Col. Susan R. Myers and Jeff Groh

The Future of Strategic Leader Development at the U.S. Army War College
Col. Susan R. Myers and Jeff Groh


Jeff Groh

Susan Myers

This case study describes the design and implementation of the resident and distance education programs at the U.S. Army War College that prepares senior military officers and civilians to assume strategic leadership responsibilities. Development of conceptual, interpersonal, and technical competencies in a collaborative and experiential learning environment contributes to the ability of leaders to contend with future complex strategic issues. Developing complimentary distance and resident curriculum tools advances the quality and effectiveness of graduate level leader education.


Professional development of senior military and civilian leaders to contend with national security issues is one of the top issues and challenges for organizations. U.S. Army War College (USAWC) faculty is developing online and face-to-face curriculum systems to prepare senior leaders for future global challenges by teaching cutting-edge concepts and leveraging networked informational sources and simulations. Collaborative and cooperative educational systems, such as online portals and simulations to facilitate the development of strategic competencies, are crucial to contend with complex senior leader decision-making in the 21st century.

The U.S. Army War College (USAWC) is one of six Department of Defense (DoD) senior service colleges dedicated to professional graduate-level education of senior military and civilian leaders. Of the six senior service colleges, it is the only institution that provides accredited distance and resident education programs. USAWC curriculum and educational techniques have evolved in recent years to address the challenges of senior leadership in a complex operational environment. The mission of USAWC is to prepare selected military, civilian, and international leaders for responsibilities of strategic leadership and the development and employment of land power in a joint, multinational, and interagency government.

USAWC evaluates the curriculum on an annual basis to determine best practices in educating and developing future strategic leader conceptual, interpersonal, and technical competencies to contend with national security issues. These senior leadership competencies provide a framework in developing USAWC curriculum and methods of delivery to anticipate the needs and interests of future strategic level leaders. This case study highlights some initiatives and recommendations for organizational leaders and educators to shape future strategic leader professional development programs through cooperative and collaborative learning.

Background of USAWC Strategic Leader Development Programs

There are two primary USAWC strategic leader development programs: one is primarily a nonresident distance education program; and the other a resident program. The two-year nonresident Distance Education Program (DEP) graduates over 300 students per year,; as students complete curriculum requirements while balancing professional and personal obligations. The ten-month resident program graduates around 340 students each year with students attending full time. The distance education curriculum mirrors the resident program with primarily web-based course delivery to include online forum discussions and exercises. The DEP program consists of four weeks of resident instruction that allows students to personally interact with lecturers, peers, and faculty. Students attend two weeks of the resident instruction at the end of their first year of study after successfully completing five online courses. The second two weeks of the resident instruction takes place at the end of the second year of the program when students have completed five additional online courses.

Both the distance education and resident programs have senior officers from each branch of service, federal government agencies (e.g., the State Department), and international students. While the USAWC resident program has primarily active duty officers, DEP is primarily comprised of military reserve component officers. DEP students must balance their online educational requirements with their full-time civilian career, part time reserve career, and family responsibilities. They have an advantage of being able to immediately apply the principles from their USAWC education to their professional and personal experiences since they are completing the majority of their course work online. Immediate reinforcement of the curriculum concepts to their leadership experiences allows DEP students to apply their understanding of strategic level issues.

USAWC as an educational institution has been in existence since 1901; the DEP began in 1967 as the Corresponding Studies Course. The Corresponding Studies Course became the Department of Distance Education (DDE) in 1997 to highlight the change in the educational online methodology from what was termed as “a box of books” to a sophisticated online program that delivers course material through readings, forums, videos, and simulations. Both the Army War College distance and resident curriculum programs incorporate study of theory, historical case studies, staff rides, and interactive exercises to prepare students for future strategic level leadership duties and responsibilities.

