A Captain, a Captain, My Nation for a Great Captain

Two Ways to Identify & Develop Military Genius the U.S. Military Will Need in 2040

With apologies to Shakespeare’s King Richard III, “A captain, a captain, my nation for a great captain.” Synonymous with Clausewitz’s military genius, a great captain is that rare leader who stands out as a military mastermind of their time.[1] Arguably, the United States has developed only a few great captains since Matthew Ridgway saved Korea in 1951. It is not that the nation lacks these leaders; rather, the military fails to identify and develop leaders with the virtues great captains possess.[2] The U.S. military can and must do better to attain strategic results in the future. There are junior officers in formations today who need to become the great captains the nation needs in 2040.

Mission command is centered on the principles of mutual trust, shared understanding, and initiative that foster leaders who can solve problems.

The nature of war may remain constant, but its character evolves. The context of the problems Clausewitz faced in 1820 was different than a general in 2040 will face. The great captain of 2040 must possess the agility to weave through and connect a diverse landscape of economic, demographic, space, cyber, urban, and resource challenges within the context of emerging powers and ungoverned, converging spaces. To succeed in this environment, the U.S. military is currently espousing another Prussian idea, mission command.

Mission command is centered on the principles of mutual trust, shared understanding, and initiative that foster leaders who can solve problems.[3] Mission command is not digital networks, short operations orders, or a new term for command and control. Rather, mission command is a culture, one that espouses and embodies trustworthy and competent leaders. It is a culture that embraces learning, development, and understanding to find solutions in dire circumstances. Working within today’s environment, but with an aim of developing senior leaders for mission command 2040, what can the military do to create the conditions for developing its future great captains?

To develop its great captains for 2040, the U.S. military must foster a culture that identifies and develops exceptional leaders with the trustworthiness and problem solving skills to serve at the strategic level. To achieve these ends, changes in two areas of strategic leader development are necessary, Training and Education and Human Capital Management. Developing extraordinary strategic leaders with these adjustments should provide the opportunity for those rare, but existing military geniuses to evolve so the U.S. does not miss the next Grant, Marshall, or Eisenhower.

Defining the Strategic Leader of 2040

“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.”

Strategic leaders are senior officers serving in positions of authority across the Department of Defense with diverse responsibilities. Some supervise institutional training, while others liaise with the U.S. Congress. Relatively few are actually warfighting commanders.[5] Strategic leaders focus on three primary tasks: alignment, visioning, and change.[6] Much of their time is spent responding to and leading change by identifying issues and solving problems. As the historian Williamson Murray states, strategy is “a process, a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where change, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate.”[7]

U.S. Army Photo

Strategic leaders do strategy. At various levels and roles, these leaders solve the problem of developing coherent connections between articulated ends, ways, and means to support an overarching policy goal. Colin Gray provided a clear image when he wrote, “Strategy is the bridge that relates military power to political purpose.”[8] The challenge of building that bridge is central to strategic problem solving. Few leaders fit this definition as well as George Marshall prior to and during World War II. He successfully managed a worldwide effort that took policy decisions made by Churchill and Roosevelt and put them into action—from building an Air Force and managing the industrial base, to supplying Russia and Great Britain. Strategic leaders’ problems in 2040 may be different in scope and context, but they will be at least as complex as those Marshall solved.

Carl von Clausewitz understood the essential requirement for operating in such an environment: a commander with experience and genius possessed of both character and intellect.[9]


“The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders… is the key leadership competency.”
—Stephen M.R. Covey[10]

Eisenhower and Churchill in Northern France, 1944

Character is indifference to danger or political pressures combined with intrinsic integrity and commitment to see a decision through, swayed neither by fear nor or other contextual pressures of war.[11] And the most important element of leaders of character is the trust they gain. Strategic leaders need trust to be effective. Great captains must harness the power of trust to be victorious. Military leaders understand that trust between soldiers, among leaders, and across organizations improves commitment, innovation, individual performance, and organizational performance.[12] At the strategic level, the fundamentals of trust, demonstrate character and competence, remain the same, but in more nuanced ways. At the individual level, strategic leaders must have the skills to gain trust with a small group of subordinates to ensure not just compliance, but an enthusiastic initiative to pursue the leader’s intent. Additionally, strategic leaders must extend influence outside of their chain of command toward civilian leaders, industry, host nation leaders, allied leaders, and the populace in general. One of the main reasons Roosevelt selected General Eisenhower to command Torch and Overlord was Eisenhower’s exceptional ability to establish a trust with Churchill and his generals. However, at the strategic level, direct trust is insufficient to move an organization at the speed necessary in today’s environment.

