Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Officer Professional Development: Why don’t we do it?

By Maj. John Lowe
J37 Joint Training Officer, Joint Forces Headquarters
December 20, 2011

During my deployment to Iraq as a battalion executive officer I held weekly officer professional development (OPD) sessions with the company executive officers. During the deployment all the subordinates units were active duty except for a USAR company.

What I found was that both components were just as bad as the National Guard when it came to making OPD part of the training schedule and then actually executing well thought-out, meaningful OPD. I also found that these young officers were truly hungry for mentoring and OPD that would help them in their current assignment and beyond. But more importantly I found them all groping for some way to become better men and women.

I scheduled an hour during the duty day every week at the same time on the same day so it was part of their routine schedule. The sessions were interactive with every lieutenant participating ; most sessions involved advance preparation - or as some would call it, homework. Making OPD participatory both during the actual session and in between meetings allows you to see who is committed to expanding their knowledge and who may need additional mentoring and direction. It also leads to some robust professional discussions.

An excellent book to get your program started is the Challenge of Command by Roger H. Nye. I used this book in Iraq with extremely positive feedback from the officers. The book has eight chapters and an epilogue and each can be used for an OPD session. Those chapters are: Visions of our military selves; The challenges of Command; The Company Commander; The commander as tactician; The commander as warrior; The commander as moral arbiter; The Commander’s concept of duty;  The Commander as strategist; and the epilogue,  the Commander as mentor.  The key feature of this book is that during the course of each chapter it references books that will assist in the development of every officer. At the end of every chapter the author lists books that relate back to that particular chapter and would be useful for individual study and development as well as for use in future OPD sessions.

As you read through the Challenge of Command you can very easily pick out questions and topics for further discussion. I provided a PDF copy to every lieutenant of the chapter to be discussed a week ahead of our scheduled OPD session and they knew the expectation was that they come prepared to discuss the chapter. For my part I went through the chapter and formulated questions for discussion, which as mentioned is easy with this book.

After completing the Challenge of Command I conducted a session on developing leadership/command philosophy. I was shocked to find out that not one company commander under our command had a written command philosophy. I discussed four key questions with the company executive officers: why have a written leadership/command philosophy; what should it include; how long it should be; and how it should be developed. At the conclusion of our sessions each officer had to write his own philosophy for the final session. Each philosophy was passed around until everyone had a chance to read each other’s. Then they were critiqued in an open professional discussion.

Another topic that was discussed was toxic leadership, which turned out to be an extremely relevant topic. I had all the executive officers read the article “Toxic Leadership” by Colonel George E. Reed. I based our discussions on this article along with my own personal experiences. In the course of our discussions on toxic leadership it was revealed that the majority of these young officers had experienced a toxic leader. We discussed how they coped with it, what effect it had on the unit, what they would have done differently, and how they will deal with it in the future should they encounter a toxic leader again.

Another option for professional development is for commanders to develop a professional reading list that is relevant to your unit. For instance, if your unit is going to deploy to Afghanistan you could develop a reading list based on your deployment and tailor it by position. Joint Forces Command actually publishes an Afghanistan reading list which you could use to develop your own. (I have listed the link below). An infantry company commander may want all his lieutenants to read the Small Unit Leaders Guide to Counterinsurgency, Afghanistan 101, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet- Afghan War, and selected CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) products. The commander would be wise to assign additional reading by position that is specific for that position. For the company XO, select readings on logistics & maintenance from FMs, CALL products and CTC (Combat Training Center) bulletins. The commander may want to assign platoon leaders readings on tactics, the use of dismounted infantry in the offense, as well as selected articles relevant to Afghanistan from CALL and CTC center publications. 

The idea here is to take the time to develop a reading list for all your officers based on the unit you command and focus the reading by position and relevancy to upcoming training and or deployments.  There is a wealth of books, periodicals, CALL & CTC publications that will fit every unit and every position.  Once you have your list in place hold regular sessions with your officers to discuss how their reading is going, what they are learning and how it applies to your unit. You now have your OPD program that will not only help develop your officers but also keep them focused on war fighting and the upcoming deployment or training rotation.

Commanders can use this not only for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan but Kosovo, the National Training Center and other Combat Training Centers.

Some naysayers will say there isn’t enough time on drill weekends and we already try and pack too much into the weekend. I would say to those naysayers that we cannot afford not to develop our young officers as they are the future of the organization. Often there is a lot of time wasted on drill weekends so I don’t buy the excuse that there isn’t time. Meeting an hour either before the unit assembles or for an hour after everyone is released, during lunch or during the evening meal are a few options.

As leaders we owe it to our subordinates to mentor and develop not only the young officers, but all officers under our charge for they are the future.  Implementing a robust Officer Professional Development Program is a great place to start. If you take the time to build a quality OPD program and make it part of your routine training and not relegate it to second class status or a time filler, I think you will find it will pay big dividends.

Links you may find useful to do your research in order to develop your OPD Program:

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