How the U.S. Army Develops Leaders

Leadership development in the U.S. Army has ramifications beyond American borders. In this e-mail interview, HBS professor Scott A. Snook, a retired Army colonel, describes how military leaders grow. Plus: Book excerpt
by Martha Lagace

The U.S. Army is one of the best training institutions in the world, says HBS professor Scott A. Snook, a retired Army colonel. How does the Army develop leaders? Snook discusses his new book, Making Sense of Officership: Developing a Professional Identity for 21st Century Officers.

Lagace: Why did you and your coauthors of "Making Sense of Officership: Developing a Professional Identity for 21st Century Officers," a chapter in The Future of the Army Profession, decide to study professional identity as a part of leadership development? Why is this a management issue for the Army?

Snook: Our world changed in 1989. The Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed. Almost fifty years of living in a bipolar world had shaped a very strong and static sense of professional identity built around a Cold War mentality.

As a result of monumental change in our competitive environment, the 1990s found the U.S. Army struggling with an "identity crisis," both for individual soldiers and for the very soul of the institution itself. What was the Army all about? Fighting wars or keeping peace? With the two Gulf Wars as exceptions, the Army's past decade has been largely filled with peacekeeping, nation building, and a whole range of what we call "operations other than war." Not surprisingly, such confusion over roles and missions at the institutional level resulted in serious identity challenges for individual soldiers: "Who am I? A warrior or a peacekeeper?"

We take thousands of young recruits every month and train them to operate some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable.
— Scott A. Snook

Such an identity crisis manifested itself in a variety of symptoms: low morale, high turnover, waning commitment, missed recruiting goals, and officer retention nightmares. By studying the development of professional identity over time within the Army's career structure, we hoped to identify a conceptual leverage point potentially capable of refocusing our entire thinking about leader development in the Army. We saw professional identity as having the same type of conceptual promise at the individual level as organizational culture has at the unit level.

Q: The Army has a "Be, Know, and Do" framework for leader development. Which of those elements is the most challenging for an individual to develop, and why?

A: Upon his return from the first Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf addressed the United States Military Academy at West Point and told the Corps of Cadets that leadership is about "character and competence."

To become a "competent" leader you must develop the necessary knowledge and skills to accomplish your mission. However, technical competence is not enough. To be an effective leader you must also have "character"— the BE component of our leadership doctrine: who you are, your values, your worldview. Clearly, the BE component of leader development offers the most challenge, because who you ARE is very difficult to change. Developing the other two components are rather straightforward and much less threatening.

The Army is one of the best training institutions in the world. By focusing on a clear set of tasks, conditions, and standards, we take thousands of young recruits every month and train them to operate some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable.

We also have a long history of educational excellence in the Army. However, knowledge (KNOW) and skills (DO) are highly perishable. If you don't use them today, they're gone tomorrow. And, with the world changing at breakneck speed, the knowledge and skills we learn today may be irrelevant tomorrow.

Hence, our contention that the real leverage in developing leaders has to do with the BE component: Give me a soldier who has that part right, and I can teach her to do anything. Give me a soldier who doesn't, and all the knowledge and skills in the world will not make up for a lack of character.

Q: How did you carry out your research?

A: To understand officer development with a focus on professional identity—the BE component—we turned to the literature on adolescent and adult identity development.

Our work was grounded in the constructive-developmental theory of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan (The Evolving Self, 1982). Kegan is primarily interested in how people make sense of themselves and their world. In his view, the level of sophistication of how one structures an understanding of oneself and one's experiences lies at the heart of identity.

First, we actively construct our understandings; we don't simply receive them from others. We build our understandings of ourselves from our experiences. Second, we progress through a finite series of universal and progressively more complex stages in how we construct our understanding. These two ideas in combination make Kegan's approach to identity development a powerful explanatory system.

We build our understandings of ourselves from our experiences.
— Scott A. Snook

Within this framework, officer development involves qualitative shifts in how officers make sense of themselves and their experiences. Each shift leads to a progressively broader perspective toward oneself as a professional and one's relationships to others within and outside the profession.

Over a period of ten years, we conducted a study of officer identity development using Kegan's framework by conducting hundreds of interviews following Army participants from pre-commissioning at West Point through full colonels at the Army War College. These interviews were used to determine officers' stage of development.

As we learned, understanding "where officers are" developmentally had huge implications not only for modifying our approach to leader development, but also for how we select and assign officers to positions that demand increasing levels of psychological maturity.

Q: Is there anything you've seen of the second Gulf War that suggests increased leadership development since the first one?

A: From a purely research perspective, the second Gulf War offers up a unique opportunity, in methodological terms: a matched pair of two wars in the same country, fought against the same foe, but taking place just over ten years apart.

If you wanted to study leader development, or even organizational development, it would be hard to design a more ideal natural experiment. While it's clearly too early to draw strong conclusions, I am largely encouraged by what I see. Simply based on numerous snapshots from the front—conveniently captured and transmitted by embedded correspondents—I sense an organization and leaders largely comfortable with their current sense of professional identity.

On the other hand, the real enemy center of gravity is not Iraq's military units, but rather the political leadership and hearts and minds of the people. At the same time that some leaders are engaging enemy tanks in one location, others are struggling with peace-keeping and nation-building challenges elsewhere.

From young sergeants to senior generals, I observe leaders who have largely internalized all four central components of the re-professionalized military identity: 1) war fighter, 2) servant of the nation, 3) member of a profession, and 4) leader of character. No matter how this conflict eventually plays out, there is no doubt that this war offers the severest test yet for a young U.S. military struggling to redefine itself in an extremely demanding post-Cold War world.

Q: What are implications of your research that all organizations-—not only the Army—should be aware of?

A: Our research has several implications for organizations and those interested in leadership development.

First, when designing leader development programs, be clear about which component you are attempting to develop. Adhering to a traditional learning model is fine if you are primarily interested in improving your employees' knowledge and skills. However, should you decide, as we did, that the leverage lies much deeper, in the BE component, be prepared to think differently about what development really means and how to go about measuring and influencing it.

Second, consider psychological maturity when selecting individuals for leadership positions and contexts that demand more complex ways of being in the world. You may be surprised, as we were, that many of your leaders may be "in over their heads." (See Kegan's 1994 book In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, for a broader discussion of this dilemma.)

Q: What are you working on next?

A: Following up on this research, I am currently studying how both life experiences and designed interventions contribute to our development as leaders. At this point it seems clear that it's not only the nature of the experience itself, but rather a complex interaction of an individual's readiness beforehand and sense-making afterwards that ultimately determines how much impact such events or programs will have on one's development.

Unpacking the mysteries of how we can all "get more" out of our life experiences is the central passion driving my research.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.