SPOTLIGHT ON PEDAGOGY

Psychology and behavioral sciences’ influence on military activities

The author discusses a myriad of challenges and opportunities faced by military professionals in the field of behavioral science

By Bernard Banks, PhD

Introduction

The military engages in a myriad of practices which are conceptually undergirded by psychological and behavioral science constructs. As such, the need for military professionals with a deep expertise in those fields is tremendous. However, the actual cadre of people formally trained in those disciples is scant. For example, the number of research psychologists within the Army’s Medical Service Corps numbers less than 30 (and the total number is still less than 160 if you add in clinical psychologists). Understanding the importance of these disciplines to the military’s operations, it is incumbent upon those who possess the appropriate expertise to assist in educating others about the challenges (and opportunities) associated with using our science artfully. More importantly, such efforts must be institutionalized in order to ensure the appropriate amount of rigor and support is present if our disciplines are truly empowered to enhance the work we perform on behalf of the nation. For the purposes of illustration, the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA) offers a cogent example of how leaders are seeking to improve the integration of science in service of informing the art of leader development.

West Point Leader Development System

The West Point Leader Development System (WPLDS) is the conceptual model that outlines the Academy’s process for guiding cadets through their journey to become officers. The system is the institution’s latest iterative effort in refining its developmental framework. Conceptually, the process incorporates five components (developmental experiences, new knowledge and capabilities, individual readiness, reflection and time) which are moderated by various factors (e.g., level of challenge presented by various experiences, depth of assessment, variety of experiences, amount of support afforded each cadet, openness to new experiences and reflective capacity). The primary desired outcome of the WPLDS is the creation of an individual who has internalized an identity West Point calls “officership.” The officership identity is operationalized as possessing four components (warrior, member of profession, servant to the nation, and leader of character). However, the WPLDS is also designed to facilitate West Point graduates’ ability to “do” 10 things well (e.g., West Point graduates will possess the ability to lead and inspire their units to accomplish all assigned missions).

The execution of the framework occurs through the creation of specific activities arrayed in six developmental domains (military, intellectual, physical, moral-ethical, social and human spirit). However, the intent is to have no activity occur in isolation. So, an integrative approach is employed in order to develop cadets simultaneously across multiple dimensions. The following example is representative of how that philosophy manifests itself. All cadets must play a sport (e.g., intramurals, competitive club or intercollegiate-level team). All intramural sports are refereed by the cadets. Because doing so is the conscious integration of the physical domain (playing the sport) with the ethical domain (learning how to make decisions when faced with competing interests — peer pressure, organizational affinity, etc.). Countless other activities are consciously crafted to address developmental objectives that span multiple domains. Yet, what many people fail to realize is that the basic foundation for all of the Academy’s identity development efforts is a psychological model — Robert Kegan’s model of psychological development presented in his 1982 book, "The Evolving Self." A recent review of leader development at West Point revealed that few people at the academy truly understand Kegan’s model and its implications. Accordingly, the absence of clarity is reflected in leader developers’ lack of rigor when examining the appropriateness of efforts they undertake in service of advancing the cadets’ identity development.

Kegan’s model and its relation to WPLDS

As previously highlighted, the WPLDS is specifically concerned with enabling the internalization of an identity. The first part of that identity is classified as being a “warrior.” A warrior is defined within the WPLDS as the state of mind and way of being associated with knowing how to fight, and win, our nation’s battles. The second part of the identity is aligned with viewing oneself as a “member of a profession.” Embracing what it means to possess the unique jurisdictional expertise necessary to ensure the sound employment of military arms, adoption of the military culture, and adherence to the ethical standards associated with military service are all hallmarks of this component. The third component of the officership identity is “servant to the nation.” This component distinguishes the graduates’ obligation to place the needs of others ahead of their own. Finally, the last component of the officership identity is the distinction characterized as a “leader of character.” WPLDS denotes a leader of character as someone who actively pursues the truth, decides what constitutes the right course of action, and has the courage to take action accordingly. While easy to define, the path towards embodiment of the officership identity is very complex and nonlinear. Therefore, knowing what factors influence the process and why they matter is important given the difficulty of the challenge.

