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Who Are We Teaching – Future Second Lieutenants or Strategic Leaders? Education for Strategic Thinking and Action

Who Are We Teaching - Future Second Lieutenants or Strategic Leaders? Education for Strategic Thinking and Action Who Are We Teaching - Future Second Lieutenants or Strategic Leaders? Education for Strategic Thinking and Action
To cite this article: Silverstone, Scott A., and Ramsey, Renee, “Who Are We Teaching - Future Second Lieutenants or Strategic Leaders? Education for Strategic Thinking and Action,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, “International Relations in Professional Military Education,” winter 2016, pages 10-15.

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Cadets In Formation, West Point Military Academy, West Point, New York Photo

Disclaimer: The views expressed here reflect those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army or Department of Defense

Every spring, approximately 1,000 graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point are commissioned as new Second Lieutenants for the U.S. Army. Year in, year out, the Academy’s faculty and staff devote countless hours to preparing cadets for this day, to ensure they have the intellectual tools, the leadership qualities, the basic military skills and physical conditioning necessary to move into critical positions as the Army’s most junior commissioned officers. West Point’s formal mission statement focuses on the task of ensuring that each graduate is a “commissioned leader of character” that is “prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation as an officer in the United States Army.” While this mission contains several focal points for the West Point program – leaders of character, careers of professional excellence, service to the nation, and the qualities of officership – the mission statement alone leaves much unsaid about the kinds of professional attributes U.S. Army officers need over the course of a full career in uniform.

While these new Second Lieutenants will spend the first six or so years of service focused on the demands of small unit leadership, the Academy conceives of a portion of its core mission to include educating these future Army officers for strategic thinking and action. Picking up on the core themes of this special issue of Infinity Journal, this article will argue that educating for strategic thinking and action at the pre-commissioning level is directly connected to the U.S. Army’s expectations for leaders at all levels of command and it is necessary to support the Army’s leader development concept across an officer’s career. The article will explain how the U.S. Military Academy approaches this educational responsibility, and like the other articles in this special issue, it will conclude with a discussion of how the study of international relations contributes to this goal.

For some, the notion of strategic thinking and action at junior officer levels is a controversial claim. The word “strategy” is often treated as though it begins and ends at the highest levels of policy making. The president, supported by senior civilian and military advisors, develops national-level political objectives, the conceptual ways to achieve these objectives, and then mobilizes and deploys the resources necessary for executing the strategy. Approached from this perspective, young Army officers are merely the instruments of strategy. They receive and execute orders that someone much higher in the chain of command has developed with, hopefully, a carefully calculated understanding of how these tactical operations will contribute to national strategic ends. What business does a Platoon Leader, or even a Company Commander at the grade of Captain have in thinking and acting “strategically”? In fact, it is not hard to find Battalion Commanders who bluntly assert that they do not want their junior leaders thinking strategically; they simply want them to execute their operational tasks with skill and determination.

This perspective on strategic thinking and action is reinforced by the structure of Professional Military Education in the U.S. Army. After commissioning, the next step for Second Lieutenants is the Basic Officer Leadership Course, which trains them in the tactical and small unit leadership skills they will need in the specific Army branch they have joined. Approximately four years later, young officers will attend the Captains Career Course, which provides branch specific tactical and technical knowledge needed to lead company-size units, while also providing skills necessary to analyze and solve military problems, communicate, and interact as members of a battalion or brigade staff. Strategy does not appear in formal education until the officer participates in the Intermediate Level Education (ILE) program when he or she reaches approximately ten years of commissioned service. But even in ILE the treatment of strategy is limited. Education on strategy is first treated deliberately if an officer attends a Senior Service College (SSC) in later years of a full career, but a relatively small numbers of officers in each year group is given this opportunity.

The objective of this article is not to challenge the formal structure of this system for educating Army officers across their careers. The goal is to argue for a broader conception of strategic thinking and action than the one offered above, to offer a way of understanding “strategic leadership” that is applicable to the education of officers before they are commissioned and that will be of value while they are still serving in the junior officer ranks.

The article is based on two core propositions. First, the education we provide cadets at the pre-commissioning level must help them develop a foundation for strategic thinking about war and warfare as junior officers. We are not merely graduating Second Lieutenants that are proficient small unit leaders in a tactical environment. As we have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lieutenants and Captains are strategic actors who must have the intellectual ability to adapt the ways and means of their unit’s operations to most effectively support the strategic-political objectives that are set much higher in the chain of command. As Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster has rightly observed, “conflict, unlike command, cannot be divided into discrete levels” – the tactical, operational and strategic[i] – because the essential task at each level of command is the same, to employ military forces in ways that are logically linked and in practice help produce the political goals that give any military mission its purpose.

