February 1, 2011  

Building critical thinkers

Leader development must be the Army’s top priority

Throughout our long history, the Army has developed capable and prominent strategic leaders. We pride ourselves in the long line of strategic leaders who have served this great Army and our beloved nation through its highs, its lows and everything in between for 235 years. To preserve this great legacy, it is our obligation to “keep first things first” and ensure leader development remains our first and foremost priority.

We are moving aggressively to adapt personnel policies, take a new look at professional military education and re-examine leader attributes to account for what we’ve learned in recent conflict and modify career patterns to provide opportunities for “broadening” opportunities for our leaders. We are putting our shoulders behind our Leader Development Strategy for a 21st Century Army that was published in November of 2009. Built on the idea that we must be a learning organization, this strategy reminds us that leader development is our true competitive advantage to be preserved as our first priority if we are to remain the most powerful and adaptive land force in the world.

Our leader development strategy describes nine imperatives that guide us in the development of our leader development programs and policies. Among these imperatives, we assert that we must “prepare leaders for responsibility at the national level.” This is not a new challenge, but the experiences of the last 10 years reinforces the need to develop leaders who are both accomplished leaders at the tactical level and competent and capable leaders at the operational and strategic level. We need to develop leaders who will not only win today’s wars, but also shape the future and win tomorrow’s wars.

Recently, a respected colleague suggested to me that “we are developing the finest linebackers for our Army, but we also need to think about developing the best tight ends, wide receivers and quarterbacks.” His comment was not intended to disparage the leaders we are developing today. In fact, there is general agreement that we are the finest and most capable fighting force because of the leaders we have in our ranks today. He was simply pointing out that tactical demands have in many ways trumped operational and strategic demands, and he was encouraging us to think about the future.


In that regard, I tell anyone who will listen that if we have a leader development problem in the Army, I like the problem we have! We know that our leaders know how to fight and have demonstrated great courage, selflessness, versatility and resilience. Those are great traits on which to build, and they are traits on which we will never compromise. On the other hand, it is true that the tactical demands of fighting two wars have consumed us as a profession over the past decade. Our focus has naturally and correctly been oriented on winning the wars we’re in. As the demand to support these wars is reduced, we need to be ready to add to the knowledge, skills and attributes of our brilliant tactical leaders and prepare them to operate at the strategic level.

The Army Leader Development Strategy identifies three critical leadership attributes for all Army leaders: character, presence and intellect. In addition to those three foundational attributes, we assert that strategic leaders must be inquisitive and open-minded. They must be able to think critically and be capable of developing creative solutions to complex problems. They must be historically minded; that is, they must be able to see and articulate issues in historical context. Possessed of a strong personal and professional ethic, strategic leaders must be able to navigate successfully in ethical “gray zones,” where absolutes may be elusive. Similarly, they must be comfortable with ambiguity and able to provide advice and make decisions with less, not more, information. While all leaders need these qualities, the complexity of problems will increase over the course of an officer’s career and require strategic leaders to develop greater sophistication of thought.

To be credible representatives of the profession of arms, strategic leaders must be warriors. This is and will remain the essence of our profession. They must also possess a strong sense of their identity as servants to the nation. They must be self-aware and understand their strengths as well as their shortcomings. Successful strategic leaders will require interpersonal skills and maturity. They must be team builders, negotiators, mentors and leaders who empower others. With mental agility, successful strategic leaders scan their environments, think critically, and lead and manage change across large, complex organizations. Today perhaps more than ever before, success at the strategic level will require leaders to operate outside their comfort zone of organizational, geographical, societal and political knowledge. Successful strategic leaders will have to remain committed to the development of other leaders within the profession. They must embrace the responsibility to develop the future leaders of the profession of arms and remain committed to stewardship of the profession for the society it serves.

Building on all of these qualities, leaders preparing for service at the strategic level must possess:

• A variety of experiences at the tactical and operational levels of war to serve as a foundation for their service at the strategic level.

• An educational foundation that enables creative and critical thinking in an environment of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

• A deep understanding of our military history, including how we begin, conduct and end wars.

