Category Archives: Education

Playing to Win: Crafting a Creative Strategic Vision for Maritime Superiority

By Heather Venable

Daydreaming, meditation, and long walks in the forest do not spring to mind as ways to achieve maritime superiority, much less to win the next peer conflict. But these simple approaches to thinking reward institutions with unparalleled dividends. The deepest discernment, as Isaac Asimov explains, occurs when the mind can “take new pathways and make erratic associations you would not think of consciously. The solution will then come while you think you are not thinking.”1

This approach is imperative because—amidst the proliferation of many weapons technologies—the Navy faces a challenge to its current force structure potentially more disruptive than the shift from battleships to carriers or even from sail to steam.2 Yet it sometimes takes institutions too long to accept ideas internally even as it becomes clear to external observers how desperately updating is required.3 Simultaneously, the Navy must open up spaces for creative thinking in order to regain its lost strategic acumen.4 Fortunately, solutions are not costly, but they do require a cultural shift that recognizes the importance of creativity in crafting strategy.5

Historical precedent reveals insights into how and why creativity fosters the best strategy. In the 1950s, a handful of naval officers began working to revitalize naval education by thinking carefully about how they studied history to make strategy. This group included J.C. Wylie, who actively pursued creative thinking throughout his career by challenging accepted ways of doing things, as will be seen.

Wylie also benefited from attending the regular and the advanced courses at the Naval War College on two separate assignments.6 This education provided him with the requisite depth to imbibe basic patterns of strategic thought. As Wylie explained, getting to the “heart of the problem” required diving into the “strategic patterns of thought from which grow the actions of war itself.”7

Creativity cannot occur until one has “mastered the old ways of doing or thinking.8 As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, “One cannot be creative without learning what others know, but then one cannot be creative without becoming dissatisfied with that knowledge and rejecting it (or some of it) for a better way.”9 As such, much of the seminar format of professional military education (PME) focusing on history and international relations is sound. One cannot help one’s service push forward to viable solutions until one understands the foundational knowledge upon which past decisions have been made.

But that is not enough. Depth must be married to breadth in a way that spurs creative thought. But naval officers have not internalized these rules deeply enough because they lack a strong educational foundation. Fortunately, recent steps improve requirements for future flag officers, to include requiring all “future unrestricted line Flag and General Officers” to graduate from in-residence programs by the end of 2021.10 Key documents like the National Defense Strategy (2018) and A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0 (2018) recognize creativity’s importance.11 Still, creativity receives only a brief head nod, providing no vision to pursue.

The tendency to recognize creativity’s importance before quickly dismissing it runs throughout the defense community. One commentator recently called for the military to develop “creative solutions” to acquire new technology, citing the example of a “commercial cloud.” But this idea is not new at all.12 This exemplifies how a technical rationalist mindset pervades much of the Department of Defense (DOD), with cursory mentions of creativity predominantly linked to inventing new products. Creativity, in other words, is assumed to contribute the most to the development of new things, rather than new thoughts.

Innovation continually underperforms because it must occur after ideas. Previous eras of transformational change required societies to tackle “primarily intellectual, not technical” challenges.13 Placing too much emphasis on the tools with which to fight results in a lack of knowledge of how to fight or to what end.

Even the 2018 Education for Seapower study undervalues creativity. After mentioning creativity twice and characterizing it, along with talent, as the Navy’s “most critical resource,” the 468-page study fails to address creativity until an appendix, which ironically details the British appreciation for this trait in its PME.14 By contrast, the report repeatedly highlights the twin concepts of strategic and critical thinking, even defining “critical thinking” in the glossary but not creativity.15

Yet creativity provides the missing link to complete a triangle consisting also of strategy and critical thinking, without which the Navy just has a wobbly “stool.”16 Creativity’s ultimate value centers on its ability to trigger new ways of thinking, which requires individuals to make mental connections in unexpected ways.17

