Every year, new command teams spend thoughtful hours crafting the words that will precisely convey their version of unit success. This intent typically reaches the service members in the form of an organizational mission statement or “Unit Vision.” And if your experience is anything like mine, leader development takes center stage. When those command teams brief their vision to the unit, the slides inevitably include phrases like these:
“Developing leaders is our #1 priority.”
“Leader Development is in everything we do.”
“The heart of this unit is its leaders.”
“Good leadership is our most important asset.”
Sound about right?
But when was the last time you participated in a unit leader development event that was focused on the practice of leadership? Not doctrine, not staff processes, not command supply discipline…leadership! It’s probably been a while.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)
It’s been a while because collectively we have compartmentalized the study of leadership to the schoolhouse. We’ve also adopted the belief that training events fulfill the requirement to develop leaders. When “Leader Development is in everything we do,” going to the range is leader development; so is doing PT and inspecting vehicles. Leader development has evolved to encompass everything except the very activity its name implies – teaching our people how to be good leaders.
Allow me to explain why this has occurred and what you can do about it.
A Succession of Skills
Developing leaders is the bedrock of sustaining a capable, multigenerational military. Technologies come and go, but it’s our people who make the decisive difference. And the mandate to develop those people is quite clear. Take a look at the Army’s guidance on developing leaders:
“Accomplishing the current mission is not enough—the leader is responsible for developing individuals and improving the organization for the near- and long-term.” (1, ADP 6-22, Army Leadership)
“Unit training and leader development are the Army’s life-blood. Army leaders train units to be versatile. They develop subordinate leaders—military and Army civilians—to be competent, confident, agile, and adaptive using the Army leader development model. Units and leaders master individual and collective tasks required to execute the unit’s designed capabilities and accomplish its mission.” (1, ADP 7-0, Training Units and Developing Leaders)
A consistent theme in Army doctrine is that skills are the metric of leader development. Leaders acquire, refine, and implement skills that allow them to accomplish tasks at increasing levels of responsibilities. This association makes it easy for units to make training synonymous with leader development.
Commanders implement programs that typically include classes, exercises, and events focusing on topics like warfighting doctrine, command supply discipline, career development, maintenance, the new OER/NCOER, and so on. In their messaging, they emphasize “getting out to the range with your troops,” conducting regular counseling, and doing good PT. These events fulfill the idea of leader development, which in reality is simply skill development.
Individuals need such skills to perform – fighting units must conduct these activities to succeed – but it’s leadership that drives people to perform those tasks well, or at all. Without strong leadership, the effectiveness of every other activity is compromised.
Stuck in the Schoolhouse
Looking at the Army’s leader development model from ADP 7-0, leader development occurs as Soldiers cycle through three domains. Institutional schooling teaches the fundamentals, operational assignments help leaders convert knowledge into practice, and self-development fills the gaps as a career progresses. In this model, training, education, and experience alternate as the primary means of development in each domain.
The problem is that today’s Army culture views the study of leadership as “Education” and is quite comfortable letting the Institutional Domain teach it. Do we talk about the principles of leadership at the range or standing around in formation? No, we talk about them in the schoolhouse, where we spend a small portion of our careers. We’ve come to believe that participation in unit training activities is sufficient to grow the leadership competencies of our Soldiers.
This belief is inaccurate at best, as it is not uncommon to find that a good tactician is a bad leader – one may find recent case studies in the battalion and brigade commander firings of the last few years. But there is also a fundamental flaw in the belief that great leaders will naturally emerge from leader development programs comprised solely of unit training.
“It’s on you, follower.”
In a leader development program that excludes the study of leadership, responsibility for discerning the appropriate leadership lessons rests with the subordinates. Followers must have a desire to learn, be observant of their leaders, and know what leadership qualities to look for and internalize. All of this requires not only keen intuition but the time and mental energy to do so while fulfilling the duties of their current position. This is a lot to ask of our subordinates.
To truly grow leaders instead of just skilled followers, leaders need to teach topics like example setting, self-development, learning from failure, building trust, having a success mindset, protecting the team, demanding the best performance, and so on. These aren’t technical competencies, they’re not warfighting competencies…they’re leadership competencies. If leaders fail to make these lessons explicit during training and leader development events, they should not expect subordinates to model the behavior and become good leaders themselves.
Leader development means teaching the How and Why, while the team is doing the What. Leader development means elevating the conversation above the level of task execution. Leader development means talking about leadership on a daily basis, not just in the schoolhouse. “Leader development” is incomplete without leadership.
What Do You Think About Leader Development?
I want to know if you agree with this assertion. In the next post, I’ll make some recommendations for making leadership a focus of leader development. But for now, a few questions:
Have our leader development programs excluded the study of leadership?
Have we come to view training as a fulfillment of leader development?
Do we confine discussion about leadership to the schoolhouse?
How is your unit making leaders and not just skilled followers?
Take a look at your unit’s leader development program and post your thoughts in the comment section below.