Leadership Development the Right Way

The U.S. spends around $50 Billion in leadership development. Yet researchers are beginning to wonder if there is any organizational return on the investment. However, there is one institution that stakes its life on developing great leaders. This institution is the U.S. Military, and few would argue that no one does it better. They consistently develop better leaders of a higher caliber and higher character. How do they do it?

A Question to One of the Best

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, two Silver Stars, and two Distinguished Service Crosses. When most are well into retirement, the General is still a sought-after public speaker and a paid analyst on national security issues. 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 warplanes in the famed “left hook.” In this maneuver, his entire Division moved 240 miles across the trackless desert to surround and destroy the entire Iraqi army, all within 48 hours and minimal loss of life to American forces.

Leadership Development the Army Way

Three weeks before starting this major operation, General McCaffrey loses his Chief of Staff to promotion. They were preparing for one of the most logistically complex maneuvers in recent military history. This officer was McCaffrey’s most senior and essential leader. 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. The new officer 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”.

No Time for Errors

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, on-boarding, or assimilation into a unique corporate culture. He had to show up and immediately perform his duties of preparing a force of 26,000 soldiers for war. As General McCaffrey explained to me, “he performed flawlessly with no drop in performance”. How does this happen?

Leadership Development the Army Way

This happens because the US Army does not rely on personality-driven leadership. It has a clearly defined leadership system, and every officer, both enlisted and commissioned, is trained to its exact requirements. From the first days of basic training, the Army teaches leadership the way the Army wants it done. Do they always do it correctly? Of course not. But one of the structural elements of the leadership system is that every rank has a school. Not a simple eight-hour course with a few fill in the blank questions for an exam. So when McCaffrey’s new Chief of Staff arrived, the Army had already taught him how to execute an Army Chief of Staff’s specific duties.

Training The Army Way

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

For example, McCaffrey explained to me that when he became a 1-Star General, the Army sent him to a nine-month school in how to be a 1-Star General. When he became a 2-Star, 3-Star, and 4-Star General? Each new rank required another nine-month school. Imagine if the new CEO of Ford, General Motors, Google, Apple, Microsoft, or even the local school superintendent had to attend a nine-month school to execute the CEO duties in their specific organization? There is no equivalent of what the Army provides. Not even close.

The Unfortunate Realty

Unfortunately, only a third of first-time managers receive any coaching or training in leadership or management. Those who receive training find they cannot apply what they learn because the training is divorced from organizational values and cultures. Is there any question why the U.S. Military routinely produces the best leaders?