Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
March 15, 2007

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Retired Army Major Don Vandergriff is helping spearhead an effort to make the service’s next generation of officers more “adaptive,” an attribute Army leaders find increasingly valuable as the United States faces a diverse and complex array of adversaries abroad. Defense and international affairs experts anticipate more of the same in the years to come, as the nation continues fighting nontraditional opponents in the global war on terror.

Vandergriff’s 132-page book on a new approach to leadership development, Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War, was published late last year by the Center for Defense Information in Washington. In it, the former officer explains his concept for introducing cadets and newly commissioned lieutenants to the decision-making skills they will need to lead soldiers in challenging environments.

The author, who retired from the service in 2005, currently works for SYColeman under a contract with the Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center. Under those auspices, his “Adaptive Leader Course” is being integrated into two- to four-year ROTC programs and into “phase II” of the Basic Officer Leader Course at battalions based at Ft. Benning, GA, and Ft. Sill, OK.

The so-called “BOLC II” course is a six-week experience following pre-commissioning via ROTC, the U.S. Military Academy or Officer Candidate School (termed BOLC I). After the BOLC II phase, newly commissioned Army personnel attend the Officer Basic Course (or BOLC III), where they develop mission specialties.

Over the next several weeks, Vandergriff is touring a number of sites where aspects of the Adaptive Leader Course are being put into practice. He says the trips will allow him a renewed opportunity to offer his observations to hundreds of instructors and students and to seek their feedback on the new approach. Instructors may include sergeants, captains or majors.

Named 2002-2003 ROTC instructor of the year while teaching at Georgetown University, Vandergriff was interviewed March 9 by Inside the Pentagon. His views do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Army or its contractor. Elaine M. Grossman

ITP: What is your job and how long have you been doing it?

Vandergriff: I was hired in the spring of 2005 by [then-Training and Doctrine Command chief] Gen. Kevin Byrnes, through SYColeman, to be a leadership-development and soldier analyst.

I was hired to bring adaptability into pre-commissioning instruction and into the Basic Officer Leader Course for lieutenants.

I got the job based on a self-initiated study I did called “Raising the Bar” in 2004 and 2005. A lot of people at [Training and Doctrine Command] read it. And that led to the book.

ITP: You’ve focused on one idea – adaptability – in training future Army leaders. Why adaptability?

Vandergriff: Adaptability is really the long-term ability of an organization or people to change in response to the changing conditions of warfare.

It’s necessary for the leader because the entire climate that the military – particularly the Army – is operating in is constantly evolving.

We have to be adaptive and able to take in new lessons learned and integrate them into the system. A leader needs to constantly evolve, learn [and] grow by applying those lessons to new challenges.

ITP: Who among cadets and lieutenants has gone through adaptability training so far?

Vandergriff: Almost all second lieutenants, minus some medical people, go through the Basic Officer Leader Course, which is a six-week course that gives them more development focused on leadership, particularly decision-making.

Each company – there are four companies in the two battalions – puts through 190 to 210 lieutenants. The effort integrates a lot of the concepts that have been developed not only by myself, but also by some other people, to introduce adaptability to these lieutenants through experiential learning and through [a] rapid decision-making process.

If you’re going to change a culture, it’s my opinion that it must be a generational change. And that begins with the young people who are introduced to this.

All combat arms, combat support and service support lieutenants go through this BOLC II course, regardless of commissioning source.

ITP: Why aren’t Army officers and cadets, whom many describe as the best trained in the world, already adaptive?

Vandergriff: A lot of them have been forced to be adaptive by circumstances. But the question I have is: How many have not?

The leader development system we used in the Army [in the past] was established in the Industrial Age. It is very top-down, centralized and it’s based on process. That way, there’s a fixed lesson plan and a fixed language across the board, so everyone in the institution understands. And at one time, there was a place for that: In World War II, when you were trying to build a mass Army overnight and then ship it overseas.

But in today’s environment, where everyone can become a “strategic lieutenant,” you’ve got to be tougher in your selection or accession process. And young officers must learn more attributes and skills earlier than in the past in order to be successful in the operating environments [of] today and in the future.

The Army is doing a good job at recruiting good people. Now the Army is also developing a system that challenges them, nurtures them, and allows them to have the authority and the responsibility required to succeed at their missions.

The Army [is making itself] a “learning organization,” allowing officers to make mistakes – good, honest mistakes that they can explain – but also [permitting them] to grow and learn.

ITP: You mentioned the idea of a “strategic lieutenant.” How do you define that?

Vandergriff: There’s a phenomenon called the “CNN effect.” What that means is the decisions these people make, say, on the streets of Baghdad or in Afghanistan, or wherever they’re going to be, could impact the operational or strategic levels of war. If they make a mistake in mishandling a crowd or lose a lot of their people every casualty is highlighted, so these people have to be really good [in missions] from warfighting to rebuilding.

So these people have more of an impact than they ever have had before.

The adaptive leader course model puts them in a setting where they understand the context two to three levels above them. And the reason you do that is so they understand their role and that of their unit in the context of that environment, how they operate and how they fit in the larger picture.

ITP: Our occasional “10 Questions” series relates to the global war on terror. So can you describe why adaptive leaders – and this course – are necessary in terms of preparing the Army and the nation for fighting terrorism around the world?

Vandergriff: Well, the global war on terror is actually what we call “4th generation warfare.” That’s not an Army term, but the Army would call it “asymmetric warfare.”

As the complexity of war evolves, it pushes the impact of decisions to lower and lower levels, where it’s going to require strong leaders at lower levels – I hate that word “lower.” But at that tactical level, for example, where  … war is emerging more and more, the impact of their decisions is going to have more of an impact. And the responsibilities that they have … are going to require them to be good at using scarcer resources.