The second proposition is that the undergraduate liberal education offered at military academies like West Point must help our graduates serve effectively as future strategic leaders when they reach advanced command and staff positions later in their careers. Their undergraduate education should help them leverage the formal education on strategy that the U.S. Army does offer to more senior officers and maximize their potential to excel at higher levels of strategic leadership. To this end, their undergraduate education should also inspire a strong professional commitment to continuous personal intellectual development outside their formal education. Excellence in strategic leadership depends on lifelong personal study. An undergraduate education cannot provide all the answers to the problems officers will face during their careers, but an effective education should provide guidance on the kinds of questions of enduring importance officers should focus on in their personal reading and reflection.

The next section provides some background on how the U.S. Army formally approaches the education of officers on strategy. It will be evident that the formal system treats “strategy” as largely irrelevant until late in an officer’s career. Building on this background, the article then presents a simple way of defining strategic thinking and action that can inform the education of cadets to help prepare them for commissioned service as strategic leaders across their careers. In keeping with the general theme of this special issue of Infinity Journal, the final section examines those aspects of West Point’s leader development program and its academic program that are meant to serve this purpose, and it concludes by considering how the study of international relations (and the broader social sciences) and the humanities, with an emphasis on theory, supports this goal.

Educating on Strategy in the U.S. Army

In June 2013, the U.S. Army published the first formal leader development strategy produced by senior leaders (the Army Leader Development Strategy 2013, or ALDS), which outlines the vision for leader development from pre-commission through general officer ranks. Among its guiding principles is the assertion that the security challenges faced by the Army make it imperative that all leaders “possess the ability to understand the security environment” in which they operate “and the contributions of all elements of national power.”[ii] The Army views leader development as a continuous, integrated, and progressive process that involves three domains: the institutional domain that provides formal training and education; the operational domain, in which, as Julius Caesar might assert, “experience is the teacher of all things”[iii] ; and the self-development domain of personal study and reflection.[iv] It is important to note that the Army emphasizes operational experience as the source of the bulk of officer development. There are practical limitations on how much time its leaders can spend on formal education. As a result, the goal of the ALDS Program is to provide leaders with operational experiences that prepare them for their current responsibilities as well as future assignments. Junior leaders gain experience and technical competence, mid-grade leaders further develop their ability to direct organizations at the operational level, and senior leaders contribute to the development and implementation of national strategy.[v]

The use of this three-part leadership structure illustrates an important point: within the Army, strategic leadership is defined as a leadership level directly affiliated with senior ranks at advanced stages of an officer’s career. This in turn is reflected in the content of the Professional Military Education system. At the intermediate level in an officer’s career, education is universal for all officers in the grade of O-4 through a 10-month resident school at the Command and General Staff College or via distance learning and satellite modules. The curriculum is designed to prepare field grade officers for their next ten years of service, ground them in warfighting doctrine and advance their technical, tactical, and leadership competencies to be successful at more senior levels.[vi] Intermediate education focuses on the bridge from the tactical to operational levels of warfighting, but does not incorporate formal education in strategy.[vii]

The first formal education in strategy for officers typically occurs between 18 and 22 years of service, at the Army’s Senior Service College (SSC) located at the U.S. Army War College (USAWC). According to the Army’s doctrinal publication for leadership (ADRP 6-22), leaders at the strategic level must possess an understanding of political-military relationships at the national and international level, proficiency in the science of leadership theory and systems, education and experience in geopolitics and history, and “mastery of the strategic art.”[viii] Officers are selected by a centralized board to attend the resident program or a variety of equivalent fellowships or joint SSCs. The USAWC curriculum includes national security policy and strategy, strategic leadership, regional studies, as well as military strategy and Department of Defense processes.

Strategic Thinking and Action: What the U.S. Army Needs from its Leaders

Despite the fact that the formal study of strategy comes at a late stage in a typical officer’s career, the U.S. Army does recognize that the ability to think and act strategically is essential for leaders at all levels in the chain of command. In other words, “strategic” can be defined as something more than a level in the chain of command; it can be defined as a set of capabilities an officer should possess. This is more implicit than explicit in how the Army defines the key traits all officers must possess, in such documents as the “U.S. Army Operating Concept: Winning in a Complex World,” published recently by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. The “Operating Concept” does not actually use the word “strategic” to define its officers. But it does present a set of intellectual characteristics and abilities, along with a conception of the operating environment and the demands placed on all levels of command, which can be considered a call for strategic thinking and action.