USAWC curriculum consists of courses in strategic leadership; international relations; national security policy and military strategy; regional issues; and joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (JIIM) operations. Students write policy papers and participate in discussions about national and global strategic security policies and issues. The second year of the distance education curriculum focuses on a collaborative information environment (CIE) to achieve learning objectives such as developing a theater-level campaign plan. Both distance education and resident course USAWC students write a major research paper on a strategic issue, actively contribute to seminar discussions, and attend lectures from leading scholars, strategic level leaders, and diplomats. Students also participate in staff rides to Gettysburg and agency visits in Washington, D.C.

The sequencing of the distance and resident education programs are parallel but have some differences in resources and instructional methodology. Figure 1 depicts the sequencing of the resident and distance curriculum as well as online collaborative and cooperative initiatives that support the development of strategic leader competencies. Students enter and proceed in both programs as cohorts. The resident program conducts a capstone six-day Strategic Decision Making Exercise (SDME) to apply leadership competencies. The DEP uses simulations over the two-year program in lieu of the resident six-day SDME.

figure 1
Figure 1: Theory of War &Strategy /Joint Landpower / Campaign Planning

Both the distance education and resident programs seamlessly integrate adaptive planning processes, effects thinking, case studies, staff rides, seminar interaction, and writing assignments. In the Regional Interests and Issues course, students examine a geographical region through the lens of political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and informational (PMESII) aspects to set the stage for later coursework on contingency and crisis action planning. Students develop selected portions of a regional Theater Security Cooperation Plan based on their regional studies analysis to shape the combatant commander’s area of responsibility. Students develop a theater campaign plan based on a systems perspective of the operational environment and regional analysis. Students also investigate counterinsurgency operations, terrorism, irregular warfare, homeland defense, and information age warfare that support their strategic leadership studies.

Strategic Leader Development through Distance and Resident Education

The body of leadership literature suggests that both resident and distance education supports the development of strategic leader conceptual, interpersonal, and technical competencies (Cranton and King, 2003). Extensive online activities in DEP extend the ability of students and faculty to interact and to expand their personal informational networks. Both resident and distance programs use new technologies, such as simulations and interactive courseware that enable students to apply strategic level leadership competencies in the context of national security challenges.

Distance education courseware enables larger numbers of students to take part in online collaboration for problem solving and networking without the constraint of classroom space. It also creates new ways to build professional networks and promote quality interactions among faculty and students through a variety of online educational tools and feedback systems. Diverse learning experiences such as simulations, video displays, interactive courseware, and synchronous desktop web conferencing application (e.g., Adobe Connect) contribute to strategic leader conceptual development. Some students have a greater propensity to dialogue with classmates through electronic media than face-to-face traditional classroom settings because there are fewer distractions, and it is more suited to their personalities. For example, resident course seminar learning at the USAWC limits students’ interaction mainly to the 17 member seminar for the first six months of the program. The students in the distance education seminars rotate after each online course in the first year of the program so students have the opportunity to interact with greater numbers of their peers and faculty members.

USAWC students develop strategic leadership competencies (conceptual, interpersonal, and technical) through their exposure to a variety of educational technologies and processes such as online forums, informational networks, and simulations. Figure 2 is a model of the strategic leader development process that illustrates how USAWC organizational subsystems such as culture, structure, and technical systems contribute to this development. A major research finding concerning leader development through the USAWC curriculum is that online curriculum networks, forum discourse, and application of new knowledge to individual leadership experiences support the development of leader conceptual, technical, and interpersonal competencies (Myers, 2007).

Inputs……………..USAWC Educational Process……………Outputs

figure 2
Figure 2. A Model of Strategic Leader Development

The inputs of this model of strategic leader development represent strategic leader conceptual, interpersonal, and technical skills. USAWC educational processes incorporate cultural, psychosocial, structural, technical, and managerial organizational subsystems such as technical networks to access and share information in distance education programs. Cultural, psychosocial, management, technical, and structural processes in USAWC programs allow students to develop their strategic leadership skills as well as their relationships with fellow students and faculty. The model of strategic leader development illustrates how both the DDE and resident program use networks, discourse in forums, and case studies so students can apply new knowledge to their leadership experiences.

