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Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen speaks to the assembled students of the Army’s Command and General Staff Officer Course

We’re Developing the Wrong Leaders

The Pendulum
Jul 24, 2015 · 6 min read

The following guest post was provided by Major Jon Mohundro, a Logistics officer currently teaching at West Point. His previous experience includes junior officer positions within Armor battalions and the TRADOC Commander’s Planning Group. The views expressed in his post do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the Army University.

Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno has repeatedly said that leader development is the Army’s top priority for developing the future force(1). As the defense budget continues to be constrained by sequestration, developing the right leaders who can operate and win in a complex world will become increasingly more important. Unfortunately, the Army’s officer education system is designed to develop the wrong leaders.


Most research has shown that cognitive ability, commonly called “intelligence” or simply “brightness”, is only slightly malleable in adults, but is highly portable. This means, in essence, that once a person reaches adulthood, their cognitive ability is more-or-less set, but that cognitive ability can easily be applied to different challenges and environments. Officers with the highest cognitive ability will continue to have the highest cognitive ability regardless of their relative development.

While raw intelligence is not fluid in adults, the ability to learn new conceptual frameworks to apply to new situations is definitely possible. Developing this ability, known as “crystallized intelligence in research and “wisdom” in regular expression, is the goal of most long-term intellectual development and performance psychology programs(2). Academic research has shown that job experiences and workforce development programs can have great impacts on this type of intellectual development(3).


At certain points during an officer’s career, he or she leaves the operational force and returns to the institutional force for a period of intellectual development known as the officer education system (OES). Due to our cohort-driven, up-or-out career system, these education opportunities are based solely on time and have no inputs for officer timeline, unit needs, or developmental requirements. These OES courses are designed to strengthen the intellectual abilities of our officers, provide doctrinal conceptual frameworks, and enable peer-mentoring and networking through class cohorts.

The first and second iterations of the officer education system are mandatory, residence courses for all officers regardless of potential or ability. Every lieutenant in the operational force attends the Basic Officer Leader Course; every captain in the operational force attends the Captains Career Course. Given the relatively low amount of performance data available at these pre-determined career points, having all students attend in residence makes the most developmental sense.

The third iteration provides the future of the Army quite a dilemma. At this point in an officer’s career, the Army has decided it has enough performance and potential data to determine which officers are “top half” and which officers are “bottom half”. The top half, ostensibly considered the best and brightest of their respective cohorts, are taken out of the operational force and sent to a 10-month residence Command and General Staff course with other high-achievers.

The “bottom half” of the population, those who have shown lower performance and less potential, still must complete the course to meet promotion gates, but are required to do so through distance learning.

On the surface, this system seems logical. In an effort to reward officers for high performance, having the opportunity to learn and develop with other high performers for a year makes sense. In the context of a large Army with minimal institutional “touch points”, however, the system shows to be completely backwards. Officers who have shown the highest performance and potential are afforded a developing, networking opportunity. Officers who have not shown the same performance, those needing the most crystallized intelligence development, are shunted to an online course to complete on their own.

This dichotomy is even more troubling when you consider the environments in which the coursework must be completed. The officer chosen to attend CGSC in residence completes his coursework and development as his main occupation. He or she has no unit to lead, no Soldiers to mentor, and no operational tempo to juggle. The officer not chosen because he or she already has shown lower performance and potential must complete the same coursework on their free time — after work, during lunch, on weekends. In the reality of finite time, the officer must prioritize unit work, coursework, and family — something must be given less time in order to accomplish the tasks of the other priorities. Here, either the unit suffers from a distracted officer or the officer compounds the negative effects of completing the coursework at a distance by prioritizing unit needs.


MIT researcher Edgar Schein’s groundbreaking 1990 study provided a simple three-category model for understanding an organization and its priorities(4). This model is useful as a lens through which to view how the Army could change to better effect officer leader development.

The first level, artifacts and behaviors, include any tangible, overt, or verbally identifiable elements of an organization(5). General Odierno’s signal that leader development is the Army’s number one priority is an artifact, as is the decision to send the top half of a given officer cohort to resident OES.

The second level, espoused values, are the stated values and rules of behavior(6). Our espoused values are that every officer is important, every unit is important, and developing leaders who can think critically and solve complicated problems is key to winning in a complex world.

The third level, assumptions, is the embedded behaviors which are usually unconscious but constitute the essence of culture(7). Unfortunately, these do not fall in line with the artifacts and espoused values of the Army as they relate to officer leader development. Though we will require the officers not chosen for resident education to perform the same duties to the same standards as their selected peers, we are not providing them the developmental opportunities needed to achieve our espoused values.

In order to provide the best development to the officers who stand to gain the most from the opportunity, the Army should consider changing which officers attend resident OES and which complete it via distance learning. High potential officers would be allowed to remain in their units while completing the courses online, strengthening the available labor pool to an operational force stretched thin by end strength reductions and operational tempo. Officers in need of additional “crystallized intelligence” development would be allowed to attend OES courses in residence, thus providing the total force with a stronger, more capable officer in future assignments.

Though there would likely be significant hurdles to adoption, the threat of high potential officers leaving the service because they are not selected for resident OES should not be a consideration. Recent research has shown that officers with the highest conceptual abilities are more likely to stay than their peers with lower abilities(8). If anything, the opportunity to reduce family turmoil by eliminating two permanent change of station moves within one calendar year might encourage more to stay.

Of course, this recommendation only affects one of many problems associated with the current officer year group cohort system. Although narrowing the distribution of conceptual talent, as opposed to widening it through the current resident-or-distance system, can strengthen a year group individually, eliminating the year group wickets completely would open the system up for many more talent management solutions.


1Vergun, D (2014). “Odierno: Leader development No. 1 priority”. development_No_1_priority/

2 Spain, E., Mohundro, J., & Banks, B. (2015). “Intellectual Human Capital for Force 2025 and Beyond”.

3 Horn, J. (1994). “The theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence” in The Encyclopedia of Intelligence. Ed. Robert Sternberg.

4 Schein, E. (1990). “Organizational Culture.” American Psychological. Pp. 109–119.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Spain, E. (2014). “Finding and Keeping Stars: the leadership performance and retention of high potentials.” Harvard University, Boston.

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