Those responsible for crafting U.S. naval strategy must foster new ways of thinking to challenge the nation’s current strategic paradigm.18 Although the U.S. military acknowledges this need—recognizing that peer adversaries have been studying U.S. successes since Operation Desert Storm—it has not figured out how to change the rules of the game because of “functional fixedness,” or the process whereby cognitive bias “limits the way we use an object to what it was originally intended for and keeps us from seeking new usages.”19 Take multi-domain operations as an example. The Army and Air Force’s newest solution to future war has striking overlaps with its predecessor AirLand battle.20 It seeks to improve upon jointness, even as it exacerbates the communication requirements that constitute the nation’s warfighting Achilles heel. It provides evolutionary improvements but no shift in strategy because the military feels more comfortable focusing on operational solutions.21 Thus the Navy is not alone in its strategic crisis.

Likewise, the Navy struggled to adjust to the new realities of the nuclear age after World War II, a point at which Wylie and others turned to strategy to articulate the Navy’s purpose.22 Surveying the key theorists from each domain, Wylie expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a general theory. Of the various theories, however, he found himself most drawn to Mao’s thinking on wars of national liberation as most “sophisticated.”23 He appreciated Mao’s thinking because it did not limit itself to the “bounds of military action.”24

By contrast, Wylie identified the dangerous direction that the U.S. military had taken. In effect, he argued that the DOD had embraced the ultimate measure of the airpower domain: destruction. While Wylie found destruction to be the air domain’s most logical goal, he did not necessarily see it as the key outcome for the Army or the Navy.25 But the DOD could not resist the air domain’s dangerously seductive quantitative form of measurement.

This approach continues to characterize the U.S. military’s underlying philosophy in what has been characterized as a “continuous movement away from the political objectives of war toward a focus on killing and destroying things.”26 This tendency can be seen in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0’s mission statement (emphasis added):

“The United States Navy will be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea. Our Navy will protect America from attack, promote American prosperity, and preserve America’s strategic influence. U.S. naval operations – from the seafloor to space, from blue water to the littorals, and in the information domain – will deter aggression and enable resolution of crises on terms acceptable to the United States and our allies and partners. If deterrence fails, the Navy will conduct decisive combat operations to defeat any enemy.27

Currently, the mission statement sandwiches hints of a holistic naval strategy between “prompt and sustained combat” and “decisive combat operations.” Those operational and tactical tasks go last, not first and last.

Wylie posited shifting away from pure destruction toward asserting control. By control, Wylie did not refer to control of the sea—a concept so natural to naval thinkers—but something much broader. He defined control as how a “social entity” exerted control over individuals through the power of ideas.  he sought to prod the U.S. to “articulat[e] . . . a philosophy to be ‘for.’”28 Promoting aspects of an ideological enemy’s vision during the Cold War required moral courage and intellectual openness.

For the Navy to regain its strategic acumen similarly requires traditional ways of thinking to be “disrupt[ed]” so that one achieves a perspective typical of an outsider rather than an insider.29 As Geoff Colvin asks, “Why didn’t IBM invent the personal computer? Over and over, the organizations that knew all there was to know about a technology or an industry failed to make the creative breakthrough that would transform the business.”30

One of the easiest ways to facilitate this process is to locate strategists on cultural fault lines because they trigger new ways of seeing and understanding, which helps them envision how to change the rules of the game rather than reacting to what others do. As Everett Dolman explains:

“When confronted with an unbreakable logic, such as the paper-scissors-rock dilemma of the of the Swiss pike, which is superior to the French cavalry, which is superior to the Spanish tercio, which is superior to the Swiss pike, ad infinitum, the only way out is to move beyond the conundrum and change the rules of the game.”31

