A Boot Camp for Leaders

By Debra Viadero — November 15, 2000 15 min read
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In Bliss Hall, a pine-paneled lecture hall at the U.S. Army War College here, the atmosphere is predictably infused with military imagery. Middle-aged officers from every branch of the armed services fill the seats like a star- studded quilt of Army green and khaki and Air Force blue. Six flags stand at attention on one end of the stage. A lectern and two more flags command the other. Between the two—amid cheers of “Hooah!"—strides a retired general, doling out advice like a GI handing out chocolates.

The U.S. Army War College has been training top military personnel for a century. Does it know something about leadership that educators don’t?

But the questions that Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan poses to these War College students have applications that go well beyond battlefields and Pentagon conference rooms.

“How do you build coalitions?” the former Army chief of staff asks rhetorically. “How do you facilitate future operations? How do you create the conditions for success?”

Any up-and-coming corporate leader or police chief or mayor would do well to ponder the same questions.

Perhaps, some education experts believe, even a superintendent of schools.

The idea of educators borrowing a page from military leadership-training manuals is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Some leadership skills are generic. And when education thinkers get together to talk about a nationwide crisis in school leadership, the War College often comes up in the conversation as a training model worth emulating. While no one talks of shipping future superintendents and principals here to spend 10 months studying national-defense strategy, there is a sense that the military’s leadership-development system might be worth a closer look.

At least some school boards seem to think so. When the District of Columbia financial-control board was looking for a superintendent to take over the city’s troubled school system in 1996, it chose Julius W. Becton Jr., a retired three-star Army general and War College graduate. Former military officers have also been named to head districts in Seattle, New Orleans, and Duval County, Fla. Though the tenure of Washington’s Becton, for one, yielded only mixed results, those hires have helped stir interest in the broader idea of adapting military-style leadership development to education.

“What I like about what the Army does, and we do not in education, is pay deliberate, systematic attention to the development of leadership,” says Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based nonprofit group. “Instead, we randomly select principals who may or may not be good at it. We look for that messiah of a superintendent who may not be prepared.”

For all the talk, though, little is understood outside the military about what actually goes on in the War College’s halls. What do these future military leaders learn about “building coalitions” or “creating conditions for success?” What, in short, does the military know about training leaders that educators don’t?

Founded in 1901, the Army War College here in south-central Pennsylvania is one of five national institutes created by the military to groom its topmost leaders. The others are: the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.; the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama; the National War College at Washington’s Fort McNair; and the Industrial College of Armed Forces, also in Washington.

The Army War College is probably the best- known of the group. Its picturesque green campus, divided by a snaking brook, serves as a buffer between the college town of Carlisle and the rolling farmlands that surround it.

It’s a place steeped in history. The campus houses a pre-Revolutionary War powder magazine and the former Carlisle Indian School attended by football great Jim Thorpe. Papers written by Gens. George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, both former War College students, are on display in the school’s Military History Institute. And the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, a three-dimensional textbook for War College students, is a 20-minute drive south of here.

“If you were to ask me what we do here,” says Col. Jeffrey D. McCausland, the college’s dean of academic affairs, “I would say we do leader development, but we do it strategically.”

The 338 students in the college’s class of 2001 are not just from the Army. They include civilians working at high levels of the U.S. Department of Defense, in the Foreign Service, or in national-intelligence agencies. The Air Force sends some of its best and brightest here, as do the Marines, the Navy, the Coast Guard, and most of the armed forces’ reserve branches. Army colonels from Australia, Italy, Egypt, Norway, and dozens of other nations also come here to take part in the college’s International Fellows program.

‘I don’t believe a superintendent can be a four-star general, or the other way around, but they can learn from each other how to lead complex organizations into a volatile, uncertain future.’

Col. Tom Gannon,
U.S. Army War College

But the typical student is a male in his early 40s who has spent the past 20 years of his life working his way up the Army’s career ladder. From here, he will take on a high-level policy post in the Pentagon, the White House, or some other agency of government. A few, like their predecessors Eisenhower, Patton, and Gen. John Shalikashvili, will become senior commanders or military chiefs of staff.

For this typical student, the 10-month stay at the War College is a respite from the daily grind, the final stop in a long line of training stints, and possibly the last time he will have to stop and think before moving into a fast-paced, new career phase.

“It actually takes you out of your busy, day-to-day job so that you have an opportunity to think about the future,” says Richard Wilson, an Australian army colonel attending the War College. “If you were to say to educators to do this in their spare time or on top of another job, you wouldn’t get the same result.”