And the enemies that we are fighting – non-state groups like al Qaeda, drug traffickers [and] other religious fanatical groups – these groups have no loyalty to any state organization. They have the availability of off-the-shelf technology. And they are decentralizing so they can operate more rapidly at lower levels without a lot of guidance.

And this makes … our flexibility as a military more important. If we can empower people at the lowest ranks to execute missions – that were once taking a lot of approval from a hierarchical chain of command and with a lot of planning – and if they can execute these missions faster, we can stay abreast of the enemy decision cycle. So that’s why it’s important for us to move to this type of educational development.

I like to use the term ‘leader development’ because it encompasses education, which is something different than training. Training reinforces set drills and standard operating procedures and skills that you’ve talked about in the classroom.

But in the Adaptive Leader Course, education is not limited to the classroom. As a matter of fact, there’s very little lecturing. It’s experiential learning. They’re thrown into situations where, in the past, traditionalists would say, “Oh, they’ve not learned the basics.” Well, we are throwing them into a situation where lieutenants at BOLC II and cadets are doing platoon-size missions [and] they’re allowed to learn from them. They’re allowed to experiment while the [instructor] cadre facilitate or coach their decisions.

Teachers of adaptability are the main centerpiece of the Adaptive Leader Course, and they facilitate instead of lecture. And they mentor and set up the environment where the lieutenants or the cadets are forced to seek the answer and find it for themselves, without getting the answer provided to them.

So all of that builds character and adaptability when they’re in that environment. I like to call it a ‘fail-safe’ environment where they’re allowed to fail before they actually have to go out and do it in the real world. So that’s why it’s important for these people to – for example – do platoon-level missions before they actually go to an operational unit and have to lead a platoon.

ITP: U.S. Joint Forces Command and others have developed a so-called “effects-based approach to operations” where virtually any action down to the tactical level can be related to strategic-level objectives. Do you see a relation between training for adaptability and an effects-based approach?

Vandergriff: When action at the tactical level impacts everything else, that’s what I’m talking about – merging the levels of war.

In the past, a lieutenant in the Officer Basic Course learned somewhat about platoon operations. Instead, now you’re throwing these people into Adaptive Leader Courses and exposing them to three levels above them so they can start knowing how they operate in that context.

You’re not trying to make them experts in battalion operations, per se, or company operations. But they’re becoming more familiar with how they operate within those environments. And it’s good for them to be introduced to strategy and operational art, as well.

It makes them more flexible and they learn how they’re going to impact those larger arenas.

ITP: The Army is facing huge manpower strains lately as it’s been deeply involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this the best time to look inward and focus on leadership training inside the Army?

 Vandergriff: When is … going to be a good time to do that?

When you look at the world and how it’s evolving, with state and non-state opponents everywhere, resource constraints, overpopulation, natural disasters, there’s no time that’s going to be a good time. There’s no thing such as peace.

The instructor cadre at both the Ft. Benning and Ft. Sill BOLC II courses have started developing their own scenarios that are related to what the Army is learning now in combat. And it’s a nonstop process; they’re always updating from lessons learned.

And that gets the curriculum writers and developers upset, because people love order. They want set lesson plans that never change, such that anybody can walk in and turn on the PowerPoint presentation and teach it. Well, this is not that type of course at all.

If you want to promote long-term learning, it’s not by rote memorization It’s through varying the conditions, introducing complex scenarios, and allowing people to find the answers for themselves in an environment where they can go find it, with some facilitation from instructors.

ITP: At the same time as the Army is supporting your work in developing more adaptive leaders, there is a parallel trend toward substituting unmanned systems and electronics, in some cases, for humans. How do you relate those two trends?

Vandergriff: An adaptive leader knows how to use the technology at hand to solve problems.

Remember “Felix the Cat,” the cartoon character who had the bag of tricks? When he had a certain problem he had to deal with, he used to open the bag and come up with the tools he needed to solve the problem.

Well, it’s the same way in developing leaders. An adaptive leader figures out how technology can enhance the ability to solve complex problems. The way we develop leaders and soldiers evolves as technology evolves.

ITP: Your work is heavily influenced by the late Air Force Col. John Boyd, a military strategist, and retired defense maverick Franklin “Chuck” Spinney. How have those two individuals affected or inspired you in developing the Adaptive Leader Course?

Vandergriff: First, I’d like to note that my current supervisors in both the Army and SYColeman have been very supportive of my work.

But I acknowledged Boyd first in Raising the Bar because of his heavy influence on me. The biggest influence on me was his strength of character. And the fact that he took on a system that was obsessed with technology, impacted by big corporate influence on weapons. And he believed in very competent, professional people.

So what I did in my second book, Path to Victory, about the personnel system, was ask: If John Boyd could design a personnel system, what would it be? How does it develop strength of character? How does it develop people who are going to do the right thing, even when they’re not being seen? True professionals who focus on their professions and not their careers?

The other thing I’m fascinated by is [Boyd’s concept of an] OODA Loop, the observe-orient-decide-act cycle, and how to develop leaders to use the OODA loop not only to … think faster than your enemy but also think better than your enemy.

Chuck is my mentor. Chuck Spinney has been a big influence on me in a lot of ways: On keeping on target, keeping in my lane, and when I was frustrated or down, to stay with it. So he’s the biggest influence outside Boyd.

Boyd is the person I never met. Chuck is the mentor from 1997 through today, whenever he comes back from his sailing trips in the Mediterranean. He’s the one that says, “You can’t change everything. Do what you can. But you’re focused on the right area, which is the next generation. So keep up your work.”

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