Strategic level leaders in the military have important roles in contending with complex civil-military relationship; they require conceptual, interpersonal, and technical competencies. Army Field Manual 6-22 on Army Leadership states that strategic leaders “simultaneously sustain the Army’s culture, envision the future force, and convey that vision to a wide audience” (Department of Army 2006). Increasing interagency and international partnerships requires USAWC graduates to use strategic leader competencies to contend with complex global issues. Distance education informational networks foster the use of contemporary tools for collaborative decision-making in planning, developing, and overseeing public policies of national and international interest.

Future Development of Strategic Leadership Competencies

The current USAWC Strategic Leadership Primer defines strategic leadership conceptual, interpersonal, and technical competencies as “the knowledge, skills, attributes, and capacities that enable a leader to perform required tasks that are based on natural ability or derived from education, training, or experience” (Shambach, 2004). The leadership literature defines strategic leadership competencies as skills in contending with increasing complexity over long time periods that are normally in excess of ten years (Elliot and Owen, 1990). At USAWC, both distance education and resident students conduct research and contribute to the body of knowledge about strategic leadership issues by developing written and oral theses concerning global issues and interests.

Conceptual Competency Development

The USAWC Strategic Leadership Primer defines conceptual development as a result of frame of reference development, problem management, and envisioning the future (Shambach, 2004). Frame of reference development is a result of leaders’ developing knowledge from schooling, experience, and self study. USAWC students use critical and creative thinking skills in analyzing and synthesizing a variety of complex course readings and information sources. Graduates of USAWC develop lifelong learning skills through the curriculum and methodology that requires them to conduct research, develop policy research papers, and defend their ideas through formal assessments.

In frame of reference, development leaders need to be open to new experiences, be reflective, and increase their comfort with concepts in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment. USAWC hosts a number of top governmental leaders from a variety of government, business, media, and international agencies that often have protocols that are contrary to the way the military functions. For example, students are able to participate in role-playing exercises where they represent the views and doctrine of other governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Online forum discussions support adult learning models that find that senior leaders learn most effectively by relating knowledge to their personal experiences (Bass, 1988).

Problem management is a process of taking alternative means of action to achieve desired outcomes. Strategic leaders are often confronted with “wicked problems” — problems having many different types of competing solutions and implications. There are often no “right or wrong” answers or solutions to wicked problems that are complex and generally require long-term solutions. Research studies that evaluate the cognitive development of USAWC students show that a combination of online and resident interactive learning systems is effective for strategic leaders to master the principles of problem management.

Another conceptual competency that the USAWC curriculum supports in leader development is envisioning the future. Visioning defines a future environment that applies mid-range and long-term programs to achieve strategic objectives. Both the distance and resident programs facilitate development of strategic level visioning by exposing students to a wide variety of complex theories and models that that can be applied to shape the future environment. For example, students are required to develop a personal vision by articulating long-term goals. Students evaluate case studies and determine how they will contend with developing visions for the future.

Interpersonal Competency Development

The USAWC Strategic Leader Primer highlights consensus building, negotiation, and communication as important strategic leader interpersonal competencies. Strategic leaders contend with personnel both internal and external to organizations. Interpersonal competencies are important to strategic leaders in establishing rapport with other leaders in collaborating and decision-making. Persuasion and compromise through effective reasoning are important attributes of the consensus building process that contribute to developing long-term goals and resolution or elimination of contentious issues. Students often find that they are able to derive effective planning for future global issues by employing creative and critical thinking skills.

One approach to improve interpersonal competency development is through the development of communication and negotiation skills. Negotiation requires the ability of strategic leaders to identify long-term interests of organizations and to effectively communicate a position. Students work to understand how their thinking and experiences affect the way they develop positions such as second- and third-order effects of decision-making. Simulations allow students to observe how a change in one aspect of their decision making process affects other organizations and systems. Strategic leaders communicate through a variety of means to ensure the organizational vision and direction is understood both within and outside of the organization. In the 21st century, technological systems are providing strategic leaders with a variety of new ways to communicate and negotiate (e.g., web-based conferencing systems like Adobe Connect). Effective communication is especially important in a strategic environment that is uncertain and complex.

