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Duty, Honor, Country... Collaboration, Cooperation, Research

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Bernard Banks (Illustration by Adam Cruft)

The Eisenhower Leaders Development Program at TC is seeding a new mindset at West Point

At a recent conference at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Colonel Bernard Banks (Ph.D. ’11) asked a group of cadets and undergraduate students from around the globe to talk about what they saw as the Army's most pressing leadership challenges. The request qualified as unorthodox by Army standards. But then Banks, who directs West Point’s Eisenhower Leaders Development Program (ELDP), did something really radical: He commissioned the students to write short pieces on the topic to run on the “New York Times in Leadership” website.
“We wanted them to understand the importance of leaders being powerful communicators who must be open to feedback from people around the globe,” says Banks. “As I discovered at Teachers College, feedback and reflection are crucial components of the learning and development cycle.”

“Open to feedback” is not a phrase commonly associated either with West Point, whose motto is “Duty, Honor, Country,” or with the military in general, where airing differences of opinion is often characterized in movies as an act of insubordination that can cost lives on the battlefield. Yet West Point today is striving to produce thoughtful and principled leaders steeped in a willingness to entertain the perspectives of others. Leading that effort is a group of young officers in the ELDP, which was jointly designed and is jointly taught by West Point and TC faculty members. Founded in 2005 and now in its eighth cohort, ELDP aims to replace the Army’s old mindset with a new mantra perhaps best summarized as “collaboration, cooperation and research.”

The officers, mostly captains and majors who have been commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, absorb a 45-credit curriculum that includes courses given both at TC and at West Point. They emerge with master’s degrees in social-organizational psychology and stay on at West Point for another two or three years to serve as company tactical officers, or TACs – leaders who help cadets (West Point undergraduates) meet and balance the physical, military, academic and ethical requirements of a West Point education. The TACs model everything from completing class assignments on time to keeping one’s boots shined.

“We’re creating a culture of organization and psychology leadership-development experts who are going to influence the way the Army does business for the next 20 to 30 years,” says Banks.

That outlook explains West Point's partnership with Teachers College, a name more readily associated with conflict resolution than armed conflict and with the Peace Corps rather than the military corps. (Columbia, TC’s parent institution, ended its Vietnam-era campus ban of ROTC only this past year.) The program’s guiding premise is one Banks explored in his doctoral research at TC, where two of his advisers were ELDP codesigners W. Warner Burke, the Edward Lee Thorndike Professor of Psychology and Education, and L. Lee Knefelkamp, Professor of Higher Education. 

“Leadership research and theory can help you manage situations in ways that go beyond simply going with your gut,” says Burke, the coauthor of a widely studied model that explains organizational change as a product of factors ranging from mission and strategy to cultural and external environment. “We believe that effective leaders are learning-agile – that is, they are more adept at learning what they need to know than other people.”

While ELDP participants function primarily as students during their time in the program, the lessons they learn are often drawn from their own field experiences as officers. For example, in a class at West Point this past September on racial and national identification taught by Lieutenant Colonel Todd Woodruff, Gary Whidden, an ELDP student who had served in Iraq, talked about participating in an effort to combine Arab, Turkish and Kurdish fighters into one patrol force. Because “these were cultures that had been fighting for hundreds of years,” Whidden recounted, the Americans engaged the soldiers in activities designed to promote cohesion. The soldiers trained together. They developed a mascot (a golden lion) and a symbol that all of them wore on patrol, providing a “cultural artifact” that helped them identify with one another. They formed mixed soccer teams. And they were paid more and received more benefits than other government soldiers, which helped them “identify one another as worthy of respect,” Whidden said.

For Woodruff and other instructors, such stories serve as the basis for great teachable moments to reinforce the daily cultural exchange that goes on between the ELDP students and civilian students in classrooms at TC.

“One of the smartest things that TC did was to put us together with their students,” says Major James Brant, a TAC officer at West Point who graduated from the Eisenhower program in 2011. “The stereotypes that were thrown both ways were enlightening, and I walked away better for it. I’m still in touch with all kinds of our fellow students who are now out doing jobs around the country.”

Stephanie Licata, a master’s degree student in social-organizational psychology, concurs. Initially Licata mistook some West Point students in her class for “cocky MBA” students, and she texted a friend that “I hate them already.” Yet soon she was won over. “Service was just their way of being,” she says. “It was just their way of life, their philosophy, the content of their work. I was just so taken by who they were.”

The ELDP students, whose average age is 35, also seek to bridge the generational divide between themselves and the cadets they will soon oversee, who typically range in age from 17 to 22.

“TAC officers need to understand where their cadets are developmentally,” says Lee Knefelkamp, who teaches courses in the ELDP program that focus on adult education and learning. “How do they process information? What kind of impulse control do they have? What motivates them to take initiative in positive ways?”

Burke repeatedly emphasizes that, for young adults in particular, “involvement leads to commitment.” In other words, people learn best, and are more likely to take responsibility for outcomes, when they’re allowed to choose an approach – or, as Major John Faunce, a TAC officer and ELDP graduate, puts it, “when the destination remains fixed, but the journey is up for grabs.”

In Afghanistan, Faunce wanted to give 120 American and Afghan soldiers under his command a fairly low-risk training experience in which they could learn to develop and trust their own judgment – particularly the Afghan soldiers, so they would be prepared to carry on once American troops were gone. Faunce asked the soldiers to visit a nearby village, assess the residents’ medical needs and treat or provide supplies to people with minor problems. There were some diplomatic risks, but Faunce left the delicate issue of how to handle the task up to the soldiers, something he says was very difficult for him to do.

“It’s really hard, when you’re doing a mission for real, not to want to put your own spin on it,” he says. “It would be so much easier and quicker to say, ‘I’ve done this 20 times in my life, here’s how we’re going to do it.’ But you’ve got to let them try to come up with their own ideas.”

This year for the first time, all 32 TAC officers at West Point are ELDP graduates. The hope is that the TACs will model the ELDP way to the 4,400 students at West Point, and that those students will carry the program beyond West Point and even, in some cases, beyond the military. “We’re planting lots of seeds,” Banks says.

The program has had a profound effect at TC as well, Knefelkamp says. Every faculty member in the social-organizational psychology program is involved with it in some way. “There’s a big clambering every year to teach in it,” she says. And maybe there are some extra educational dividends, too. Each year, the ELDP cohort hosts a tailgate party at an Army football game at West Point for social-organizational psychology faculty, adjunct faculty, student teaching assistants, staff and their families. Sarah Brazaitis, a senior lecturer in the program, has brought her two young sons to the parties for years. “My sons have a very different relationship with the military than they might have had otherwise,” she says. “Now they think about what it means to be a soldier and what it means to do service.”

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