The Roles of the Senior Defense Official in a Country Team: A Dead Goat Is Not Afraid of the Knife

Now and then, an SDO may be asked: “So who do you work for?” That is a canned question – a mon avis. The answer is the SDO works for the Secretary of Defense, and in doing so, they work for all agencies, departments, and commands underneath the Secretary. That also means SDOs are required to conduct the same type of cross-department and agency coordination that the Secretary’s office is required to do. So, in the end the answer is the SDO works for everyone, but at the end of the day he/she wears a uniform. The SDO is the senior military advisor to the Ambassador of the United States and should understand and execute the Secretary of Defense’s and Combatant Commander’s objectives, strategies, and know both of their limitations and strengths. An SDO should understand these enough to inform the embassy team of what the Department of Defense can and cannot bring to the table as part of the 3D concept. An SDO should be able to clearly explain the differences between Annexes A and B, the authorities that go with them, and the problems this delineation creates.


The Senior Defense Official is a somewhat new concept that started in 2007 as an experiment in Jordan. Therefore, it is often referred to as the Jordan Model. Below is an excerpt from an article that explains this model.

“The Jordan Model: Coming Soon to a United States Embassy near You” By Crumrine, Russell

“The promulgation of Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 5105.75, dated December 21, 2007, will result in major changes in the leadership of Security Cooperation Offices and Defense Attache Offices in U.S. diplomatic missions (embassies); coordination of security cooperation programs and activities with geographic combatant commands (GCCs); and, potentially, relations with host country militaries and officials. The directive establishes the position of Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché (SDO/DATT). The SDO/DATT will essentially be triple “hatted,” fulfilling the traditional responsibilities of the U.S. Defense Attache (DATT), Chief of the Security Cooperation Organization (CSCO), and the additional duties traditionally associated with the designation of U.S. Defense Representative (USDR). The Department of Defense (DOD) policy is to insure unified DOD representation in U.S. embassies in the accomplishment of national security objectives. The SDO/DATT will be the “principal DOD official in a U.S. embassy, as designated by the Secretary of Defense. The SDO/DATT is the Chief of Mission’s (COM) principal military advisor on defense and national security issues, the senior diplomatically-accredited DOD military officer assigned to a diplomatic mission, and the single point of contact for all DOD matters involving the embassy or DoD elements assigned to or working from the embassy.”

The Security Assistance Management Manual (SAMM) defines the roles of the SDO/DATT as Chapter Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché (SDO/DATT). DoD Directive 5205.75, Department of Defense Operations at U.S. Embassies, creates the position of SDO/DATT as the principal DoD official in U.S. embassies and establishes the SDO/DATT as the diplomatically accredited defense attaché and chief of the SCO. As such the SDO/DATT is responsible for advancing U.S. foreign policy goals under the Ambassador, promoting the Combatant Commander’s (CCDR) theater campaign plan objectives, and complying with DoD Directive 5205.75 and DoDI C-5105.81, “Implementing Instructions for DoD Operations at U.S. Embassies.”


I have spent a few months as an SDO so far, and overall it comes down to small unit leadership. An SDO cannot do it alone; no matter what their skill set is (I tried for five months), all countries have different levels of staff abilities, and every country is different in its challenges and strategies. On top of this the capabilities, language skills, and personalities of an SDO have too many extenuating circumstances that drive the success or failure of the office. Below are a few of my suggestions of how to succeed as an SDO. I have not accomplished them all.

#1 Be the Combatant Command representative

The SDO should be the sole representative of the Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commander (CCDR) to the U.S. Embassy. The primary role of the SDO is to represent the Combatant Commander, and other military commanders the CCDR represents. The SDO directs all Security Cooperation (S.C.) and Security Force Assistance (SFA) for the Combatant Command (CCMD) and Security Assistance (SA) for the Department of State for partner nation militaries; and also directs non-combatant evacuations and American hostage issues. The SDO should have the skills and ability to guide and influence all other Security Assistance within the Embassy, should they choose to. The SDO should also execute the requirements set forth for them in the references stated above. The SDO’s opinion has an incredible amount of weight on it, and SDO’s should ensure they understand that, and ensure it is accurate.

