The United States Army has been a people-centric organization; soldiers and units ultimately accomplish the mission. Over the course of its 243-year history, the Army has had to adapt to changes in warfare, technology, demographics and international affairs; however, one thing has remained paramount – leaders must possess the knowledge, skills and character to successfully to accomplish the mission. Therefore, leader development is an organizational imperative, and over the years, the Army has continuously adapted its leader development processes to ensure that leaders are prepared to face contemporary military threats and challenges. So, too, in business, adapting leadership programs to dynamic environments is necessary.

The Army’s current model of leader development grew out of two important changes in its environment over the last half century – one domestic (VOLAR) and the other international (VUCA). VOLAR, the All-Volunteer Army, meant the Army could no longer rely on the draft to sustain personnel readiness, necessitating the empowerment of leaders to attract and retain self-disciplined and motivated soldiers. VUCA, the acronym used to characterize the post-Cold War operational environment (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), required the Army to prepare for a full spectrum of conflict, from low-intensity conflicts to nuclear war. Hence, the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to lead volunteers in a more complex environment required leaders who were innovative, comfortable operating with minimum guidance within the commander’s intent and confident in taking prudent risks to accomplish the mission.

At West Point, and throughout the Army, a refined model of leader development emerged over several decades to prepare leaders for complex, uncertain and ambiguous missions. This process began by identifying the KSAs that are imperative for success in a VUCA environment at each organizational level. These KSAs became the focal point for leadership development.

The Army grows leaders through continuous, progressive and sequential training and on-the-job development. Training orients learners to job-related skills and leadership abilities and occurs in educational settings, where leaders prepare to move into new command and senior staff assignments. Development occurs within critical on-the-job experiences and stretch assignments that broaden leaders’ understanding of the organization and operational environment while enhancing competencies for higher-level leadership. Developmental opportunities begin by considering a leader’s readiness to grow, then combine challenging assignments with support through teaching, coaching and mentoring so that leaders derive the full benefits of the experience. The art of leader development is finding the right balance between challenge and support that aligns with each individual leader’s readiness for growth.

Growth-oriented experiences provide opportunities for leaders to think and act in new ways. Army leaders thrive on assessment and feedback from others as well as self-assessment to enhance their growth. Assessment and feedback are integral to all aspects of leader development, both during training and throughout on-the-job experiences.

Challenging experiences set the stage for self-reflection, even during fast-paced operational assignments, in order to derive the lessons of practice. Reflection is facilitated by others – the individual’s leader or a teacher, coach or mentor – and can also be self-guided – for example, by keeping a journal to reflect on his or her experiences and growth. One tool for reflection is the after action review (AAR), which facilitates individual and team development after every activity. The AAR has become part of the Army’s DNA; leaders do it after every operation, in training as well as in combat.

This model of leader development is standard operating procedure throughout the Army – at professional schools from West Point to the War College and in tactical units deployed around the world. Its results are seen each day in the performance of Army leaders in the most complex and dangerous circumstances.

What lessons of leader development in the Army are applicable in the corporate context? First, meaningful work is a catalyst for developing leaders within the context of mission success. Developmentally rich work experiences have challenge and novelty, and sometimes even failure, all of which test existing leadership skills and set the stage for meaningful growth. The challenging work, be it military operations or corporate responsibilities, requires leaders to operate outside their comfort zone and encounter new demands that create new understanding and abilities. Leaders are stretched in order to grow.

Second, good leader development programs are continuous, progressive and aligned with the increasing complex demands of leadership as the learner assumes new responsibilities within the organization. Leaders are always growing to meet new responsibilities and face new challenges; they are never finished.

Third, leader development is a core competency of all leaders; it is not relegated to the HR and L&D staff. Leaders at all levels are responsible for developing their subordinate leaders, because they are in the best position to assess readiness and provide the right balance of training, stretch assignments and support to facilitate growth. HR professionals support leader development by promoting policies and procedures that aid leaders in growing other leaders.

When applying the Army’s leader development model to grow corporate leaders, a good starting point is assessment of potential participants’ developmental needs and readiness to grow. Then, the organization can tailor programs to train learners on new knowledge and skills, geared toward developmental needs and the organization’s requirements. This training should be reinforced with experiential “stretch” exercises designed to provide opportunities for participants to apply new knowledge and skills and test their leadership abilities. Then, follow these experiences with performance assessments by expert observers and self-assessment, as well as individual and team self-reflection. Provide participants with opportunities to connect their learning to their work settings and share their insights with others.

Can the corporate world see the same results as the Army? Yes. To illustrate, American aerospace manufacturer Pratt and Whitney is leveraging this type of leader development program to support the development of top executives and senior managers. In a 2018 article in Forbes, Pratt and Whitney president Bob Leduc noted that employees of supervisors who have gone through the program score eight points higher in job satisfaction than those who have not, and voluntary attrition has dropped more than three-fold since 2016.

An organization’s ability to adapt to complex business environments requires employees, teams and leaders who understand how they contribute to the company’s success and have the requisite skills and abilities to do so effectively. CEOs frequently extol the virtues of empowering leaders at all levels to act decisively within the overall mission, thus adding flexibility and responsiveness to their companies. This type of leadership enables organizations to recruit and retain talent and succeed in their VUCA environments.