Organizational trust is a more complex dynamic, but it is absolutely necessary for any system to operate at its highest level.[13] Furthermore, the strategic leader must develop a culture that promotes trust. Doing so means overcoming three significant challenges. First, sheer size limits interaction, so leaders must have the ability to identify critical issues and find avenues to clearly communicate their thoughts on such issues across the organization. Next, the complexity of a large organization within an even more complex world security environment necessitates a leader with the ability to see how policy decisions and unforeseen events will influence multiple communities. Finally, organizational leaders must have a sense of time horizons associated with trust. One poorly conceived idea now could have disastrous effects on the organization years down the road. The consequence of a growth or decline of trust may be either the retention or loss of high quality leaders that are necessary for the future of the nation. To develop a great captain, the military must foster an environment where trust thrives, with leaders that embrace and understand the virtue of trustworthiness. This conclusion requires the military to assess policy and requirements against trust and its ability to assess a leader’s trustworthiness.

Problem Solving

“Machines don’t fight wars. People do, and they use their minds”
—Colonel John Boyd[14]

Intellect is the ability to visualize the entirety of the current context, to use coup d’oeil (stroke of the eye) to quickly recognize not just the tactical solution, but the strategy to build many engagements (and other activities) into victory.[15] All the great captains in history share one common skill: they were all adept problem solvers. Grant understood the necessity of not only destroying Lee’s Army, but also incapacitating the South’s ability to wage war, and devised a strategy that no previous leader seemed capable of laying out or executing. Eisenhower, who successfully managed the Anglo-American relationship while devising successive campaigns on an immense scale, believed that “making a decision is the essence of leadership.”[16] Matching the general’s performance requires the ability to visualize the complexity of a situation (understanding the connections, opportunities, and risk) before making any decisions to solve difficult problems.

Problems can be solved in three ways or systems: 1) intuitive, 2) analytical, and 3) design. System One applies “recognition primed decision making” to intuitively see the correct approach to fight through the fog and friction of war.[17] Coup d’oeil is System One thinking and requires contextual experience to work well. MacArthur’s Inchon landing, for instance, was an intuitive decision based on decades of warfighting experience.[18] System Two is an analytical approach that relies on processes and systems to solve well structured, definable problem sets such as budgeting, logistics, and deployment plans. For example, Marshall’s successful buildup of the Army from less than 200,000 to over 8 million soldiers in under four years was a System Two problem. Systemic operational design is System Three, which seeks to understand ill-defined, nonlinear problems and move the situation within a system to a better state.[19] Eisenhower, as the Supreme Allied Commander, applied System Three as he sought to dismantle and defeat Nazi Germany from the air, ground, and sea while also maintaining the coalition. Each of these approaches to problem solving has implications for developing a great captain.

LSTs unloading at Inchon, 15 September 1950. MacArthur’s was an intuitive decision based on decades of warfighting experience, or System One thinking. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Training and Education

“It is in training that the heart of an army’s culture lies.”
—Casey Haskins[20]

To develop strategic problem solvers capable of thriving in diverse, quickly evolving dilemmas, a demanding training and education culture must exist within their profession. The industrial approach of process-focused, assembly line production, and platform lectures emphasizing checklists and procedures was appropriate for a mass-mobilization, low-professionalism military, but it is wholly unsuited for the development of future strategic leaders. Leader training and education should demonstrate that it trusts its service members to think and learn in a manner that ensures understanding, retention, and adaptability in changing contexts.[21]

American and British Officers work together during Exercise Eagle Owl at Fort Leavenworth. (U.S. Army Photo)

Learning psychology and recent evolution in training points to a need for several basic changes within the training and education system. For knowledge and skills to truly develop, leaders must engage in participative learning environments. Although not new, decision exercises and case studies are ideal examples. General Eisenhower credits the numerous planning exercises he conducted at the Army Command and General Staff College for his intellectual development and preparation for senior leadership.[22] This methodology relies less on mechanistic process derived from outdated manuals and more on leaders designing training to seek mastery and true contextual understanding. Instead of following a process, students own the learning and embrace results.[23]

The U.S. military can also engender trust and strategic problem solving by educating future leaders beyond their current rank. If the military teaches potential leaders to think above and outside their rank, the strategic leaders will emerge.[24] Two initiatives, applied on a large scale, can help.

