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During Forces Command Innovation Day 2018, Brigadier BN James, Director General Training and Doctrine, endorsed utilisation of the Leader Challenge methodology as a cost-effective proposal to enhance leadership and ethics training across Forces Command. This paper outlines what a Leader Challenge professional military education (PME) session is and how to effectively facilitate the training.
What is a Leader Challenge PME Session?
The Leader Challenge methodology is “grounded in work done in the 1990s at West Point and in partnership with the Army Research Institute and Yale University, which included the “Tacit Knowledge for Military Leaders” study that culminated with a book, Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life.” This method involves “small-group discussion techniques, including rotating participants and use of easel paper, informed by experiential learning theory and the World Café’ technique for conversations (The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter). The approach has been iteratively tested and improved” over more than 15 years within several US Army training institutions.
Using these techniques, in only an hour of training, trainees are actively involved in the learning process with leaders of their organization, using relevant and interesting vignettes and subject matter.
How to run a Leader Challenge PME Session
The process to run a successful Leader Challenge PME session can be distilled to several discrete steps as listed below:
Step 1. gather the tools
Step 2. find a suitable location
Step 3. identify and train a lead facilitator and mentors
Step 4. execute the PME
Step 5. conduct an after activity review (AAR)
Step 1: Gather the Tools
In gathering the tools, there are several key items that are required for a successful Leader Challenge PME session. As a minimum the individual developing the PME must acquire the following:
- video or vignette that facilitates the desired learning outcome for the leadership or ethics training
- large butcher block or similar paper to use at each table
- three colored markers per table
- quad chart to guide the session (one per mentor)
A well-resourced PME event will ensure that it is as effective as possible and professionally rewarding to both the training audience and the mentors involved.
Step 2: Find a suitable location
An ideal location to conduct a Leader Challenge PME event is one that can facilitate a “round-table” discussion amongst each group of 5-6 soldiers and mentors. Additionally, if a video is utilized for the vignette (highly recommended) then there is a requirement for a way to project it along with ensuring adequate sound support. A location that can facilitate a large display timer; perhaps using a computer and projector, is also critical to keep the session on time and allow mentors situational awareness for how much time is remaining.
Whilst the above suggests the ideal location, this should not be a limiting factor as a Leader Challenge session could also be supported in a field environment. To do so; however, requires foresight on how to accomplish the learning outcomes without detriment to the activity.
Step 3: Identify and train mentors
Identifying mentors is a simple, yet important, process. A key to leadership and ethics training is being able to discuss such difficult issues with current leaders of the organization who, preferably, have a substantial experience base. Thus, the mentors are ideally leaders within whatever organization is conducting the training. As an example, during Leadership Challenge PME at the School of Infantry, the Commanding Officer, sub-unit Officer Commandings, Regimental Sergeant Major, and captains often are the mentors for the officers during the session. This allows young lieutenants to discuss these difficult challenges and situations with experienced leaders and reinforces to them the shared values of the Army profession. In a sub-unit the mentors could be all platoon leaders and platoon sergeants with the corporals and lance corporals as the training audience. Lastly, if required, peers can also be identified as the mentors.
After selecting the mentors, it is critical that they receive training prior to the conduct of the session. This ensures that they understand the process, have read or observed the supporting video/vignette, and have had time to determine discussion points they may want to bring out to their groups during each block of time. The training for a Leader Challenge PME is quite simple and should take no more than one hour. To conduct the training, the lead facilitator should gather all of the mentors at the training site and watch the video together while going through the quad chart. At the end of each block, the mentors can discuss other possible learning outcomes that can be achieved, a common thread that the facilitator or leader may want to convey, etc. The training and preparation of mentors is critical to ensure that they arrive at the start of the activity with the training audience prepared and with a firm grasp of the Leader Challenge process.
Step 4: Execute the Leader Challenge PME
A typical Leader Challenge PME is executed in four distinct blocks as portrayed in the quad chart in Figure 2. A sample timeline of a leader challenge event is below:
1300: introduction by lead facilitator
1302: begin first vignette/video and Block 1
1312: trainees scatter to new mentor table and start Block 2
1327: trainees scatter to new mentor table and start Block 3
1342: trainees scatter to new mentor table and start Wrap up Block
1352: senior leader in the organization closes the session with final thoughts
1400: training complete
The lead facilitator is typically not a mentor and has the responsibility of planning the session, starting any videos or reading vignettes, and running a timer during each block to ensure that rotations occur when required.
During each block of the PME session, the mentors utilise the quad chart to spur conversation and bring out any germane points they may wish to discuss. As a mentor, the quad chart and the specific vignette are merely a guide. Mentors are encouraged to not overly focus on the specifics of the event, though this can be very useful at times, but to also look for any larger implications of the specific event being utilized in the vignette to achieve the learning outcomes.
At the end of each block, the mentors stay seated at their location and all of the trainees get up and scatter to a new mentor as depicted in Figure 3. The purpose is for them to arrive at a new mentor with a completely new group than they originally started with. This allows for the sharing of new ideas from the last group as the PME progresses as does the new mentor. When the new trainees arrive to their new mentor’s table, the mentor uses the butcher block paper to quickly brief the new group in on what was previously discussed at his or her table and then the session continues with either further video, other components of the vignettes, or a new line of questions.
Figure 3: Sample Leader Challenge Scatter
Key to each block is for the mentors to get the trainees involved. The training audience at the table should be doing the majority of the talking with the mentor guiding the conversation, allowing exploratory learning, and providing insight based on personal experience where beneficial. The mentors should direct the trainees to utilise the markers to write down their ideas, draw them, etc.
After the Wrap up Block, the senior leader of the organization can then emphasise any final points or collect some of the key take-aways from the trainees from the session; the event is then complete. This final step reinforces leadership and ethical values of the organization and is a powerful statement to the unit from its commander/leader. When properly executed, a Leader Challenge PME should take no more than an hour to complete. The training is intended to be “fast and furious” so that when soldiers depart they can continue the conversation with their peers and leaders in a multitude of venues from the Mess, to the office, to the motor pool.
Step 5: Conduct an After Activity Review
As with any training event, an AAR is essential for continual improvement. After a Leadership Challenge event, the mentors and lead facilitator should discuss the training and how to make future sessions better. Additionally, they can provide feedback on the vignettes and products such as the quad chart and improve those for later sessions or other units. Allowing trainees to provide feedback of Leader Challenge PME through end of course evaluations and other methods can also have great value in making future training the best it can be.
Leader Challenge PME provides an outstanding opportunity for dynamic training that is truly impactful for all individuals involved, including the mentors. Discussing such real-life vignettes/videos in a small-group setting with leader involvement is of great value. Trainees have the opportunity to develop crucible-like experiences that, when they arrive at their own inevitable Leader Challenge in the future, will serve them well.
About the author: Major (US) Russell B. Thomas is an Infantry Officer who recently served as the Senior Instructor of Specialist Wing at the School of Infantry
 (Company Command Team)
 (Company Command Team)