Is the United States military (and the rest of the U.S. Government) developing and retaining the leaders needed for the chaotic world in which we currently find ourselves operating? Will those leaders be available over the next couple of decades when America and the world needs them most? In this article, we seek to determine which currently defined leadership attributes on which the military needs to focus, to highlight ways to train those skills, and ask senior leadership if we are retaining and promoting the right people.
Character, presence, and intellect describe the generic leadership capabilities required for the future.
Let’s start by asking ourselves what skills and attributes will be required of leaders in the future operational environment, in a way similar to how we determine the types of equipment we need to procure and/or maintain. While most studies projecting into the future indicate the future security environment is both unknown and unknowable, all make some assumptions about the world in which our leaders will find themselves operating. These assumptions have a corresponding implication for our leader requirements.
One of the outcomes of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom is a political and international construct that lessens the probability of large U.S. troop deployments into sovereign countries. Future deployments will be small-footprint, leader-heavy, and focused on supporting a host nation entity or proxy. Implication: Leaders will need to be strategic thinkers that understand U.S. foreign policy at a very early stage in their careers.
Military intervention will continue to be, as always, only part of a broader solution and not the entire solution. To develop enduring solutions, military leaders will need to collaborate with joint, interagency, intergovernmental, multinational, and non-governmental organizations actors while under constant media scrutiny. Implication: Leaders will need to understand capabilities of their partners, have the ability to overcome difficulties required to achieve unity of effort among partners, and have cultural understanding.
Our enemies know our strengths and will avoid them. Discovering our weaknesses and developing means to fill the gaps requires a tremendous amount of agility and adaptation. We are never fully aware of our weaknesses and need quick and flexible responses. Implication: Leaders must be able to anticipate, troubleshoot or respond to attacks on our weaknesses by being nimble, intelligent innovators that thrive in conditions of uncertainty.
These three conditions and their attendant implications offer us a structure to evaluate our current leader development framework. Army Leadership, the U.S. Army’s manual for leadership, codifies time-tested attributes. The challenge posed by innovative enemies in an uncertain future require all these attributes to be fully developed across our force to achieve success. Character, presence, and intellect describe the generic leadership capabilities required for the future.
More specifically, this article will explore three characteristics under intellect and presence that address the aforementioned three assumptions. The character attribute will not be addressed, as this is a precondition for leadership. Values-based, ethical, disciplined leadership is foundational and our citizens appropriately hold our military leaders to this higher standard of character. Because oftentimes the military is the sole ambassador of American culture and values to peoples across the world the services must select and develop leaders of character. Instead, the focus of this article will be on how to select, train, and retain leaders with mental agility, sound judgment, and resilience.
Two of the most critical leader skills fall under intellect. We need leaders that can easily comprehend challenging problems and then lead the effort to solve the problems and enact those solutions. All this, while making challenging decisions and continuously assessing the enemy’s strategy.
Mental agility is key to each of the three implications identified above and require a leader with “a flexibility of mind, an ability to anticipate or adapt to uncertain or changing situations…thinking through second and third-order effects.” Numerous studies identify those with a higher cognitive ability as better able to demonstrate the attributes that contribute to mental agility. While nothing exists to measure, assess, or retain those who demonstrate a higher cognitive ability in the current promotional policies and systems, mental agility can be trained.
This begins at the earliest stages of military training. Every young leader is faced with constantly evolving problems in garrison and field training exercises. The key is to see every event as a chance to train leaders to be mentally agile; to instill the patience to critically and creatively dissect problems and design an approach to solve it.
Sound judgment is another critical attribute for tomorrow’s leaders. Those who exhibit sound judgment will also know that they must constantly improve upon their agility of mind. They will know when to innovate and where to find expertise they lack. Finally, they will see key moments that require their interpersonal tact in order to achieve collaboration with their various partners. But are we allowing leaders to train these skills? More importantly are we retaining those that best exhibit this attribute?
It is clear to promotion entities when someone has exhibited poor judgment as some derogatory language or report is likely present. We can do better as leaders at assessing, evaluating, and communicating our subordinate’s sound judgement capability to those same promotion boards. When leaders excel at sorting through a myriad of information, asking their team-mates the right questions, and learning from others mistakes they must be singled out for advancement in comparison to those who struggle. The follow on section describes methods that could be employed to discern this decision making capability.