Working with your interagency partners: Moving past the bureaucracy
“Despite thirteen years of experience—and innumerable opportunities to learn lessons from both successes and mistakes—there have been few significant changes in our cumbersome, inefficient and ineffective approach to interagency operations in the field.” Admiral Dennis Blair, USN (ret.), Ambassador Ronald E. Neuman, and Admiral Eric Olson, USN (ret.), 2014

“The United States has a compelling national security interest to promote stability in select fragile and conflict-affected states. The operating environment is complex and requires a whole-of-U.S. Government response, coupled with non-governmental and international partners supported by the affected nation to achieve national and international security goals. Since the National Security Act of 1947, the United States’ national security system has struggled to handle effectively the range and complexity of the global threats and opportunities.”

For most, DoD personnel working in a U.S. Embassy will be a bit of a culture shock. Embassy leaders tend to talk in hyperboles without direct guidance or specifics and long-term planning is something that is broadly amiss. DoD members come from a setting where nine months is a short time frame, whereas as an embassy member the SDO will rarely be able to see past six months. As an SDO one must learn to understand these dynamics and why the other agencies operate differently. Understanding and managing the differences of opinions amongst Washington and the SDO’s country and the many different perspectives is vital. The British WWII phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” could not be more critical. Often times interagency personnel will say one thing, or not say anything at all, then do something almost opposite when discussing within their own agency. The key is to understand your role, stay within it, and not buy into something so much so that when it is cancelled/changed/adjusted that your personal opinion of the policy is different. Even if the approved policy or decision is wrong in your opinion, it has been decided and that policy is moving forward. Accept it and move on.

We are only 60 years into this

The ability of a country to coordinate and execute successfully within the interagency community is a milestone, and a red line of whether or not they are a near or far peer with the United States.

“RAND, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the American Academy of Diplomats, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Defense Science Board, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, the Special Inspectors General for Afghanistan and Iraq, the Senior Military Service Colleges, the Project on National Security Reform and numerous others call for improving the United States Government’s (USG) ability to assess, decide, plan, deliver, and adjust to emergent and persistent national security threats.”

However, as the Congressional Research Service in 2012 concluded, there is no consensus among all agencies on how to fix the perceived problems. Reforms have occurred with an eye toward a holistic approach, but the basic system remains one of stovepipes and personalities not of integrated, horizontal, systemic approaches.”

Strive to not be a stovepipe, but understand also who you represent. Don’t get burned up in your own or someone else’s stovepipe; sometimes, it’s best to let Washington fight it out, not you as the SDO on your Country Team.

#2 Be a Small Unit Leader: One Team/One Fight

The SDO is just that, the Senior Defense Official for country X. Some offices reach into the hundreds, and others can be counted on your hand (or singular). All are the same in most aspects. All are small units, and they have the requirements of small-unit leadership.

A mon avis, the requirements are:

1) Be an Adviser, Suggester, Perhapser, and Accepter (I totally made these last three words up only because they make so much sense in an embassy environment). You should be able to transition from advising, to suggesting, to redirecting and saying “perhaps it might be better if we…,” and when those don’t work just accept whatever it is and move on. There are no swords to throw yourself on as an SDO. If you find yourself drawing lines in the sand…well perhaps it’s time to PCS or retire.

2) More often than not, as an SDO you are more senior in your position than your other agency heads, especially in Africa. You more than likely have had more leadership training, experiences, and challenges. Within DoD we often speak truth to reality, but in an embassy environment the truth is often ambiguous. Truth is personality dependent and the analysis is more than likely dependent upon the person upon which it is being analyzed through. As an SDO you must take time to know the personalities of your other department and agency heads, while also not being sucked into the potential drama and gossip game that happens too often in any office setting. Being too much of a “General” or too much of a team player might be bad. You are a department head, act accordingly.

3) Be the person who questions everything and ask about policies, regulations, and FAMs. Use your staff to manage these questions and give them guidance to further develop the situations. Too often some new management officer will come in and change a policy without asking anyone, and without understanding the effects of his change. Before becoming the confrontation monster, become the “from what manual are you drawing your changes from, and have you considered the effects to all the departments within the embassy?”

Think back to your days as a Lieutenant, when you were working daily with your subordinates. You may have over shared details of your personal life, the previous person might have been toxic and the team’s morale might be low, and you all might be working in a difficult environment with a difficult boss. How did you overcome these? Well you don’t want to be too distant with your subordinates, but you also don’t want to be their buddies. Find where the black and white line is (there is no grey area). If morale is low from the previous leader then discover ways to improve morale. Have an off-site, make team polo shirts and have a certain day you wear them, discuss changes in embassy policies, or whatever other ways you can imagine to build your small unit.

