WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2014 – Change is coming to the National Defense University, but one thing that won’t change is that it will remain the “pre-eminent leadership school in the nation,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently.
The chairman said changes at the school will look to prepare senior officers for the challenges ahead, while incorporating the latest lessons from the battlefields.
A total of 619 students from around the services, around the government and around the world are in this year’s class.
“The talented men and women attending the ‘Chairman’s University,’ have an exciting year ahead of them and will be the first to benefit from a new Strategic Leadership course which will challenge them to reflect upon and debate the attributes required of successful strategic leaders,” said Ambassador Wanda L. Nesbitt, the interim president of the university. “I am excited about the upcoming year and privileged to have the honor of leading NDU as we launch the Class of 2015 on its way.”
Dempsey spoke about the role of the institution in the military profession and its mission to shape excellent tacticians into strategic thinkers. Students at the war colleges are selected for their excellence in tactical operations, but they also have demonstrated the potential for senior leadership. That requires a change in thinking, the chairman said.
“First, as a tactical commander, you seek simplicity,” he said in a Pentagon interview. “As a strategic thinker, your instinct has to be to actually seek out complexity, because nothing at the strategic level is simple.”
Strategic thinkers must alter their mind set from the intense desire to simplify things and try to begin by finding the complexity of issues, he added.
Second, Dempsey said, leadership at the tactical level is largely focused from the top down. “You succeed because you empower your subordinates, you resource them, you give them the proper guidance, you lead by example, but it’s all down,” he said.
Now, he added, the students at the war colleges are at a point where they will have to lead laterally. “Ultimately, when you become a strategic leader, you actually have to lead up,” Dempsey said.
He used his own job as a case in point. “In my case, if I can help our elected leaders understand complexity, provide options for them to deal with that complexity and achieve our national interests, then I’m doing my job,” he said. “More important, I’m also helping those who are subordinate to me, because I can manage their resources in a way to help them fulfill missions.”
The students “need to take this year [at the university] and seek out complexity, build relationships, understand the systems of government in which we operate and be prepared to lead up when they graduate,” he said.
Dempsey urged students to approach the year-long course in two ways.
He spoke first as “the Bayonne, New Jersey, Irishman that’s always lurking beneath the surface,” and later as chairman.
“They’ve been running hard,” he said. “Part of this year is for them to take a breath. Inside of their seminar rooms or as a class they should enjoy each other’s company.”
He said he wants them to take time to be with their families.
“This is going to drive the faculty nuts, but when I was in school, I would deliberately make decisions about whether to do a particular assignment, and if I had a son or daughter that had a basketball game or a parent-teacher conference, I went to those things,” he said.
On the more erudite level, Dempsey said, he wants the students to use the year to indulge their curiosity.
“They have to achieve the goals of the course,” he said, “but I also hope they become broadly curious about what makes the world work, because the jobs they will have in the future will require them to not just understand the military instrument of power, but actually how our government functions.”
The National Defense University is in the middle of a significant curriculum change to adapt to the challenges ahead and to learn the lessons of a decade at war.
The faculty can help by refreshing their understanding of how people think and how people learn, Dempsey said.
“I graduated from the National War College in 1996,” he added. “I would venture to say that the students who graduate in 2015 probably have a different sense of the use of social media or virtual environments. Faculties have to keep up with that. They have to keep up with the way students learn.”
Dempsey said he wants the faculty to look at ways to engage with their students and to provide different learning environments. “In the past, there was the sense that the professor was the ‘sage on the stage,’” the chairman said. “What I’m looking for from the faculty is the ‘guide on the side.’”
Being on the faculty of these institutions is an important post, the chairman said.
“If we are going to be the profession we think we are, and need to be, then it’s got to be because the young men and women who matriculate through these schools, leave them more committed to being professionals than when they got there,” he said.