This problem is made more challenging by differences in perspective between tactical thinkers and strategic ones.32 A tactical thinker concentrates on the short-term prospect of winning a clear-cut victory. A strategic thinker, by contrast, plays the long game, continually asking, “then what?” These two perspectives often exist in tension. In the case of a father who wants to teach his daughter how to play chess, the tactical mindset of seeking to “win” a game sits at odds with the more strategic perspective of ensuring that the father does not extinguish the daughter’s motivation to learn when she keeps losing.33

Recently, then-Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, explained that the Navy had a new strategy of “making the first moves ‘so that we can force our competitors to respond.’”34 A “first move,” however, epitomizes this short-term tactical approach. A more holistic method begins with the consideration of desired ends. Richardson made his comments in the wake of another freedom of navigation operation, also making the strategy’s novelty unclear. Richardson’s rectitude can be understood in light of the nation’s return to great power conflict; still, the deepest creative thinking cannot occur if the Navy shuts itself off from outside connections that stimulate originality. Indeed, the U.S.’s greatest strategic advantage may be how it fosters the sharing of information; China’s tight control of information, by contrast, could result in a creative drought in some areas, although it might be able to overcome these limitations in other ways that it facilitates creativity.35

Because of the range of political, economic, diplomatic, and military responsibilities inherent to the maritime domain, it is arguable that the Navy should be the most comfortable with thinking strategically, as some have argued.36 Other advantages result from the Navy’s greater experience with cumulative as opposed to sequential strategies. The Army, for example, struggled to adjust to a non-linear battlefield during the Global War on Terror. By contrast, the Navy may possess a seamless ability to perceive and understand a kind of “spatial non-linearity” because its officers are comfortable with the ocean, which lacks an “obvious threat direction.”37 The Navy also has helped to contest “excessive maritime claims and practices,” a perspective useful for rising above military solutions. These experiences should position the Navy to think creatively about future warfare.

Yet this optimistic assessment of naval talent should be considered in light of the reality that naval officers “underperform” in graduate programs, although the Secretary of the Navy’s response to Education for Seapower indicates that important changes are underway.38 The study, however, stops short of identifying a holistic solution to the Navy’s strategic shortfalls.39

By contrast, Wylie’s career honed his ability to step outside of expected patterns of thought. In particular, his time serving on the USS Augusta in the Asiatic Fleet gave him an “appreciation of cultural differences” and useful experiences with diplomacy even if he could not participate in fleet exercises in home waters.40 In short, it broadened his vision. Assigned in World War II to instruct at a school for destroyers arriving in the Pacific theater, Wylie confronted “ingrained patterns of thought” in those crewmembers he had the responsibility for training.41

Wylie’s ability to command and control depended on creative communications solutions that he devised in opposition to the doctrine du jour while challenging accepted norms of naval warfighting culture.42 Rather than fight at the conventional steering position, he positioned himself at the radar scope so that he could better visualize the unfolding battle.43 His accomplishments—some of them working in tandem with his ship captain Commander William Cole—epitomize the challenges of integrating new technology seamlessly into an institution against ingrained ways of thinking.44 As has been recognized, technology is easy. People are hard.

Wylie acted similarly at the Naval War College by fostering new ways of doing things. As described by long-time instructor and supporter of the institution Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, Wylie “demonstrated his imagination and his independence of mind in a continuing challenge of conventional assumptions and routine formulations.”45 Much of his effort centered on encouraging a broader and more active study of naval history. Wylie believed that the U.S. should adopt the British model of producing strategists by widening their horizons, to include exploring connections with politics, the economy, and culture.46

The resulting program required participants to develop their thoughts on a weekly basis, writing a paper each week and then “defending” it in a seminar attended by various experts.47 This kind of habitual writing offered deep learning, providing the key foundational knowledge to engage in significant strategic thought. Indeed, it walked Wylie through a series of baby steps. Shorter articles eventually led to his work on naval strategy being published in 1967.

