Small Wars Journal

Self-Development Requires Self-Direction: Recommendations to Improve the Army Leader Development Model

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:20am

Self-Development Requires Self-Direction: Recommendations to Improve the Army Leader Development Model

Franklin C. Annis


As the complexity of war increases and training time remains finite, the U.S. Army will be increasingly depended on self-directed learning to maintain dominance of the modern battlefield. The U.S. Army has the difficult task of preparing leaders to operate in complex environments. For decades the Army has struggled to consistently define terms and provide materials to support self-directed learning. This paper examines the constantly shifting definitions within the Army Leader Development Model and suggests corrections to the definitions and design of the model to ensure that self-directed learning within the Army is fully supported.

The U.S. Army seeks to be the most dominant ground force on the face of the planet. Almost as long as the Army has existed, it has been searching for methods to improve the skills, behaviors, and knowledge of its soldiers and leaders. While the Army has adapted many of the major foundational theories of education to assist in crafting the future generations of military leaders, it is unfortunate that they have not fully embraced or adapted Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy. Specifically, the assumption that adult learners are naturally self-directed has not been fully incorporated or recognized within the U.S. Army Leader Development Model (ALDM) and supporting materials. As a result, the Army has been left with poorly defined and largely misunderstood domains within the ALDM. Without a philosophically sound development model, Army leaders are not being fully optimized for the challenges of the modern battlefield.

Problem Statement

The Army has continually struggled with defining and creating effective supporting materials for the concept of self-development within the Army Leader Development Model. The 1994, Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA PAM) 350-58 (HQ DA, 1994) presented a definition of self-development that was roughly compatible with Malcolm Knowles’ theory of self-directed learning. Unfortunately, supporting educational materials to maximize this concept and fully support self-directed learning of military leaders were not produced until 2014, with the publication of the Leader Development Improvement Guide (Leader 360/MSAF). In 2010 with the addition of the Non-Commission Officers (NCOs) structured self-development courses (U.S. Army Reserve, 2012), the concept of Army self-development was alienated from the concept of self-directed learning. Over the last decade, the Army has been presenting a constantly shifting definition of self-development sometime congruent and sometimes disparate with Knowles’ theory of self-directed learning. Recent research has demonstrated that even senior cadre of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) struggle to understand the concept of Army self-development or provide practically applicable examples of self-development activities that fit within this domain of the ALDM (Annis, 2016). Given that self-directed learning holds the key to battlefield innovation, it is critical that the Army addresses the definitions within the ALDM and establishes a more comprehensive educational philosophy.


Junior officers are currently addressing complex problems and making critical decisions, with strategic consequences that in previous wars would have been made by superior officers (Hill, 2008; Van Riper, 2006).  As the complexity and speed of modern warfare continues to increase, it is ever apparent that it is impossible to optimize leaders for all likely battlefield scenarios without the active component of self-directed learning. Learner autonomy (self-directed learning) is a critical skill for modern leaders who will operate in complex environments (Mensch & Rahschulte, 2008). The finite time allotted for military education and training is simply not possible to train leaders in all possible combat and nontraditional tasks they are likely to encounter. With the importance of self-directed learning ever increasing on the battlefield, it is imperative that the Army created a functional definition of Army self-development and provide supporting materials to encourage active engagement in this behavior. 

Army leaders are currently developed through similar operational assignment and are being educated and trained through nearly identical courses. While some degree of variance will occur through the speed and ability of learning of different individuals, this approach is hardly likely to produce innovative and varied leaders. If we wish to drive battlefield innovation, the Army needs to fully embrace the concept of self-directed learning:

It is the domain of self-development that allows leaders to develop themselves to address their specific personal developmental needs and situational requirements. Since learning through self-development is not preprogrammed, a high-degree of variance occurs. As a result, self-developed leaders bring the diversity of thought that is required to drive battlefield innovation. (Annis, 2018, para. 5)

Given the importance of the mission of the U.S. Army to protect National Security and advance American interest, it is paramount that the U.S. Army establish an educational philosophy that fully supports the development of Army leaders and maximizes the use of innovation.

Advantages of Self-Directed Learning

The advantage of self-directed learning has been well established by scholarly research. To record all the advantages of self-directed learning would require an academic work much longer than this article. Jackdaw learning and teaching (2017) put together a well-supported “top 10” list concerning the advantages of self-directed learning:

1. Adapt to changes in their environments better (Guglielmino, 1977).

2. [R]emain resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles (Zsiga, 2008).

3. [D]emonstrate enhanced performances in their jobs (Artis & Harris, 2007).

4. [E]xhibit superior critical thinking and questioning skills (Candy, 1991).

5. [D]emonstrate increased confidence and problem-solving capabilities (Durr, 1992).

