Companies & Industries

Developing Critical Thinkers and Creative Leaders


In a piece from HBR's spotlight on leadership lessons from the military, Col. Bernard Banks discusses how to execute training while staying on top of customer needs

Posted on Harvard Business Review: October 28, 2010 7:50 AM

This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.

Today's leaders are continually cajoled to act as "outside-the-box" thinkers. Such pronouncements give the impression the only sound solutions are ones never previously conceived. However, what industry and the military really strive to produce are leaders possessing strong critical and creative thinking skills. Both implicitly eschew the notion that a box even exists. What can industry learn from the military about how to advance the development of such leaders? One tangible example is how to construct and execute experiential training while continuing to meet the needs of customers and stakeholders.

Today's organizations operate in what the U.S. Army War College defines as a VUCA environment. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are constant realities in the 21st century. The military seeks to prepare for the challenges it will inevitably face by crafting realistic training scenarios and routinely integrating such activities into its ongoing operations. The goal is not to teach them what to think, but to enhance their ability to think critically and creatively about the myriad of contingencies posed by a fluid environment—in essence to teach them how to think.

In industry, 90% of time is typically devoted to executing business actions, and less than 10% is allocated for increasing organizational and individual capabilities through training. The military, on the other hand, spends as much time training as it does executing—even in the midst of high stress/high risk operations. A unit in Afghanistan or Iraq will not suspend its experiential training program while involved in combat operations, because its ability to cogently and creatively address future challenges is enhanced by an enduring commitment to improving people's competence and adaptability through experiential exercises, as well as actual experiences. But the real lesson for industry leaders is not simply that training is important. What's really valuable is how the military crafts its training opportunities.

The Army defines leadership as both accomplishing the mission and improving the organization. Permanently improving the organization requires the development of its human capital. The military believes you substantively improve people by improving their ability to adroitly address challenges in their environment. Therefore, we do not seek to confine people's thinking by restricting the solutions available to them, unless the proposed action violates any of these criteria: is it immoral, unsafe, unethical, or illegal?

In order to have people wrestle with what it takes to conceive of action plans where the aforementioned criteria constitute their only boundaries, the military structures its experiential training activities with wide parameters. Events are constructed to reflect ambiguity in the operating environment (while also targeting specific organization needs). Leaders are responsible for setting the conditions in every training event and resourcing them appropriately, as well as for reminding participants throughout the exercises that there are a myriad of potentially elegant solutions to each ill-defined challenge.

Two other things are important to take away from the military practice of engaging in routine experiential training. First, feedback is crucial. The military practice of conducting intermediate and final after-action reviews (AARs)—in which all participants examine the planning, preparation, execution, and follow-up of any significant organizational initiative—fosters a learning culture. Second, coaching is required to translate feedback into behavioral changes. Research has demonstrated that feedback without coaching rarely results in behavioral changes. So, all leaders must develop their capacity to coach others. Reflection and dialog lie at the heart of development. Experiential training creates the impetus for both to occur.

If you wait for the right time to train it'll rarely occur. Today is the opportunity to prepare for tomorrow, regardless of how much else is going on.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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