Technical Competency Development

Technical competencies include the ability to understand organizational systems, appreciate of functional relationships outside of organizations, and learn broader political and social systems within organizations. Knowledge of systems both inside and outside organizations, such as culture, structure, management, and technical systems, contributes to understanding how organizations function and interact with other organizations. USAWC online role-playing scenario exercises provide students the opportunity to develop technical competencies by interacting with members of other agencies to gain a broader understanding of diverse organizational processes and culture.

USAWC distance education and resident programs require that students develop in-depth understanding of DoD Acquisition and Budgeting Systems. This requires some technical knowledge of each of the services as well as the military-industrial complex and its systems. Students interact with subject matter experts who address the capabilities and limitations of each of the military services and international elements of power. Appreciation of functional relationships outside of DoD organizations is gained in coordinating interagency actions such as civil-military operations. Students frequently assess and critique ongoing and future strategic level security policies and reconstruction strategies in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Benefits of Learning in a Collaborative Environment

The learning strategy for much of the USAWC curriculum in the DEP immerses the student in a collaborative information environment (CIE). Faculty members develop writing requirements to enable students to synthesize the large body of knowledge to concepts that support their roles and responsibilities in simulations and online collaborative sessions to apply senior leader competencies. The body of knowledge in adult education and evaluation of USAWC programs indicate the following benefits to students operating in a collaborative learning environment:

  • Willingness to take on difficult tasks and persevere
  • Long-term retention
  • Critical thinking and meta-cognitive thought
  • Creative thinking
  • Learning transfer
  • Job/Task satisfaction
  • Time on task

Senior leaders execute command and staff functions in a collaborative information environment that requires an in-depth knowledge and competency with a number of informational networks. Students use these skills throughout the USAWC distance education program. The CIE is defined as, “a virtual aggregation of individuals, organizations, systems, infrastructure, and processes to create and share the data, information, and knowledge needed to plan, execute, and assess joint force operations and to enable a commander to make decisions better and faster than the adversary” (Joint Warfare Center, 2004).

Advances in information technology are a key aspect of information age warfare that call for leaders who are adept and comfortable operating in collaborative workspaces and virtual teaming.

Collaboration and sharing reflect Information Age metrics about how knowledge and learning are conveyed across cyberspace. The horizontal sharing of information, “chat room” planners, the self-synchronizing of social networks—all are manifestations of new behaviors and alternative command models and are based on the changing cultural elements of information sharing and collaboration (Pudas, 2007, p. 12).

Students complete the majority of their assignments using a collaborative tool that has many of the same capabilities as the technologies currently deployed in operational units (e.g., the Defense Collaboration Tool Suite, Command Post of the Future, Information Workstation, Teleconferencing, and Portals). Many students are already operating in a CIE in the conduct of their responsibilities and expect USAWC programs to provide leverage in technological advances to facilitate learning in a realistic, theater-level planning environment.

The USAWC curriculum places the student in a complex and ambiguous operational environment that represents strategic problems facing senior leaders today and out into the future. For example, The Quadrennial Defense Review Report (2006)(Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2006) and The Joint Operational Environment 2008 (United States Joint Forces Command, 2008) provide the fundamental characteristics of the operational environment. Students participate in collaborative exercises to focus on the irregular, catastrophic, disruptive, as well as traditional challenges of 21st century warfare. DEP students achieve learning objectives through their participation in a regional carrier exercise that spans five courses.

The regional carrier exercise provides the framework and 21st century security environment to move the student through challenging senior-level planning scenarios and decision-making problems. Figure 3 describes the Joint Operational Planning Process (JOPP) and learning path that students traverse during the program. The course of study leverages the JOPP to facilitate senior level problem solving and emphases “how to think” rather than “what to think.” The students learn by interacting as part of a Joint Operational Planning Group to work through the various steps of the JOPP. Students conduct the majority of their assignments that are facilitated by faculty members from the department. The emphasis of their assignments is to integrate all of the national elements of power in cooperation with the U.S. interagency and multinational partners. This exercise provides students with greater appreciation of the competencies that are needed and the challenges associated with strategic level leadership roles and responsibilities.

