Is Finland setting the example for military leadership?

Finland is getting positive attention for their approach to military leadership and the remarkable defense preparedness of the Finns.

It seems that Finland is assuming the position as the country everybody is looking to when it comes to modern military leadership methods. Which is a little annoying because it means that we now have to envy not only Finland’s remarkable PISA scores but also their trust in the military and their defense preparedness.

Whilst in Denmark since the Cold War we have more or less abandoned a territorial defense and focused on deployable assets with professional manning, Finland has maintained the ability to defend itself with mandatory male conscription and a large and active military reserve. And the results are stunning when it comes to the people’s interest and trust in the military. Denmark suffers from the paradox that the military is more or less constantly engaged in wars in other parts of the world, but the people is genuinely disinterested and mostly unaware that it is happening. In the current debates about a new political defense agreement in Denmark, it is common to meet the popular argument that the territorial integrity of Denmark is unrelated to military spending because it’s the responsibility of other NATO countries to defend us anyways.

Finland, on the other hand, maintained a national focus with their armed forces all throughout the honeymoon years with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. I remember not long ago that we used to smile at Finland’s inability to adjust to a future of deployable assets and excused the apparent paranoia of the Finns with a historic inclination to the solitude of neutrality that prevented them from taking full responsibility in the international environment. Now the security climate has changed in the Baltic Region, and instead of laughing at Finland we suddenly find ourselves reading articles about what we can learn from them.

So what is it that we can learn from Finland? Elisabeth Braw has an interesting article in Foreign Affairs about The Finnish Model, and she has a few ideas. For starters, we can learn that if conscription is widespread and of high quality, it will give whole generations a positive attitude towards the military and enhance the willingness to take responsibility for national defense. Instead of being old-fashioned, conscription may in fact be the model of a future where Europe must prepare to handle security without America. There are historical and geographical reasons for Finland to emphasize the territorial defense higher than in for example Denmark, but the numbers cited about the support for the military and the personal sense of duty among Finns are surely impressive.

According to Braw, we can also learn from Finland that evaluation is a powerful tool to develop military leadership if it is done systematically and with care. It really does seem to be a good evaluation system the Finns have set up, but I would have to look closer at it before I can make a final judgement. Given Finland’s academic traditions in the field of organizational learning, I am prepared to believe that they have done a good job.1

Finally, Braw notes that Finland is good at setting the right expectations about the military service. It is a matter of branding and delivering on the promises by neither overselling nor underselling the military, and by having an inspiring program where the skills learned in the military can also be used elsewhere.

Surely aspects of these things can also be found in other countries, but it seems that Finland has excelled in systematizing its conscription and the development of methods to improve military leadership. This is actually really exciting, and although it pains me somewhat to admit it, the Finnish model may be worth studying for those of us who until recently believed that the future was deployable.


  1. I don’t think Braw’s point about military commanders learning to talk to soldiers like normal people instead of shouting is particularly ground-breaking for the other Scandinavian countries. During my study time we had annual Nordic Cadet sports games (NOCA) between the naval academies from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, and the Finnish cadets always stood out with a remarkably shouting attitude towards each other. 

Micromanagement or proper oversight?

Insightful piece by Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy on the principal-agent relationship between politicians and the military:

Yet, in every conversation I have had with civilian and military officials, I cannot recall a military officer — at any level — having received guidance or direction that was helpful in developing plans or in fulfilling a mission. The recalled examples of interference are always detrimental, wasteful, or, at best, pointless. The fact of the matter is that many senior military officers who do not receive the autonomy, latitude, or funding to do what they want to do — within the timeframe that they want to do it — claim they are being “micromanaged.” But it’s important to recognize that this impression is both subjective and selective. One person’s intrusive micromanagement is another’s proper attention to detail.
[…]
The demonstrable rise in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes is most likely the result of several factors, as discussed in previous pieces I’ve written. But the basic point is that Mattis’s judgment has proven incorrect. That should be no surprise. Everything we know from organizational studies suggests that managers and staffers immersed in day-to-day repetitive tasks (like military campaigns) eschew competing values-based priorities — particularly when senior leaders direct them to accelerate their efforts and narrow their mission, as has been true with the war against the Islamic State under Mattis’s watch.

Civilian oversight is so inconvenient but man, do we need it. The whole article is well worth the read.

Exercise scenarios tend to be a waste of time

The fictional scenario for Zapad 2017 has gone viral as a joke on social media, and that has led The Wall Street Journal to write a piece on the made-up settings that militaries use for training:

The U.S., its NATO allies, Russia and other militaries around the world use fictional scenarios to make their military drills more sophisticated. They require soldiers to understand the political environment and motivations of the people they are trying to protect, and defeat.

It’s hard to fathom the amount of time staff officers around the world spend drafting these sophisticated scenarios so that other officers can spend time trying to figure out what the heck the exercise is about. The funny thing is that for the most part the scenario is absolutely irrelevant to the desired learning outcome of the training. I say just make a good exercise and don’t spend time overthinking the scenario.