The Art of Leading Unit-Based Professional Military Education
In 1962, the renowned solider-scholar Sir John Hackett noted in his Trinity College speeches on the profession of arms that “the bearing of arms for the purpose of fighting is found as far back as we can see. It has become profession, not only in the wider sense of what is professed, but in the narrower sense of an occupation with a distinguish-able corpus of specific technical knowledge and doctrine, and an educational pattern adapted to its own needs.” While Hackett’s words may be half a century removed from the contemporary world, they remain highly relevant to current and future military leaders.
Ongoing change in the strategic security environment, technology, and the character of the profession of arms will increasingly demand that we develop in our people the capacity to master the art and science of our profession. Professional military education is central in this endeavour. And while traditional professional military education approaches see it delivered during formal courses and in self-study, there is great potential for unit-delivered professional military education. In the Australian Army, we also seek to reinforce the practice of unit-delivered PME, based on an Army-developed strategy that provides guidance and resources but enables decentralized execution.
This article aims to provide a simple guide for how military leaders, at any level, might lead professional military education in their units. While this comprises seven specific areas for consideration, it is not necessarily a checklist. Rather, it provides an outline for commanders to audit their current approach to leading professional military education, and adapt their approach to fill whatever gaps might exist.
Over the past year, the Australian Army has re-appreciated the value of professional military education. Under the auspices of the Ryan Review, and through mechanisms such as The Cove, declassification of doctrine, and expansion to Australia of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, we have reinvigorated the intellectual development of members of the Army.
This program of renewal is being led from the top; in a recent speech, Australian Chief of Army Lt. Gen. Angus Campbell advocated for ongoing intellectual development of all members of the Army. He noted that one sign of success in this would be our ideas being reflected and circulated in the global discourse about the profession, defense, and security. To get to this point will require leaders at all levels to understand the breadth, depth, and width of their profession, as well as their role in the intellectual development of their people. This requires our leaders to possess a deeper understanding of the art of leading professional military education.
The role of commanders as chief instructors was recently examined in an article by Lt. Col. Michael Scott. It provides a useful line of departure in examining the function of leadership in the intellectual development of the members of a unit. Unfortunately, the role of commanders has until now mainly focused on training, with limited emphasis on professional military education. Those who have had a passion for professional military education have largely had to develop their own programs. Now that we seek to re-energize the conduct of professional military education across our institution, we must better equip our leaders to fill this role. How might we nurture the art of leading professional military education in our leaders across the Army?
Provide a PME framework. It is important that those who participate in professional military education programs understand what they seek to achieve. Partially this is a function of command, and leaders must explain the rationale for professional military education. But it also requires formal direction from the institution on what these activities are aimed at developing in their people. In the Australian Army, this is provided through the pillars of professional mastery. An integrated set of skills that the Army desires its people to master over time, these pillars provide a framework or aiming point that those leading professional military education can apply. This framework also serves as a guide to allow a mix of formal activities and self-study opportunities. Officers and soldiers do not have the time or opportunity to learn every lesson in a formal setting.
Nurture a culture that values PME. Leading PME demands understanding and communicating to subordinates the importance of the intellectual side of the profession of arms. Leaders must constantly explain the rationale for undertaking PME, and why it forms a cornerstone to the development of individual and collective warfighting capability. This explanation should be free of complex academic language and should employ plain English. In the day-to-day rush of training activities, preparations for operations, and governance activities, it is easy to for cultures to arise that de-prioritize PME into oblivion. To lead professional military education, commanders must ensure the intellectual development of their people is valued and prioritized accordingly within their unit programs. It must be part of the normal unit battle rhythm. Time must be dedicated to professional military education. Those who demonstrate significant passion or achievement must be recognized—both publicly and in a unit’s annual reports.
Ensure broad participation at all ranks. The intellectual development of military people cannot be restricted to officers, or even officers and senior noncommissioned officers. Professional education and development programs are to align across officer, senior NCO and junior NCO education and training. All members of a military institution must balance the vocational (or training) elements of their profession with development of their intellectual capacity. Even the most junior soldiers must continue to hone their intellectual capacity. This underpins tactical innovation and adaptation. But is also allows all members of military organizations to better understand the intent or rationale of missions and tasks; this underpins effective implementation of mission command.
Network PME across units, formations, services, and other nations. Leading professional military education no longer needs to be restricted to only those commanded within a particular unit. In many respects, the daily conversation about professional military education is undertaken at a global scale. Internet sites and blogs, academic institutions, and a range of social media now underpin professional discourse and the sharing of ideas about military operations, innovation, training and education, and other aspects of the profession. Those leading professional military education need to not only understand this global PME discourse, but actively seek to participate in it. The contemporary young officer and soldier arrives in the military already well networked and expecting to be able to work in a connected environment. Those who lead professional military education must enable this connectivity, and use it to improve the intellectual capacity development of their people.
Variety in professional military education. While military history plays an important role in in professional military education, it must comprise a wide variety of elements to keep in interesting. Indeed, there is no reason professional military education can’t be fun! It must not be something that is seen as the preserve of a few intellectual officers. Reading lists must extend beyond military history into areas of politics and fiction—even science fiction, as I have previously written. Staff rides (on location and virtual) are an additional element that provide variety and the opportunity for participants to research, analyze, and present before their peers. Wargaming is yet another mechanism to build understanding about the profession and encourage interest in professional military education. In short, professional military education must not be like writing lines or an essay as a punishment. It must possess variety and a range of interesting and fun activities that engage the curiosity of a broad range of soldiers and officers.
Leaders must continue honing their own intellectual capacity. The 1997 edition of the United States Marine Corps publication Warfighting notes that “every member has an individual responsibility to study the profession of arms. A leader without either interest in or knowledge of the history and theory of warfare—the intellectual content of the military profession—is a leader in appearance only. This is particularly true among officers; after all, the mind is an officer’s principal weapon.” It is difficult to lead professional military education if leaders have not sustained their own dedication to intellectual development. It is a core responsibility of a leader.
In 1982, US Marine Corps Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Paul van Riper wrote that “this responsibility does not stem from laws or resolution as it does in some other professions, but is inherent in the nature of the military officer’s calling. It is inherent because the body of knowledge which constitutes the art and science of war is not only broad and deep, but is also dynamic. Learning must be a never-ending process.” Leaders must possess a profound personal commitment to their own journey of developing professional mastery. They must read constantly to keep themselves abreast of their profession, but also in other related areas that might broaden their thinking. Those who lead and seek to lead must also build and maintain a professional library. This provides a ready set of references, and is a visible sign of commitment to the profession.
The success of a military organization ultimately rests on the professionalism and expertise of the officers and soldiers it contains. The professionalism of an officer and senior noncommissioned officer corps allows for the optimal application of fighting power by that military organization. It also improves the probability of success in battle and delivering the military outcomes that a country demands of its military.
Leading a robust professional military education program can be one of the great joys of command. Inspiring subordinates to look deeper into the various aspects of their profession, and observing how their developing professional mastery is applied, is an essential part of good leadership. But it is also an art, and it is something that is learned over years of study and dedication to learning about the profession of arms.
Brig. Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the US Marine Corps Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.