one many of us grew up with but we need to be postured as leaders to engage in it. Major R.W. Pallas’ creative suggestion on this blog points to the need and a solution. It’s encouraging to see the proactive stance of our Communications Strategy community providing information about the Corps’ reaction and response to the COVID-19 crisis. But perhaps our Marines need to hear more from us directly about where we stand and how we think they can navigate this period of uncertainty – are we reaching them?  Our Commandant is demonstrating leadership here. Is anyone unclear about his stance on the confederate battle flag after this post addressing what he sensed was a rift in good order and discipline? 

And this relates to the second twist of our modern information environment. Leaders providing information to their Marines as an antidote to chaos isn’t just for combat. Marines are being bombarded daily, more than ever before, with disinformation and misinformation about a whole host of topics.  Our adversaries are reaching them. So they need our steady hand and engagement to navigate this new terrain if just simply from a force protection perspective. Much like we’ve been trained and conditioned to exhibit courage by stepping into the physical chaos combat (lead from the front) to show the way for our Marines we need to display the same kind of courage in bringing some order to the informational chaos that seems to pervade our modern ecosystem.

Bringing a sense of order to those in your charge is perhaps the ultimate professional competence of a military leader. Information provides order to your Marines. Leaders operating effectively in the information environment are an effective “antidote to chaos” for Marines and necessary for the trust-based mission command demanded by the complexities of the modern competition continuum. I’ll continue this thought in my next and final post as I further describe the warfighting implications of information as order because, in the case of our adversaries, we certainly want their information to be anything but ordered.