And, before the joint mandates of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Wylie sought to understand other services’ perspectives, even beginning his work with such a discussion.48 Likewise, Wylie’s strategic vision anticipated the perspective needed to undergird multi-domain operations (although the Navy has not yet bought in fully).49

Multi-domain operations require naval strategists to balance an understanding of their own service’s capabilities and limitations with a holistic comprehension of other services, enlarging their own perspective outside of their own domain. Or, as one author describes it, “Multi-domain operations start with the recognition that maneuver in one’s domain is dependent upon actions, both friendly and adversarial, that occur within other domains.”50 Yet some naval officers already struggle to look beyond their own tribe within the Navy, much less beyond their own expertise in and familiarity with their own domain.51

Having taken important steps to improve its foundation of learning, the Navy need not create more administration or sponsor expensive studies to begin fostering creativity. It might sound trite, but more creativity occurs in the shower than at work.52 The simple act of walking, for example, physiologically improves creativity.53

Specific recommendations designed to target multiple aspects of naval culture and the DOD include:

  • Begin all Navy education courses with a discussion of creativity and how to channel it daily. Creativity is a way of thinking that more sailors must understand how to harness. Resident PME provides an ideal space for teaching creative approaches until they become habitual. Likewise, the Navy also must recognize those who genuinely crave intellectual engagement and have a “drive for exploration”—the best predictor of creativity—and place them in positions where they can create.54
  • Crowdsource ideas for naval strategy in conjunction with naval strategists screened for their creative potential who possess both depth and breadth.55 While this suggestion appears the most outlandish, it best reflects how creativity functions in the 21st century.56 Add to the mix a handful of graduate school interns to craft a holistic strategy for the Navy. Provide them the opportunity to engage with others on cultural fault lines like San Francisco or Calcutta.
  • The CNO must do something novel and attention-getting to demonstrate how the Navy truly cares about PME.57 The CNO should convey his message in a personal manner across the ranks of the Navy, including what has been called the Navy’s “frozen middle.”58 The Navy may not control budget battles, but it must control its own culture. The CNO should also provide an equivalent of the Rapid Innovation Cell for ideas to transform the Navy’s strategic thinking, which previously fell under his office and allowed for junior officers to bring diverse perspectives and opinions to his attention.59 Again, this is something being done with innovation more so than with ideas.60
  • In negotiating with the Army and the Air Force over the future of multi-domain operations, it is imperative that the Navy not buy in until it can get the other services to agree to a holistic strategy befitting the broadest tradition of naval thinking. As Wylie noted, for too long the U.S. has been dominated by the “comfortable and placid acceptance of a single idea, a single and exclusively dominant military pattern of thought” that could be characterized today as an emphasis on destruction.61

These steps can begin changing institutionalized culture while paying strategic dividends at bargain-basement prices.

The Navy’s need to craft a creative and holistic strategy has not been so urgent in decades. Wylie’s vision of how one loses maritime superiority resonates powerfully in light of recent events in the South China Sea. He explains how:

“the exploitation of sea power is usually a combination of general slow stiflings with a few critical thrusts. These latter are frequently spectacular and draw our attention to the exclusion of the former, while in point of fact the critical thrusts would not be critical were it not for the tedious and constant tightening of the screws that make them possible.”62

Only a strategic vision cognizant of how the military is “inextricably woven into the whole social power fabric” can provide the necessary answers to help the Navy and the military as a whole be the global force for good it can be when focused on ends.63

Heather Venable is an associate professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She is the author of How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


1. See, for example, Isaac Asimov, “The Eureka Phenomenon,”

2. Andrew, Krepinevich, “Get Ready for the Democratization of Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, 15 Aug 2011;

3. Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture, 3rd ed., (New York: Morgan Kaufmann, 2011), especially pp. 4-7.

