In the wake of recent criticism of the United States Command and General Staff College (CGSC), I felt compelled to offer another perspective. The following represents advice that I wish someone had shared with me and some given that I wish that I had kept in the fore of my thoughts throughout this past year while attending CGSC. I apologize for the length – if I had more time or was perhaps a better writer, it would be shorter.
Before you even step foot into the Lewis and Clark Center on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, you have likely already been inundated with the opinions of those who have previously attended CGSC. I’ll hazard that you’ve heard a few variations of the same, tired tropes:
“CGSC is a joke.”
“CGSC teaches to the lowest common denominator.”
“CGSC. is tactics for chaplains, doctors, and lawyers.”
“Wait for electives. Electives are what CGSC. should be.”
“Apply to SAMS. SAMS is what CGSC. should be.”
Despite your best efforts, your expectations begin to flag. Graduates from the class ahead of you post their perspectives on social media, some overwhelmingly positive, others depressingly negative. There’s usually an element of truth to every criticism and so the question remains: What should you expect of your year as a student here?
It’s true, the CGSC is not perfect
On some days, the plodding nature or shallow depth of a particular program of instruction will frustrate you. You might feel that instruction is overly focused on learning basic principles of U.S. Army Doctrine and demands little of you beyond the tactical and technical aspects of your specific branch or warfighting function.
You will experience disappointment with the few instructors and classmates who seem to possess only the most basic grasp on the course material or that demonstrate little enthusiasm or commitment to mastering it.
Frequently, you may grow irritated by a lack of critical thinking during classroom discussions and debate. You’ll witness both instructors and students exhibit a hesitancy to enforce intellectual standards. You may cringe when you later recall instances of your own reluctance to challenge a speaker.
You will find that you are frequently dissatisfied with the curriculum’s allocation of course hours, which devotes too little time to subjects that you find interesting. You will feel dejected when the instructor cuts short a discussion on human decision-making on complexity, emotional intelligence, a particular military thinker, or a specific period of military history for the sake of getting through each of that day’s learning objectives.
Often, you will vehemently disagree when administrative requirements and bureaucratic procedures fly in the face of your notions of a mission command philosophy. You will grow despondent over the manic nature of the calendar and a sense of unpredictability day-to-day as classes shift to accommodate guest speakers or a new collective training event is added.
Over the course of the year, you are bound to experience frustration, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. The institution is comprised of individuals, each of whom possesses varying levels of experience, competence, and commitment. Each has their own individual interests as well as personal and professional goals. Key stakeholders within the organization have competing interpretations of the institutions’ mission and may possess starkly contrasting opinions on the best approach to achieve that mission. Leaders across the organization influence the climate and culture and, depending on their own leadership competencies and capabilities, can fail just as easily as they succeed. All these variables interplay with one another to manifest themselves in organizational strengths and weaknesses. Over the course of time, the organization’s effectiveness at accomplishing its mission will ebb and flow and the system will evolve.
Discerning why an organization faces the challenges it does is complex. Asserting that there is one reason or even a very few risks applying overly linear logic to a complex problem. I don’t mean to suggest that we should refrain from offering constructive criticism or ignore the criticisms of others. But we should seek to frame the problem within its context and gain some perspective before we go about trying to solve it. Not doing so risks solving the wrong problems. Evaluating an organization without this perspective seems simple-minded. Without having experienced the responsibilities for which the school prepares you, assessing its effectiveness seems premature.
The complexity of this nature exists in most other organizations throughout the military. Upon graduation, there is an expectation that you, as a field grade officer, are capable of not just operating within it, but help to lead and solve problems collectively as a team.
At CGSC, like throughout the rest of your career, you are owed nothing
The mission of CGSC is not to educate, train, and develop you alone. It exists to educate to educate, train, and develop all the leaders in attendance, each with their own professional developmental needs, levels of commitment, and personal and professional goals.
