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Strategic Planning by the Chairmen, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1990 TO 2005

Authored by Dr. Richard M. Meinhart. | May 2006

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Military leaders at many levels have used strategic planning in various ways to position their organizations to respond to the demands of the current situation, while simultaneously focusing on future challenges. This monograph examines how four Chairmen Joint Chiefs of Staff?Generals Colin L. Powell (1989-93), John M. Shalikashvili (1993-97), Henry Hugh Shelton (1997-2001), and Richard B. Myers (2001-05)?used a strategic planning system to enable them to meet their statutory responsibilities specified in Title 10 U.S. Code and respond to the strategic environment. As the 1990s progressed, the first three Chairmen were faced with responding to a strategic environment that started with the Gulf War and was followed by an increasing number of regional military operations across the spectrum of conflict, while accommodating slowly declining financial resources and a one-third decline in force structure. Since 2000, and particularly after September 11, 2001, the last two Chairmen were faced with entirely different strategic challenges dominated by the focus on terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, while needing to transform by developing future capabilities to achieve full spectrum dominance.

In focusing on how these four leaders used a strategic planning system, this Letort Paper briefly describes the Chairman?s responsibilities, as well as the Joint Staff?s key organizational characteristics. Both the leader?s focus and the organization?s characteristics will influence how a strategic planning system is used. The author then examines how the strategic planning system evolved to better meet each Chairman?s needs. This planning system produced many products related to assessment, vision, strategy, resources, and plans. These products will be described for their broad impact and influence. Because many of these products are classified, the assessments necessarily will be brief. The author thensummarizes the more significant ways each Chairman used this strategic planning system, which is part of his leadership legacy.

While this comprehensive assessment of each Chairman?s use of strategic planning has historical relevancy, its main value is that today?s leaders can learn from how these four leaders used systems and processes differently to respond to their complex global environment and varied strategic challenges. During this assessment, specific leadership concepts are illustrated throughout, including how leaders use vision; how leaders balance flexibility and structure in strategic planning processes and products; how leaders use strategic planning to respond to different types of global environment challenges; and how leaders use systems to influence an organization?s climate and culture. Hence, this paper concludes by identifying five key leadership concepts that future leaders should employ when using strategic planning.


Today?s senior leaders can learn from examining how others used systems or processes to better enable their organizations to respond to complex and ambiguous strategic challenges. Examining how four Chairmen of different leadership styles used an evolving strategic planning system to respond to the complex and ever changing strategic environment reveals five key leadership concepts today?s leaders should employ. These leadership concepts are organized along the following five areas: importance of a vision; key characteristics of an effective strategic planning process; the need to strike a balance between flexibility and structure within the strategic planning system?s products; understanding the magnitude of change needed; and using systems and processes to create a culture.

The first leadership concept is that leaders need to clearly articulate a vision, owned by the organization, as part of the strategic planning system to influence long-term change effectively. Chairman Shalikashvili clearly identified a need for a joint vision in 1996 and employed an inclusive leader-involved process to create that vision, which had wide acceptance among those he coordinated with and those above him. Chairman Shelton followed this and developed comprehensive processes to implement that vision before he formally updated the joint vision in 2000 to place more emphasison innovation, information, and interagency. Chairman Myers continued with a vision focus through his two concept guidance documents to transform the military operationally to a higher level of jointness. Much of the joint warfighting progress to date can be traced back to the first two visions, and the current vision to achieve full spectrum dominance is being directed by the 2005 Capstone Concept for Joint Operations.

The second leadership concept is that leaders need to ensure their strategic planning processes are flexible, inclusive, and integrated to improve effectiveness. The flexible aspect rests with the fact that, in execution, each Chairman modified to different degrees the strategic planning system he inherited. This was caused by the leader?s style and the strategic environment. For example, Chairman Powell?s modification of the planning system from ten classified, voluminous products into four products of greater clarity and simplicity that were developed more nimbly was influenced by the Cold War?s unexpected demise and his personal leadership style. Chairman Shalikashvili?s addition of leader-focused resource advice and joint vision was influenced by the tight fiscal environment and his process-oriented style. The inclusive aspect is supported by the diverse composition of the joint boards and councils that developed strategic planning products, which allowed divergent views to be heard, understood, and incorporated. Interviews with strategic planners revealed that these inclusive processes educated and created important relationships, and many planners even considered planning processes more important than products.57 The integrated nature aspect goes one step further than inclusiveness in that this system?s planning processes directly influenced other Defense, Service, and combatant command leaders and their processes to ensure the end result was integrated.

The third leadership concept centers on the need for leaders to ensure their strategic planning products have the proper balance between flexibility and structure. The Chairman?s strategic planning products related to strategy and vision had great flexibility in providing broad direction, which enabled staffs to use their intellectual capacities to develop a wide range of successful responses to complex issues. The Chairman?s strategic planning products related to plans had a much greater degree of structure to provide the needed disciplined direction to execute those strategies. This disciplined direction in developing war plans is driven by the systems integration and overall synchronization that is associated with joint interdependence needed by the supportive and supporting combatant commanders. Disciplined direction in developing war plans, then, allows the creativity needed in execution, as disciplined planning considers various options that are vetted prior to execution.

The fourth leadership concept is that leaders need to understand the relationship between the magnitude and speed of change needed and how a strategic planning system can be used to influence that change. If change is needed quickly and is revolutionary in scope, then leaders should not use a strategic planning system but work outside that formal system. For example, when Chairman Powell created the 1992 National Military Strategy, a strategy revolutionary in substance when compared to its predecessors, he did not follow the processes or product characteristics described in his strategic planning system. Similarly, Chairman Shalikashvili did not follow directions in his strategic planning system but used extraordinary personnel interaction when creating the Chairman?s first joint vision, a direction thought outside the Chairman?s domain. However, in implementing both this strategy and vision, which would take a decade or more, the strategic planning system was used heavily. Hence, a strategic planning system is more valued to make the needed evolutionary changes over time that can ultimately lead to revolutionary results.

The last leadership concept is that leaders can use a strategic planning system to help them create a climate and embed a culture within complex organizations. While there have been many other mechanisms that influenced a joint culture such as Congressional-required joint promotion, assignment, and educational criteria, the strategic planning system reinforced these mechanisms. While Chairman Powell was just starting to create a joint climate, Chairman Shalikashvili greatly reinforced that climate with his strategic planning joint vision and inclusive planning bodies that developed the system?s resource products. Chairman Shelton reinforced that joint climate and started the beginning of a joint culture through implementing the joint vision and more inclusive planning bodies. Chairman Myers focused on embedding a joint culture through his expansive joint operating concepts and more inclusive functional capabilities boards. It is this author?s belief, based on working within and studying the effects of strategic planning during this period, that a culture of jointness, envisioned in the heart and spirit of many of our nation?s civilian and military leaders, has taken hold within the higher levels of the Joint Staff and the Services. The strategic planning system clearly assisted this joint cultural evolution.

Leaders of complex organizations who embrace the concepts just mentioned will be able to better use a strategic planning system to respond to their strategic challenges and provide direction to their organizations to meet the current demands while positioning for the future. An examination of history has shown that each Chairman?s ever evolving strategic planning system comprised of inclusive and flexible processes, along with the right combination of flexibility and structure in products, was important in enabling him to provide strategic advice and direction to our nation?s civilian and military leaders during volatile and uncertain times.


57 Meinhart, 2004, pp. 187-188.