Commentary: AEC Emerging Leaders Cohort to give future leaders a ‘massive head start’

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ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — What is a leader? The Webster Ninth Collegiate Dictionary’s first definition of the word leader is “something that leads”; not especially helpful. However, we can glean more information by taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader.

Being a leader is more than just a position. Being a leader takes knowledge, planning, cooperation, coordination, communication, determination, and confidence. All of the best leaders utilize these skills in different ways during their day-to-day duties and those skills can be practiced to shape the best leaders of tomorrow.

For instance, the U.S. Army Evaluation Center, or AEC, has stood up an Emerging Leaders Cohort, or ELC, to provide future leaders a venue to effectively practice these skills. They’ll have the opportunity to apply their leadership abilities, interface with current senior leaders, and hone their potential in a supportive and engaging environment. This ELC will give future leaders a massive head start towards effectively leading through challenging issues in our uncertain future.

The Army Test and Evaluation Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Connette thinks that “leader development is something the Army does better than anybody else. It is one of the four pillars of Readiness, Readiness [emphasis added] being the [Army Chief of Staff’s and U.S.] Army’s number one priority.”

He explained that today, Army leaders face a rapidly evolving environment, and successful Army leaders— whether military or civilian— are comfortable with and thrive in ambiguity.

“To be decisive in that state, thinking rapidly through second and third order effects of the decisions they may make… leaders need to gain experience through repetition in critical thinking. Members of the ELC cohort will gain valuable experience in critical thinking, collaboration, risk taking and communication skills,” Connette said.

He also said members of the ELC will be exposed to and interact with different levels of senior leadership.

“This interaction can provide terrific insight into those leaders’ thoughts on leadership; the impact of the decisions they have made; and allow them to explore the decision making process through past experiences. Cohort members will gain experience in leading through change and conflict resolution,” Connette said. “These are some of the most challenging roles a leader must take on and I am glad to see it part of this program.”

The Army, and defense acquisition community as a whole, faces ever increasing challenges. The areas of cybersecurity, autonomy, information technology, networking, sensors, and connectivity are rapidly expanding. The workforce of the future will need to possess the skills necessary to address these areas quickly and effectively across diverse teams.

AEC Technical Director, Deirdre Sumpter, honed in on the social aspects of leadership during her presentation to AEC’s ELC by saying that “leaders should get to know themselves and build on their people skills because great leaders motivate others.”

The ELC provides a supportive environment where the participants are able to discover their own strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots, which are critical to leader development, with formal training, assessments, and executive coaching. A leader who knows his or her self is better able to effectively motivate a team and to engage cooperatively across organizations.

Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare & Sensors Acting Deputy PEO, Steve Bucci, also accentuated the cooperative nature of effective leadership. Bucci started his presentation to the AEC ELC by leading a roundtable discussion that dove into defining leadership attributes. Empathy, influence, and self-reflection became central topics during the discussion which transitioned into Bucci giving the ELC a peek into current issues facing senior Department of Defense leaders. He did a fantastic job connecting how those attributes would help an emerging leader succeed.

The emerging leaders within the ELC’s inaugural class already have an outstanding track record of success. There are leaders from the automotive arena with experience in operational tactics and mobility assessments. There are leaders from the chemical, biological, radiological arena with experience in advanced sensors and laboratory operations. There are leaders from the cybersecurity arena with experience in adversarial intrusions and penetration analyses. There are leaders from the suitability arena with experience in logistic demonstrations and statistical rigor.

The discussions amongst the ELC are some of the greatest benefits of the program. The individual and group projects are being used at the highest levels within AEC to move the whole organization forward strategically. Each one of the ELC members is greatly influencing the future of AEC as well as the surrounding community and both will only be better for it.

AEC Director, James Cooke, brings his own philosophy and support to the ELC. He has sat in on several ELC meetings and emphasized his ideal of servant leadership. He has stated that the focus for leaders shouldn’t be on day-to-day operations, but on the community and the benefits their organization has on that community. This perspective ensures that people, both internal and external to the organization, are given the best opportunity to succeed and grow.

The servant leadership approach requires implementing soft-skills to examine the second- and third-order effects beyond the tasks at hand. It can run counter to established practices. But in challenging the status quo, you can end up with a healthier and more productive system that performs at the highest levels.

The ELC is redefining what it means to be a leader in the acquisition community and the future is looking bright for AEC and the U.S. Army.

By Robert McKelvey, Army Evaluation Center