Small Wars Journal

Retaining Imagination in Senior Leader Education

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 8:58pm

Retaining Imagination in Senior Leader Education

Robert Sharp

The 9/11 Report articulated a need for change and the haunting accusation of a lack of imagination.  It followed a global strategic inflection point wherein an ideologically wicked problem collided violently with a black swan physical as a surprise event at the World Trade Centers and Pentagon.  The most significant lesson learned was within the conceptual component, i.e., the thought process.  A lack of imagination smacks of a lack of critical thinking.  9/11 proved that we were not thinking critically enough to conceptualize the threat.  Although much has changed since then, are we becoming stale?  Reading a recent GAO Report about Enhanced Leadership Development[i] (GAO-14-29) makes one wonder.

I once spoke to a group of GAO analysts about my view of the situation in the Middle East and the so-called Arab Spring in connection to work I was conducting for security sector educational development.  The common failing in the region is lack of fostering of critical thinking.  GAO asked out-of-the-box questions and the interaction was as pleasant as it was thought provoking.  In my view, the GAO does a vital job to provide us all a different lens through which to view common problems.  I think of them as the ones who can ask the difficult questions and they are - after all - the cuckoo clock of the Legislative Branch of our government. 

The most recent GAO report focused on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME).  It was recommended that DoD put in place well-defined timeframes plus costs in follow-up to the Military Education Coordination Council (MECC) study.  The study worked on the Chairman's direction - including a need to anticipate and respond to surprise - and recommended greater emphasis on career-long self-directed learning.  It is worrisome that the GAO report suggests progress is slow.  Are we becoming stale? Is our imagination failing us?

Staying in the JPME lane, I attended a briefing session by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in October.  A panel headed by Lieutenant General David W. Barno (Ret.) articulated the Center's latest paper, entitled, "Building Better Generals.[ii]"  A full house heard the key recommendations outlined by the authors and discussed with invited experts.  There was a very engaging question-and-answer session that followed.

The new CNAS report clearly does not lack imagination.  I commend the team for their work.  They observe that the operational tempo since 9/11 has prevented enough time for senior general and flag officers to undergo PME and that the future challenges of the 21st Century - including ensuring that senior leadership are capable of preventing the next war - means a new approach is needed.  In very simple terms, they recommend the creation of a compulsory U.S. Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) of 3 months duration for all 2 star officers at the National Defense University during which officers will be placed in an order of merit linked to future career progression.  The report also recommends tracking or streaming of all 2 stars into an Operational (command type jobs) and an Enterprise (command support type jobs) track. 

Many nations with smaller military budgets than the U.S. have - if nothing else by economic necessity - moved to across-the-services senior leader education, starting a lot earlier in careers than the 2 star point, and also career tracking. 

I read the paper and left the briefing believing that HCSC is a must.  We cannot afford to drop our guard on critical thinking, particularly now when many perceive that the threat has reduced significantly.  History tells us that this is when we are at our most vulnerable. 

The GAO must keep pressing for action and also keep a watchful eye on the clock.  "Building Better Generals" gets us in the right place with respect to critical and imaginative thinking, and will at least drive the narrative and focus our discussion outside the box of convention.  We must retain imagination for senior leader education and get a move on to change in the relative calm of today before any potential storm in our future.  I think - however - that career tracks for 2 stars and above may end up being track-changed by the powers that be.