Webcast recap: General Hugh Shelton

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General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now Chairman of the Board of Directors of Red Hat, was our guest for today's Open Your World Forum webcast.

General Shelton's recently published autobiography, Without Hesitation, chronicles his distinguished and nearly four-decade military career, spanning a history from the Vietnam War to Operation:Uphold Democracy in Haiti to 9/11 and his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the webcast, he reflected on his career and the links that his own experiences and the military in general have to the principles that the open source way comprises.

General Shelton first encountered open source software while serving on the USS Mount Whitney. After some problems with Microsoft's unchangeable, proprietary code not meeting his team's requirements, they found the right solution with open source software, which let them change the code as they needed. Many years later, in 2003, General Shelton was elected to serve as on the Red Hat board of directors and in 2010 was selected to serve as chairman of that board.


Many people confuse meritocracy with a bureaucracy--they look for ways to operate within that system. But meritocracy doesn't mean inflexibility. General Shelton offers the example of standardized promotions in the military via grades and ranks and time served. But within that there is the option to promote outstanding performers early, a "secondary zone promotion." (Shelton himself received this type of promotion three times.) As a specific example, to be a battalion commander--lead a 600-person unit--you normally should be #2 in command of that unit first. But in Shelton's case, as with many others, a senior in the ranks reached down to pull him up into such a position.

"Everyone sets their own goals for what they'd like to accomplish," said General Shelton. "I never wanted to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But I always tried to be the very best at whatever I was given to do." And the military's meritocracy rewarded him for doing that, eventually with the highest office.

"I also found as a leader in a meritocracy that you have an opportunity to make things go well for others who work for you," Shelton continued. When he worked in the personnel system, roughly 1,000 majors would graduate from Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth each year. Shelton and his boss set a goal of satisfying every one of those graduates, since generally about 150 would protest their assignments. After working to meet that goal and offering to talk to anyone not satisfied with their assignment, Shelton discovered that 100% of that class reported being happy with where they were headed. He credits satisfaction with the functioning meritocracy.

"You tell people the truth. You're candid... That's what's great about open source, because that's what we're all about," Shelton concluded.

Rapid prototyping

Rapid prototyping has become increasingly important to fighting asymmetric threats, which are generally ill-defined and difficult to track.

"In the military you work within an acquisition and procurement system that's bureaucratic and slow," said Shelton. "The average time from conceptual idea to the time it's in the hands of the troops is about seven years." While the military used to be great at innovating, they now find opportunities to take advantage of existing innovation. In recent years they've found that they must be able to go out quickly, select commercial, off-the-shelf capabilities that deal with the current threat. Sometimes, though, that means modification. Off-the-shelf products don't necessarily meet stressful military requirements, particularly in the cases of extreme temperatures or battery life.

Shelton went on to talk about how new ideas are floated in "the Tank." When a combat commander has a plan he wants to carry out, he briefs the Joint Chiefs in the Tank. They're the chiefs of the services that will have to support that plan, and each has more than 30 years of experience. Tony Zinni, for example, would tell you it's not a very pleasant experience to have people tweaking your plan. But when you leave, you have a better plan, and you have support for it. Tommy Franks didn't like the idea of other four stars working on his plan. Rapid prototyping--also perhaps considered as constructive criticism--works better for some than others, but those who accept it are rewarded.

In Vietnam, General Shelton worked on an early prototype of intelligence data analysis to choose an area of attack. He and another soldier worked through the night, plotting multiple pieces of intelligence data. They put each type on separate, clear-acetate overlay—one for voice intercepts, one for the overhead reconnaissance, etc. The outcome was three or four overlapping areas about the size of a quarter that 90% of the data fell into, denoting without question that was where to find the enemy. Today with software, that can all be accomplished in a matter of seconds.


Discussing concerns around intelligence leads well into another tenet of the open source way—transparency. Transparency is critical in an open source community, but the military requires balance in that regard, whether that means against what’s appropriate for the chain of command, or what’s in the best interest of national security.

People have to have a sense of confidence and repect for an institution like the military providing information--confidence that they'll be telling the truth. The trick for the military is to be as honest and complete as possible without tipping their hand to the enemy. If it's information that would help the opposing force, that's when information becomes classified. Shelton said, "My feeling is that the people understand the need for security. But you can't classify information just because you don't want to tell them."

“I’m frequently asked if (in the interest of national security) I have ever lied to the press," Shelton continued. "My answer: no. They often follow up by asking if there is ever an occasion when it might be necessary to do so. My answer: I sure can’t think of any at the moment.”

Talking around issues causes problems. It's clear when someone does that that there's more information to share. Shelton recommends the compromise: Explaining as much as possible, then simply stating when information is classified and stopping there.


