To Produce Strategists, Focus on Staffing Senior Leaders


For all the resources invested in graduate-level professional military education (i.e., command and staff, and war colleges), senior officers often lament that these schools fail to produce the officers their services need. This sentiment is captured in an informal observation made by some flag and field grade officers alike, “Why do we call them command and staff colleges, when they produce neither commanders nor staff officers?” Even the 2018 National Defense Strategy remarked on the stagnation of professional military education, noting it “focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit” than “lethality and ingenuity.”

Despite general dissatisfaction, those leading these institutions argue they are complying with guidance to meet military and academic requirements. The former come from the Goldwater-Nichols Act requirements for joint professional military education codified in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Officer Professional Military Education Policy. The latter are guided by regional academic accreditation requirements for awarding masters’ degrees, such as those articulated by the Higher Learning Commission. What, then, is the problem? Taken together, military and academic accreditation criteria produce generic, unfocused strategic studies curricula that fail to provide specific skills the military needs.

Almost all graduate-level professional military education curricula, for example, require overview courses in strategy and policy, the international system, and key domestic actors in the national security arena. These courses are important, but only tangentially prepare officers for future responsibilities as senior commanders and strategists. Moreover, officers who attend both intermediate and senior level schools learn many of the same things twice. Curricula do include some service-specific courses on doctrine and operational approaches. But, for the most part, graduate-level professional military education schools have evolved into relatively homogenous strategic studies programs, similar to those found at places like Georgetown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Johns Hopkins University, but without the reputation, and arguably the rigor, of these schools (see Nichols Murray and James Joyner for a constructive exchange on academic rigor).

To train commanders, the military services compensate for the most serious curricula shortcomings by requiring separate, stand-alone preparatory courses for various levels of command. While this approach produces competent service commanders at the field grade and even flag levels, they tend to fall short at the strategic level. As Robert Scales noted in his piece, “Ike’s Lament,” “those who rise to the top of the strategic decision-making pyramid are too often poorly qualified for the task.” Moreover, no similar fix exists for current shortcomings in the development of senior staff skills. Even for graduates of more selective courses like the Joint Advanced Warfighting School, most staff education occurs on the job. Yet, learning how to staff a senior leader effectively is an educational issue, and a strategic one at that. Working for a principal like the secretary of defense, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a combatant commander, is a demanding intellectual undertaking. It means reading widely, then making concise, accessible, and persuasive arguments under pressure about topics as diverse as the impact of technology on the future of war, the best way to shape regional and bilateral military-to-military relationships, and meaningful ways to build a more lethal force. This requires understanding a principal’s responsibilities, the need to offer and prioritize among (usually unsatisfying) options, and ultimately the importance of making a single recommendation to solve a vexing problem.

To reinvigorate graduate-level professional military education, the military could carve out a unique educational niche by focusing on intense, quality staff officer education that is more relevant to understanding the demands placed on top defense leaders. This education, coupled with demanding staff assignments, will hone officers’ analytical skills, set them up for success as strategists, and better prepare them for balancing competing imperatives when they become senior leaders.

Reshaping Professional Military Education Curricula

Recalibrating command and staff, and war college curricula to produce capable staff officers does not mean abandoning current programs and courses. It does, however, necessitate rebalancing curricula to focus on the needs of service and joint senior leaders. Curricula could immerse students in how these principals understand the large, ever-changing recruiting, organizing, training, equipping, and employing issues that impact their institutions.

For example, the intermediate, or command and general staff, level could focus more on the challenges facing service chiefs and military department secretaries. This could help students understand how they approach major service issues (e.g., the future of war and its impact on service roles and missions, technological and organizational innovation, regional challenges unique to the services) and how their chiefs understand their responsibilities as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the senior-level war colleges, curricula could focus more on staffing the senior joint leaders like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. For the former, this could include striking the proper balance of power between the chairman and the combatant commanders; exploring benefits and concerns over creating an empowered, centralized staff; or understanding joint and coalition operations better in a technology-dependent environment. For senior civilian leadership, it could be leveraging powerful military organizational cultures to meet interagency demands or execute presidential guidance, or how to ethically integrate artificial intelligence into defense requirements. No civilian graduate program should be able to even come close to accomplishing these goals as capably as a graduate-level professional military education school.