• A depth of knowledge resulting from both study and experience in how the U.S. government functions and the role of the professional military officer in providing advice to senior decision makers.

These attributes cannot be grown overnight, in the course of a year or two at school, or in a single broadening assignment. Developing leaders competent in all of these traits is a careerlong process that begins early.


As I noted previously, change is underway within our professional military education and training programs. Importantly, we’re rediscovering and re-emphasizing the study of history in our leader development programs. To be articulate and persuasive in providing advice to senior military and civilian leaders, our leaders must understand our history and they must understand what it means to be a member of the profession of arms. TRADOC is sponsoring a campaign of learning to determine how the last nine years of war have impacted our profession. Additionally, we recently completed a study on conflict termination to help our leaders understand how to “think in time” about how to provide advice to senior leaders. In the near future, we will introduce conflict termination studies as part of the military history curriculum in our school houses.

We’re also examining how to incorporate the art of negotiation into our training and education programs. Recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have illustrated that leaders at all levels must work with a variety of joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational (JIIM) partners. Operating in this type of environment means Army leaders will often find themselves in a position where they must lead through influence and persuasion as opposed to direction and control. This fact makes the art of negotiation critically important for all leaders but especially so for strategic leaders working in combination with partners to resolve strategic problems. Negotiation will soon be added as an attribute in our leader development strategy and incorporated into our leader development curriculum and training.

Design doctrine

The recent addition of design into our doctrine and into our education curriculum is another important step in changing how we develop strategic leaders. Design highlights the importance of framing and understanding both the operational environment and the problem to be solved before trying to solve it. It teaches the value of questioning assumptions and reframing the problem as events unfold and changes occur. Design is an important component in adapting our curriculum to educate leaders how to frame and reframe complex, ill-structured problems. It’s intended to encourage leaders to think “outside the lines” of existing paradigms. It’s also about valuing intellectual curiosity.

As current demands subside, we must create the right opportunities for leaders to gain experiences outside of the operational Army. Critical assignments such as duty in a combatant command or service on the Joint Staff introduce an officer to joint operations and allow him to manage and confront complex problems at both the operational and strategic levels of war. Such assignments are especially valuable to senior Army leaders when addressing strategic challenges in joint and interagency contexts.

Unique broadening experiences are also available to many of our junior and midgrade officers. These opportunities include service in the highest levels and in all branches of the federal government, with our international partners, in academia, and with various civilian centers of thought and practice. These experiences broaden the Army officer corps’ understanding of national and international systems of government and how the military operates within those systems. The result of these experiences will be a corps of officers with a more comprehensive understanding of the nuances and complexity associated with our national security decision-making process. As we gain more time in the next few years, we will allow our future strategic leaders to pursue these unique and developmental broadening assignments. Ultimately, these opportunities broaden a leader’s perspective and better orient his understanding of where the Army’s roles and missions fit within a national security context.

Of course, we must identify those officers within the ranks who have demonstrated the attributes we seek in our developmental strategy. We are experimenting with a collaborative tool of officer management called “Green Pages” to better harmonize the interests of the individual and the institution and to better understand and manage the diverse talents within the Army. We are also developing a new officer evaluation report that will assist us in identifying those with the most potential as strategic leaders.

The challenges ahead of us in the 21st century security environment mandate that we reinvigorate our commitment to the development of strategic leaders. We owe it to the Army and to the nation to “build a bench” of leaders for tomorrow who can operate at the highest levels of our government. The development of our future leaders is not a tax on the institution but an investment in our future. We will build on an already solid foundation of superb leaders in order to prepare our Army for the unforeseen challenges that lie right around the corner.

GEN. MARTIN E. DEMPSEY is commanding general of U.S. Army

Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Monroe, Va. On Jan. 6 he was

nominated to succeed Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff.

Dempsey took command of TRADOC in December 2008. He previously

served as both acting and deputy commander of Central Command. He

also served as commanding general of Multi-National Security Transition

Command-Iraq, responsible for recruiting, training and equipping the Iraqi

security forces.