Service Academies Retain Principles, Embrace Change to Train Future Leaders
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 24, 2007 As “pomp and circumstance” rings through the three U.S. military academies over the next few days, several thousand new graduates will accept their commissions and join the military ranks.
Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., as well as at their sister institutions in Annapolis, Md., and West Point, N.Y., study a mix of hard science and humanities as they hone their leadership skills. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
These young second lieutenants and ensigns all enrolled in their respective schools -- the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- recognizing they’d graduate into a wartime force.
Most were sophomores in high school when they watched televised images of the Twin Towers falling and the Pentagon burning, then the U.S. going to war in Afghanistan. Most hadn’t yet been to their senior proms when the country entered Iraq.
This week they’ll leave their schoolhouses behind to join their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines serving around the world in the war on terror.
To get a better picture of how their schools have prepared them for this calling, American Forces Press Service spoke with their academic deans and alumni who have risen to the senior military ranks.
Here’s what they had to say about what has changed at their institutions and what remains fundamental, and how they’re helping ensure their graduates are ready for the challenges they’ll confront as military officers.
Although they’re four-year schools like thousands of others that dot the United States, the U.S. service academies stand uniquely apart. All were founded with the specific goal of educating military leaders -- people who understand not just the art and science of war, but also the fundamentals of leadership.
That’s a principle the academies have held at their core as they strive to develop what Army Col. Dan Ragsdale, vice dean at West Point and a 1981 graduate, calls “critical thinkers” armed with the education and training they need to think on their feet.
“Our expectations are that these future leaders are going to have to draw on a relatively broad set of skills, backgrounds and experiences to help solve the problems that they are going to confront in … a greatly ambiguous world in which they are going to have to operate,” he said.
To develop those skills, the academies offer curricula that recently retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, a 1973 West Point graduate who went on to lead U.S. Central Command, described as “some of the most challenging in the nation today.”
The coursework is steeped in science, math and engineering so graduates are prepared to enter a highly technical military, whether they’ll be flying aircraft, serving on nuclear-powered submarines or calling in air strikes as they lead ground forces in combat, explained William Miller, academic dean and provost at the Naval Academy and a 1962 graduate.
“We want to ensure all our graduates have a good, solid technical foundation for serving as an officer in a very, very technically demanding environment,” he said.
Equally important, officials agree, is an understanding of the world in which they’ll operate. All three academies have expanded their curricula to increasingly focus on regional studies and language skills.
“The kinds of problems that our … graduates will face are across a broad spectrum, so we have to give them a technological foundation,” Ragsdale said. “But we also have to give them a social and cultural perspective around which to address and solve problems. We have to help them understand and appreciate the political aspects of any problem they are trying to address.”
More Than Academics
There may be no pat formula for preparing new officers to serve in wartime, but officials agreed it requires more than mastery of academics.
“Our graduates are not going to be historians and mechanical engineers,” Miller said. “They are going to be leaders and problem solvers in a very demanding environment.”
There’s no possible way to train students for every possible situation they’ll encounter when they enter military service, the officials agreed.
“That’s a given,” Ragsdale said. “But because we know that, we have worked to create an environment where they can develop as the adaptable, agile, critical thinkers they need to be to lead the soldiers who will be entrusted to their care.”
The academies strive to prepare cadets and midshipmen to look at problems from multiple dimensions and to juggle priorities.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that’s one of the biggest lessons he took away from his Naval Academy experience.
“At school, there was always too much to do, and in the Marine Corps, there has always been too much to do,” Pace said. “Therefore, you really have to take the important and set it aside to do the critical.”
Pace said being bombarded with myriad demands as a midshipman reinforced the importance of teamwork, another principle he said he’s carried throughout his career. “In combat, there is nothing you do as an individual,” he said. “It’s all based on teamwork.”
While developing their cadets and midshipmen intellectually, the academies also focus on developing them as leaders.
Abizaid said the most important lesson the academies need to instill is “the ability to lead people in a positive, inspirational way.”