Once curricula are rebalanced, specific assignments could be redesigned as well. Rather than assigning students long research papers, more course assignments could be structured around writing short analytical memos (one to two pages), the ubiquitous 5” by 8” issue cards found throughout the Pentagon, speeches, and congressional statements. Done correctly, these could be substantive, well-argued pieces, not collections of clichéd phrases. Feedback on student assignments could be almost daily and direct. If a writing assignment misses the mark, the student could be required to rewrite it until it meets executive writing standards. Several of the assignments could be unannounced and with short timelines to mimic the intensity and disruptiveness experienced by a staff. Brief, analytical presentations could be assigned frequently to hone speaking skills. Some small percentage of students should be expected to fail, but with the understanding that a professional military education failure does not reflect on students’ technical expertise.

Role-playing has a place in graduate-level professional military education as well. In addition to learning how to staff a senior leader, students could assume the role of principal in mock congressional testimonies or briefings to secretary of defense where they are reliant on “staff” (also role-played by students) to succeed. Faculty could provide immediate, direct feedback about their performance. Experiences like these should reinforce the importance of good preparation and the unfortunate outcomes of poor staff work. They could also drive home the strategic dimensions of serving on senior staffs, to include when to take a decision rather than elevate it. In sum, faculty could reshape curricula to graduate thoughtful, quick-acting staff officers immediately ready to assist their senior leaders.

Finally, faculty might rethink the role of the guest speaker. Senior officers in particular tend to give lectures that combine an organizational update with a motivational talk for the students, usually about the rewards of command. This is a missed opportunity for the speakers and the students. Senior leaders could venture into the classrooms to listen to student presentations and review their written work. Their briefings to the student body could devote some time to frank, specific assessments on whether their staffs help or hinder when addressing large problems, and why. It is much harder to communicate the intangible, albeit strategic, importance and challenges of staff work, rather than the visible ones associated with command. Such comments would elevate the importance of a staff assignment beyond the common notion that they are mere intermissions between operational assignments. It would also acknowledge the developmental role these assignments play in producing talented strategists and future senior leaders.

Faculty and Academic Accreditation

Paradoxically, the greatest challenge to implementing curricula changes could come from within the civilian-dominated (pedagogically, if not numerically) graduate-level professional military education faculties. These civilian professors may have extensive experience in the academic research realm, but much less, if any, in the military staff world. Thus, not surprisingly, civilian faculty members could value performance on conventional academic assignments over those intended to develop staff skills. They may also be reluctant to sacrifice research time to meet the demands of daily grading. To make staff-oriented curricula work, the faculties could be rebalanced to include high-performing field grade officers who have excelled as strategists and on the staffs, as well as some retired principals to teach in either a full-time or adjunct capacity. Together they could provide essential feedback to the students, educate civilian faculty on the nuances and unique demands of staffing a senior leader, and visibly demonstrate that officers can still get promoted after teaching professional military education.

Faculty and staff also may argue that these changes could impact these schools’ accreditation to award graduate degrees. On one level, the response to this concern might be “so what?” Better to have unaccredited curricula that serves the senior leaders’ needs than the current program that awards master’s degrees but leaves almost everyone dissatisfied. On another level, accrediting bodies may appreciate the value of rigorous, uniquely designed curricula to meet a specific need, as long as faculty leaders can explain to them what they did and why. The ultimate sign of a professional military education program’s success, however, will be a senior leader requesting more graduates as soon as possible to serve on a headquarters’ staff. The Officer Professional Military Education Policy, in particular, should be considered a work in progress until that happens.

Outstanding strategists and staff officer exemplars should inspire curricula, faculty and students at intermediate and senior professional military education schools. Students should be pushed to analyze, integrate, and recommend options quickly and effectively to senior leaders for a wide variety of issues under demanding circumstances. Graduates assigned to a headquarters should be striving from the day they arrive to be value-added to their senior service commander, service chief, joint leader, or civilian principal. If they don’t arrive on a staff wondering each day how to support their principal better, command and staff, and war colleges have failed in their missions — and missed a golden opportunity to develop the next generation of military strategists and senior leaders in the process. Conversely, without significant reform, these institutions could continue to disappoint many of those they are intended to serve — until a major U.S. military leadership failure demands they change.


Paula Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, educator, and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND corporation.

Image: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College