4. For one example of this assessment, with others cited throughout this article, see Christopher P. Cavas, “Does the US Navy have a Strategy beyond Hope,” Defense News, 4 Jan 2018, “ In a related vein, the National Defense Strategy has come under fire for not even being a strategy. Gregory D. Foster, “The National Defense Strategy is No Strategy,” Defense One, 4 April 2019; at

5. For an innovative solution derailed by budgetary constraints, see Jason Knudson, “The Frozen Middle and the CRIC,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, 19 Feb 2016,

6. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Joseph Caldwell Wylie Jr., 20 March 1911-29 March 1993,”

7. J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014); reprint, 1967, p. 79.

8. Francisco Camara Pereira, Creativity and Artificial Intelligence: A Conceptual Blending Approach (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), p. 23.

9. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper, 2013), p. 90.

10. Secretary of the Navy, “Education for Seapower Decisions and Immediate Actions,” 5 Feb 2019, The percentage of flag officers who have attended the residence course at the Naval War College currently is a dismal 20 percent. Education for Seapower, p. 31.

11. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, p. 8;;U.S. Navy, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, December 2018, pp. 5 and 9.

12. VADM T.J. White, RDML Danelle Barrett, and LCDR Robert Bebber, “The Future of Information Combat Power: Winning the Information War,” 14 March 2019,

13. Quoted in Dave Lyle, “Fifth Generation Warfare and Other Myths: Clarifying Muddled Thinking in Our Current Defense Debates,” 4 Dec 2017, Also see Lt Col Dave Lyle, “The Foundations of Innovation—A Model of Innovative Change,” Part 2 of 7; For more on the failure to innovate organizationally, see Lt. Gen. Michael G. Dana, “Future War: Not Back to the Future,” 6 Mar 2019, War on the Rocks;

14. Education for Seapower, p. 110; “Memorandum for Distribution,” 19 April 2018, n.p. in Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower, Dec. 2018,

15. Education for Seapower, pp. 5, 13, 15, 28, 32, 36, 39, 54, and 69.

16. The stool analogy has been borrowed from Art Lykke. See H. Richard Yarger, “Towards a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model,”

17. Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016), p. 92.

18. For an assessment of what the authors call the Navy’s “strategic deficit,” see James A. Russell, James J. Wirtz, Donald Abenheim, Thomas-Durrell Young, and Diana Wueger, Navy Strategy Development: Strategy in the 21st Century, June 2015, p. 4;

19. Design 2.0, p. 3; Wired to Create, p. 182.

20. See, for example, Colin Clark, “Army Unveils Multi-Domain Concept; Joined at Hip with Air Force,” 10 Oct 2018, Breaking Defense,

21. See, for example, LTC Antulio J. Echevarria II, “An American Way of War or Way of Battle,” Parameters, 1 January 2004,

22. Nick Prime, “On J.C. Wylie’s ‘Military Strategy’ with Nick Prime,” Strategy Bridge, 24 March 2019;

23. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 104.

24. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 126.

25. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 180.

26. Frederick Kagan, Finding the Target (New York: Encounter Books, 2006), p. 358; Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 181; Peter Haynes, Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), p. 5.

27. Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, December 2018, p. 1.

28. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 183 and p. 188.

29. Wired to Create, pp. 93-94.

30. Wired to Create, p. 95.

31. For an example from the popular movie Princess Bride that Dolman discusses as well, see Mark McNeilly, “’The Princess Bride’ and the Man in Black’s Lessons in Competitive Strategy,” 2 October 2012,

32. Everett Carl Dolman, “Seeking Strategy” in Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Eds. Richard Bailey and James Forsyth (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016), pp. 5-37.

33. Dolman, “Seeking Strategy,” p. 18.

34. Paul McLeary, “CNO: New Strategy is to ‘Force Our Competitors to Respond,’” Breaking Defense, 29 April 2019;

35. See, for example, Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

36. Roger W. Barnett, Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), p. 1.

37. Barnett, Navy Strategic Culture, p. 26.

38. Education for Seapower, p. 46.

39. Education for Seapower might better be titled Administration for Education for Seapower as its overarching conclusion recommends creating a Navy University. This recommendation has real merit in seeking to provide an overarching strategic vision; after all, the other services benefit from this administrative structure.