The definition of “strategic” thinking and action used here is consistent with the definition offered in the introduction to the articles that appear in this special issue of Infinity Journal. It is defined as a structured approach to thinking about problems and how to solve them. “Strategic” emphasizes purposeful behavior, specifically, action that is logically linked to larger goals. The “conceptual architecture of strategy”[ix] is rather simple and widely accepted by those who work with the topic, captured by the relationship between “ways,” “means,” and “ends.” Every military action, even those conducted by small units at the lowest levels of command, become meaningful when placed within this structure, either because each tactical action contributes to the execution of the conceptual ways that the state uses to pursue its larger political ends, or they help develop the means (or the resources) necessary to pursue these political ends through military action.

As noted in the introduction to this special issue, while these three nodes – ways, means, and ends – define any strategy’s basic components, it is the connective tissue among these three nodes that place the greatest intellectual demands on those who develop and execute strategy. It is here that the education of officers finds an outlet for supporting strategic thinking and action. Specifically, we mean the theoretical or logical link between these nodes of strategy. The very idea of strategy hinges on predictive claims about cause and effect. What types of actions or conditions will likely produce what kinds of outcomes? And these predictions about cause and effect must be rooted in our ability to draw from generalizations, or theories, about human behavior.

Within the architecture of strategy, cause and effect theorizing occurs at two levels. At the broadest level, we must understand the logical bridge that links strategic ways and the strategic ends we seek.[x] Conceptually, why are certain types of actions likely to produce the ends desired? At the second level, we have theories of the operational art for executing these strategic ways in the real world. In other words, how can we actually generate, organize and use diplomatic, economic, and military means to produce desired political effects? It is impossible to comprehend, develop, or execute strategy without knowing the alternative theoretical or logical claims that strategy might be based on.

As the U.S. Army’s Operating Concept makes clear, the intellectual ability to work within this framework of purposeful, cause and effect, behavior is a core competency for any officer. Moreover, the Operating Concept stresses the importance of understanding the enduring human dimensions of war and the contest of political wills that it represents, despite the great changes in the character of warfare over time.[xi] “Recent and ongoing conflicts reinforce the need to balance the technological focus of Army modernization with a recognition of the limits of technology and an emphasis on the human, cultural, and political continuities of armed conflict. Nations and organizations in the future will fight for the same reasons that the Greek historian Thucydides identified 2,500 years ago: fear, honor, and interest.”[xii] The challenge for a military leader is to understand these motivations for political behavior, to identify the complex variables at work that shape behavior, and with this insight into cause and effect, to develop the means that will effectively produce the desired endstate.

According to the Operating Concept, “Army leaders think critically… assess the situation continuously, develop innovative solutions to problems, and remain mentally and physically agile to capitalize on opportunities.” The ability to innovate under conditions of ambiguity is key, and “Innovation is the result of critical and creative thinking and the conversion of new ideas into valued outcomes. Innovation drives the development of new tools or methods that permit Army forces to anticipate future demands, stay ahead of determined enemies, and accomplish the mission.”[xiii]

These intellectual characteristics, essential for strategic thinking and action, become most relevant for junior officers in the context of a leadership concept now central to U.S. Army operations: “Mission Command.” In his introductory remarks to the Army’s “Mission Command Strategy,” General Odierno, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, observed that this concept was implemented out of “operational necessity” in Afghanistan and Iraq.[xiv] Today, however, it has been codified as a formal leadership philosophy that will shape leader development, unit training and warfighting. Mission command is defined as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”[xv] Army leaders have recognized that widespread adoption of the mission command philosophy will require a cultural shift within the Army because commanders must “become comfortable with decentralizing control in order to foster initiative and adaptation by allowing subordinates the greatest freedom of action in determining how best to accomplish the mission.”[xvi]

To make this concept work, it is critical that commanders have confidence in decentralization of control (that it will not lead to disaster) and that junior officers actually deserve to be granted the authority to exercise initiative and adapt operations to best achieve strategic ends. This mission concept ultimately depends on education for strategic thinking and action, before an officer assumes this heavy responsibility.

Educating for Strategic Thinking at West Point

Most American Army officers receive their commissions through Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at various American colleges and universities or through Officer Candidate School (OCS) after they have a college degree. Yet the United States Military Academy at West Point is the only undergraduate institution in the United States whose primary mission is to educate all of its students for service as commissioned Army officers. Historically, West Point produces twice the number of combat arms officers and a disproportionately larger number of general officers as the other commissioning sources do. This puts West Point in a unique position, and puts a unique burden on its leadership, to address the issues discussed above.