6. [A]ctively share knowledge and build networks with others (Rowland & Volet, 1996).

7. [S]how stronger emotional commitment (Cho & Kwon, 2005).

8. [F]ind their jobs more meaningful (Kops, 1997).

9. [E]xperience “deep” rather than “surface” learning (Stansfield, 1997).

10. [A]re more likely to realize their potential as leaders (Klute, Crouter, Sayer, & McHale, 2002).

All these advantages would be greatly beneficial to military leaders. The Army would do well to ensure that engaging in self-directed learning was an expectation within their leader development model.

The Constantly Shifting Definitions of Army Self-Development

The DA PAM 350-58: Leader development for America’s Army, presented the following definition of the self-development domain,

Self–development initiatives focus on maximizing leader strengths, minimizing weaknesses, and achieving individual leader development goals. The concept is more than fixing weaknesses or reinforcing strengths. Self–development is a continuous process — taking place during institutional training and education, and during operational assignments — that should also stretch and broaden the individual beyond the job or training. It’s a joint effort involving commanders, leaders, supervisors, and subordinates. The individual and his leader structure self–development actions to [n]eed specific individual goals and needs. Initial self–development is generally narrow in scope. The focus broadens as individuals learn their strengths and weaknesses, determine needs, and become more independent. Leaders prepare developmental action plans to map self–development efforts and set priorities for improving performance and achieving maximum potential. Self–development actions may include self–study, reading programs, and civilian education courses that support development goals. (HQ DA, 1994)

While not verbatim, this concept of self-development is echoed in the definitions presented in the Field Manual (FM) 6-22: Army leadership (HQ DA, 2006), Army Regulation (AR) 600-100: Army Leadership (HQ DA, 2007), and the FM 7-0: Training for full spectrum operations (HQ DA, 2008).

One can see this concept of self-development runs parallel with Malcolm Knowles’ theory of self-directed learning. Knowles defined self-directed learning as,

 [A] process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

The only significant difference is that the Army intended for supervisors to be involved in the self-development process where Knowles didn’t require the assistance of others. It is likely the Army placed an emphasis on supervisor involvement in self-development due to the limitation of self-assessment, reflected in the common phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know”. In the Army, supervisors could assist soldiers in providing an external assessment of their skills, behaviors, and knowledge and suggest learning activities to address discovered shortfalls.

In 2010, the Army introduced the structured self-development course into the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Education System. These courses, that where essentially distributed learning courses, were required to advance in through the NCO ranks. These courses had a fixed curriculum with no flexibility offered to students. Nothing about the structured self-development course where compatible with the concept of self-directed learning. Utilizing the term “self-development” within these course titles had an incredibly damaging impact on the already weakly supported concept of Army self-development. To further add to the confusion surrounding the concept of self-development, only the NCO Corps (representing a majority of the Army) changed the title of the distributed learning courses of the NCO Education System (NCOES) to “structured self-development”. The Officer Corps maintained the distributed learning course of the Officer Education System (OES) under their original name, “Phase 1, distributed learning.”

The Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 7-0: Training and unit development (HQ DA, 2012b) was the first to reference the new concept of “structured” self-development. However, the Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22: Army leadership (HQ DA, 2012a), published the same day as the ADP 7-0, removed any formal definition of self-development; “No longer a formally defined term” (HQ DA, 2012a, p. vi). It appears there was a lack of communication at this time among the theorists and policy makers concerning definitions of self-development and the concepts within the ALDM.

The most recent edition of the DA Pam 350-58 (HQ DA, 2013) presents what I believe to be the finest definition of a concept of self-development that is congruent with self-directed learning that the Army ever composed. Self-development is,

A planned, dimension-based, progressive, and sequential process the individual leader uses to improve performance and achieve developmental goals. Self-development is a continuous process that takes place during institutional training and education and operational assignments. It is a joint effort that involves the leaders and the commander or supervisor. Self-development actions are structured to meet specific individual needs and goals. It starts with an assessment of leadership skills, knowledge, and potential. A counseling and feedback session follows each assessment. During the counseling sessions, commanders or supervisors assist the individual to identify strengths, weaknesses, and developmental needs. Additionally, they discuss causes for strengths and weaknesses, and courses of action to improve performance. (HQ DA, 2013, p. 23).

This publication makes no reference to a concept of “structured” variation of self-development. Additionally, the design of the structured self-development courses would prevent them from falling within this definition.

In 2014, the AR 350-1 (HQ DA, 2014) include the concept of Structured Self-Development within the definition of Self-Development again departing from self-directed learning theory. Now Self-Development was defined into three categories,

(1) Structured self-development. Learning that continues throughout a career and that is closely linked to and synchronized with classroom and on-the-job learning.