40. Wylie, Military Strategy, Kindle Location 89 of 3186 and 117. A short biography can be found here: “Joseph Caldwell Wylie Jr., 20 March 1911-29 March 1993,” Naval History and Heritage Command,

41. Wylie, Military Strategy, Kindle Location 211 of 3186.

42. Wylie, Military Strategy, Kindle Location 147 and 179.

43. Cole and Wylie Essay, available online at

44. Preface, CIC Handbook for Destroyers, Pacific Fleet, June 1943; available on at; “USS Fletcher,” available online at

45. Quoted in John B. Hattendorf, “Introduction,” Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 128.

46. Wylie, Military Strategy, Kindle Location 275; also see Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 83

47. Wylie, Military Strategy, Kindle location, 307.

48. Wylie, Military Strategy, pp. 67-68 and p. 99.

49. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “All Services Sign on to Data Sharing—But Not to Multi-Domain,” Breaking Defense, 8 Feb 2019;

50. Brian Willis, “Multi-Domain Operations at the Strategic Level,” 2 March 2018;

51. Education for Seapower, p. 29.

52. Wired to Create, p. 38.

53. Wired to Create, p. 39.

54. Wired to Create, p. 84; Education for Seapower, p. 118.

55. “The Role of the Knowledge Base in Creative Learning” in Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development¸ eds. James C. Kaufman and John Baer (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 139; available online

56. Steve Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead Books, 2010). This theme runs throughout his work.

57. For how to institutionalize it, see, for example, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, Air Force announces selection process for officer instructor and recruiting special duty assignments,” 11 April 2019;

58. Jason Knudson, “The Frozen Middle and the CRIC,” 19 Feb 2016,

59. Jason Knudson, “The Frozen Middle and the CRIC,” 19 Feb 2016,; U.S. Navy, CHIPS Magazine, “CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell,” 27 Jan 2015; available online at

60. See, for example, National Innovation Security Network at

61. Quoted in Haynes, New Maritime Strategy, pp. 25 and 170.

62. Wylie, “Appendix B: On Maritime Strategy” in Military Strategy, Kindle Location 2390. The quote does not have an endnote in the Kindle location, and it does not appear elsewhere in the book.

63. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 188.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (June 27, 2017) James Giordano, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. gives a presentation at a symposium hosted by the Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (CIWAG) at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. (U.S. Navy photo by Daniel L. Kuester/Released)

Skills for Seapower: Why the Navy Needs to Teach Soft and Hard Skills

By Mie Augier, Sean F. X. Barrett, and Nicholas Dew1

“Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too. A lot of people assume that creating software is purely a solitary activity where you sit in an office with the door closed all day and write lots of code. This isn’t true at all. Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs. I also place a high value on having a passion for ongoing learning.” –Bill Gates2

“The cognitive skills and abilities of naval leaders must be viewed as a strategic national asset.”–Education for Seapower3


While the Department of the Navy’s recently published Education for Seapower (E4S) study is designed specifically to respond to the highly competitive security environment of today, it is no coincidence that it emphasizes the need for officer skills that are consistent with larger trends in education and employment. In this paper, we dig into the emphasis E4S puts on the development of both STEM skills and leadership skills among future naval officers. Based on our word count, leader is among the most frequently mentioned terms in the E4S study, implying a set of skills that is not purely technical. At the same time, the Navy and Marine Corps are calling for officers with strong STEM skills, with the implication being that both STEM and leadership skills are needed for success in the “Cognitive Age.” According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there is abundant evidence suggesting that this combination of hard and soft skills is in high demand outside the Navy as well as within it.4

