Upgrading the Future Joint Force Leader: Three Recommendations for Joint Education: Part 1

By Nathan Catching
Approximate Read Time: 14 Minutes

Abstract: The Joint Force is pursuing innovative ways to reshape Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) as part of a larger effort to prepare leaders for the future security environment. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) recently published a new Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP) and guidance for “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War,” but also admit that the process is iterative and must be continually reassessed to ensure relevance. This is the first of a two-part series which provides three recommendations in line with this guidance. Those recommendations include incorporating “…hunger for knowledge…” as a Desired Leader Attribute (DLA), incorporation of Dr. Jeffrey Reilly’s “Strategic Design” methodology within the curriculum, and additional Joint All Domain (JAD) maneuver instruction and wargames. These suggestions would assist JPME in developing future operational and strategic leaders. PART 1 discusses the first recommendation; PART 2 discusses the second two recommendations.


Developing future Joint Force leaders is equal in importance to building new formations and acquiring advanced technologies. The tactical leaders that the Joint Force invests in today will pay dividends as the operational and strategic commanders of tomorrow. Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2035anticipates the future security environment will be in a state of “flux,” where change “occurs at an irregular pace” and “the pursuit of political objectives through organized violence is and will remain a feature.” Senior leaders continue to carefully and regularly assess the leadership qualities needed for the next generation.

This is an iterative process.  The Desired Leader Attributes (DLAs) and methods of developing leaders must be continually reevaluated. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) GEN Mark Milley recently expressed to Congress: “[i]n order to retain our competitive advantage into the 2030s and beyond, we are refining Professional Military Education (PME) and talent management to develop Joint Leaders with the skills, values, and intellectual agility to fight and win the wars of tomorrow.” In this effort, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) recently published new guidance for “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War” and a corresponding Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP). Efforts to shape leader development are never complete though. According to the JCS, “To remain relevant, we must periodically assess our programs, validate missions and focus, as well as determine gaps and where new programs are needed.”

The JCS—via the J7 and Military Education Coordination Council (MECC)—have established an excellent way ahead in preparing leaders for the future, but there are still three additional areas Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) can improve. A DLA about hunger for knowledge, incorporation of Dr. Jeffrey Reilly’s “Strategic Design” methodology, and greater emphasis on Joint All Domain (JAD) operations would better prepare the next generation of commanders and staff planners. These recommendations nest within the recent guidance from the JCS, but go beyond the OPMEP to offer practical ways of implementation. Senior decision makers all the way down to JPME leadership and curriculum managers could apply these recommendations in whole or part, as they see fit, to make their programs more effective.

The recommendations are further explained in three corresponding sections. Each section expands on perceived JPME knowledge gaps, offers suggestions for incorporating the recommendation, and addresses inherent risks and mitigations in the implementation. These refinements to JPME could significantly contribute to GEN Milley’s intent of preparing leaders “to fight and win the wars of tomorrow.”

Recommendation 1: A Seventh DLA

A seventh DLA—“Maintain a continuous hunger for knowledge and deeper understanding as a lifelong learner”—should be introduced for several reasons. First, it was part of GEN Dempsey’s original 2012 vision for Joint education and is still relevant today. Second, JPME and self-development are already “interdependent supporting pillars,” according to the Joint Training Policy, and this hunger for knowledge is generally recognized as important by the JCS. After all, the latest guidance states, “We shall foster an environment where students are inspired to master the fundamentals of the art and science of war in an atmosphere and culture that encourages intellectual curiosity, stimulates critical thinking, rewards creativity and risk-taking…” This leads to the third reason.

Although one might argue that these are already aspects inherent in JPME—and therefore a new DLA would be a moot point—specifying it alongside the six established DLAs (Figure 1) automatically increases its priority. It would no longer be relegated to a supplemental benefit that students may or may not attain during their time in JPME. Course directors and JPME leadership would have to actively address it within their respective curriculums. This seventh DLA would pose challenges to the respective institutions for reasons to be discussed, however, it is both attainable for JPME and crucial for future operational and strategic leaders, as GEN Dempsey originally foresaw.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
Figure 1. The Desired Leader Attributes (DLAs). The JCS underGEN Dempsey originally established the six DLAs in 2013, though the JCS slightly amended the wording over the years. The first six listed DLAs are taken from the most recent OPMEP, while the recommended seventh DLA is bolded.

Current guidance is clearly nested in GEN Dempsey’s 2012 vision for “Joint Education.” He intended to “review our joint education objectives and institutions to ensure that we are developing agile and adaptive leaders with the requisite values, strategic vision and critical thinking skills necessary to keep pace with the changing security environment.” Although much has changed in the last eight years and the latest OPMEP expands on the earlier guidance by more closely aligning PME with Talent Management, the current intent is still remarkably similar to the 2012 vision. It seeks to develop “strategically minded joint warfighters who think critically and can creatively apply military power…” GEN Dempsey’s paper led to the six original DLAs—which are still in use—yet his assertion (in the same paper), “[w]e must assist every service member in becoming a life-long learner, always hungry for new knowledge and deeper understanding” never grew into a DLA. Lifelong learning is as crucial to Joint leadership now as it was in 2012, so this aspect of GEN Dempsey’s vision should be reconsidered. Establishing it as a DLA could serve as a starting point for achieving his intent to “assist” the lifelong learning process.