Resilience is the most critical skill under the leadership attribute of Presence because it is a combat multiplier. If our military services do not get this right during leader development, people will die and not always at the hands of the enemy. Enemies and the growing number of actors on the ground and in cyberspace will continue to ratchet up the pressure on leaders in every type of operation. Units will fail to meet their missions if leaders fail to bounce back after and learn during periods of extreme chaos and exhaustion.
This too, is something that can be trained and the military has historically tailored all training to develop resilience even when not the stated purpose of the training. Leaders must monitor their subordinates and communicate to the institution which promising leaders exhibit resilience and an ability to build resilient teams that constantly adapt and positively overcome obstacles. We have all seen the units where the team members take every setback in stride, literally laugh in the face of hardship, and perform some of the most awe-inspiring acts as if it was second nature. Those special units do not happen by accident; they are developed by resilient leaders that are contagious in their positive can-do attitude. Those units never accept defeat and are the ones that senior leaders can continuously send into the breach.
How to Develop Mentally Agile and Resilient Leaders
Who Make Sound Decisions
In the rest of this article we describe ways leaders can adjust how they train, mentor, assess, and rate their junior leaders. Leaders can ensure the people with the right attributes are available for promotion by training them and then mentoring their most well-rounded leaders so they want to stay in the military. The recent updates to the evaluation reports attempt to steer raters to address these attributes specifically, but these are far from transformative:
More individual training for leaders, not just young members. Develop training events for small unit leaders where the service members must constructively deal with media attention, non-governmental organization workers, and local level leaders to test and develop skills of collaboration and dealing with fluid situations. Develop programs of instruction to guide them until they can improvise.
Create training that include aspects of the joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational at every level of leadership from the small unit level to our senior leaders. Every training event should have opposing forces, but also a media element that must be managed and briefed on current operations with and without the use of a public affairs officer.
More social media training and usage. All leaders must be comfortable with social media as a form of communication and as a tool to study the operational environment so units can stay ahead of local developments.
Enable mid-level commanders with the tools to develop subordinate echelons that include aspects of the joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational in the operating environment for upcoming training cycles without relying on the combat training centers for these resources. This allows them to focus leader development programs that instruct the specific skills needed to work in multinational environments or conduct interagency coordination. With better and more skilled role playing the options are limitless, but these challenges must be inserted into training scenarios alongside the enemy’s latest tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Require all leaders to develop lesson plans that can be used to teach joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational collaboration using lessons learned from recent and current operations. Redeploying leaders must develop courses based on their deployment. Commanders can constantly capture and share lessons from joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational environments across their larger units.
Continue to test leaders under stress inducing conditions such as lack of sleep and food, and then retest when they are rested and comfortable to demonstrate the value of wellness on decision making.
Allow role players representing partners and advisories to vary their activities and attitudes towards those being trained to assess how leaders adapt to changing relationships.
Counseling and mentoring sessions must include assessments of these training event results and fitness for promotion and retention. Developing future leaders requires letting subordinates know their strengths and weaknesses and helping them to grow. This cannot be overlooked or avoided. Senior leaders must demand proper counseling by commanders at all levels.
In the end, getting leadership development and retention correct actually saves lives. Young Americans are placed in the capable hands of junior and senior leaders in almost every part of the U.S. Government on a daily basis. We must meet these development goals. The future will demand that our leaders at every level be mentally agile, sound in judgment, and resilient, building upon their strong foundational character.
Jason Criss Howk, is an author, speaker, and advisor. He focuses on foreign policy, national security, strategy, and leadership. He retired after 23 years in the U.S. Army operating on Joint, Interagency, and Multi-National teams conducting defense, diplomacy, and intelligence missions. He authored SSR: Afghanistan and Lions in the Path: Oman in English and Arabic and you can follow Jason at Dispatches from Pinehurst and @jason_c_howk.
Brett G. Sylvia has held numerous positions at the tactical, operational and strategic levels in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C. A 1994 graduate of the United States Military Academy, he holds masters degrees from Missouri University of Science & Technology and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed are the authors' alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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 Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership, 2012, page 5-1.
 Hunter, J. E. (1986). “Cognitive ability, cognitive aptitudes, job knowledge, and job performance.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 29(3), 340-362; Hunter, J. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (1996). “Intelligence and job performance: Economic and social implications.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2(3-4), 447