Like many junior officers, I hear a lot about “professional development.” We hear about it from senior leaders, it is almost always on our officer evaluations, we are told to develop our subordinates, and we assume that leader development exists…somewhere. Some of us have even been developed professionally, apparently. Most often, however, it seems to be a buzzword, like “METT-TC dependent.” A catch-all for the way that leaders will develop their subordinates.
My personal experience with professional development has been spotty. It ranges from roundtable discussions on Message to Garcia (how ‘bout “no”) to mind-melting PowerPoint briefings on writing evaluations. But hey, at least they were trying. Many never do.
Our doctrine states, “Every Army leader is responsible for the professional development of their subordinate military and civilian leaders.” (ADRP 7-0, 2-3) But the stark truth is that leaders find themselves sucked into so many other things that leader development often falls into the pile of, “Things I Was Totally Going to Prioritize When I Eventually Took Command But Now Can’t Get Around To Because I Don’t Even Have Time to Sleep And Where Even is My Family, I Haven’t Seen Them in a Year.” Intentionally or unintentionally, leader development at the unit level often leaves a lot to be desired.
The Army provides plenty of examples of leader development. It even has an online professional development toolkit. Doctrine paints a lovely picture of leader development as a triad, with three domains: operational, institutional, and self-development. However, operational development can be hindered by a poor assignment or a neglectful commander. If a Soldier is lazy or – as in most cases – just doesn’t know where to start because self-assessment is hard – self-development can more often than not result in watching Band of Brothers and trying to act like Major Winters. But you can’t really shoot and maneuver your way out of a command supply discipline program inspection.
The only real aspect of leader development that the Army can control is institutional, i.e., Army schools like officer basic course, captains career course, etc. However, even these schools can only provide a minimum baseline because the content is not tailor-made to students and, well, let’s be honest: TRADOC schools teach the science of leadership, not the art. And it is most often underwhelming. But that’s another piece all together.
Which gets us back to leader development at the unit level. Simply put, it is the single greatest moment of influence a leader can have on shaping their subordinates’ careers. By electing to not field a robust leader development program, a leader is – consciously or not – undermining the Army’s crop of future leaders. Imaginative leader development increases retention, raises morale, and – most importantly – creates critical thinkers.
Most leader development is Army-centric, however. An article from ARMY magazine in 2013 addressed the issue of leader development and provided examples of professional leader development that junior officers appreciated. It is all recognizable stuff: book assignments, physical training, informal get-togethers (21st century code for beer call), counseling, and the ever-present “Watched Band of Brothers and talked about it.” These all have their place, and they are all a technique.
But if we are going to practice full-spectrum operations, we should bring that same mentality to our leader development. What is our endstate? To create critically thinking and engaged leaders. Yes, we should also be teaching our new leaders how the Army operates. That is a fundamental aspect of professional development. But we should also be teaching our leaders how to think outside the box. We should be bringing in historians, economists, national security professionals, law enforcement officers, business leaders and others from the surrounding community to be guest speakers. How do law enforcement officers teach and train on close quarters tactics? How do economists view our process of evaluating adversaries through PMESII (political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information systems)? National security professionals can provide a top-down look at how the Army fits into the geopolitical space. How do business leaders retain talent and manage careers? The perspective of those outside the organization can be invaluable in teaching our leaders how to think, rather than what to think. And it also goes a long way in developing ties with civilian agencies and individuals, overcoming the civilian-military divide.
This technique also takes some of the pressure off of leaders at all levels; rather than prepare a class or develop a PowerPoint (God forbid), they merely have to bring in a guest speaker and provide a kickstarter for discussions. Because the best leader development takes place in the arena of open and informal discussion, where junior leaders feel that they can speak without repercussions (within reason).
So rather than assign a book that no one will read or subject everyone to an afternoon spent daydreaming about running off to join the Navy as someone drones on and on over a PowerPoint presentation, consider doing full spectrum leader development. The payoff is incalculable as we move towards of future of doing more with less.
Enjoyed what you just read? Please share via social media and email.