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5 Takeaways From A Recent Command And General Staff College Graduate
The Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, provides the 10-month-long command and general staff officer course. The program serves as an Army officer’s mid-career, graduate-level, professional military education and fulfills congressional, Joint, and Army requirements for officer development. Over the past few years, however, it received some considerable criticism over how it’s structured and operated.
Specifically, some seem to think CGSC doesn’t prepare majors for strategic thought well enough. Some argue that even though the school intends to provide graduate-level education, it mandates too many hours of instructor contact time, and not enough free time for study and reflection. It is too focused on tactics and a manic schedule provides little predictability. Overall, critics feel that the school is slipping in its mission to “...educate and train field grade officers to be agile, innovative and adaptive leaders, who communicate effectively, think critically, and build teams and lead organizations….”
As a recent graduate of the program, I think the reports of the course’s shortcomings are greatly exaggerated. Either the situation here at Leavenworth is improved, or all the good the school does for Army leadership masks the negative aspects. Ultimately, it’s up to the students to decide what to draw out of their experience in their journey as professionals. That said, these are some of my observations for future classes to consider.
The tactical focus of the curriculum has its pros and cons.
The criticism about too much tactics is partially accurate, but fails to see the balance of operational and joint education the school provides. The post-9/11 Army officer with a few years of experience should have a working knowledge of many key aspects of tactical doctrine, such as the military decision-making process and unified land operations. Such were the original complaints. Regardless, we got several reps in on “getting back to basics” tactically.
However, the curriculum rarely lost focus of the bigger picture. We planned jointly on exercises with our sister-service and international classmates. We also replicated staffs from joint task force through brigade levels and saw our successes and failures as planners play out through near-real-time simulations. The education on higher level staffs was there, even if not proportionally weighted with tactics.
Years of stability and counterinsurgency operations have allowed conventional skills — aka how we want to fight wars — to atrophy. Some classes sought to reinvigorate that knowledge with a focus on long lost, good old fashioned offensive and defensive operations. My staff group spent a week planning for a division-sized river gap crossing; no easy feat on a dry erase board let alone in execution. Re-introducing long lost (or never learned) concepts like tactical mission tasks or defeat and stability mechanisms made us realize all that we didn’t know at this point in our careers. And identifying that ignorance was critical to our learning.
Leadership education was appropriate for this point in a major’s career, but decidedly focused for a specific career track. Since a preponderance of officers attending the course came from basic branches, such as field artillery or the Signal Corps, a large portion of the leadership and operational curriculum focused on those career fields’ next assignments as battalion executive or operations officers, or key brigade staff officers. However, CGSC is to prepare officers for command and eventual work on a general staff. I’m probably showing my bias as a functional area officer, but it seemed as if we were sometimes in the Command and Battalion-Brigade Tech School.
Considering the subject matter, the school does its best to provide a graduate experience.
A recurring discussion was whether the school was a true college or a trade school. It’s the same discussion on the difference between education and training and corresponds to the profession or trade debate. A college prepares a student through broad exposure to many topics in an effort to prepare him or her for the unpredictable environment where problems have no prescribed solution. No less vital, the technical school provides a student with likely solutions for a finite set of problems. It’s “choose your own adventure” versus closed-system checklist.
When it came to tactical and operational planning classes and exercises, the curriculum was very prescriptive. This may have been due to the nature of tactics and the drive to baseline the students’ experience with a foundation of doctrine, as discussed. Force management classes were no different and certainly necessary considering the byzantine nature of the Army and Joint capability development process.
However, so many of the courses were wide open to interpretation, discussion, and held no clear conclusions. The military history classes on the evolution of the Western way of war were more a study of anthropology than technology. Class discussion on organizational leadership and ethics were wonderfully uncomfortable and heated at times. Lessons on operational art provided some guideposts, but really showed how the concept is the truest outlet for creativity in the military.
Ultimately, the nature of the education provided was up to the student to interpret and draw conclusions. We got out of it what we wanted, or nothing at all if so inclined. Overall, CGSC is a college given a more ancient definition, but with required technical training most officers need for future assignments. But then again, it’s the Army and can call the school whatever it wants.
The guest speaker program is world class --- don’t waste the opportunity.
Before I started the program, colleagues who attended in years past fussed over the number of last-minute schedule shifts and other inconveniences a guest speaker would incur on the student population. To accommodate the speaker, the entire school’s schedule needed to shift around.
Either the system has improved or was never that bad. The guest speakers were never an inconvenience to the schedule, only additive to the experience. Beyond this, the caliber of speakers who would give their time to the college almost always outweighed the scheduled class for that day. The student body had the fortune of hearing from a number of key current and retired general officers such as Ray Odierno, Philip Breedlove, Vincent Brooks, Dennis Via, H.R. McMaster, Peter Vangjel, Edward Cardon, and Carter Hamm. Senior international officers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Bangladesh, and Slovenia shared their perspectives. Heroes Joe Galloway and Bruce Crandall offered their wisdom. Top civilian leaders and thinkers Paul Wolfowitz, Simon Sinek, Bob Chapman, Don Snider, Cathy Tisdale, William Cobb, Ori Brafman, and Hyrum Smith gave their insights. And this is the short list.
Any candid conversation with a general officer is a learning experience. What struck me from the wide survey of speakers were the mechanics of how they spoke. Generals are generals for a reason; the civilians no less profound. The smoothness with which they spoke on engaging, relevant topics was educational if not entertaining. And by no means do I become starry eyed with their kind of celebrity, but their proficiency in their craft is an inspiration to my own presentation skills.
Certainly, some in the audience were always too cool for school and never saw the value in the speaker in front of them. I’m looking at you, guy who sat in the row behind me all year long and had a comment for everything. Some folks will always know more about regional tensions in the Pacific than the four-star Army Pacific commander; more about ethics than the senior fellow of the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic; more about leadership than the CEO of a multibillion dollar company with thousands of employees.
My tip for the next class is to seek the value in any speaker the CGSC leadership feels important enough to put on stage. There is a world of leaders, tough decisions, ethical dilemmas, and political drivers outside the Army that are no less important and may impact the military more than anyone realizes. Write down their salient points, even if they are familiar, and reflect on them later. Everything was said for a reason.
Program administration is a free lesson in organization leadership.
Sure, students grumble about changes to the school schedule or the nefarious Student Accountability Tracker System we used to clock in to work. But with over a thousand students in residence, the school doesn’t get enough credit for herding the cats. Considering the breadth of directions every student is going in day-to-day, the extremely small administrative staff, through the faculty, does a great job. CGSC is a case study in organizational leadership in its own right. If students don't see this, they aren't interested in finding it.
The real value is in the connections you make.
The Army is a much smaller organization than one expects. I rekindled friendships that started as far back as Army ROTC. I found friends from my officer basic course. In so many ways, things never change except we all have kids now. The lesson is that you will see the same people in future assignments. Learn to help each other, because you’ll need each other in the years to come.
The common mantra, often said tongue-in-cheek, is that CGSC is “the best year of your life.” The past year was a very good one, hopefully not the best. As one of my staff group advisors said at the beginning: if this is the best year of your life, you have a very boring life. It should be “a year of your life.” It was a year where I connected with my peers across the Army and all services, the interagency, and the best in international officers. Most importantly, I feel more confident as an organizational leader and planner. In this way, CGSC met its mission.
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