The 2018 National Defense Strategy acknowledges that professional military education “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” As a remedy, the strategy emphasizes a commitment to intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting.
To understand the polarities of today’s security environment, leaders must “[deepen] our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors,” the strategy says. As the nation’s primary ground force, the Army has a strategic imperative to develop leaders who can critically analyze problems, lead diverse teams and thrive in the multidomain operating environment.
Such an undertaking is a bold task for conventional professional military education programs to address. The Army’s growth and continued funding of Strategic Broadening Seminar programs are key steps to developing future strategic leaders.
Dynamic Educational Experience
Unconstrained by a program of instruction, Strategic Broadening Seminars have flexibility in their curriculum and means of instruction. The seminars expose midgrade officers, NCOs and Army civilians to subject-matter experts from academia, government, think tanks and the private sector. Selected from all three components and career fields, seminar students bring diverse experience and backgrounds; this contributes to the dynamic educational experience.
By design, the seminars provide the time and cognitive space for students to immerse themselves in complex national security challenges and geopolitical issues, and to learn critical strategic leadership capabilities. Each seminar varies in length and primary focus, providing the Army with a cross-section of critical thinkers on its most pressing strategic problems. These career-enriching opportunities are catalytic to a leader’s growth and development. Additionally, they offer a high return on investment for sponsoring organizations when their seminar graduates return with new capacities for critical analysis, reflection, systems thinking and organizational leadership.
The 2018 Strategic Broadening Seminar at the University of Louisville, Ky.’s McConnell Center was a transformational experience for us. Over the course of five weeks, we studied the classics of military strategy, Western philosophy and American democracy while learning from leading academics about China and Russia. We debated topics such as the constitutionality of the proposed Space Force and learned about the origins of the sacred oaths each service member takes.
The McConnell Center also gave us a chance to interact with leading public figures including the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, director of the CIA, U.S. secretary of transportation, two federal judges and former congressional staffers. Those engagements provided unique perspectives from across the three branches of government and gave us a glimpse into the interagency process.
As the program progressed, we also studied the works of Plato, Thucydides and Niccolo Machiavelli as the “source documents” to contemporary works on psychology, history and leadership. With our new understanding from these classical works, we were better equipped to connect the dots and deconstruct our strategic issue research projects from the chief of staff of the Army’s Key Strategic Issues List.
The experience of taking part in the McConnell Center’s unique Strategic Broadening Seminar experience gave us the intellectual tools necessary to make sense of the complexities of America’s constitutional order, the Army’s place within it, and the challenges we face at home and abroad.
To help convey our concept of the unique developmental value of Strategic Broadening Seminars, let’s use music as an analogy. Through our commissioning sources and Basic Officer Leader Courses, we are handed the instruments of our craft for the first time. Some of us will play the violin; some of us will play a brass instrument or percussion. In those schools, we learn a few basic songs, primarily through rote memorization. We endeavor to gain proficiency with our particular instrument while understanding, perhaps vaguely, that we will play our part within the wider orchestra that is the Army.
In the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course, for example, we are taught the basics of how to create a “Symphony of Destruction.” That is, to synchronize and mass the effects of combined arms maneuver, direct and indirect fires and enablers to wreak havoc on the enemy. We’ll refer to this particular symphony as Thunderstruck. We learn the individual notes, transitions and phrasing (the musical ingredients) of this particular piece of music, and once we’ve gained enough proficiency with it, we advance out of the course, and are ultimately placed in positions to be ready to play Thunderstruck when the time is right. In this sense, we are developing musicians who have added one particular piece of music to their repertoire.
This general method of learning continues throughout our careers as we add a piece of music (a new song) here and there, and we are ready to play them when the situation is right. The Army trusts us not to play Thunderstruck when a softer, slower tune is more appropriate.
Ultimately, this method of musical development creates, at end state, musicians who can regurgitate songs they’ve been taught. The best musicians may carry with them a vast internal library of music and may be ready to play the right songs in the right circumstances, and do so with beautiful proficiency. One song could be how to conduct a key leader engagement. Another song could be to dig an obstacle, or breach one. An orchestral performance could be a staff conducting the Military Decision Making Process—each musician (staff member) playing their part. Through practice and repetition, we gain proficiency at these tasks, just as musicians gain proficiency with their instruments.
A Different Vision
The Strategic Broadening Seminar is a different sort of musical academy. We arrived expecting to become a better musician—to learn new songs, or more efficient ways to play the songs we already knew. That, however, is not the vision of Gary Gregg, lead faculty for the seminar and director of the McConnell Center.
In the first hours of our time at the seminar, Gregg told us that he would aim not only to make us better military leaders, but to make us better people as well. This was unexpected. Put another way, Gregg did not endeavor to teach us another piece of music, but to introduce us to the foundational principles of music itself. He would work with us on the modes—the language of it all. Perhaps some of us understood Thunderstruck or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band quite well. At our professional level, though, we had rarely given much thought to why those songs work, or what modal structures and nuanced transitions can be used to make new music.
The seminar isn’t about making better musicians—it’s about planting seeds that may one day grow musical conductors or perhaps a composer or two.
Army leaders at every echelon routinely find themselves in dynamic and confusing situations around the globe. Will the piece of music we learned through rote memorization and practice be the necessary piece to fit into any particular situation we face? Though the right music played at the right time can create the desired effect, the wrong piece of music can cause deleterious consequences. The Army needs leaders who can think in complex environments and improvise tactics to bring about the desired impact on the strategic situation. To complete our music analogy, the Army needs leaders who play their role in the orchestra but who are also capable of improvisational jazz fusion when the situation requires it.
Thinking in a New Language
Most Army leaders will not advance to lead at the strategic level, just as most musicians will not become conductors, and only a small number will become visionary composers. But the Strategic Broadening Seminar supplements what is an effective Army professional military education methodology with a strong bit of music theory. The seminar provides a first critical touch point that provokes midcareer leaders (who may one day become senior leaders) to start thinking in a language they hadn’t considered before.
Strategic leaders are not grown overnight—and the Strategic Broadening Seminar endeavors to start the process earlier than Army professional military education has traditionally provided for.
The Army should continue to prioritize and support the Strategic Broadening Seminar programs through the following recommendations:
- Organizational-level leaders need to know about the seminars so they can send the best candidates in order to reap both individual and organizational benefits. Upon returning from the seminars, the real work begins by serving as a change agent within their respective formations.
- As the concept of multidomain operations promulgates throughout the joint force, the Army should open the Strategic Broadening Seminar program to sister services. Adding additional sister service “colors” to each seminar could enhance the learning experience further while also serving as a forum to build vital relationships for future operations.
- A seminar graduate receives a world-class educational experience along with the 6Z Strategic Studies Graduate Additional Skill Identifier. The Army should also consider adding Strategic Broadening Seminar participation to both the officer and NCO career progression maps and supporting regulations such as Department of the Army-Pamphlet 600-3: Officer Professional Development and Career Management. Adding the program to these publications further educates Army leaders about the opportunities and codifies the value of attendance to a Strategic Broadening Seminar program.
The Army is full of incredibly talented musicians. Strategic Broadening Seminars, if continued at multiple, critical touch points throughout the careers of our most talented musicians, will help shape and grow the virtuoso composers who will write the music of the Army’s future challenges around the globe.