Given the centrality of a combination of hard and soft skills to the Navy and Marine Corps warfighting philosophy, it is worth asking how the Department might improve the way it develops these skills and makes them more abundant across the naval force. It is a particularly opportune time to think carefully about this question because the Navy is currently writing its very first Naval Education Strategy to deliver on the promise of E4S. This strategy will likely influence the path of naval education for many years to come. Hence, it is incredibly important that the strategy be based on sound education principles – rather than reflecting the flavor of the moment, or the Department’s needs of the moment, or the Department’s entrenched, parochial interests. This will not be an easy feat, yet E4S has already recognized that getting the Naval Education Strategy right is much more than just a little important: it may be one of the most consequential initiatives the Department will undertake in the foreseeable future. Its education plans therefore ought to be based on very well-researched and carefully thought out principles designed to serve it well over the long run.

We argue that it is vital to keep in mind this combination of hard and soft skills as the Department moves forward with its plans for investing in the education of its leaders of the future.5 The National Academies highlight a baseline skillset that includes communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving capability in complex, multidisciplinary situations. These skills are highly generalizable, leaders rely on them more heavily than their technical skills, they are more important to an individual’s success, and employers place the greatest value on them when making hiring decisions.6

Unfortunately, there is an unjustified tendency to either implicitly or explicitly assume soft skills are innate, or are only learned via job experience, or are simply some kind of mystery. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead, we should be educating future Navy leaders for a combination of both soft and hard skills that the empirical data suggests are needed together for high performance across a naval career. General David Berger, USMC, in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), also captures the importance of this skill mix when he talks about identifying “those with a special aptitude as instructors, educators, commanders, staff officers, mentors, or with special technical skills,” which he reinforces by identifying the need to change how the Marine Corps attracts and retains the talent necessary to win on today’s new battlefield.7

Hard and Soft Evidence of Increasing Demand for Hard and Soft Skills

Both anecdotal and systematic data indicate that job growth and rewards are increasingly flowing to jobs that require high social skills. Anecdotally, the 2018 Financial Times Skills Gap survey reveals that top employers identify “soft skills” as the most important skills in MBA graduates.“Soft skills” include the ability to work on a team, to work with a wide variety of people, and to solve complex problems. However, this result is tempered by the observation that “unless [MBA graduates] have technical skill requirements, they are not even getting through the door.”9 This highlights that both soft skills and hard skills are important in today’s labor market. Similar results have been found for college graduates, for whom problem-solving skills and the ability to work on a team are the two most desired attributes employers are seeking.10

Systematic evidence shows that soft skills explain an important part of workplace performance.11 Recent research by Harvard economist David Deming finds that the workplace has particularly rewarded jobs requiring both high cognitive and high social skills:

“Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs – including many STEM occupations – shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period. Employment and wage growth were particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skills.”12

Figure 113

Another way of expressing these results is that social skills coupled with STEM skills are a much stronger predictor of employment for today’s young adults than they were a generation ago. It is especially important for senior naval leadership to recognize that workplace changes have altered the balance of skills needed for today’s rising leaders compared to a generation ago.

Why Soft – as Well as Hard – Skills are Important in Organizations

In today’s highly technical work environments, it is easy to understand why great engineering skills or computer programming skills are highly valuable to organizations such as the Navy. These skills clearly have an important role in making the Navy and Marine Corps competitive against our adversaries. But what do soft skills do for an organization? Why is it an advantage to have leaders that also have excellent soft skills?

One answer is that soft skills decrease the cost of coordinating work in organizations. As work gets more highly skilled, it becomes more specialized, thus putting more demands on skills and flexibility in organizing work. This is a reason why the ability to lead teams effectively has become so important in today’s workplace. As the complexity of the work increases, so do the demands on those who organize it. Hard skills may be prized among leaders for understanding complex technology, but the organizational demands of these complex workplaces can only be met by those who have elevated levels of soft skills as well.