figure 3


Figure 3. The Adaptive Planning Process

The USAWC curriculum develops “Deep Smarts” (Leonard & Swap, 2005) through student-to-student and faculty-to-student interaction and experiential learning opportunities throughout the program. Deep Smarts facilitates and develops the ability “to comprehend complex, interactive relationships and make swift, expert decision based on that system level comprehension and when necessary, to dive into component parts of that system and understand the details” (Leonard & Swap, 2005). Its effectiveness is derived from applying personal experiences and understanding (i.e., tacit knowledge, beliefs, social forces). USAWC accomplishes Deep Smarts when department faculties collaborate and when patterns in student feedback systems, such as surveys, are internalized in curriculum and practice in the classroom (Leonard & Swap, 2005). Student feedback has directly influenced changes to the DEP course learning path over the two-year curriculum, content within courses, use of educational technology, and evaluation methods.

The curriculum seamlessly integrates the adaptive planning process and affects thinking and planning as a major element of the curriculum. The students examine a selected region through the lens of political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and informational (PMESII) aspects to set the stage for contingency and crisis action planning. Students then develop selected portions of a regional Theater Security Cooperation Plan based on their PMESII and regional studies analysis to shape the CCDR’s area of responsibility. Students develop a detailed campaign plan based on the results of their analysis. They also investigate counterinsurgency operations, terrorism, irregular warfare, and homeland defense that address the changing nature of the security environment.

Future Initiatives for Strategic Leader Professional Development

Educational technology is and will continue to be a critical enabler to execute the USAWC curriculum. It is essential to use technology that is simple, cheap, fast, and transparent to the student body deployed around the world. Donald Norman, in his book The Invisible Computer, provides the framework for selecting and implementing technology. “These customers demand convenience, ease of use, reliability; they want solutions that simplify their lives, not technologies that complicate them” (Norman, 1998).

Student feedback about curriculum enablers and distracters were a catalyst to define and fix the technology problems following an implementation of new collaboration software. The implementation of new Role Playing Simulation application (Fablusi, in 2006 generated numerous student complaints regarding the reliability of the system. Faculty and staff need to continue improve the reliability and ease of use of technological systems in the way that makes the instructional methodology transparent for both resident and nonresident students. The DEP is using Adobe Connect Professional, synchronous web-based conferencing, to enhance student-to-student and faculty-to-student collaboration in support of online role playing exercises. It is important to ensure the technology solutions are not obstacles to achieving learning objectives. The technology must support the needs of the learner.

There are numerous educational technology applications on the market that have potential to solve many challenges to distant learning. The first requirement is to provide a Learning Management System (LMS) that efficiently enables the students to interact with faculty, fellow students, and program courseware. One should not underestimate the importance of the LMS. The LMS is the platform for student and faculty learning. Students require a simple and fast interface to access program courseware from any number of locations. Faculty members and instructional designers work inside the LMS to develop and publish courseware. Faculty members need a system that facilitates interaction with students, in asynchronous and synchronous environments, as well as track student progress through courses and register evaluations. USAWC continues to improve its proprietary LMS to give students and faculty a reliable method to track student progress, interact with courseware, and collaborate on requirements.

The next step is to continue to investigate methods to enhance cooperative, collaborative, and experiential learning at distance such as multi-player gaming and simulations.

Simulations can range from simple role-playing scenarios, to engaging case studies that relate to one’s work, to full-immersion, multisensory, virtual reality war games. While direct engagement with real situation and real people is the ‘gold standard’ for experiential learning, simulations offer students a number of attractive benefits (Leonard & Swap, 2005).

The benefits of simulations are apparent: efficient development of senior-level skills; practical application of skills in a safe environment; facilitation of risk-taking and learning from decisions (Leonard & Swap, 2005). The goal is to find simulations that facilitate exercising senior leader decision-making skills in an online (distributed) environment. Simulations will play a more prominent part of the curriculum in the years ahead as educational technologies continue to mature and broadband access becomes ubiquitous.

