#Human Storytelling, Conversational Learning, and Mission Command

In the recently published Human Dimension White Paper, education is listed as one of the six means supporting the three lines of effort described in the paper (cognitive dominance, institutional agility, and realistic training).

In his post on the Human DimensionGary Klein writes, Education must be embraced by the operational Army by commanders, who should increase their emphasis on education within their leader development programs.” I agree. Leaders are responsible for the culture and environment of their respective units and need to be equipped properly so they have the capability to create and build a good command environment and leadership culture. This includes an educational and learning environment as well that is referenced in chapter 2 of ADRP 7–0 Training Units and Developing Leaders.

There is an expectation that leaders already understand how to design and create a learning environment where the professional exchange of ideas, experiences, and dialogue can occur. But unless this is modeled for leaders in their early formative years they will not receive any formal education on it through the Army PME system in its current form unless they learn these skills through their own self-development.

ADRP 6–0 Mission Command states that the six key activities supporting the operations process are: understanding, visualizing, describing, directing, leading, and assessing operations. Professional dialogue is one approach for a leader to assess and understand their organization. Over the past decade plus, leader development has mostly occurred from operational experiences. The environment the Army ha s been operating in can be described as complex, dynamic, ambiguous and dangerous. And the future looks to be the same as well as the Army prepares to continue to fight and win in a complex world. Leaders need to understand the level of experience they have in their own formations. One of the best ways to assess this and at the same time build trust and understanding is through professional dialogue. ADRP 6–22 Army Leadership guides us as well, as in para 7–53 under “Helping People Learn” when it states, “Taking advantage of what others have learned provides the benefit without having the personal experience.” Leaders should understand that narrative is rich with context and PowerPoint presentations generally lack that context and only facilitate the one-way transmission of facts and information, not learning.

Below are some techniques that should be taught in Army PME courses to leaders so they are properly equipped to implement professional dialogues in their own formations. By teaching leaders to do this they will have an understanding of the theories at play and how they can use them to improve both individual and collective performance.

Conversational Learning

“If conversation is seen as a core means for creating organizational performance, then how leadership works with conversation will be a key factor in determining how well the organization does.”  — The World Cafe

We can learn form our own experiences but when we as professionals participate in conversations about our experiences in context the learning can really be enhanced. In the context of a leader development session where a units leaders are present the conversational learning process connects leaders in conversation and enables leaders to reflect on their experiences , articulate those experiences and their meaning to fellow professionals, and to learn from others.

Conversational learning requires leaders to have a learning mindset and to create the conditions for learning. It requires seeing other leaders regardless of rank as equals and valuing everyone’s perspective. It is not a race for the right answer but more a collective inquiry that deepens all the participants understanding of the issues being discussed. Leaders validate and facilitate; not dominate conversations. They should encourage divergent thinking and give everyone equal time and voice during these professional conversations. If done right, these professional conversations can create understanding and the sharing of ideas with participants leaving the session with new ideas and perspectives on complex issues they might face in the future.


“Stories illustrate points better than simply stating the points themselves because, if the story is good enough, you usually don’t have to state your point at all; the hearer thinks about what you said and figures out the point independently. The more work your hearer does, the more he or she will get out of the story." — Tell Me A Story

As I have written about before, storytelling is a powerful catalyst for learning, and likely has been since humans developed language. Telling and hearing stories enables members to reflect on their own, and others’ experiences and abstract knowledge. It is an effective way for catalyzing learning in any organization. We know from research into storytelling and conversational learning that when learners are exposed to other perspectives, ideas and stories that they are indexed in the brain and later when in a similar situation they are recalled. This is important for leaders to widen and deepen their understanding of complex environments in order to operate effectively.

As leaders we learn from experiences, or to put it in a different way, what we learn is experiences. David Kolb, an educational theorist said, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” The best way to convey what we learn is through stories of our experiences. Stories contain many different lessons and are educational for people who were not present for the experience.

To understand anything, we must find the closest item in memory to which it relates. One thing we do when we hear and understand a story is to make a connection to another experience we have had, or know someone else had. Stories help us recognize patterns.

Stories can bring leadership to life. But to tell a good story takes preparation.The essence of a story is actually what is held in memory, not the words of the story itself. A story has the richness of details, has a point, provides insights, and has emotional impact. A story is not just a chronology of events; it is the story of the storyteller taking action.

Stories can share lessons learned but the storyteller should let the listeners take away the lessons they learned not what the storyteller has learned. We can learn from the stories of others but only if what we hear relates to something we already knew. We want the listeners to live the story with us, so knowing the audience and the types of experiences they have had, and are familiar with, is an important part of preparation. With good preparation, storytelling can be an effective learning experience for all that are involved.

Using storytelling and conversational learning to conduct professional discussions are not new ideas but they are ideas that need to be taught and reinforced in the Army PME courses and by leaders throughout the operational force. Mission command is based on trust, which requires understanding. One of the most effective ways to gain understanding of the capability and competence of one peers, superiors and subordinates is through professional discussion in a learning environment.

Jonathan Silk is a U.S. Army armor officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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