You’ve got a friend in this style of Military Professional Development

Disclaimer – This article does not represent an official position of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Government.

Many companies host professional development events or maintain formal professional development programs. While the content and execution vary by company and industry,  the intended purpose is typically to provide some form of growth  for  employees. Examples of this might include a presentation on a new toolset within a given field or a general overview on subject matter outside the employee’s typical wheelhouse. Sometimes professional development can take the shape of teambuilding activities. Whatever their format, they should always be inspiring and beneficial to both employee and employer. 

Many organizations within the US Army maintain some kind of formal professional development program, although the content and execution often severely differs from unit to unit. Many Leadership Professional Development (LPD) events in the Army are focused on developing unit staff  or senior leaders. Despite this emphasis , formalized development is important at every unit echelon. I would even argue it’s probably even more important at the lowest levels, especially for  junior soldiers between the ranks of Private (E-1) to Specialist (E-4). It is these individuals who become the leaders of tomorrow; hence it is key to shape their development as early as possible.

Regardless of the audience, many US Army units often fail to provide inspiring or captivating LPD topics of interest to its members. I personally don’t typically enjoy sitting with a group of leaders having an in-depth discussion on the latest Army doctrine. While doctrine is valuable knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily have universal appeal to all members of the force. Many LDP topics are derived  through a strict military lens, providing a narrow perspective on the topic at hand.  One drawback of this limited scope is that it can fail resonate with an audience or maintain its interest. A common example of this is the overreliance on historical military examples of leadership. The decision to primarily look only at examples of leaders in uniform and military actions, instead of incorporating lessons and strategies from the civilian world, will continue to serve as a self-induced handicap in the effort to produce leaders who can meet the needs of a modern military force. An organization cannot produce outside the box thinkers if it only lets them ‘play’ inside the box. 

We are a force that places value on innovation and constantly adapting to emerging threats and environments. Why then do we limit ourselves by using the same examples over and over again? My eyes glaze over when I hear someone quote Clausewitz. Again, Carl has many valuable lessons and ideas, but maybe let’s change it up a bit from time to time. We should strive to  provide a wide-range of diverse LPD topics, with an emphasis on drawing from outside the military when applicable. 

Take leadership for example, this is a very common LPS topic. A typical brief/discussion might center around APD 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession and highlight a historical military figure in an attempt to relate doctrine to reality. How can you transform the traditional leadership topic and make it relatable and inspiring? By opening up your aperture just a bit wider. I’m not saying throw doctrine out the window but find a creative way to merge doctrine with content that is more readily relatable. 

Leadership is Leadership. Examples of ‘great leadership’ can come from anywhere, literally. My primary source of inspiration – Disney or Star Wars or both! However, it is usually one or the other. How can I combine Disney and Army Leadership? Well, I first got the idea from reading the Disney Institute’s blog.  

What is the Disney Institute?

The Disney Institute advises, and trains various organizations worldwide based on the business insights and best practices of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.   They offer several professional development courses in Leadership, Employee Engagement, and Customer Service, as well as more extended seminar style courses in Business Excellence.  They also offer summits covering different topics once or twice a year.  These courses have associated fees (they are NOT cheap) and pre-Pandemic were available at both Walt Disneyland and Walt Disneyworld. The in-person options are currently on hold but there are digital options currently available. I hope to attend these courses in the future, but for now, I will settle for their online offerings.

The Disney Institute blog post that sparked my interest revolved around Toy Story – “What Toy Story Can Teach Us About Leadership and Teamwork,” It immediately got my mind racing with possibilities. Who doesn’t love Toy Story?

The original blog post focuses on eight quotes from Toy Story with Disney Institute commentary. While reading the post I began to draw similarities between the familiar Toy Story quotes, the blog commentary, and Army Leadership doctrine. I codified my revelation in, you guessed it, a PowerPoint slide deck! I should note here the deck is more like a prop and only to facilitate actual discussion.  

Each slide includes a quote, the Disney Institute’s input from their blog post, and corresponding excerpts from ADP 6-22. The note section of each slide also contains 1-5 discussion questions to help the facilitator start/moderate the discussion. Many of the topics in this slide deck can be expanded into their own separate LPD events. This presentation aims to deliver an overview of leadership topics, assess group/individual engagement, identify ‘hot topics’ best suited for expansion for possible future LPDs, and finally provide a fresh alternative to the all-too-common stale nature of Army LPDs.

Here are some examples:

Image Credit: Logos property of The Disney Institute and the US Army, Images – Disney/Pixar – Toy Story (1995)

For this slide the facilitator might ask the following questions:

  • How to we treat subordinates who have fallen behind the group? (be it PT related or work related)
  • What can Leaders do  to improve as negative views towards of our ‘weaker’ links?
  • Why is it important to remind your unit/Company/BN/Staff Section that we are all in this together?
  • How can the ostracization of weaker/deficient/less skilled subordinates/peers affect the Command Climate of a unit?

My personal favorite: 

Image Credit: Logos property of The Disney Institute and the US Army, Images – Disney/Pixar – Toy Story (1995)

Questions might include: 

  • Why is it important for Leader’s to continuously assess their abilities and limitations?
  • Why is it important for Leader’s to admit that they have a limitation?
  • How can a Leader’s reluctance to seek ‘help/assistance’ impact mission success?
  • How can their lack of self-awareness affect their subordinates? 
  • How can a lack of self-awareness lead to a lack of trust unit Leadership? 

This slide is my favorite because too many leaders fail at self-reflection, but this can be a topic for another day. 

This LPD can be divided into two components:

(1) Watch Toy Story as a unit, preferably with popcorn during duty hours (No Phones!)

(2) Conduct group discussion using slides as prompts

Whatever its form, the end state is to have a conversation about relatable leadership that is both engaging and memorable. However, don’t forget to take notes and elicit feedback. It’s very possible and likely that the conversation generated by the LPD will highlight opportunities for future LPD topics or ‘deep dives’. 

Is this idea silly? Absolutely! However, its authentic to my style of leadership, and that’s what is the most important. I’ve given LPDs that were dry where I felt awkward and uncomfortable, and I could tell that my audience was not engaged. My defense kicked in and I rushed to the end. Finding the right fit between your personality and your topic can change everything about your delivery. Moving forward, I will always try and relate a topic to something peaks my interests.   

Although this seems like common sense, it’s really not. Most of the time I would argue individuals randomly get assigned topics or even worse are given a pre-made slide deck where the real goal is to ‘get through it’ not ‘teach, coach, mentor’ or inspire. 

Yes, the Army like every other industry out there is changing so why not adapt our LPD content and programs accordingly?

References:

Jeff, J. (2018, June 27). What Toy Story Can Teach Us About Leadership and Teamwork. Retrieved from https://www.disneyinstitute.com/blog/what-toy-story-can-teach-us-about-leadership/

Lasseter, J. (Director). (1995). Toy Story [Motion picture]. Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios

U.S. Department of the Army. (2019). ARMY LEADERSHIP AND THE PROFESSION (ADP 6-22). Retrieved From: https://armypubs.army.mil/

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