What intellectual abilities are necessary not only to operate in an environment of complexity, but also to engage as a strategic actor pursuing complex political ends? What is the best content for a program of study that helps cadets develop these general intellectual attributes while making these future officers smarter in subject matter relevant to the strategic problems they will confront?

Over the past several years, the faculty and staff at West Point have had an opportunity to think about these questions from the ground up, to clarify the leadership development goals for their cadets, and to make changes in the structure of the curriculum to most effectively achieve these goals. Three major changes have emerged from this initiative: in 2010 the Academy implemented its new overarching cadet development model – the West Point Leader Development System (WPLDS); in the spring of 2013 the Academy finalized a new set of goals for its Academic Program; and in the fall of 2015 the Academy will launch a revised academic curriculum to take effect for the entering class of 2019.

A close look at West Point’s current developmental programs will reveal two observations relevant to the discussion above: 1) the Academy’s outcome goals do not explicitly declare that its developmental programs are meant to produce “strategic” thinkers and actors; 2) despite this, the goals and structure of the curriculum in fact seek to provide its graduates with the ability to think and act strategically as junior officers, and to leave West Point with an intellectual foundation necessary for growth as strategic thinkers over the course of a career in service.[xvii] This fully aligns with the requirements of leadership at all levels articulated by the broader Army.

The West Point Leader Development System is the overarching concept for integrating cadet experiences across the academic, military, physical and character programs. While it defines eight developmental goals for graduates, one goal in particular – “Think Critically and Creatively” – establishes core competencies for strategic actors who must be able to two things: understand and innovate in a cause and effect framework for action. According to the WPLDS Handbook, West Point graduates must be able to

‘identify the essential aspects of situations and ask questions necessary to accurately define the parameters of a given challenge or opportunity. They engage both well-defined and ambiguous situations using methodical and reflective thinking as well as rapid analysis. Graduates gather and synthesize information using a wide range of techniques, and actively seek diverse viewpoints when appropriate. They reason quantitatively and qualitatively… They are open-minded and employ their knowledge and skills to make meaningful connections and distinctions across different experiences, concepts, perspectives, and cultures’.[xviii]

Perhaps most important, West Point’s goal is not to produce junior officers that are poised merely to execute fixed orders that flow down the chain of command. Instead, “When appropriate, graduates transform ideas or solutions into entirely new forms by diverging from conventional ways of thinking or reimagining established ideas, ways of thinking, or solutions.”[xix] When appropriate is a serious caveat to this goal; key leaders must judge how much latitude and under what conditions they will grant subordinates discretion to exercise innovative strategic thinking and action. But if the U.S. Army is serious about employing the Mission Command concept, decentralizing control and empowering adaptive, innovative subordinate leaders, then critical thinking and creativity are attributes that must be cultivated in the education of its officers prior to commissioning.

The Role of International Relations and History

Throughout Army documents that address the demands on its leaders and how to develop leaders at all levels of command, the notion that the Army operates on a distinctly human terrain is ubiquitous. Certainly, the Army operates in a hard material world as well, which demands mastery of technology and an understanding of how to operate in a physical environment. Ultimately, however, the Army defines its purpose in terms of understanding and shaping human behavior to achieve the strategic ends set out by higher policy. From an educational perspective, this is where the study of the social sciences and humanities enter. West Point’s Academic Program Goals include preparing graduates to “apply concepts from the humanities and social sciences to understand and analyze the human condition.” And in a more strategic sense, this goal is refined to include preparing graduates to “understand, analyze, and know how to influence human behavior.”[xx]

The core curriculum, a broad and rigorous set of classes and experiences that form the liberal education all cadets receive, reflects the implicit assumption that all officers must be capable of working within the basic framework of strategic thought and action. Space limitations make it impossible to provide a comprehensive discussion of the many components of this liberal education and how they contribute to the objective. But consistent with the themes developed in this special issue of Infinity Journal, we will conclude with a brief focus on how the study of international relations at West Point complements the academic program and strategic thinking.