Up until now, these officers’ training has largely consisted of instruction in such matters as principles of command or use of tactical weaponry, for which the military has perfected relatively cut-and-dried procedures. The War College’s task, in contrast, is to prepare these up-and-coming leaders for a more uncertain working environment. In their next posts, these students will have to plot strategy, take a broader view, negotiate, and lead by persuasion rather than by command. In keeping with military custom, the college even has an acronym for the new working world that awaits their students: “VUCA,’' for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

It’s an environment, one faculty member observes, that is probably not unlike the one that confronts the big-city superintendent, a state’s chief school officer, or a university president.

“I think the similarities and overlaps greatly exceed any distinctions,” says Col. Tom Gannon, a War College instructor. “I don’t believe a university president or a superintendent can be a four-star general immediately, or the other way around, but they can learn from each other how to lead large, complex, organizations into a volatile, uncertain future.”

"It became clear to me at the age of 58 I would have to learn new tricks that were not taught in the manuals on the battlefield. In this position, I am a political soldier and will have to put my training in rapping out orders and making snap decisions on the back burner and have to learn the arts of persuasion and guile. I must become an expert in a whole new set of skills." —a quote from Gen. George C. Marshall posted on the wall of Gannon's seminar room.

The atmosphere in Gannon’s strategic-leadership class is more casual than in the morning lecture in Bliss Hall. About half of the 13 students gathered at the oval-shaped table one morning in August are wearing their uniforms; the rest are dressed in civilian attire. Students are encouraged to address one another by their first names. Gannon, garbed in suit and tie, tries to set the example.

These students represent a broad swath of military operations: an Army chaplain, a logistician, a submarine commander, an intelligence officer, a civilian employee from the Defense Department, a Marine financial-management officer, an Army adjutant-general officer, and a member of the Air National Guard reserve. Two international students have tiny flags representing their home countries at their places. The mix of perspectives and background experiences is purposeful.

“Oftentimes, we don’t realize the imperatives of our organization may be nonsense to another organization,” Tom Gannon says. “The Army gets its strength from the American people. We’re not mercenaries. If we don’t have a feel for what they want us to do, we almost can’t do that.”

War College students say educational leaders could benefit, too, from learning alongside professionals from other fields.

‘A leader in the education system has to think about what kind of ‘tools’ he can give teachers, what’s in his tool kit. In the military, we are armed with many different tools in our tool kits.’

Timber Pangonas,
Navy Commander

“Folks in education have to hear the negative and positive things people say about them, too, and be chastened by that,” argues Lt. Col. Nate Sledge, an Army armor officer who came to the War College from Fort Hood, Texas.

Gannon’s class is one of four core courses these students will take this school year. Later, they will begin taking electives and working on their regional strategic appraisals—papers assessing the culture, military, religious, and governmental influences at play in one of six regions of the world. By year’s end, students also must complete the War College’s version of a master’s thesis, a 30-page report on some aspect of military leadership.

The electives students choose range from a fiery warfighting- studies class to public-speaking courses and tours to sessions interviewing retired senior leaders for the War College library.

As part of their core studies here, students will also make field trips to Washington, where they will talk to members of Congress, leaders of federal agencies, the media, national nonprofit groups, and independent think tanks, and to New York City, where local government officials will give them a feel for the challenges facing municipal-government leaders .

If that kind of academic buffet fails to sate their intellectual appetites, students can also partake of lunchtime lectures on the writings of philosophers, historians, or military strategists, such as Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Napoleon.

By congressional mandate, the content of all the coursework grows out of a set of objectives laid out for the senior services by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The curriculum is all tied together through an elaborate accreditation process,” explains Col. Joseph R. Cerami, the chairman of the college’s department of national security and strategy. “You won’t find that in a university.”

By 2002, college officials are hoping to win accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools so War College students can leave here with a master’s degree in strategic studies. A smaller number of students also take their studies through the program’s distance-learning programs.

As the sounds of modern-day traffic rumble in the distance, a group of War College students is standing on a ridge above the undulating, green battlefields of Gettysburg and trying to imagine themselves as Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell on a hot July afternoon in 1863. The Confederate commander has been blamed for helping to lose the Battle of Gettysburg by failing to press a vigorous attack against fleeing Union soldiers. Now, these students are trying to understand what went through the general’s mind.

“Imagine being Ewell, and you get a message from Lee telling you to engage at Cemetery Hill but don’t get into anything that you can’t get out of,” Len Fullenkamp, a professor and retired Army colonel, says. “If Ewell had taken the high ground, do you think he would’ve been able to hold it?”

Ewell’s predicament presents a ripe leadership problem for these students to ponder. Like them, the Confederate general had moved to a newer, more uncertain level of leadership. Months earlier, he commanded a force of 7,000 soldiers, a group small enough to allow him to look to the right and to the left and see all his men. Now, with 20,000 soldiers under his command, his job has become more difficult.

