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Who Will Be the Next David Petraeus?

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Renny McPherson, a former Marine officer now at Harvard Business School, considers an important challenge for the military in this weekend’s Boston Globe: Why are there so few David Petraeuses?

This isn’t an academic question. As McPherson notes, the demand for innovative and adaptive leadership is greater than ever before (a need also recognized by the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review) thanks to a shift in war-fighting strategy and tactics:

Over the course of the 20th century, the United States became the dominant world power by advancing the technology of warfare. Now the information revolution, recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism have shown that an expanded set of skills is required of our top officers. Today we need military leaders who can process the ever-larger amounts of information coming at them and who can communicate more dexterously up, down, and across; they also must be adept at dealing with nonmilitary institutions and quick to learn foreign cultures.

How do we get more officers with the necessary skill sets to succeed? McPherson interviewed “37 top military leaders” to learn what experiences best equipped them for the battlefields of tomorrow.

What’s interesting is that all the queried leaders emphasized experiences that got them outside the military “comfort zone,” whether it be civilian graduate school, study abroad programs, or serving with NATO or at the United Nations. The key here, McPherson writes, is regular interaction “with others who have different values. This does not simply mean fellow service members with dissimilar political views but repeated, regular contact with an array of leaders and everyday citizens from different cultures.”

All these experiences are no doubt valuable, but might there be a cheaper, more readily available alternative closer to home? That’s right—it’s the ROTC. McPherson describes a heightened need for officers with cultural competency, regional knowledge, expertise in conflict resolution, and language and computer skills. Fortunately, America’s universities offer excellent programs in all those areas. And given the diversity of those campuses, ROTC cadets are very used to working with people who hold values different from their own.

The military needs to rethink how it develops future leaders. But in its quest for innovation, it shouldn’t overlook older programs, like the ROTC, that can get the job done.

Photo by Pfc. Joshua Hutcheson, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs staff