How to Leverage Digital Leader Development

by Mike Denny

As an Army National Guard officer, I get infrequent opportunities to connect in person with my junior officers. To hold effective leader development sessions, I learned that I have to engage outside of our 63 days together a year. But in the past few months, I felt that I was not effectively developing a cadet or my staff Lieutenants, many of whom are relegated to assistant to the assistant duties.

Luckily, some talented and more seasoned officers posted leader development content that caught my attention, particularly Lieutenant Lessons…Continued and Iron Major’s Survival Guide. I shared these articles with my officers and gave them a simple homework assignment:  write a one page essay outlining their views on the articles.

(It may sound asinine to tell Army officers to write a simple report, but as often discussed on #CCLKOW and #MILPME on Twitter, the ability to write coherently and simplistically is dying art in the midst of today’s PowerPoint decision making methodologies.)

Then, Joe Byerly provided inspiration with his Company Command Article on developing a team through a digital LPD. Digital leader development typically refers to professional products stored on mobile devices for easy access, and but also represents the methods leaders use to connect external enablers to the unit (videos, speakers, or directly by phone or Skype).

I took action to develop our own. Here is how we did it.

Leader development

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Wright, Observer Controller, HHC Joint Multinational Readiness Center, coaches, teaches and mentors Canadian Soldiers from I Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment during practice for a live fire event Wednesday during Cooperative Spirit 2008 at JMRC near Hohenfels, Germany. Cooperative Spirit 2008 is a multinational Combat Training Center rotation intended to test interoperability among the American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies (ABCA). Link to photo.

Find a Subject worth Discussing

I did not want to simply rehash topic areas that are beat endlessly during mandated annual training. Junior leaders will more passionately engage in topics like resiliency, SHARP, and EO if they are presented through an interesting or captivating context. I decided to focus on Lieutenant Lessons…Continued for the first article that I shared. Rarely does my unit have the opportunity to give objective and candid feedback based on our own experiences, and these articles gave me an opportunity to reflect and share with my subordinate officers.

Leverage Experts in your Network

Every organization is an intersection of experiences, a network of experts to use for everyday needs. The military is no different. I reached out to MAJs John McRae (ARNG), Joe Byerly (From the Green Notebook), Nate Finney (The Bridge), and Drew Steadman (The Military Leader).

Over Army-Navy Saturday (no West Pointers in this group), we spent an hour on a conference call and started a new mission within my company:  to develop our leaders with maximum return on minimal time invested during a duty weekend. The junior officers stepped out of their comfort zone to ask questions of the more senior officers, some of which included:

  • Can you tell me about a time you failed and how you came back?
  • What would you do differently if given the chance?
  • How can I best prepare for leadership prior to commissioning? (from a cadet)

Our discussion had an immediate and lasting effect on the officers in my company, who were able to connect the advice to their own leadership path.

As a leader, don’t forget the options that civilian leaders and academics can provide. Previously, while stationed at Fort Polk, I reached out to the School of Journalism at LSU to assist our Soldiers in developing their Information Operations and Media Awareness skills. We developed a productive training session as the Soldiers and the students of LSU exchanged valuable knowledge and experiences.

Reach out to those experts in your units, network, and community who might take some time to provide a different look at a topic area of choice. Thankfully in this era, there are a multitude of excellent resources available from Training Center AARs to junior leader hip pocket guides. My personal favorite eye-opener is to show first-person combat footage on YouTube, which provides both the Soldier’s and the enemy’s point of view.

Follow Up with Counseling & Develop your Next Topic

During the call, a brief discussion on counseling focused my thoughts on how I can more effectively counsel these junior leaders. The Army Developmental Counseling Form (DA 4856), while well intentioned, is overly structured for the interaction that I seek to achieve with my subordinates.

During the LPD, we discussed how to make the process more simple by narrowing quarterly counseling down to three sections on a piece of paper or white board:  Strengths, Weaknesses, and the Way Ahead. Additionally, From the Green Notebook has an excellent article on Turning Counseling into a Conversation. Briefly after the conference call, I counseled the two leaders I rate and formulated our development way ahead, leveraging the LPD for expectations of performance.

Our Way Ahead

Then, I emailed out a series of links, videos, and articles on the battles at the Ranch House, VPB Kahler, and COP Keating to prepare these officers for a class and terrain walk I would give the company on outpost defense. For the upcoming generation of junior officers with relatively little deployment experience, it’s imperative that we share our lessons learned and package them in ways that creatively transmit their importance.

Our next quarter’s focus is on executing mission command at the platoon level and will follow the digital LPD products sent out prior to drill. The expectation for each junior leader is to lead a similar class or project with their subordinate teams, taking an hour to teach, coach, and mentor their Soldiers in an area outside of their MOS expertise. In spite of our limited time together, we can still tackle one of our most neglected areas of leader development…our ability to think and reason in the absence of guidance.

I want to send a special note of thanks to the military bloggers and scholars who influenced this program, and the gentlemen who took time from a Saturday to develop junior leaders in the Army National Guard. The growing field of military blogging has made it easier for the time-constrained Company Commander to grow his or her team effectively.

Captain Mike Denny is an Army National Guard aviation officer and headquarters company commander. Formally, he served as a Field Artillery officer on active duty, finishing at Fort Polk following his second Afghan tour. As a civilian he is an executive management professional and occasional contributing writer for Task and PurposeThe Bridge, and Red Team Journal.

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  • christian

    Great article. Thanks for the info, it’s easy to understand. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a Form DA Form 4856, I found a blank form here:

  • As a new LT in a rural National Guard unit, I found this article helpful. I am a teacher on the civilian side and am familiar with using twitter chats for professional development. I like the idea of continuing training and leader development between drills. Would you recommend having a theme to focus on each month for leader development? Thanks for the article.

    • Robby,

      Thanks for commenting! Mike Denny can chime in and provide some insight too, but I think you’re on the right track by examining the best ways to develop your team. The tough part is finding a topic that people want to stay engaged in while they’re not on duty or at drill. When leader development starts to feel homework, people lose interest and do it (or don’t) just to follow the rules.

      Maybe in your situation, it would be best to let people explore their own topics of interest. Encourage people to find their niche in regards to development, then share that with the team. Maybe someone likes history, another weapons, and still someone else is a cars guy. Ask them to explore their topics and connect them to your unit, your mission, and team development.

      At the end of the day you have two ends of spectrum: “hands-off” and “formal program.” Wherever you land on that spectrum, the leader must constantly be on the lookout for teachable moments that don’t fit into a program. Those may be the most valuable.

      Consider this post on the topic:

      Thanks again and let us know how it goes!!