The Joint Force recognizes the importance of self-development but falls short of truly supporting it. The current guidance seeks to “foster an environment where students are inspired to master the fundamentals of the art and science of war…” US Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1 adds that “[s]elf-directed study…is at least equal in importance to maintaining physical condition…the mind is an officer’s principle weapon.” The caveat, as MCDP 1 also points out, is that self-directed study is an “individual responsibility.”[1] While this is true, the individual responsibility for self-study is often relegated to an afterthought because of high operational tempo (OPTEMPO), and this problem is pervasive across the Joint Force. Retired US Army Colonel (COL) and PhD Dean Nowowiejski notes that despite many officers making valiant attempts, OPTEMPO gets in the way of this “elusive” pillar and they fall short of espoused self-developmental goals. JPME curriculum cannot and should not make officers conduct self-study, but it could be more conducive to the process.

JPME can afford both time and resources to students for self-development. If the Joint Learning Continuum (Figure 2) were viewed as a team sport, then the operational domain would equate to the regular athletic season where the team (operational force) trains and competes. The off-season (representing the institutional domain, including JPME) allows respite for players to hone skills and review past performance. The off-season also provides more opportunities for players to assess their individual strengths and weaknesses (self-assessment), and then practice on their own (self-development) or seek assistance from other players (peers) and coaches (mentors). JPME is more conducive to self-development than the operational environment, but this requires a willingness to balance the course load with calendar white space. From this stance, the seventh DLA counterbalances the other six, which are primarily focused on gaining specific knowledge. There would be an opportunity cost as curriculum managers would have to potentially cut some of their current material down and use time more creatively. While time is one component of the equation, the other is JPME’s unique opportunities. These include—but are not limited to—research opportunities, mentorship and reflection, and self-awareness assessments.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
Figure 2: Joint Leader Continuum. This graphic from the 2020 Joint Training Policy visually depicts the various modes of learning over time.

The Joint Force should holistically revise its approach to research in two ways: implementing group research projects and through individual research lasting multiple years. The first revision—group research—would mean incorporating projects similar to the model advocated by the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS; not a JPME venue). In the SAMS model, students work in small “syndicates” comprised of peers and an instructor who helps guide their research.[2] Like SAMS, JPME students could similarly select an instructor—and conversely—the faculty member also gets to choose the students (a small, limited number). This research could also be based around specified research voids. For example, the 2019 Air Force Science and Technology Strategy lists “five strategic capabilities that directly support the vision to dominate time, space, and complexity across all operating domains.” JPME student syndicates that research into these topics could directly support the Air Force “vanguard” research programs, which “advance emerging weapons systems and warfighting concepts.” Professional journals like the Army’s Military Review also solicit calls for papers. These papers could be the published findings of the JPME research syndicate or the result of individual student research, which ties into the second revision for research.

The second research method JPME should explore is to enable students to conduct continued research into the same topic over multiple years. This expands COL Nowowiejski’s proposal for the Army to a recommendation across the Joint Force. An example would be if an Army Air Defense Artillery officer opted to study hypersonics while enrolled in the Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC; a JPME I venue). CGSC could annotate this research on the student’ end-of-course academic report (instead of making it a boilerplate statement) and potentially also store letters of recommendation from research faculty in the student’s files. Later, this could facilitate a broadening assignment—for instance, this same student working with Raytheon in an industry exchange or similar program. These events could subsequently help to determine where this student attends JPME II—e.g. continuing hypersonic research at the Air War College, followed by a fellowship, eventually resulting in a dissertation or book that helps the Joint Force. This nests closely with guidance from the JCS to consider “emerging intellectual requirements” and “linking the selection of our students, the school they attend and what they learn there, and their subsequent assignments.” JPME can also provide greater opportunities for mentorship.

Mentorship is an excellent accompaniment to reflection. An article by Dr. Dan McCauley of the National Defense University (NDU) depicts a fictional Joint and Combined Warfighting School (JPME II venue) student reflecting with peers outside of class, internalizing lessons learned. “‘Critical thinking is reflective thinking,’ such as what I’m now doing…” the student realizes in an internal monologue. While JPME must be rigorous in order to achieve the first six DLAs, it must also provide some respite from the normal OPTEMPO so students can reflect and internalize lessons learned from their experiences, which helps their growth as critical and strategic thinkers (DLA 6). Mentors can guide this reflection, and JPME is uniquely suited to assist in this area. This is connoted by the OPMEP stipulation that “highly qualified civilian and military faculty must be a top priority for [JPME] institutional leaders,” meaning students would have a large pool of excellent potential mentors to choose from. They could conduct optional meet-and-greet sessions or one-on-one interviews early in the course to select mentors for research or for personal growth and reflection. These mentors would be optimal candidates for sharing helpful self-developmental techniques, methods of reflection and journaling, and so forth. One risk with mentorship should be addressed though.