First, micro-experiences for aspiring and developing young leaders can provide touch points for future dilemmas.[25] These events may range from a one-day seminar to a month long internship across the spectrum of military, inter-agency, non-governmental organizations, industry, foreign governments, universities, and financial institutions. The only similarity between any of these micro-experiences is the level of the perspective–all at the strategic level. From a one-day seminar at Harvard Business School on organizational change to a two day introduction at an allied Army Headquarters to a three week internship with a political risk insurance underwriter, each experience provides invaluable experience for a future strategic leader. Flexibility in the design of micro-experiences should also allow lower-level commanders the ability to create and fund these opportunities locally.

Second, strategic wargames and simulation exercises provide a dense experience with focused learning objectives. Nearly every major military installation possesses the automation and facilities to conduct scalable simulations that can facilitate strategic leader development. Designed properly, these opportunities for younger leaders to apply elements of national power in support of political goals in a future security environment can provide growth spurts for latent talent in the formation. Quarterly single or multi-day exercises, that place young officers in positions above their current rank can also provide low-risk opportunities for innovation and experimentation that in turn create trust between junior leaders and the institution.

Human Capital Management

"If we don’t get the people right, the rest of it won’t matter."
—General Martin Dempsey[26]

The U.S. military’s industrial age human capital management system cannot identify strategic talent.[27] Databases full of administrative information feed the personnel system and selection boards have relatively little knowledge of a leader’s true level of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and abilities.[28] Three initiatives could assist with evolving the current system.

First, the U.S. military is too myopic in its assessment of leaders. Officer assessments are the single source tool for promotions and selections and measure only “short-term performance and accomplishments from the eyes of two or three superiors and is generally inaccurate and unscientific.”[29] Additional long-term measures of performance from numerous perspectives are necessary to identify talent and ensure its continued development. A wider, more in-depth understanding of leaders can identify those with the trustworthiness and problem solving skills to serve at the strategic level. Many pre-existing options are available in addition to a few new techniques to measure trust and problem solving. For example, when examining critical thinking, the U.S. military overlooks the opportunity to record relevant aptitude using available tests. Tools such as the Graduate Record Exam and the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment offer indicators of intellect and the potential ability to handle extremely challenging problems.[30] These scores, coupled with performance in graduate schools and published writings, could help those conducting the selection and assignment process to clearly see the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a leader’s potential to serve at higher levels.

Second, the U.S. military should hold annual, competitive, joint, multi-level wargames designed to evaluate junior leaders placed in strategic positions.[31] High-potential junior leaders could apply the combination of schooling, self-development, and experience (to include previous wargames and micro-experiences) against one another in force-on-force simulations using the instruments of national power. Outside, disinterested leaders should provide mentorship and evaluations to add to the assessment of the leader’s ability to develop trust and solve hard problems.

Finally, rewrite the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) to redesign “up or out” and cohort year group management.[32] The new DOPMA would provide greater flexibility to expedite promotions or lengthen time-in-position, and allow breaks-in-service for the good of the service and the development of the officer. For example, a highly talented officer promoted early under the current DOPMA often lacks the opportunity and incentive to attend graduate school because the rigid timeline places the officer at a disadvantage if the officer fails to complete a key assignment prior to the next promotion board. A newly designed DOPMA could greatly diminish ticket-punching and careerism and allow leaders to focus on mastery and broadening without the pressure of racing to the next selection board. These initiatives can do more than assist with the development and identification of strategic leaders. They can create greater trust between officers and the institution, which in turn improves individual and organizational performance.[33]