From their first days at their respective schools, cadets and midshipmen get exposed to valuable lessons in leadership. Initially they observe upperclassmen serving in various leadership positions -- some successfully, some less so. Later, students try their own hand at leadership posts. Through this process, they begin to understand what leadership style works for them, what doesn’t, and how they can improve their leadership skills.
Gen. John Corley, Air Force vice chief of staff and a 1973 graduate of the Air Force Academy, described his alma mater as a “leadership laboratory” where cadets exposed him and his fellow cadets to “a set of experiences that you just don’t find in other places.”
“They also provided challenges,” Corley said. “It was a test … in terms of your development (and) … your ability to grow and become a leader of character.”
“I learned a lot from observing good leadership, and from observing bad leadership, and through experimentation on my own part, trying things that worked or didn’t work for me,” Pace said of his time at the Naval Academy.
That’s the single biggest difference between the military academies and traditional civilian colleges and universities, the deans and alumni agreed.
“Our first and foremost overarching outcome is to commission … leaders of character who embody our … core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do,” said Brig. Gen. Dana Born, dean of faculty for the Air Force Academy and a 1983 graduate. “It stands at the very foundation of what we do.”
Miller said leadership lessons learned at the academies have a long-lasting impact on how graduates confront problems.
“No matter what (military) community our graduates enter, … they are going to be leaders, and we want to ensure they have a good ethical foundation for the decisions they are going to make,” he said.
Educating for the Future
While preparing their cadets and midshipmen for the immediate requirements they’ll face as graduates, academy officials say they recognize the need to keep their eyes focused on the horizon.
“We try to stay balanced and not hyper-reactive,” Ragsdale said. “We recognize that we’re providing a foundation upon which they can develop as successful officers.”
“We can’t just focus on the fact that we are currently engaged in a shooting war … and think only about what (midshipmen) are going to need right after graduation,” agreed Miller. “We need to look at what (future officers) are going to need for the longer term and recognize that we’re preparing them for a career of service.”
By approaching education as a “strategic investment,” Miller said, the academies are helping students recognize that their education will be just beginning as they accept their commissions.
“We are trying to lay a foundation on which they can build over their career and continue to learn,” he said. “That’s important, because being in the armed services demands lifetime learning.”
The biggest misconception about the academies is that they’re so embedded in tradition that they can’t or won’t change with the times, officials said.
“That is about as far from the truth as you can get,” Ragsdale said. “On the contrary, we understand … that our graduates have to be prepared for a changing world. So while we hold on to our firm foundations upon which the institution was built, we have embraced change to ensure we are providing the kinds of experiences our cadets need to be successful in the world they are going to face when they graduate.”
Born described sweeping changes in the Air Force Academy’s core curriculum so courses build on previous lessons and broaden students’ exposure to new concepts and approaches. The other academies have instituted similar changes.
These changes are helping ensure students have a foundation from which to draw when they graduate into a wartime environment. “We need students to learn and be able to build upon prior learning, as opposed to just teaching and hoping that they remember it when they need it when they are in downtown Baghdad making decisions,” Born said.
An intensive system of sharing and cooperation is helping the academies evolve to better serve their students’ and services’ needs. Staffs meet in person and share e-mails regularly to keep each other informed about new initiatives they’re trying and what they’ve learned along the way.
“We are trying to learn from each other in a leap-frog fashion rather than all of us learning linearly and stumbling over the same obstacles,” Miller said.
“We have very common goals and a common set of outcomes that we would like all our graduates to achieve,” Ragsdale agreed. “So we share those things that have worked, and on the flip side, those initiatives that have not been successful so they can learn from our mistakes.”
Born said the academies recognize their similarities and build on each others’ strengths. “We … team together to share lessons learned and best practices. We learn from each other and are able to progress more quickly by sharing our lessons learned,” she said.
So despite infamous interservice rivalry in the sports arena, Born said, there’s a healthy respect and common understanding among academy students, graduates and staffs.
“When it comes to the football field, there is all kinds of talk and all kinds of competition,” she said. “But when it comes right down to it, we are all working toward commissioning officers and leaders of character for our nation.”