How Does Failure in Training Enable Learning?

A Guest Post by Kurt Wasilewski

Rangers conduct close quarters combat skills training (U.S. Army photo)

The Gift – A Lesson in Failure

A few years ago, I observed a platoon of Rangers conduct squad-level, multiple-room clearance operations (Battle Drill #6a) on a hot Georgia summer night. As a young fire support officer, the skill and efficiency of each squad appeared exceptional, but the First Sergeant wasn’t impressed. “Tonight’s going to be a long one,” he said after the first squad finished. As I stood on the catwalk, I watched three squads of various skill navigate the scenario during the blank iteration and not one achieved the First Sergeant’s benchmark for excellence.

47 Ways Not To Die

A Guest Post by COL (R) James K. Greer

Troopers from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment hold their position during the final battle across the Western Corridor, National Training Center, against assaulting elements of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, from Fort Riley, Kan., September 9, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jeff Caslen)

Although now retired, I did 11 rotations as an armor officer in the rotational unit (BLUFOR) at the various dirt Combat Training Centers: National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, Calif., Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La., and Hohenfels, Germany (then CMTC; now JMRC). More often than not, at a CTC as BLUFOR (aka the “good guys”) you lose most of your battles. Often that includes finishing the fight sitting on top of your tank alongside a blinking yellow light signaling you were “killed” using the laser training simulation. I hate that blinking yellow light because it means that in that operation I failed.

Learn and Improve

A Guest Post by Nate Player

U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Calab Franklin, March 29, 2018

Knowing and improving one’s strengths and weaknesses will improve the organization

“Superior leaders are acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They actively build on their strengths and improve upon their weaknesses. Complacency is a fatal leadership flaw and we should never find comfort in remaining stagnant. This goes for every aspect of the profession of arms. Make realistic and achievable goals and then work to achieve them.”

Granted, that may be easier said than done. A lot is expected of officers at all levels, and this can be a shock to a new lieutenant fresh from the Basic Officer Leader Course. The following is an attempt to pass on some lessons learned with the hopes of helping you view this important topic in a simple and approachable manner.

Be self-aware

Simply recognizing you are not perfect and identifying your strengths and weaknesses will put you ahead of a surprising number of your peers. Every officer brings different tools to the table. While the Army has a “minimum standard,” each officer is unique and by consequence will have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. The key to professional success is understanding that you do not have to be the “best” at everything, but you should be the “best” at something. It should also go without saying that you strive not to be the “worst” at any required skill or task. Periodic and candid self-assessment will ensure you are leveraging your natural talents to your benefit and that you are mitigating and shoring up your weaknesses.

Build on your strengths

Develop a plan to hone your identified strengths. Talent is like muscle – when you exercise your talent it strengthens and grows. It will atrophy if you don’t. Everyone starts with certain innate advantages. It is what you do with those advantages that will make all of the difference. It is common for those who are talented in one area or another to “coast” on that talent rather than develop and improve it. Don’t be that officer. Seek opportunities to exercise your talent and sharpen the edge of your particular gift or skill.

Improve your weaknesses

Do you suck at PT? Run more. Are you overweight? Eat less. Does briefing make you nervous? Rehearse. Are you shy in front of groups? Take a public speaking class. Did you get stumped in the last command and staff? Prepare for the next one. Long story short, use your weaknesses as indicators to guide your professional growth as opposed to excuses to justify your mediocrity.  Self-improvement is mostly mental. A victim mentality will never improve your situation. If you believe you can, or believe you can’t, you are right.

 Use your strengths to improve your organization

Are you looking for opportunities to provide a niche inside your organization? You can start by asking yourself three questions: What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? How do the answers to the first two questions align with your unit’s assigned mission and areas of focus? Answering these three questions will start you on the path to being a valuable member of the team. Do you actually enjoy PT (rarer than you would think)? If so, look at how you can help your peers and subordinates improve their physical fitness. Do you enjoy learning new things and tackling problems? Volunteer to be a working group lead or become the “problem solver” in your shop.  In short, being good at something doesn’t help anybody including yourself if you can’t apply your talent to organizational success.

Set achievable goals

Goal-setting is a tricky business. The key to success is backwards planning. First identify where you currently stand (your start-point) and your desired result (end state). You then work backwards identifying the “baby-steps to greatness” along the way. This provides you with a roadmap to guide yourself through the self-development process. Each of your “baby-steps to greatness” should be feasible, measurable and achievable (assuming you do them in order). As you complete each phase you will come closer to turning your strengths into assets and moving your weakness the realm of proficiency.

