Have We Removed Leadership from Leader Development?

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.

leader development

Spc. Brandyn Sprague, with the 505th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade, headquartered in Las Vegas, fires a 9mm pistol at the qualification range on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, during the 2014 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition.
(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 leader developmentthree 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.

Subscribe to The Military Leader!

Complete Archive of Military Leader Posts

Back to Home Page

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • hokietrax

    I’ve noticed that many fast promotees are not so good at developing leaders. I suspect it has something to do with never experiencing setbacks or failures that they reflected and learned from. And of course, leading staffs is different from leading in the field, and both sets of “muscles” need to be worked and developed.

  • Pingback: Putting Leadership Back in Leader Development - The Military Leader()

  • Christopher Coglianese

    This article was discussed in the USARAK SATB yesterday by a Brigade Commander.

    • Really!?! That’s great to hear. Hopefully the response was positive. Would love to hear the context (offline, if appropriate) and see how the posts fits into people’s concept of leader development. Thanks for mentioning it, sir!

      • Christopher Coglianese

        I’ll send you a note to your Army address.

  • Connor

    As a junior Captain I am admittedly inexperienced and have not been exposed to a wide variety of leadership development programs. Hopefully however, I can provide a perspective from an individual who is in the target audience of these oft discussed programs.

    Have our leader development programs excluded the study of leadership?
    -Unfortunately topics such as command supply discipline, career development, and maintenance are hardly touched upon, if at all, at the schoolhouse. LPD sessions are often the best time in crowded training schedules for junior leaders to get exposure to these topics. If these skills and topics
    were more heavily instructed at the schoolhouse, there would be less of a need to cover them during LPD sessions at the unit level and more time could be devoted to the art of leadership.

    Have we come to view training as a fulfillment of leader development?
    -Training alone is not leader development and should be supplemented by a leader development program, however training is leadership practice and execution. This is where leaders are able to exercise the concepts you discussed (learning from failure, building trust, having a
    success mindset, protecting the team, demanding the best performance), that might have previously only been discussed in a classroom or hypothetical setting. As the previous commenter mentioned, I believe this is where to role of effective counseling comes into play. It is important to be able to take experiences from training and translate them into leadership lessons learned and grow from them.

    Do we confine discussion about leadership to the schoolhouse?
    -From my perspective, there was not actually that much discussion of leadership in the sense that you bring up in your article. Personally, the best discussions of leader development I’ve experienced have been during counselings with raters or senior raters who took a genuine interest in leader development.

  • I don’t feel that we have gotten away from developing leaders by focusing on “developing skills.” At the point of the spear, where the leader is leading shooters into a room and directing fire and maneuver, it is important that those skills have been developed and that the Soldiers/shooters understand the competence of the leader directing them. That is part of the “do” portion (competencies) of the “Be, Know, Do” model (see ADP 6-22, para. 22.)

    As for “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.” Bottom line, skill development IS leader development, it is perhaps the one most easily to implement at the unit level. Individual performance/leadership counseling is just that, on the individual level. This is where the leader development will become personal developing a customized development plan for the individual. Now, I will agree that this is lacking, and has been for most of my 17 years in.

    So, if your leadership development program lacks the mandate for leaders to counsel leaders, then your program is perhaps not working as designed. As you know, any training without the assessing portion, is incomplete. First, you yourself must be a self-aware leader and understand where your strengths and weaknesses are, develop a plan of action and implement. Then, you will be on the path to ensure you can do the same for those you lead.

    This is not an easy subject, that is why folks like John C. Maxwell are well off writing books on the subject.

    • Justin, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      It sounds like you are saying that leadership talent will naturally develop as programs develop our subordinates’ individual skills. But you mention John Maxwell, who I think best isolates leadership as a field of study in and of itself. I think the problem is that leadership principles (like Maxwell teaches) don’t find their way into performance counseling and too few leaders self-start their way to studying leadership. They assume that experience and training will develop them into a great leader, which (I believe) will leave most people well short of their potential.
      In the next post, I’ll talk specifically about how to integrate leadership into unit training and leader-follower interaction.
      Thanks again for commenting!