We teach our general officer corps that when you get promoted from colonel to general, you should remain true to yourself. The reason all of us should be happy about being promoted to general is that the higher you are promoted, the more you can do to reward those who are doing well and the more you can do to affect change--including "stupid policies," Shelton said. And the best way to do all of that is to be authentic and not get carried away with titles.

Early after becoming Commander of the Joint Chiefs, Shelton said he would hear rumors that readiness was declining. On his first day with the Joint Chiefs, he asked them about their readiness, and they all confirmed that they had no problems. So he asked for readiness report from 12 battalions or commanders from each branch. A Lt. Col. said his battalion was unfit for combat. The Air Force told him there were F-16s that couldn't take off. After sharing those comments with the Joint Chiefs, they admitted that there was much to fix.

Shelton then told them that the bill for those repairs would be $155 billion. The Joint Chiefs were skeptical. They recommended not making the request in consideration of the effect on his legacy. Shelton stood firm. "I'd rather be known as an individual who tried and failed rather than one who met the low standards I set for myself," he said. They received $112 billion to fix the military's readiness, which prepared them to deploy in Afghanistan just a few short years later.

Current events


"In the Middle East today, things I see in Egypt, for example, are encouraging," Shelton said. "Field Marshal Tantawi has stood with the people as they spoke out against their leader. I've met with Mubarak on a number of occasions. He was very pro-US. Was he a great leader? I think history shows he wasn't... But he was a friend of the US." Shelton warned that we must be careful in this transition that's taking place that some of the fundamentalists who wanted to see Mubarak overthrown don't take over the region. The region is of vital national interest to the US and must be considered carefully.


China is frequently brought up when discussing military transparency. In January, their first stealth fighter jet made its first test flight. The event was noted in the press as a new degree of increased transparency on the part of China.

"I look at it with a bit of a jaundiced eye," said Shelton. "I haven't seen anything that makes me think China wants to be more transparent." Rolling out of the new fighter and of offensive weapons systems do, however, indicate that China is sending the message to those in the Pacific region that those countries should side with China, not with the US. They also may be interested in selling those capabilities and are showing off what they have.

A listener asked a different China-related question, regarding whether our traditional military is prepared to deal with cuber warfare and government-sponsored hackers. "Here in America, we've been caught up in a dichotomy--a dilemma--between privacy and using the capabilities we have," Shelton said. He added that as a result we haven't developed them as much as we could have, but we're moving rapidly now, and he believes we'll be there shortly.

Open source software

A webcast listener asked, "In these trying times of doing more with less and reduced budgets, why isn't the open source business case analysis a compelling argument to effect change throughout the Department of Defense by migrating from closed source to open source bolstering productivity and saving dollars?"

Shelton praised the question and summarized that from security and efficiency standpoints, open source is clearly the right answer, particularly for defense. "It's us against proprietary guys," he said. "But we have to share and work together to do it." He also called for everyone to educate and sell open source as a solution.


A webcast listener asked what capabilities of self-governing groups are most important to leverage when it comes to leadership. "From a leadership standpoint, I start with the basics in any organization," Shelton said. "The leader is a person of great integrity, personal integrity, professional ethics, and you've got to make sure your organization is pulling together." A leader should provide vision for the group along with the teamwork to get it there. The leader should also be the one maintaining the group's transparency.

As an example, Shelton offered when Donald Rumsfeld decided to bypass the Joint Chiefs and run the Iraq operation, he lost the equivalent of 200 years of experience in the Tank that could have prevented a lot of mistakes. It's important to take constructive criticism and to learn from everyone in the group.

While on the board of Anheuser Busch, Shelton would walk the theme parks and find everywhere--including Clydesdale stables--were spotless. Augie Busch, as a leader, had inspired the cleanliness. "If you set standards, people are normally going to respond," Shelton said. "There have to be rewards and penalty. Then we give feedback, either formal or informal. I've seen it work in many organizations, in and out of the military. It all starts with the leader."

Tremendous leaders can be in Fortune 10 companies or in small communities. Shelton offered the following as the most important qualities for a leader anywhere:

  • Integrity
  • Professional ethics
  • Team builders

Audio recording

This is a recap of the webcast, but General Shelton had a lot more to say than what you've read here. Listen to the audio recording.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


Would love to hear the speech itself - sorry - could you please check the audio recording link - goes to a Page Not Found page - Thanks

@Aaron we've got that fixed. Looks like a sneaky little space got in front of the http:// - It should work for you now.

Warning - it will resize your browser. Sorry about that.

looking forward to it!

Dear fellow opensource.com'ers,

It was an absolute pleasure and thrill to meet General Shelton today for our webcast. This would not have been possible without the passion and enthusiasm that you all have for opensource.com-- passion that continually helps the seeds of open source grow. Thanks for giving us a chance to bring even more great people into our community.

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