Some final thoughts to consider

In life it is impossible to remain stagnant. We are either walking up hills or sliding down them. The sooner you learn this the better off both you and your organization will be. A willingness to tackle weakness and sharpen strengths is a natural discriminator between marginal and superior performers. It takes effort to be sure, but the focus will pay dividends in ways few other individual efforts will in the Army.

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This is the fifth article in Nate Player series on leadership. Check out the first post in the series HERE

Major Nathan Player is currently assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg. He has 13 years of combined enlisted and officer service, has commanded and served in various joint staff and professional education assignments.

Beyond Tactical: Surviving and Thriving at the Next Level

A Guest Post by Brad Nicholson


This article is specifically for field grade officers who are currently serving, or will be potentially assigned, at echelons above corps (EAC) and particularly in joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (JIIM) environments. The military focuses field grade officership primarily on the “key and developmental” staff assignments held by “iron majors” or command at the battalion or equivalent level in each of the services.  Most field grade officers spend the majority of their careers serving in battalions, brigades, groups, regiments, squadrons, and wings, or their higher-level tactical headquarters, such as a division or corps in the Army. These units provide readiness and lethality to the United States military. Many of the hard-earned skills developed to this point in an officer’s career are transferable. However, these higher-level formations introduce new dynamics, particularly in the JIIM environment. The following discusses the expectations and unique requirements for success as Joint Staff J5 desk officers, theater army or air force planners, and other such assignments.

Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

**This book review is provided by Daniel Von Benken. It focuses on how to apply Syed’s work to the domain of military expertise: training for and fighting wars.

Synopsis: In Bounce, Syed makes a strong and thought-provoking argument that purposeful practice and a growth mindset are the keys to developing expertise. Bounce builds on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, an idea familiar to military leaders that expertise requires 10,000 hours of work and not just talent. Syed provides greater context surrounding expertise and how experts are created. He delivers his message in three parts. First, he debunks the myth that natural talent is the key for the most successful people. Second, he investigates the psychology of performance and its interaction with proficiency. He closes with a deep study of purposeful practice and psychology, considering whether alternative conditions for expertise like genetics or geographic disposition enable success. In the end, he crowns purposeful practice and a growth mindset as king. Examples of purposeful practice and a growth mindset are examined below.

Syed uses familiar stories and an accessible writing style, a quality allowing the reader to move quickly through the book. For the military leader, the book’s first two sections drive home the lesson that talent isn’t a natural trait, it is earned. Focus your reflection on the first two sections, and re-read if able. Syed’s third section adds credence to the book’s thesis, but most likely leaves the door open for future dialogue.

Applications for a Military Leader: Syed offers three salient points benefitting leaders responsible for training an organization.

  1. Take a quality approach to training. Make training meaningful and resource it properly. The book references a time when Syed’s table tennis coach changed his practice routine and challenged him with a longer table and multiple balls. This forced him to make cognitive and physical adaptations to his game, leading to enormous performance gains in future matches. To a military professional, one could imagine a unique approach to a stress shoot on a rifle range, or even as I have recently seen, a virtual-constructed Fire Support Coordination Exercise. Syed’s training philosophy nests well with the training outcomes we expect in the military: developing Soldiers and leaders able to adapt their physical and cognitive approaches to increasingly demanding conditions in order to maximize performance (e.g., gaining every tactical advantage possible).
  2. Evoke a growth mindset. Syed details a psychological study showing students who are rewarded for effort instead of talent choose harder tasks and show greater growth over iterations of problem sets. A military professional who sets conditions where failure in training is accepted and hard work is appreciated, evokes a growth mindset in a unit. Leaders could challenge their units to the edge of their capabilities in training, an approach consistent with the current Army vision of training to operate in the challenging conditions envisioned for future warfare. Additionally, resilience-trained professionals on military installations would provide a great resource for practical and creative approaches structuring training to evoke a growth mindset.
  3. “Sets and Reps” as a key contributor to mastery. Being good takes time. Artillery sections require multiple repetitions at emplacement; distribution platoons require repetitions at rearm, refuel, resupply and survey point operations to gain efficiency; infantry companies require combined arms live fire repetitions to mass combat power at the decisive point. Leaders invest time into Soldiers and protect time for key trainers within an organization. Senior leaders at all echelons stress the importance of protecting time for leaders to train their personnel. Emphasis on Sergeant’s time is a great example of how senior leaders in tactical formations make that commitment.