Colonel Dandridge M. Malone, USA (Ret.) wrote the single most influential book in my professional life called “Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach.” This book is very much oriented around U.S. Army small unit leadership; however, I think every lesson he displays can be applied at all levels of leadership in any service or job one has. Specifically, as an SDO, I highly suggest after you’ve conducted the standard 90-day assessment, you read COL Malone’s chapter six. I love his team categories of:


COL Malone packs more guidance in the eight pages of chapter six than anyone and any other book I’ve ever read. Conducting an analysis of your team members and their capabilities is very key to understanding the capabilities of your team as a whole, and areas where you as the SDO should focus. I often reference this book before I make discussions on what I should do with a certain situation in my small unit.

#3 Be the manager who writes everything down

You are naïve to think that you are coming to the embassy and you are God’s gift to the Country Team. In reality you are walking into an arena where some of the participants view military members as hard/rough, insulting, unable to work well with others, problematic, and undisciplined. Other view us as team builders, straight forward when the discussion has rabbit holed, suggestive, and someone to lean upon. Most of the members on the country team have seen two to five of you before you arrive.

You may find that even in other agencies they suffer from some of the same leadership issues the Department of Defense does. Toxic leadership and poor morale values, these things exist in all agencies. As the SDO you are guaranteed to have to interact with someone whom you may have issues with. You should approach this person just like you approach the junior enlisted person you had to manage when you were a lieutenant. First, identify that it is not your personality that is causing an issue in the situation. Second, realize that this is not something that can be fixed / solved by you and perhaps is a greater embassy issue. Next, if you have gone through the first two steps you should probably enter into the documentation stage. You may want to take copious notes of any interactions or meetings with this person, and at worst case type up Memorandums For Record (MFR) and print and sign them. On a few occasions I’ve had to go so far as printing out emails and showing them to other members. These issues go all the way from the Ambassador to your Locally Employed Staff members. Some say this is moving into the CYA phase of things, which it is. Others would say that this is a leadership challenge, which it is also. That is why you were selected to be an SDO.

This philosophy of managing drama or issues is one that I’ve learned the hard way. When you start experiencing things going south with a member of your team, start documenting everything, without passion. Facts matter and help to remove the passion or drama of a personality later when you are presenting your “case” to whomever. These things also help in putting an unwanted member on a plane earlier rather than later. I’ve always taken the rule that this is not a discussion, it is a counseling session, and here is the road ahead – take it and change your actions or get on a plane, with or without your household goods, and family.

#4 Be prepared: Ensure the CCMD’s plans and systems are updated

There’s never been a coup in Africa, so there’s no need to worry about ensuring NEO plans are up to date. When it happens and you haven’t ensured they are up to date everyone will know as you are jumping out of your !@# to figure something out. Take some time and update the plans, and ensure you have actually read them. Also attend every embassy training event, even if it is announced less than 48 hours out.

#5 Be a sounding board

I’ve found that people stop me in the hall as I’m doing my daily LBWA (Leadership By Walking Around), or on the way to the front door of the embassy in the morning, and share a situation with me and ask my opinion. I think they do this because I work very hard to stay away from any internal gossip or politics, and always try to present an assessment or opinion of any and all situations that are analytical, critical only with a proposed solution, or more often I’ve found someone just needed to say out loud what they had already decided. (That’s a very complex sentence I know, but I like how I wrote it so I left it in.). Sometimes I find myself in the counselor role, sometimes I’m embarrassed as I don’t know what to say, most often I think about what this person is saying and whether or not our leadership needs to know or not. I’ve always taken some kind of action on a complaint, even if it was against me (and I didn’t like it!!).

#6 Be and understand yourself, and your family’s self.

Every SDO is different, but almost all achieve the same goals. Know yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, and when to take a vacation. Understand that your family is playing a more significant role in your assignment than they possibly have before. Lastly, enjoy it, you’ve worked hard to get here.

What are my favorite things about being an SDO?

I’ve found I like being in charge and being challenged by being in charge. I have also found that I’m not always the most prepared or aware in the room for the situation I am walking into, but I’ve learned to “go with the flow” for lack of a better phrase. I love giving guidance and suggestions and letting my subordinates excel and reach their autonomy, or not; however, I find myself more and more going into criticisms, which may or may not provide the intent I am trying to relay, but my subordinates probably love to hear my stories.

I’ve spent hours upon hours thinking how best to implement Mission Command into the SDO concept, and at the end of the day, it comes down to trust and allowing subordinates to fail, while also accomplishing the mission, i.e., Small Unit Leadership.

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