“In business as well as in the military, the Peter Principle suggests there’s a level of leadership that becomes so complex that you will fail,” Fullenkamp says.

Military and education leaders are faced with many of the same questions: ‘How do you build coalitions? How do you create the conditions for success?’

The Gettysburg tours are one of the ways in which the college attempts to make its textbook lessons come alive for students.

“Our experience has been that education is really capped and increases dramatically when you can actually do something and have the experience of doing it,’' says Douglas B. Campbell, the director of the college’s Center for Strategic Leadership.

Every March, his center coordinates an elaborate 10-day simulation that is designed to give every War College student just such an experience.

For the exercises, the college stages a series of simultaneously occurring crises around the globe. Last year’s class had to contend, for example, with an out-of-season hurricane devastating Panama, an outbreak of war in Africa, a dispute in the Middle East over water, and pirates attacking ships in the Malacca Strait, which lies between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

“These all can be solved by the application of U.S. forces, but we guarantee they’ll run out of forces if they do that,” Campbell says. The idea is to force students to consider other alternatives.

To lend authenticity to the exercises, students taking on the roles of high-level national leaders talk by phone with policy planners around the globe, spar with working journalists bused to Carlisle Barracks for the exercises, and testify in mock hearings before real members of Congress. Students’ responses to reporters’ questions are broadcast throughout the campus on “Strategic News Network,” the War College’s version of CNN.

That same sort of exercise could help urban principals and superintendents address crises like dealing with gangs, replacing a principal who has suddenly died, or contending with the glare of television cameras and public scrutiny, says Jim Davis, the president of a Los Angeles educational consulting group.

“One of the issues that’s always seemed to puzzle me is why is it that the armed forces in the midst of chaos have always been able to continue to move toward their objectives,” he says. “And urban high schools are the third-most-chaotic environment we have after war and emergency rooms or police action. How can we build teams and leaders who can deal with the fires and still move toward the ultimate goal of improving student achievement?”

Working with Los Angeles- area foundations, business groups and non-profit education groups, Davis has visited the War College in an effort to put together training programs for principals and superintendents in Southern California. As a former principal and superintendent himself, he has been through university educational administration programs as well as the “academy” programs for working administrators that are typically offered on weekends by professional associations.

“None of them, in my opinion, have provided everything,” he says. “Most of the master’s-degree programs focus on a management model, and, to me, the issue is one of leadership.”

Of course, a key obstacle to implementing the military model for educators is the expense. Even with all the volunteer help, the War College’s crisis simulations, for example, cost an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 to stage, according to Campbell. And the institution’s $20 million annual budget does not include the expense of paying the salaries and housing costs for students who will not be reporting to their regular jobs for nearly a year.

“Certainly, the military model where they pull a colonel out of the field for 10 months of a year is ideal, but I don’t think it’s realistic for school administrators,” Davis says.

What’s more, the War College program is the final layer on a systematic training system that has been grooming military leaders for decades and cultivating in them the values of organizations that, if not identical to the Army’s, are at least similar.

“By and large, character and ethics and values are inculcated in military officers throughout their careers,” McCausland, the college’s academic dean, says. “If they don’t have that by the time they get here, there’s not much we can add to that.”

Those are two reasons why even educators who admire the War College, such as Davis, suggest that school leaders really need a hybrid training model.What Davis would like to see, in fact, is a program that combines 100 hours of leadership training, much of it borrowing from War College techniques, with follow-up coaching from mentors. From the military, for example, he would bring in clear ideas about the responsibilities and skills called for at three different levels of leadership: the level where the strategic vision is set, the organizational level involved in creating the conditions to carry out that vision, and the tactical level, where the vision is carried out. He would also introduce the idea of “resourcing"—tying dollars to overall mission.

From the education world, he would incorporate ideas about how principals and superintendents can monitor and build their instructional programs so that students are producing top-quality work.

“There is an art and science in K-12 education, and sometimes we forget that,” says Davis, a former superintendent of the La Canada school district in Los Angeles.

Timber Pangonas, a Navy commander studying at the War College this year, has already had a foot in both those worlds. Before joining the Navy, he earned a master’s degree in education at San Jose State University. He expects to return to education when he retires from his military career.

“Whatever career I pick, I pick because of a sense that it’s a noble profession,” he says.

He says educational leaders could benefit from the kind of training he’s received at the War College and in Navy leadership programs.

“A leader in the education system has to think about what kind of ‘tools’ he can give teachers, what’s in his tool kit,” Pangonas says. “In the military, we are armed with many different tools in our tool kits.”

About this series.This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Read other recent articles from our series Leadership in Education.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Boot Camp for Leaders


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