A Systems-based Approach to Military Leadership

During a dismounted patrol in Eastern Afghanistan, Eaton sits with the other members of the Personal Security Detachment (PSD) for the Commander of ISAF.Josh EatonJoshua Eaton By Cody Ned Romano
February 16, 2011

U.S. Army Major Joshua Eaton is driven — both as a student and as a soldier — by the philosophy that "good leaders must also know how to follow."

When Eaton and his team managed logistical support for their Special Forces battalion encamped throughout Afghanistan, he corresponded closely with officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) working in coordination with him and his team. Their reports helped Eaton’s team determine when food, fuel, and ammunition should be airdropped or delivered by ground.

During a dismounted patrol in Eastern Afghanistan, Eaton sits with the other members of the Personal Security Detachment (PSD) for the Commander of ISAF.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

Now that he is a new student in MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM), Eaton listens carefully to his professors and classmates. This has led him to think differently about the systems that ensure soldiers’ survival on the battlefield.

"SDM has already transformed the way I think," says Eaton, who started the program last month. "By incorporating leadership and business principles into an engineering curriculum, it’s made me a more well-rounded systems engineer."

The 9-year career that led Eaton to MIT began with a B.S. in systems engineering that he earned from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2002. He received infantry training, then attended Ranger School, which, he says, prepared him a great deal with regards to small unit tactics and leading soldiers under other than desirable conditions. This grueling combat course rendered him hungry, cold,and sleep-deprived, but he emerged from it ready to lead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, Eaton says that what most prepared him to lead Special Forces Soldiers was the year-long Special Forces Qualification Course.

Eaton and his team trained more than 100 Afghan soldiers, a job that required them to address the cultural dimension of systems. In a mud hut of a mountain village, Eaton and his team ate traditional Afghan meals and communicated with troops who spoke Dari, Pashto, and Farsi. Managing and leading these men helped prepare Eaton for the promotion that would require him to provide logistical support to his Special Forces battalion.

Eaton and his Special Forces Detachment conducted a Humanitarian and Assistance (HA) mission in Eastern Afghanistan in order to provide food, cooking oil, supplies, clothing, and blankets to villages in remote locations. They also met with tribal elders and villagers to develop relationships in the area.
(Photo courtesy of Josh Eaton)

Eaton first heard about the SDM program from his former infantry company commander, SDM alumnus Nathan Minami. Minami has served as both a leader and mentor for Eaton for years and strongly encouraged him to pursue his advanced degree in the SDM program. Given his own wealth of expertise and experience, Eaton wanted to surround himself with classmates who, as professionals, had also managed large-scale systems. In the SDM program, he has found peers whose resumes are as varied as they are extensive: one of his classmates is a career physicist; another one is a corporate engineer.

By leveraging his classmates’ range of experiences, Eaton — who was promoted to major in early February — has been able to tackle problems that he says push him beyond his "comfort zone." His most recent assignments were to build a robot, and to research ways for a company in Mexico to expand its market share.

"Systems thinking is about increasing efficiency and lowering costs while keeping stakeholders in mind," Eaton says. "In my last job, the stakeholders were soldiers who needed supplies to complete their mission."

Soon Eaton will incorporate what he has learned at MIT into a curriculum of his own. After he graduates from the SDM program, he will accept an offer for a teaching position in the Systems Engineering Department at West Point.

"As a cadet, I looked up to teachers who had been to combat," says Eaton, who has since been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device for valorous actions against enemy forces. "They shaped who I was at the time. Now here I am, nine years later, going back to West Point as a teacher to share my experiences in leadership with the future leaders of our military."

Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography