Leader Challenge provides platoon-level learning
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 5, 2015) — The sounds of chairs and desks screeching across the floor echoing down a vacant hallway would be agonizing if anyone was there to hear it. Most of the Corps was still at lunch as firsties entered their assigned rooms and began converting the normal configurations into what will serve as small group discussions. They run down their checklists and, soon, more than 2,000 cadets will join them in the semester’s final Leader Challenge.
The Leader Challenge provides a forum where cadets conduct platoon-level professional development sessions based on real-world problems told by the officers who experienced them. The 144 cadets serving as platoon leaders become responsible for their unit’s experience with assistance from mentors who provide context and insight to the proceeding. The platoon leaders handpick their colleagues to serve as table facilitators who steer the conversations.
The program was designed by the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) in support of the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic.
Cadets engage in two sessions per semester with more than 2,000 involved each time, including staff, mentors and TAC teams. While large-scale in nature, the sessions are conducted by platoons simultaneously and independently in their classrooms.
Piloted with the Class of 2008—one company for an entire year—the Leader Challenge later expanded into a Corps-wide program and is currently in its fourth iteration. Lt. Col. Ray Kimball, CALDOL, said the program has also been used to train active-duty units across the Army at every level.
This semester’s Leader Challenge launched in early January at Eisenhower Hall with an orientation and rehearsal. The initial meeting linked the platoon leader with his or her mentor and TAC team. Lt. Col. Pete Kilner, CALDOL director, provided a brief on the Leader Challenge’s three components—scenario, arrangement and conversation—and how they combine to contribute to the entire leader development outcome.
“Platoon leaders, for every one of you, this is your first time you’ll be leading this challenge,” Kilner told them. “It’s your show and your opportunity to prepare and lead training. Those 20-22 cadets in your platoon are either going to be bored and have maybe a decent experience for 50 minutes or could have a great experience which totally comes down to how well you prepared yourself and your subordinates.”
Class of 2015 Cadet Leo Matthews (far right) listens in on one table discussion during the Feb. 23 Leader Challenge session, also the last one of the academic year.
Plan ahead and visualize how those 48 minutes of class time will go before conducting the rehearsal, he advised. The worst thing a leader can do is go into a training program cold, without any sort of preparation. If the session appears impromptu or unprofessional, the audience will reject it or find it a waste of time, he said.
“Rehearsal is always the most important thing you can do before execution,” Kilner said.
For the most part, the platoon leaders said they’ve experienced both good and bad sessions; the good ones yield exciting conversations that reverberate well past the scheduled class time. Bad ones tend to involve straightforward scenarios that don’t seem to generate much dialogue.
Class of 2015 Cadet Matthew Campbell, for one, said he’s never experienced a stagnant conversation. The general consensus indicates the program is worth their time, as long as platoon leaders make that time worthwhile.
“This is giving cadets, a couple times each semester, a chance to step into the experience of some junior officer out there and think deeply about it; to actually engage themselves in the experience so you can gain in a sense a vicarious experience from it,” Kilner said. “In conversation, the knowledge is constructed. In the leader challenge we’re all in the mix, jointly constructing it and maybe we’ll all end up learning the same things. So it’s a different kind of learning, a different kind of development.”
The cadet platoon leaders, mentors and CALDOL staff meet inside Eisenhower Hall in January for an orientation and rehearsal prior to the first of two Leader Challenge sessions this semester.
The session begins with a scenario video of a junior officer explaining a real-life situation that could have ethical, legal and sometime strategic consequence. Groups discuss what they would do before watching the next clip that reveals the actual outcome, which groups will critique and examine further.
Cadets also rotate among tables after each round and briefly share insights from their previous group. Another video presents an applicable story by another officer, followed by more discussion. The fourth and final round allows mentors, platoon leaders and others to share personal experiences and insights on the challenge.
Kilner said the objective is not finding the right answer to the scenario but developing an understanding of the situation.
“Because leadership decisions aren’t just made and then they’re over,” he said. “A lot of times if you’re making one hard decision, you’re also opening up a whole tree of other decisions. mitigate … and everything else,” Kilner added.
With a Corps of Cadets pressed for time with academics, athletics and assorted commitments, these leadership conversations don’t always occur spontaneously, or even frequently, among colleagues—even at a military academy. The Leader Challenge provides that time to think about things like, how would you respond if an Afghan accused one of your Soldiers’ of stealing a pistol and found out later it was true? Or, what would you do if one of your Soldiers—a SHARP victim—was flagged for failing a PT test soon after the assault?
Class of 2015 Cadet Leo Matthews said the Leader Challenge has been the best platoon-level training he’s had during the academic year.
“This is a good time for us to talk about these situations, work out possible solutions and realize that we’re actually going to have to deal with this stuff ourselves on a regular basis,” Matthews said.
Matthews has experienced these sessions as a group participant and now a platoon leader and said the scenarios are almost always thought-provoking and induces quality dialogue.
“A lot of it comes down to the quality of the conversations, which are entirely dependent on how willing people are to participate,” Matthews said.
And, of course, rehearsal. “They (CALDOL) really give you everything you need, and they tell you everything you possibly need to know,” Matthews said. “More than just information, they provide suggestions for running a small group discussion and how you should prepare each round. I’d meet my table leaders outside the classroom and we’d watch the videos and talk about each scenario to familiarize ourselves.”
Matthews said facilitators, ideally, should bring more to the table than just the first things that come to mind after watching a scenario.
“Everyone can do that on their own,” he said. “You’re here to ask leading questions and provide a little extra background; maybe do some research on your own.”
To learn more about CALDOL (also known as the Center for Company-level Leaders), visit http://www.usma.edu/caldol/SitePages/About.aspx.