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US Army takes leadership selection lessons from the private sector

Richard Bunning

Faculty Blog

The selection of effective leaders in a military command could hardly be more critical.  Leadership is the most important variable for any successful military operation. So, choosing officers to take command has evolved to be very different from previous centuries where members of the upper or governing classes were appointed to such positions. Or later, such as in the American Civil War, when officers’ positions could be purchased by the wealthy.
For the last 50 years the US Army has employed a system of meritocracy which seemed logical: consideration of experience gained through past military jobs, levels of physical fitness and recommendations from senior officers. In practice, the influence of the commanding general was overriding and all too often resulted in the picking of favorites. Such methods have come to be recognised as inadequate for an army which must not only be able to operate on land and air but also cope with: technology; cyberspace; non-state actors; a world changing in unpredictable ways and more.

Change is underway. Early this year, the Army initiated a project, the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP) to improve its selection process. It adopts a number of practices from the private sector designed to supplement previous practices. Initially, the project will focus on the selection of battalion commanders, a position which might be equated to a senior middle manager in the private sector. The battalion commander typically carries a rank of lieutenant colonel (the next higher ranks are colonel and then one star general) and consists of from 300 to 800 soldiers, divided into companies of 80 to 150 individuals.  
The battalion commander is seen as a pivotal leadership position since a battalion is a unit capable of a level of independent action. Uniquely among command positions, the lieutenant colonel may personally know many or most of the soldiers within his or her battalion as well as the ‘brass’ who are in the chain of command higher up. The assignment is key in that more than 90% of generals have served as battalion commanders. The battalion commander also has great impact on the careers of subordinates and heavily influences the level of retention in today’s professional army.
BCAP incorporates a number of techniques, new to the Army but not to many working in the private or public sectors.  First of all, to keep the process anonymous, candidates are identified by numbers rather than names.  Assessments through written papers, psychological tests, cognitive evaluations and simulated outdoor military scenarios are considered (a process parallel to the assessment centres developed in many organisations).

From a practice used by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to minimise bias in assessing potential musicians, army candidates sit behind a screen to answer questions.  This not only disguises physical characteristics, but also the battle ribbons and commendations which decorate military uniforms.  (However, as male and female voices are generally readily identified, gender bias must still be a potential problem.)  With a process credited to Google (but of course which is widely employed elsewhere) assessments by subordinates are considered as well.

Col. Everett Spain writes, “If done well, the BCAP will have three major effects on the Army.  First, it will help identify toxic leaders and screen them from command.  Second, it will allow for officers who are the most deserving of command, but did not make it to the top of the selection board results, to be placed into command.  Finally, it will change the culture of the Army officer corps to one that deeply values the abilities most needed by tomorrow’s strategic leaders, such as critical and innovative thinking, effective oral and written communication, strategic temperament, and an authentic respect for subordinates and peers.”*

Consequently, a longer term goal for the project is to change the behaviour of all leaders in the US Army.  But, as with any progressive organisation, if the project is successful, the Army will not just develop the effectiveness of individual leaders, but indeed, the effectiveness of its overall leadership function.  
“Assessments drive behaviour,” said Col. Don Fagan, chief of staff for the BCAP.  “If we start telling officers, ‘If you want to be battalion commander, you need to physically fit, you need to be a good writer, you need to be a good verbal communicator and a couple other things,’ they are going to modify their behavior on their own so they put themselves in the best position to succeed.” **