Four-Star Gen. Bob Cone Says ‘Unbalanced’ Army Must Change

As a 20-year-old cadet at West Point, Bob Cone stood in front of a group of senior officers and faculty, his already ruddy complexion turning red.

West Point had just gone through a cheating scandal, and Cone, who served on the honor-code committee, was getting grilled about how code-violators were being handled. Were some violators, they asked, being treated differently than others?

Cone was in a tough position—officially, any violator was supposed to be dismissed, regardless of the seriousness of the offense. But his committee hadn’t been handling lesser violations by their peers that way.

Cone stood thinking. Finally, he said frankly: “Yes. They are.”

Instantly, “his credibility with the audience went sky-high,” says Howard Prince, who tagged him right then as a future faculty member and high-level leader. “His candor made him stand out.”

From the frank way he spoke about the U.S. Army’s shortcomings on Friday, it was clear that his candor hasn’t changed. Cone, MA ’87, still speaks truth to power—except now, as the head of all Army training and the highest-ranked Army leader ever to have graduated from UT, he is power. And from his position, there is a lot he wants to see overhauled.

“We’re terrible bureaucratically,” he said of the Army to an audience of ROTC members, special guests, and civilians. “We do brain surgery with an ax, is how we go about business.”

He made a powerful case that a military branch he called “very, very unbalanced” has to change. In Iraq and Afghanistan, young leaders had 534 Army training manuals that hadn’t been updated in 10 or 15 years, and they had to turn to wiki-type websites to share lessons learned.

The military, Cone believes, needs to develop digital apps and video games to train soldiers. “We gotta get smarter, we’ve gotta use digital applications, we’ve got to understand how this generation learns,” he said. “If we do not capture their energy and imagination for the future of our Army, we will fail. We cannot go back to the Mr. Potato Head training of the past.”

There should be fewer leaders for a military that on Jan. 1 will become a peacetime force, he said. But the brightest among them need to help write new doctrine and manuals. To do that, Cone believes many should first be sent back to graduate school.

After military college at West Point and several years in the service, that’s what Cone himself did when he came to The University of Texas to study sociology. Prince, now director of UT’s Center for Ethical Leadership and a man intimately involved with turning around West Point after the cheating scandal, had “bird-dogged” him to get his master’s degree.

The challenge at age 28 of defending ideas, examining assumptions, reevaluating beliefs, and debating with classmates helped Cone later, he said. The negotiating skills he learned came in particularly handy in dealing with leaders like President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq.

But Cone also has faced down leadership crises no amount of classroom training could prepare him for. He commanded Fort Hood for several years, including during the 2009 on-base shooting that killed 13 and injured many more.

He has been a four-star general since April, and he doesn’t plan to dial down the candor. Fellow “clear-eyed, blunt” leaders like new Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno are helping change the culture too, he said.

Above all, Cone believes honesty earns respect. “When someone asks me a question I don’t know, I say I don’t know,” he said. “If cadets think their leaders are sugarcoating things and talking in circles, they don’t have a lot of hope that things are going to get better.”

Photos by Kae Wang


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