Both the USAWC distance and resident education programs must continue to address the needs of a highly mobile student body. Many senior leaders have demanding civilian as well as military responsibilities that entail travel around the world. Both distance and resident education students need to have access to courseware using mobile devices so they can maximize learning opportunities. Students already own any number of mobile technologies: cell phones, Smartphones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), laptops, netbooks, Tablet PCs, and MP3 players. It is essential to begin investigating the challenges and technologies that support developing content that can be accessed by any mobile device (Anonymous, 2006; Levert, 2006). Currently, the distance education program offers a select number of lectures in an MP3 format. Future strategic leader educational systems need to find ways to effectively make courseware accessible from mobile personal communication and computing tools.

The Way Ahead

Continued dissemination of best practices, such as increasing accessibility to courseware and annual USAWC curriculum reviews, are important in sustaining excellence in future strategic leader education. USAWC working groups, such as the curriculum development committee, promote faculty collaboration in leader development. Both distance and resident education faculty need to have a working knowledge of the combined programs to ensure congruence of the curriculum and mastery of technical instructional mediums. Rotational assignments of faculty between the distance and resident programs would enhance collaboration in curriculum development and expertise in both online and resident educational systems.

USAWC continues to maintain regional academic and Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) accreditation; however, the distance education program is only reviewed at JPME level I because of legislative constraints that are concerned with the limited number of joint military officers enrolled in the program. Joint Professional Military Education is an important credential for promotion of military and civilian students. A JPME II distance education curriculum is available through the Joint Forces Staff College however; accreditation for the USAWC distance education program has been withheld because of the lower number of joint student contact hours in the online programs. Accreditation officials need to take into consideration the joint service experience and background of the senior officers enrolled in the distance education programs and establish criterion for both resident and nonresident senior service college education. Enabling JPME II accreditation for both distance and resident education programs would make the best use of scarce professional development resources.

USAWC needs to continue to leverage curriculum that supports strategic leader conceptual, interpersonal, and technical development as well as regional academic and JPME II program accreditation. The increasingly international and interagency environment calls for strategic leaders that anticipate complex and long-term policies. Joint service and interagency education programs as well as collaboration with international public and private universities, business, and government agencies will help strategic-level leaders to develop the capacity to anticipate contingencies. Collaborative education as well as research allows faculty and students to reflect on the most beneficial and effective aspects of distance and resident education in the development of strategic level leaders.


The future of educating strategic-level leaders will take advantage of the multiple information networks to build strategic level conceptual, interpersonal, and technical skills for complex and long-term thinking. The USAWC student educational experience contributes to intergovernmental and international organizational collaboration. Both resident and distance education programs provide effective collaborative networks for future strategic leader development. However, both resident and distance education faculty need to continue to jointly conduct collaborative reviews of curriculum systems to identify and incorporate best practices.

There are many examples of how distance education extends the value of resident education by helping leaders to contend effectively with the multidimensional aspects of decision-making through role playing and experiential learning. For example, access to curriculum materials through distance education systems allows students to bookmark and immediately apply concepts from the curriculum to their personal leadership experiences, which reinforce the educational process. USAWC is contributing to the future capabilities of strategic leaders in contending with challenges in the evolving global security environment by leveraging cutting-edge curriculum technologies in the distance and resident programs.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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About the Authors

  • Dr. Jeff Groh is Assistant Professor of Knowledge Management in the Department of Distance Education and has over 28 years of service as a U.S. Army Armor Officer. He has served in many different capacities and currently teaches both in the resident and the distance education programs at the U.S. Army War College.  His research interests include technology and information systems development.
  • COL Susan Myers, Ph.D. is Professor of Leadership Development in the Department of Distance Education at the U.S. Army War College and has over 29 years of service as a U.S. Army Engineer Officer. She has served in many different capacities and currently teaches in both the resident and the distance education programs at the U.S. Army War College. Her research interests include leadership, management and strategic planning.
    Susan R. Myers, Ph.D., Colonel, EN, Department of Distance Education, U.S. Army War College, 122 Forbes Avenue (A302), Carlisle, PA 17013

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