An Alternative Future

It is now 2040 and the new Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, General Ridgway just took command. Leaders of NATO voiced overwhelming praise for the selection of a great captain from a new generation of U.S. leaders. During the past 30 years, in addition to a variety of command and staff assignments, General Ridgway spent time with Citibank, the International Red Cross, the Indian Navy, and the Los Angeles Police Department. In 2018, she opted for a three-year break in service to complete master’s degrees in Economics and International Relations at the University of Virginia followed by a year working at the World Bank. She is quick to point out that her professional military education was more valuable than her civilian experiences–“I was challenged early to embrace my profession and think seriously about the challenges of today and tomorrow during strategic wargames where I often failed but quickly matured.” It was during the 2022 Phantom Cobra (an annual joint, force-on-force wargame) that Ridgway’s genius flourished. Retired General Zinni wrote in her official assessment, “Ridgway’s innovative and combined use of space, economics and political savvy solved once and for all both the South China Sea and Taiwan problems. However, what really makes General Ridgway special is her ability to create and maintain trust from the lowest levels of the military to the highest levels of government.”

Scott Halter is an Army officer who has commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia and obtained a masters in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and a masters of Strategic Studies from the USMC War College. The opinions expressed are his own 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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Header Image: Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist (National Portrait Gallery)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 100. Theodore Dodge, Great Captains; a course of six lectures showing the influence on the art of war of the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick, and Napoleon (Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1889), 1-2. Dodge, a U.S. Civil War officer, borrowed greatly from Clausewitz in his definition of a great captain; “The art of war owes its origin and growth to the deeds of a few great captains. Not to their brilliant victories; not to the noble courage evoked by their ambition; not to their distortion of mechanics and the science into new engines of slaughter; not to their far-reaching conquests; but to their intellectual conceptions…the coexistence of extraordinary intellect and equal force of character, coupled with events worthy of and calling out these qualities in the highest expression.”

[2] U.S. Army, 2014 Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership: Military Leader Findings, Technical report 2015-01, Leadership Research, Assessment and Doctrine Division, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, viii.

[3] U.S. Army, Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0, Change 2, Mission Command (Washington D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 12 March 2014).    

[4] Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2009), 49.

[5] David Lyle, Senior Officer Talent Management (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2014). Of all the Colonel level and above billets in the Army, only 20 percent are operational, warfighting assignments. The other 80 percent are focused primarily on Title X functions.

[6] Stephen Gerras, Strategic Leadership Primer (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College, 2010), 2-3.

[7] Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley, The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War (Cambridge: University Press, 1994), Ed., Williamson Murry, Macgregor Knox, Alvin Berstein., I.

[8] Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999), 17.

[9] Clausewitz, 100.

[10] Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2006), 21.

[11] Clausewitz, 106.

[12] Hassan Fard, Ali Ghatari, & Asad Hasiri, (2010). “Employees Morale in Public Sector: Is Organizational Trust an Important Factor?" European Journal of Scientific Research, 46(3), 378-390. Fredric Frank, Richard Finnegan, & Craig Taylor, (2004). "The Race for Talent: Retaining and Engaging Workers in the 21st Century." Human Resource Planning, 27(3), 12-25. Jacqueline Gilbert, & Thomas Tang, (1998). "An Examination of Organizational Trust Antecedents." Public Personnel Management, 27(3), 321. Roger Mayer, & James Davis, (1995). "An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust." Academy of Management Review. 20(3), 709-723.

[13] William Q. Judge, The Leader’s Shadow—Exploring and Developing Executive Character (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1999), 147.

[14] Greg Wilcox, People, Ideas, and Things in that Order: Some Observations (Quantico, VA: Boyd Symposium), 12.

[15] Clausewitz, 102.

[16] Edgar F. Puryear, Jr., American Generalship: Character is Everything: the Art of Command (Presidio: Novato, CA, 2000), 44. Napoleon saw decisive battles unfold in advance, but the even more challenging problem that he solved numerous times was maneuvering his massive Grande Armée across Europe. Martin van Creveld, Supplying in War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 42-60.

[17] Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998), 15-30. Clausewitz, 119-120.

[18] Puryear, 61.