JPME institutions must be cautious in how they advertise mentorship; self-development must remain just that. Dr. Franklin Annis (doctorate in curriculum and teaching) suggests that mandated mentorship or reflection risks making it a check-the-block, undermining intrinsic motivation. JPME venues should set up meet-and-greets and establish other creative ways to introduce faculty members (potential mentors) to students (prospective proteges) but must be careful not to force it. Dr. Richard Ryan and Dr. Edward Deci—psychologists and founders of Self-Determination Theory— add that choice (or autonomy) is crucial to motivation. If JPME venues facilitate the process by providing students with autonomy (making it voluntary and giving them the freedom to choose their own mentors), then these opportunities could yield significant additional personal growth for students. The risk is similar with self-assessments.

JPME should offer self-assessments to help in students’ growth, but these opportunities must be sparing and focused on specific objectives like a future command. Dr. Annis suggests that mandated assessments can undermine intrinsic motivation inherent in self-development, creating a block-check where learning value is lost. While this holds true in many cases, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Deci posit that motivation is actually on a spectrum with intrinsic on one end, amotivation on the other, and several forms of extrinsic motivation spanning the gamut between these poles. Some forms of extrinsic motivation (those that are closer to the intrinsic side of the spectrum) generally include greater autonomy. In other words, some forms of extrinsic motivation are not altogether bad for supporting self-development. A JPME student, for instance, might read material on his own because he perceives it will be beneficial later as a commander; though not fully intrinsic (because the student is motivated by the extrinsic goal of success in command instead of learning simply for the sake of learning), it still qualifies as excellent self-development and should be pursued. Connecting this to self-assessments, students must see the worth in the assessment as it applies to their career.

There are two types of assessments that would benefit JPME students. First, personality tests and 360-degree feedback, though these events should be sparing and tied to some form of peer discussion in class rather than graded assignments. Students must understand that the premise is to facilitate growth and education. A second method of self-assessment would be for JPME to carve out time (hours or even days) for a voluntary assessment that is similar in nature to the Army’s pilot Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP). This event includes psychological and physical assessments, subordinate and peer feedback, and an interview with an anonymous panel of senior officers. The intent of the BCAP, in the words of Army COL Everett S. P. Spain, is to ensure the right officers take command and to “help identify toxic leaders…” This would no doubt be painful for the JPME venue to set up and costly in terms of time away from other curriculum focuses, but the payoff for students who volunteer would be tremendous. If both JPME I and II offered these types of assessments, then students would gain free and non-retributive feedback. This would be essential in enabling them to determine their own growth as leaders before undergoing the real BCAP or learning the lessons the hard way as commanders; students should be able to receive this exceptional and pointed feedback long before becoming O-5s.

The seventh (proposed) DLA drives JPME to consider various opportunities to expand students’ horizons for growth, but should also consider the risks. Research, mentorship and reflection, and self-assessments are excellent starting points, yet this DLA could serve as a foundation for JPME leadership to find even more creative ways to facilitate hunger for knowledge. The major risks are lost time toward other JPME pursuits (or DLAs) and deteriorating self-development into a block-check.

In terms of time, JPME must be creative with the calendar and accept the risk that additional research or reflection time might give a pass to unmotivated students to squander it away. The guiding assumption though is that leaders at this stage in their careers are self-motivated, which is generally supported by Dr. Ryan and Dr. Deci. They posit that humans naturally have the inclination to learn and develop; intrinsic motivation is the rule more than the exception. Students who fail to wisely use their own time to self-develop will no doubt suffer later in the careers. Checking-the-block is also best avoided by focusing the curriculum on doing fewer things well instead of piling on learning objectives and tasks. JPME should prioritize institutional objectives and determine things to cut from the curriculum, allowing time for reflection and other self-developmental pursuits.

Major Nathan Catching is an Army armor officer with experience as an IBCT cavalry scout platoon leader, executive officer, and staff officer in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He also has staff experience at the division and ABCT level, and commanded a tank company in the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, TX. He later instructed and commanded in the Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course and served as a doctrine writer in the Armor School, both at Fort Benning, GA. He is a graduate of the USAF Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) Multi-Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS) concentration and is currently a student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, KS.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image Source: https://www.army.mil/article/202457/cgsc_tests_board_based_strategy_game.

[1] Department of the Navy, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting [Change 1] (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 4 April 2018), page 3-13. Accessed 24 June 2020; available at https://homeport.usmc.mil/sites/mcdoctrine/Publications/MCDP%201.pdf#search=ALL%28mcdp%201%20warfighting%29.

[2] United States Army Combined Arms Center (USACAC), School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) Program Guide, Academic Year (AY) 2020 (Fort Leavenworth, KS), p. 13.

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