The Kegan model of psychological development serves as the foundation of the WPLDS process because of its focus on adult development and where the cadets are positioned in their developmental evolution when entering the Academy. Kegan’s model describes six stages in the psychological development process for human beings (incorporative stage, impulsive stage, imperial stage, interpersonal stage, institutional stage and the interindividual stage). It is important to note the WPLDS process officially codifies achievement of Kegan’s institutional stage by graduation as one of its objectives. Furthermore, the process assumes most cadets enter the Academy firmly rooted in the model’s imperial stage. So they must ideally progress out of that stage and completely through the interpersonal stage during their cadet careers — a weighty challenge according to Kegan’s conception of the process. Hence, that challenge highlights the importance of leader developers possessing a deep understanding of in service of enhancing their ability to more cogently design developmental interventions. However, only a handful of Academy personnel (primarily Cadet Company Tactical Officers and faculty members teaching inside the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership) receive in depth instruction examining how Kegan’s model (and other developmental models) functions. Yet, the WPLDS document states that everyone at the Academy plays a tangible role in the development of cadets. The lack of awareness concerning how Kegan’s model (and others) can assist in assessing what type of developmental interventions might best suit the needs of a given cadet is one of the biggest challenges posed to the WPLDS. Additionally, many leader developers at USMA are not aware of how the WPLDS itself is constructed. So, we are leaving potential untapped because of the lack of awareness present in the WPLDS process. But, opportunities always accompany challenges!

The opportunity available to military personnel who possess a psychology background

Currently, West Point is in the process of making adjustments to its developmental approach. The ongoing revision is looking at ways to better assess where cadets are at developmentally and why. Additionally, a variety of tools (e.g., psychometrics, reflective exercises, process consultation, coaching) from various fields within the psychology discipline are being experimented with in an attempt to better employ our science in service of forging the identity of officership. The Academy’s leadership is committed to ensuring the current revision process results in an enhanced emphasis on, and understanding of, the psychological concepts that constitute the foundation for the Academy’s developmental efforts. Similar efforts must be undertaken throughout the military in order to accelerate the development of our personnel. What will it take to more effectively educate everyone in the military on how psychology can inform our efforts as leader developers and organizational citizens? The pace of change in our organizations and operating environment are serving as the impetus for why such action is required. 

To date, the direct training of military personnel in psychological concepts has been restricted to a select few. To be clear, military personnel are exposed routinely to psychology. But, such exposure is almost always an application of a concept (devoid of providing any context or understanding about what psychological principle is being applied). There are a number of reasons for this reality. Some psychological concepts are not easily understood by lay people. Accordingly, not all psychological concepts lend themselves to a “checklist” format or are easily observed. Likewise, we have largely left it up to people’s personal agendas as to whether we’d support their pursuit of advanced study in psychological topics. For example, the only psychology graduate programs of study available for a typical Army Operations Career Field officer who is not a scholarship recipient (e.g., Rhodes, Marshall) or designee for a Graduate School Active Duty Service Obligation slot are almost exclusively associated with service on the USMA faculty. Structurally, we have not made it easy for people to learn more about how psychology influences our organizations. The military is a peoplecentric entity. Therefore, we must enhance our understanding of people through formal study. Additionally, we must make the psychological frameworks associated with our various activities more explicit. Doing so will allow people to enhance their understanding of such concepts through personal inquiry.

Conclusion

The field of psychology has never been more important to the military than it is today. The WPLDS example highlights why rigorous exploration of pedagogy, developmental experience appropriateness and assessment are so important. Our military requires leaders who understand the psychological and behavioral sciences that inform the art of leading. Consequently, the military must enhance its commitment to providing advanced psychology education to its mainstream personnel. Failure to do so will only reduce our ability to cogently seize the opportunities present in our people while adroitly addressing the challenges posed by the ever increasing complexity of the world around us. So, what will it take for the military to leverage psychology more effectively? 

About the Author: COL Bernard B. Banks, PhD, is a professor and deputy head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership at the United States Military Academy. Prior to his current assignment, COL Banks commanded the Third Squadron-Sixth Cavalry Regiment in South Korea. He holds MPhil and PhD in social-organizational psychology from Columbia University; graduate degrees from Harvard University, Northwestern University and the U.S. Army War College.

About this spotlight

Spotlight on Pedagogy showcases educational activities associated with the teaching of military psychology. Activities showcased will be inclusive of all disciplines relevant to teaching of military psychology — spanning the entire spectrum of psychology including undergraduate and graduate. If you would like share to showcase any pedagogical activities contact Stephen Truhon, PhD.