[19] Paul K. Van Riper, "The identification and Education of U.S. Army Strategic Thinkers," In Exploring Strategic Thinking: Insights to Assess, Develop, and Retain Army Strategic Thinkers (Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences), 19.

[20] Casey Haskins, A Good Answer to an Obsolete Problem, unpublished manuscript, 2006.

[21] Robert A. Bjork, Structuring the Conditions of Training to Achieve Elite Performance: Reflections on Elite Training Programs and Related Themes in Chapters 10–13, in Structuring Training to Achieve Elite Performance (University of California Los Angles , 2009). 312-329. Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork, “Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning” (Psychology and the Real World, 2011), 55-64. “There is something far worse than individuals not possessing critical skills and knowledge—namely, not possessing such skills and knowledge, but thinking they do. Illusions of comprehension and competence become especially hazardous in settings, such as military settings, where mistakes and miscommunication can be so costly not only to one’s self, but also to so many others…The more complex the skill or knowledge in question and the less frequently it is accessed on a day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month basis, the more it needs to be the target of relearning/refresher procedures. Second, it needs to be recognized that the potency of relearning procedures will be enhanced by such factors as the delay from initial learning and changes in situational and interpersonal contexts—that is, by factors that produce forgetting and enhance learning.”

[22] Carlo D’Este, Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (New York: Holt and Company, 2002), 179.

[23] Donald Vandergriff, Today’s Training and Education (Development) Revolution: The Future is Now! Land Warfare Paper NO. 76, April 2010 (The Institute of Land Warfare, Association of the United States Army).

[24] Boyd Dastrup, A Centennial History: The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (Leavenworth, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1982), 64, 75. CGSC taught students to be commanders and staff officers at the Brigade through Corps level through the “Applicatory method.” Students fought dozens of battles over the course of an academic year, compared to just one or two during the current curriculum.

[25] This idea came from a conversation with Captain Shane Sullivan, U.S. Army, Summer 2014, and is similar to the Army’s Strategic Broadening Seminars that are academic in focus. Opportunities should be negotiated at both the Service Headquarters level and all levels below to allow the widest array of opportunities within parameters. Local opportunities should be encouraged at no-cost. In FY 15, the Army conducted 14 seminars. http://www.armytimes.com/story/military/careers/army/2015/02/23/strategic-broadening-seminars/23548367/.

[26] Andrew Lapin, “Dempsey Maps Sequestration Cuts at Defense,” Government Executive, June 19, 2012, available from www.govexec.com/defense/2012/06/dempsey-maps-sequestration-cuts-defense/56353/%3Foref%3Dtop-story

[27] Donald Vandergriff, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, 2nd Edition (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2013), 1-161. In exceptional detail, this book provides the history and the why of the current personnel system.

[28] Casey Wardynski, David S. Lyle, and Michael J. Colarusso, Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Employing Talent Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, May 2010, p. 9.

[29] Scott Halter, “What is an Army but the Soldiers: A Critical Assessment of the Army’s Human Capital Management System,” Military Review, JAN-FEB 2012, 18.

[30] Heather Butler, “Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Predicts Real-World Outcomes of Critical Thinking,” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2012), 26: 721–729, Published online 20 June 2012 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.2851. “The HCTA is a reliable measure of critical thinking skills and has been validated with multiple populations and measures of academic success.” Marcus Griffin and Rob McClary, “A Way to Teach Critical Thinking Skills so Learners Will Continue Using Them in Operations,” Military Review, November-December 2015, 108-118. This article provides a great example of how to apply the HCTA.

[31] Muth, 150-178. The impetus for this idea comes from the German Wehrkreis-Prufung at the Kriegsakademie during the interwar years.

[32] This is not a new idea. Many have suggested rewriting DOPMA, to include the author and the current Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in his proposals for the Force of the Future.

[33] Elizabeth Axelrod, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Timothy Welsh, “War for talent, part two,” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 2 (2001): 9-12; Peter Cappelli, “Talent Management for the Twenty-First Century,” Harvard Business Review (March 2008): 74-81; Ruwayne Kock and Mark Burke,” Managing Talent in the South African Public Sector,” Public Personnel Management 37, no. 4 (2008): 457-70; Howard Stevens, “Total Quality Management,” The Journal for Quality and Participation (Summer, 2008) 15-18.