Success in the military is described like this: A mission progresses by defining the tasks, obtaining the tools necessary to complete the task or tasks and then determining the metric for defining success. The metric, therefore, is attainable at one level and desirable at another. Generals have used this model for centuries. All military officers strive for the desirable but often will denote success if the task is attained. We might think of the model this way: Something is better than nothing, but it is not quite everything.

While I have left the military culture of Central Command and my role as an agricultural advisor, I bring back to my civilian culture lessons learned. They are valuable, and for this article I write about metrics of success.

In the fall of 2004, I began working on a spatial model for assessing the potential risk of phosphorus movement or transport to surface water from a crop field. After reading through literature and developing a draft model, a group of us here in Michigan sifted through the model’s components. We modified them when the preponderance of evidence supported changes.

We spent just over a year on this model. As the lead scientist, I was in the mode of working towards completing this task with the metric defined as desirable. Specifically, the model would be developed using the tools we had already (no further research, such as adsorption isotherms or instrumented fields quantifying runoff per unit time), and then after completing the technical note the model would be placed in our USDA-NRCS database called eFTOG. Planners and landowners would make better field decisions before applying nutrients. The desirable metric for success was on a watershed scale, reducing phosphorus inflow into surface water, thereby improving aquatic habitat.

We did not accomplish our metric of a desirable outcome. The civilian exercise of working through the task components of model development nearly fell apart at the end, and to an extent I was partially responsible. The emotion of embarrassment comes to mind. Simply stated, I did not meet the desirable metric.


In the art of diplomacy or negotiation, there are multiple approaches defining success. One might be that if the leader cannot obtain the desirable then nothing is gained. This all-or-nothing approach is not wise for all the obvious reasons. A leader must know that in order to gain something he may need to give up something. The art of diplomacy is compromise, and in the development of this spatial model, I gave up something in order that certain others would support the model. They gave something, too – support.

Yet in the art of compromise we can cross the line to the attainable from the desirable. The military general does this every day on every kinetic battlefield. For my effort, I did the same, realizing after a period of time with hours of negotiating and debate, I concluded I must give up enough to have the attainable. The desirable was lost.

One of my colleagues pointed this out to me. If we dig our heels in and remain steadfast, or if we cannot give up something, compromise or negotiate, then we have nothing. She was right on target.

As of this writing, the spatial phosphorus model is still in the attainable metric. I did not get what I desired in the original model design. Like the military general on the battlefield, I accepted that I can have something attainable and that is better than nothing at all.

If we step back a bit and think about these two words, desirable and attainable, they can be part of any task before us. There are many cases, however, where the metric of success can be only one or the other. For instance, leading an authentic life is desirable; I cannot think of any reason why leading such a life is simply attainable. We have only ourselves to negotiate with, and reconciliation of an unauthentic life is ours and ours alone.

Conversely, if we desire something very expensive (an airplane, a sports car, a cabin in Vermont) but realize that what is attainable might be working on a college degree, then we know what is attainable makes more sense over a long period of time.

This week brought home my experiences in the military once more. I realized diplomacy, the art of negotiating, included these two words so that I met the metric of success. I got something (attainable), but I know it is not what I had hoped for (desirable).

We have learned in the framework of this article that dogmatists, those who have decided it is their way and their way alone, will fail some of the time. The diplomats and negotiators fail less often. Or as one Lt. Colonel at Camp Eggers in Kabul said to me after discussing troop needs at a Forward Operating Base (FOB), the best commanders understand the difference between winning the war as compared to winning just the battle, if the entire war is lost. PD