(2) Guided self-development. Recommended but optional learning that will help keep personnel prepared for changing technical, functional, and leadership responsibilities throughout their career.

(3) Personal self-development. Self-initiated learning where the individual defines the objective, pace and process, such as: pursuing college education, advanced degree programs, and so forth. (HQ DA, 2014)

While self-directed learning could possibly occur in the guided and personal self-development category, the structured self-development courses utilized a fix curriculum and are mandatory for career advancement making them totally opposed to the concept of self-directed learning. The three-category approach to self-development is further echoed in the latest FM 6-22 (HQ DA, 2015), FM 7-0 (HQ DA, 2016) and AR 600-100 (HQ DA, 2017).

In October of 2017, the Army announced that they would abandoned the structured self-development course and revise the distributive learning course in the NCOES. It is unclear at this point if the Army will further modify or clarify the definition and concept of self-development. We can only hope that with the importance of self-directed learning skills among Army leaders that the Army would make concerted efforts to continue to refine and improve the educational philosophies within the ALDM. Regardless of the direction the Army takes in defining self-development, it is critical that a single unified definition be established, supporting materials created, and this definition be allowed to remain unchanged long enough that it could be understood and implemented among soldiers.

The Problematic Army Leader Development Model

The Army Leader Development Model (ALDM) is composed of three different domains of learning. While we have discussed the definition of the self-development domain above, here are the definitions of the other two domains within this model. The Army defines the operational domain as the following:

The operational domain encompasses training activities that unit leaders schedule, and individuals, units and organizations undertake. Unit leaders are responsible for the proficiency of their subordinates (Soldiers and Army Civilians), subordinate leaders, teams/crews, and the unit as a whole. Subordinate leaders assist commanders in achieving ARFORGEN training readiness proficiency goals by ensuring training is conducted to standard in support of the unit’s METL. These activities include: progressive training conducted at home station, regional collective training capability, regional training centers, and mobilization centers; Exportable Combat Training Capability, combat support training exercise and Combat Training Centers (CTC) rotations; during Joint exercises; and while regionally aligned or operationally deployed. For units in the operational Army, METL-based strategies (known as CATS) are synchronized with the weapon training strategy, ARFORGEN training templates and ARFORGEN events menu matrix (EMM) requirements (for those units with HQDA directed templates) to build and sustain unit readiness. These documents describe training resources and training support requirements to execute the ARFORGEN model. Commanders are responsible for unit readiness. (HQ DA, 2014, p. 3)

The institutional domain is defined as:

The institutional training domain includes Army centers/schools that provide initial training and subsequent functional and professional military education for Soldiers, military leaders, and Army Civilians. Army schools ensure Soldiers, leaders, and Army Civilians can perform critical tasks to prescribed standards throughout their careers, and support units on a continuous basis. Army schools help instill the key competencies, values, warrior ethos, and Army Profession mindset needed to succeed in any circumstance. The institutional training domain also provides training support products, information, and materials needed by individuals for self-development and by unit leaders in the operational training domain to accomplish training and mission rehearsal/assessment. The institution is a key enabler for unit readiness, providing initial military training, subsequent professional military education and Civilian education and direct support to units for functional training through access to training task development data bases, mobile training teams (MTTs) or other means. The institutional training domain takes lessons learned from the operational training domain and updates doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures and then disseminates this information back to the field and to individuals. (HQ DA, 2014, p. 3)

While the Army further subdivides the learning experiences that occur within this domains into experience, training, and education, how and why the Army does so is best saved as a topic of another article. In this article, we will focus on how the domains are and should be defined. I acknowledge that similar learning experiences and activities can occur throughout the three separate domains.  

image 1

Figure 1. Army Leader Development Model (HQ DA, 2013, p. 8).

The Army has been utilizing a Venn diagram as the format of the ALDM since 2013 (See Figure 1). In this diagram we see overlapping of the three learning domains of operational, institutional, and self-development. The use of a Venn diagram for this model is problematic for several reasons. The purpose of a Venn diagram is to demonstrate the logical connection between sets. However, the Army failed to make it explicit what the logical connection were between the domains. While I would assert that the overlap demonstrates that an individual can be engaging in learning activities at the same time (i.e. attending a military course in the institutional domain while reading a book for self-directed learning in the self-development domain), others might conclude that a single educational experience could exist in multiple domains at the same time. Given the addition of the structure self-development courses (that are not self-directed in any fashion), it is highly likely that soldiers may further reinforce the idea that taking mandatory distributive learning course is engaging in self-development even though it would have traditionally been viewed as institutional in nature. If the Army wants to harness the full potential value of self-directed learning, they need to immediately act to redefine the domains with the ALDM to ensure the domain of self-development remains entirely self-directed.