Facilitating Leader Professional Development in Your Unit

A Guest Post by Ryan Cornell-d’Echert

U.S. Army Photo

I’ve noticed many organizations have shown ambitions for leader development but struggled to implement it in any meaningful way. Professional development programs are commonplace among Army units – whether we refer to them as “officer professional development,” “noncommissioned officer professional development,” or rank-immaterial “leader professional development” (OPD, NCOPD, or LPD respectively; I acknowledge there are different intended audiences but for the sake of brevity, I will simply use “LPD” throughout this article).  I submit two fundamental flaws with this traditional design: first, when you reduce professional development to a formal “program” to be resourced and scheduled and block-checked, you’ve already failed; second, what most units consider “professional development” is actually just a risk mitigation strategy.

Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women

As a female in the Army with almost 13 years under my belt, I was a bit skeptical when I started into Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women by W. Brad Johnson, PhD and David Smith, PhD. What could two men (Navy at that) tell me that hadn’t been figured out already? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Although the book makes broad generalizations about both sexes, its casual dialogue of men speaking to men seems to be an effective way for the information to be considered and accepted. For balance, the author strongly represents the female voice through interviews with successful women lucky enough to have a strong and deliberate mentor with the additional benefit of what males should consider (what perception are we presenting by spending so much time together? Can we have an after-work meeting at a bar, or does the mentee need to get home to their family? Am I mentoring males and females within similar limits?).

The book highlights some points men may not consider but women are strongly aware of. It cannot answer those questions but creates an opportunity to have a candid discussion with constructive feedback which could greatly benefit both parties. Questions such as, but not limited to, how is she being perceived at work? Women walk a fine line between pushover and b***, whereas men generally get the benefit of being regarded as strong leaders. How do you present yourself in a male-dominated world with the unending need to prove yourself on a daily basis? How will changing her last name after marriage affect the social capital in which she has invested so much throughout her career? And the age old question, what does “business casual” mean for a female in the military?

Athena Rising offers a good framework of how to begin and sustain a mentor/mentee relationship. Simply fulfilling military requirements of counseling subordinates provides teaching and coaching opportunities. Mentoring, on the other hand, is an enduring relationship to meet, talk and listen, advocate, and create opportunities for the future. It provides a platform for candid feedback on performance, job progression and even the opportunity an outside voice can offer a perspective to regain balance on a frustrating situation. These relationships last longer than a duty station, even across the services.

If you are in search of a mentor or a mentee, this book offers a good set of perspectives to begin to shape how you want to mentor or be mentored.

Many of Athena Rising’spoints are solid ideas to create a formal mentoring program within the unit. This would lose the individuality and focus that a mentor/mentee relationship requires to be successful in the long term. Consider the varying degrees of success in our sponsorship programs. It always comes back to the people. Be selective, be supportive, and have high expectations.

MAJ Katie Werback, PE, PMP, is an Engineer officer and serves as the 130th Engineer Brigade S3 Plans officer in Schofield Barracks, HI, prior to entering her KD position. She previously attended CGSC and has a construction background between EAB units and USACE. Find her on LinkedIn HERE 

Some Modest Advice for the Command and General Staff Officer’s Course Class of 2020

A Guest Post by Trent J. Lythgoe


March 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook

Congratulations! You have been selected to attend the resident Command and General Staff Officer’s Course (CGSOC) at the US Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC). This summer, you and a selected cohort of your peers will come to Fort Leavenworth to prepare for field grade officership. The time spent at the CGSC will be valuable and rewarding for most officers. They will seize the opportunity to prepare themselves for the challenges which lie ahead.

Success and Failure in Speaking Truth to Power

]U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James – Sep 12th 2018

Doctrine Man recently posted an article regarding the subject of speaking truth to power, i.e., telling your superiors what they might not want to hear, which sparked quite a discussion. Apparently, this is one of those topics that particularly animates his readers, probably because it’s something most people in the military have had to deal with at some point. Over my career as an Air Force/Air National Guard officer, I have been in positions that have put me on both ends of the exchange, so I believe myself to be adequately suited to address the issue in a way that students of military leadership might find interesting and useful.

Support Your Commander

A Guest Post by Nate Player

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Zoe Garbarino. Nov. 7, 2018

“An officer who understands mission command and commander’s intent is worth 10 officers who don’t. When you are given a legal and lawful order, execute and stay within your limits. When a commander decides on a course of action, it is not your place to second guess. We advise and make recommendations, commanders make decisions and assume the risks.”

Do you want to be indispensable to your unit? Master the skill of adapting plans to reality while achieving the commander’s desired end state and intent. The primary purpose of staff sections and the officers who lead them is to operationalize the commander’s intent. The same can be said for subordinate units (platoons in a company, companies in a battalion, etcetera). Unless you are one of the fortunate few born with the requisite intuition, learning the proper time and place for disagreement takes years of learning by trial and error. This essay shares some lessons learned to assist new leaders in navigating this difficult landscape.