Organizational change: NCO reflects on Leader Development Program

When I joined the U.S. Army, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to attend an Ivy League college.

From Jan. 26 to Feb. 20, I was able to take advantage of a unique opportunity and attend the Benavidez Leader Development Program at the U.S. Military Academy and Teachers College, Columbia University as part of Cohort 5. The three-week program, named after Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, is a graduate-level course focused on the West Point Leader Development System and theories of leadership.

The training began with a week-long immersive class on leadership and West Point history taught by BLDP faculty. The various lectures and practical exercises focused on the West Point model of developing leaders of character, organizational culture and change, and academy history.

The first week of class gave 18 of my fellow noncommissioned officers and myself insight into how the academy develops leaders and helps them to realize their potential. We discussed different theories and models related to leadership and adult development.

Throughout the week, we discussed different theories and models related to leadership and adult development. We also began brainstorming within our small change project groups to discuss existing problems at West Point and across the Army. These projects were also a part of the graduation requirement to be briefed to senior leaders at the end of the course.

One of the most impactful classes was emotional intelligence and how we as leaders apply it to our leadership style. Emotional intelligence involves managing, understanding and perceiving one’s own emotions to guide decision-making.

This class was enlightening for me because during my whole military career I have been taught to accomplish the mission and ensure the needs of my Soldiers are met, but never to stop and think about how my actions are perceived. After reflecting on past situations, I could see where emotional intelligence contributed to open dialogue among my peers and subordinates.

While most of our classes took place in the traditional classroom setting, our group was able to gain a unique perspective of West Point when we toured Cullum Hall, the Civil War Memorial and Special Collections. Col. Gail Yoshitani, head of the history department, taught our class about the old West Point and how the academy and the curriculum came to be where it is now.

I found the history of the Civil War and how it affected West Point to be the most intriguing lesson. Although some West Pointers denounced their oath to the United States to fight for the Confederacy, the academy still found ways to recognize those who were still a part of its Long Gray Line.

We ended the week with a trip down to New York City to visit Ulysses S. Grant’s Tomb on Friday morning and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the Leadership Academy with a company called Next Jump. The company is quite unique because it concentrates heavily on a healthy work environment and places employees in settings where they can exercise leadership skills. The company allows a certain level of risk for their employees to be challenged and provides feedback so they can perform better to progress in their careers.

When I first entered the office space, I immediately felt welcomed with the open space, warm colors and comfortable furniture. Everyone who greeted us was very open, inviting and conversational. Snack bins stocked with nutritious options such as nuts, seeds and crackers were placed in several locations throughout the building. Employees also had access to an on-site gym along with trainers. There was also an on-site daycare available for their children. Next Jump sums up their culture belief system as “Better Me+Better You=Better Us.”

During the last two weeks of the course, our class relocated to Teachers College, Columbia University. Instructors from Teachers College taught courses in executive coaching, leadership, organizational psychology, group dynamics and organizational change. The curriculum allowed us to learn the concepts and theories, and then apply our skills through practical exercises.

My classmate, Staff Sgt. Courtney Martin, a West Point Band musician, said the course allowed her to learn a lot about herself as well as others.

“I think my biggest takeaway is how important trust and communication are when working in groups,” Martin said. “The Army is made up of camaraderie and teamwork. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable and show our Soldiers that they can trust us by having an open line of communication.”

Before graduation, Cohort 5 spent the day at S&P Global for a leadership workshop with their Employee Resource Group, Veterans and Allies Leading for Organizational Results. The non-profit organization partnered employees from S&P with Cohort 5 to discuss a case study and develop potential solutions.

This experience not only gave me a better understanding of the corporate world, but it also allowed me to gain another perspective on problem-solving. Our group collaboratively discussed our case-study and all the variables that could affect potential solutions.

My group change project topic revolved around “This is My Squad,” an initiative introduced last year by Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. Our group of five NCOs essentially had to answer the question on how to build a better cohesive team. We evaluated the specifics and determined the over-arching concept of the project as ownership.

After peeling back the layers of what ownership means within a squad, our group focused on four other areas which were reception and integration of new team members, the NCO professional development system, building cohesive teams and counterproductive leadership. We also proposed a mobile device app that could potentially revolutionize how new Soldiers are integrated into a new squad/unit as well as help squad leaders keep track of pertinent information involving their Soldiers.

We presented our research and proposed plan for TIMS to a panel of senior leaders before graduation day. Senior leaders included Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, USMA Superintendent, Big. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, U.S. Commandant of the U.S. Corps of Cadets, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Crosby, U.S. Army Futures Command, Command Sgt. Maj. Jack Love, USMA senior enlisted leader and Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Killingsworth, USCC senior enlisted leader.

Our group aimed to convince the panel with the theme of ownership within the squad that also aligns with the “Army People Strategy” proposed by General James McConville, 40th Chief of Staff of the Army. As the Army continues to move from the industrial age to the information age, people will be the essential capability to keep us moving forward.

Upon completion of the program, I along with 18 other NCOs graduated during a ceremony held in the Thayer Award Room at West Point. Each graduate received a certificate in social organizational psychology accredited by Columbia University.

This entire course was very eye-opening and gave me a better appreciation for leadership and organizational change. I anticipate taking these skills with me throughout the rest of my Army career, and beyond.