Proposed Revision to the ALDM

image 2

Figure 2. Annis "Tripod" Model of Leader Development

My suggestion to revise the ALDM, would clarify both the definition of the learning domains and visually display the interaction between these domains. For designing this model, I selected a tripod as a concept that every soldier would understand (See Figure 2). Each of the legs of this tripod represents a learning domain of the current ALDM. In this model, increasing the height of the machine gun represents an increase of leadership ability. The “legs” of this model extend as time is invested and leadership ability is gained through study in each of these learning domains.

In this model, the operational domain would be defined as the learning that occurs while functioning in the “operational force.” This would include “on-the-job” learning and participation in unit training and education. A squad leader would learn how to be a better squad leader through the practice of leading his/her squad during combat operations, garrison (non-combat) operations, unit training events, and group education. This would be true of all the leadership positions throughout the Army. In short, learning by operating (doing).

The institutional domain of this model would be defined as any learning experience that was directed as a requirement from the Army. This would include any mandatory training, education, or experience that is dictated as a requirement for occupational qualifications or promotion. Examples of this might be a civilian bachelor’s degree required of commission officers, NCOES course for promotion through the NCO ranks, or the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technician – Basic certification as a requirement for the 68W Health Care Specialists. In this definition, I would also include learning activities that are directed even at low-levels of command, such as a commanding asking soldiers in his/her unit to read certain books. In short, this is any required learning directed by the “Institution” of the Army.

Finally, to ensure that the self-development domain remained entirely focused on self-directed learning, I would utilize Knowles’ definition of self-directed learning for this domain. The only modification to this definition I would suggest to ensure the implicit was explicit, is to add a sentence that self-development is a “continuous cycle of assessment and reassessment” (Annis, 2016, p. 106). Self-development must be a continual process and not a single incident if we are to see the full potential of self-directed learning. In short, this is voluntary self-directed learning.

Unlike the Venn diagram currently utilized by the Army to display the ALDM, this model displays the interaction that occurs between these three learning domains. Essentially the height of the tripod cannot raise above the height of the least engaged learning domain. This re-enforces the concept that soldiers need a balance of operational experience (to test their knowledge and abilities), institutional training (to gain task proficiency and understand Army doctrine), and self-development (to drive innovation and address personal weaknesses) learning experiences throughout their career (See Figure 3).

image 3

Figure 3. Examples of the interaction between domains in the "Tripod" Model


The speed and complexity of warfare is ever increasing. It will be increasingly impossible to train and educate Army leaders for every possible duty assignment or skill required to dominate the modern battlefield. With limited training and education time, Self-directed learning will continue to grow in importance among Army leaders. To ensure that self-directed learning is supported and safeguarded with the Army Leader Development Model, the Army should consider redefining Self-Development to be exclusively self-directed learning. 

The Army has presented an inconsistent definition of self-development throughout the last decade. This may have been complicated by the NCOES structured self-development courses that were not compatible with self-directed learning theory. As a result, the concept of self-development and how it relates to other domains of the Army Leader Development Model (ALDM) has largely remained misunderstood among Army soldiers.

Suggested changes to the visual diagram of the ALDM and improvement to the definitions of the learning domains within could alleviate much of this confusion. The suggested changes would ensure that the domain of self-development would be reserved exclusively for the much-needed skill of self-directed learning. Additionally, the changes would make it clear that it would be impossible to become an effective Army leader without the inclusion of all domains of the ALDM. It would also re-enforce the idea that the best approach to leader development would be a balanced mixture of operational experience (“on-the-job” learning), institutional training (gaining proficiency in military tasks and gaining an understanding of Army doctrine), and self-development (self-directed learning to address personal weaknesses and drive innovation).

With the recent abandonment of the NCOES structured self-development courses, the Army has the opportunity to revise manuals that present a unified concept of self-development that would take advantage of all the benefits of self-directed learning. Returning to a definition of self-development that is based on the theories of Malcolm Knowles would go a long way to advancing self-directed learning. By doing so, a common understanding of this concept could be gained throughout Army soldiers that would likely lead to increase engagement in this behavior. If anything is to be learned from the Long War, it is that the enemy evolves faster that Army doctrine and training can keep up. The value of operational experience quickly fades when facing an adaptive advisory that is constantly shifting tactics, techniques and procedures. Self-development has always been a critical skill of military leaders and is growing in its strategic importance. If the Army wants to maintain dominance on the modern battlefield, then they will have to ensure their soldiers are proficient and skilled self-directed learners.


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About the Author(s)

Franklin C. Annis holds a Doctorate in Education (EdD) from Northcentral University. He created the “Evolving Warfighter” YouTube channel to share his research on Military Self-Development. Dr. Annis is a veteran of Operational Iraqi Freedom.

The views presented in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.