No one will spoon-feed you all the knowledge, experience, or skills required of a successful field grade officer, organizational leader, operational artist, or master tactician. But a seemingly endless array of offerings exists at CGSC for those hungry enough to grab ahold of the spoon and dig in. Thus, I think it is more appropriate that graduates grade themselves on their performance during their year at CGSC. Such is in keeping with the spirit and intent of the late Ike Skelton and his committee’s views on professional military education. After you graduate, ask yourself: How well did you educate, train, and develop yourself throughout the year?
CGSC, like every assignment for the rest of your career, is what you make it
With this mindset, you will experience overwhelming gratitude for those instructors who challenge you during every program of instruction practical exercise. Perhaps because of your expressed desire to achieve a greater depth of tactical and technical knowledge in other warfighting functions, they will assign you responsibilities that test your strengths and probe out your weakness. Over the course of the year, you might serve as a Division Planner, a Division Chief of Staff, an S2, S4, and Brigade Commander.
The knowledge, experience, enthusiasm, and passion for teaching that many of the instructors routinely demonstrate will excite and inspire you. You will gravitate towards these leaders as you struggle with course material or challenges encountered in your self-study. You will be unable to express your appreciation for the time and energy they devote to aiding you outside of the classroom. You may find a Department of Tactics Instructor willing to mentor you as you work to develop your emotional intelligence or a Department of History Instructor who invites you to a Drink & Think event on human decision-making, complexity, and machine learning that captures your imagination.
The knowledge and experiences of many of your peers will astound you. From them, you can build on classroom instruction and develop a deeper understanding of the tactical and technical aspects specific to each of their branches, services, or agencies. Your personal learning network will grow and you will develop relationships that will last for the rest of your career.
Competitions such as the General George S. Patton Master Tactician Competition or the Major General James M. Wright Master Logistician Competition will prove rigorous but highly rewarding. These will test depth and breadth of your doctrinal knowledge and your tactical decision-making skill in time-constrained practical exercises.
You will watch as some instructors and students masterfully enforce intellectual standards of critical thinking without dampening the enthusiasm or momentum of a passionate debate. You’ll take notes on their techniques and methods with hopes of using them in the future as a means to maintain the capacity for critical thinking within your future organizations.
You will marvel at the creativity, skill, and professionalism with which instructors and students find ways to circumvent or reduce friction associated with unnecessary administrative requirements while still meeting the overall intent.
In the end, how you approach the challenge of educating, training, and developing yourself professionally will impact how you experience CGSC. With a positive mental attitude and determination to make the most of your experience, you will walk away from CGSC confident in your abilities as a professional staff officer.
Beware of malcontents and fight the urge towards becoming a dissonant influence in the Army
Your experience during CGSC, like that of the rest of your career in the US Army, will be largely determined by your attitude. You have two options. On one hand, you can cling to feelings of frustration, cynicism, and a sense of futility. You could project those feelings and become a dissonant influence, hijacking the emotions of others around you. You could infect others with your negativity and watch the poison spread among susceptible audiences within our professional community. You could force others to draw battle lines and entrench, their minds no longer receptive to the change you envision. If you do, you’ll have exactly the CGSC experience that you expect. This will continue to hold true throughout your career. Eventually, you’ll either burn out or hit a ceiling. The organization may ask you to leave, not because you lack competence or commitment but because you never learned to join the team you of which you were a part.
Alternatively, you can make the extra effort to see the challenges that confront us as opportunities and rally others within the organization to help in solving them. Be disruptive without being dissonant. If you do, your experiences may just exceed your expectations and you will begin to affect meaningful change in which the entire organization is enthusiastically committed rather than, at best, willingly compliant. CGSC is a time to take your professional development into your own hands instead of laying blame for shortcomings at the feet of the institution and organization around you. If you embrace this mindset, CGSOC may not be the #bestyearofyourlife, but it will be a damn good one.
Maj. Alan Hastings is a US Army Armor Officer and a recent graduate of the United States Command and General Staff College. Previously, he served with Operations Group at the National Training Center, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the U.S. Army Armor School, and the 172nd Infantry Brigade. This summer, he will attend the US Army's School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He blogs at thetacticalleader.com and can be found on Twitter at @ar_alanhastings.