Why the US Military is the Best at Leadership Development

No institution in the world puts more emphasis on leadership than the US Military. Few would argue that they produce better leaders, of higher caliber, and character. How do they do it?

I put this question to General Barry McCaffrey, a retired 4-Star General, and Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Bill Clinton. General McCaffrey is among the highest decorated Generals to have ever worn the uniform. He is the recipient of three Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat, two Silver Stars, and two Distinguished Service Crosses. When most are well into retirement status, the General is still a sought-after public speaker and a paid analyst for NBC news on issues of national security. During my interview, he recounted to me the following story.

During the first Gulf War (1990-1991), General McCaffrey commanded the 24th Infantry Mechanized Division. In a bold and surprising maneuver he lead over 25,000 troops, 1600 armored vehicles, plus wheeled vehicles and war planes in the famed “left hook” which moved his entire force 240 miles across trackless desert to surround and destroy the entire Iraqi army; all within 48 hours with minimal loss of life to American forces. In explaining to me the fundamental role of training and leadership development, General McCaffrey related the following story.

Three weeks before the start of this major operation and one of the riskiest in recent military history, General McCaffrey loses his Chief of Staff to promotion, arguably one of his most senior and important leaders. As he explained to me, “I thought oh my God, I’ve got weeks until a major operation starts”. However, the US Army Chief of staff personally selected the replacement and he reported to General McCaffrey a week later. He went on, “I had no idea who he was. If I had asked for three or four people, (to interview) the Army would have said, no here’s the guy you need. I had to trust them”.

This brand-new Chief of Staff had to show up and immediately take over from his predecessor. Errors and mistakes at this level means soldiers die. It is that black and white. There was no time for on the job training, or the traditional on-boarding and assimilation. He had to perform, perform well, and perform immediately. As General McCaffrey explained to me, “he performed flawlessly with no drop in performance”. How does this happen?

This happens because the US Army does not rely on personality driven leadership. It has a clearly defined system of leadership and every officer, both enlisted and commissioned, is trained to its exact requirements. Leadership rules, routines, and core behaviors are drilled into every soldier from the first days of basic training. Do they do it perfectly? Of course not. One of the structural elements of the system is that every rank has a school so that when General McCaffrey receives a new Chief of Staff, that officer has been trained in exactly how to be a Chief of Staff the way the US Army wants the job to be done.

There is no equivalent in either the commercial, nonprofit, or the public sector world for what happened to General McCaffrey. But because the Army has a specific way they want leaders to lead, they can train emerging leaders to the exact specifications and skill sets required to be successful. Within this system, the US Army assures itself of successfully accomplishing its mission and they put their soldiers in the best possible position to be personally successful.

I would love to hear your story or even just your thoughts on this idea. Or maybe you want to explore this further within the context of your organization.


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