As an academic discipline and subfield of political science, the study of international relations is grounded in key questions that beg to be studied – and at West Point we focus on the broad questions of conflict and cooperation, among states, within states, and involving non-state actors – and the theories that propose generalizable explanations for these phenomena. Many scholars and practitioners have noted an apparent divide between the academic study of the field and the needs of those executing policy in the field. While it is important to recognize and minimize the tension that might exist here, our program treats this as an artificial distinction. It is impossible to develop the most elementary comprehension of human behavior in the real world – of states, of corporations, of insurgent groups, or suicide bombers – without theoretical generalizations that might explain the behavior we observe. And as noted above, when trying to shape that behavior through purposeful strategic action, theory becomes the essential connective tissue providing logical structure to the relationship between alternative strategic ways available and the strategic ends we might pursue.

To leverage the intellectual value of theorizing about human behavior, every cadet is required to take a theoretically grounded introductory international relations course. In this course we emphasize the importance of “intellectual pluralism,” an approach to understanding international politics that emphasizes the fact that no single theoretical school of thought can adequately provide insight into every complex phenomenon we are trying to explain. Cadets are encouraged to appreciate the strengths and limitations of rival theories and to develop the ability to use alternative logics as a tool to explore alternative explanations for behavior observed on the human terrain they operate within. For those cadets that choose international relations as an academic major for in-depth study, their advanced coursework will include a heavy focus on the essential role of history for students of international relations. Studying history within an international relations framework helps them appreciate the questions that motivate the field, it illustrates the logic of different theories in action, allowing the student to tease out cause and effect claims motivating behavior in historical cases, and it offers empirical data for testing alternative theories of cause (ways/means) and effect (ends).


We certainly appreciate the limitations on how much of the field of international relations students can absorb in a single class or even an academic major at the undergraduate level. The field is immensely complex, the theoretical literature continues to grow, the quantity of relevant history can be overwhelming, and it is impossible to keep up with the available information on real world events. Moreover, international relations is only one of a number of social sciences that can help future Army officers comprehend and strategically shape human behavior.

Despite these challenges, our ultimate goal is to establish a foundation for a lifetime of professional growth for our students as strategic thinkers and actors. And it begins by demonstrating the value of a self-conscious, systematic, and theoretically informed approach to the strategic questions they must address during their careers. We also hope to inspire them toward lifelong learning as the necessary means for developing their intellectual toolkit over the long term. Achieving these goals depends on our ability to think about our cadets as future strategic leaders, not twenty years after graduation, but throughout their careers and at every level of command.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here reflect those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army or Department of Defense


[i] H.R. McMaster, “Thinking Clearly about War and the Future of Warfare – The US Army Operating Concept,” Military Balance Blog (October 23, 2014), available at:
[ii] Army Leader Development Strategy, US Army Combined Arms Center, June 2013, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C.,
[iii] Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili.
[iv] Army Training and Leader Development, Army Regulation 350-1, August 2014, Department of the Army, Washington, D. C.
[v] Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management, Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3, December 2014, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C.
[vi] Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management, Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3, December 2014, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C.
[vii] The Army offers significant and substantive strategic education to a small cohort of officers in the strategist functional area (FA 59) beginning at mid-grade. Those courses are hosted at the Army War College and the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth.
[viii] Army Leadership, Army Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22, August 2012, Department of the Army,
[ix] “What is Strategy,” IJ Briefs, Infinity Journal (April 3, 2013), available at
[x] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010).
[xi] McMaster, “Thinking Clearly about War and the Future of Warfare.”
[xii] “US Army Operating Concept: Winning in a Complex World,” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1 9 (31 October 2014), p. 8-9.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[xiv] U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy FY 13-19 (June 2013), i. Available at .
[xv] Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command (May 2012), 1. Available at
[xvi] U.S. Army Mission Command Strategy, 4. Emphasis added. This is in line with how ADRP 6-22 defines the “strategic art”: “the skillful formulation, coordination, and application of ends, ways, and means to promote and defend the national interest.” While “mastery” of the strategic art is something we cannot expect from younger officers, it is clear that junior leaders must engage in the strategic art if the Army’s Mission Command concept is to work.
[xvii] In fact, a foundational document that presents the developmental concepts used at West Point – Building Capacity to Lead - asserts that “West Point’s curriculum provides a liberal education with experiences specifically designed to produce an adaptable Army officer who is ready for continued growth as a strategic thinker and leader.” (p. 31). Available at See also Educating Future Army Officers for a Changing World, (p. 9). Available at
[xviii] West Point Leader Development System Handbook (May 2015), 11-12. Available at
[xix] Ibid., 12. West Point’s recently revised Academic Program Goals (April 2013) also present critical thinking and creativity as core objectives for its graduates. For a list of all goals see
[xx] Academic Program Goals (April 2013). Emphasis added.