A recent Harvard Business Review article emphasizes this point. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang asked companies around the world which relationships are most important to creating value for their customers. Their responses indicate, “Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations.”14 Operating effectively at these interfaces requires “learning about people on the other side and relating to them.”15 Brokering those relationships requires strong interpersonal skills to bring together the knowledge needed to create valuable new solutions.16 Deming similarly notes the importance of these interpersonal skills.17

The importance of soft skills to our warfighting capabilities should come as no surprise to today’s naval forces, who embrace the maneuver warfare philosophy, which decentralizes control and decision making through the use of mission tactics, or “assigning a subordinate a mission without specifying how the mission must be accomplished . . . thereby allowing him the freedom—and establishing the duty—to take whatever steps he deems necessary based on the situation.”18 Soft skills that nurture familiarity and trust are central to the philosophy of command on which maneuver warfare is based: “We believe that implicit communication—to communicate through mutual understanding, using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each other’s thoughts—is a faster, more effective way to communicate than through the use of detailed, explicit instructions. We develop this ability through familiarity and trust.”19

What Might the Navy Do?

“We should use money like a focused weapon, and aim it at the exact individual we need. Currently, we target people via a mass fires approach, instead of more selective targeting. While we hope this results in the retention of the most talented, our antiquated models may also retain poor performers.” –General David Berger, USMC20

“Over the next few months, I will share some thoughts on two of our highest priorities: the creation of the new Naval Community College for enlisted Sailors and Marines as well as the writing of the first Naval Education Strategy to guide our reform efforts.” –John Kroger, Chief Learning Officer, Department of the Navy21

Since the demands of an increasingly complex security environment are not likely to relent anytime soon, it is likely that more will be asked of individual sailors and Marines. Given scarce resources, the Department will have to make judgments about where to invest in education to get the best bang for its buck in order to obtain broader and deeper skillsets. In particular, the Department’s manpower system is intrinsically linked to its ability to deliver on its education strategy. The current DoD manpower system, however, is neither equipped to identify, incentivize, or develop specialized skills (hard or soft) nor accurately register the demand for such skills or match servicemembers that possess them with billets that require them. The development of these skills in the naval officer corps thus depends on fundamental changes to the manpower system in order to properly unleash the talent potential of the Navy and Marine Corps. In order to invest in developing soft (and hard) skills among our officer corps, we need to change our manpower management system to embrace the maneuver philosophy not just in how we fight our forces, but also in how we administer them. Doing so requires a fundamental change in how the DoN (and larger DoD) identifies, educates, trains, and unleashes its talent.22

The current DoD manpower system is based on cutting edge management science—from the turn of the 20th century. In 1899, President McKinley appointed Elihu Root as Secretary of War “to bring ‘modern business practices’ to the ‘backward’ War Department.”23 Based on the Taylorism concept of breaking down complex production into simple, sequenced, standardized tasks, this system was created to maximize efficiencies in a stable, predictable environment. People were trained to be interchangeable parts in an organizational structure emphasizing hierarchical, centralized control. This system, firmly rooted in industrial-era thinking and practices, continues today, manifesting itself in cookie-cutter career paths; the devaluation of specialized skills; and information asymmetries between unit commanders, individual officers, and manpower managers that result in mismatches between officers and the billets they hold. Our manpower bureaucracy’s ability to accurately capture specialized skills is currently quite limited. It is challenging to capture individual experience, skills, and knowledge using combinations of designators in the Navy and primary military occupational specialty (MOS), additional MOS, free MOS, and necessary MOS codes in the Marine Corps. A given bureaucratic code may capture a baseline level of training or experience, but it does not enable differentiation therein.

One model for fixing these problems entails pushing manpower decisions down to the commanders and individual officers themselves, affording officers more opportunity to take responsibility for their own career decisions. Deming notes that workers with higher social skills tend to self-select into occupations where they might better employ them – and be monetarily rewarded for them.24 This self-selection process can be leveraged to create a “matching” system similar to ZipRecruiter and LinkedIn (or dating apps) that incentivize individuals to reveal (and “sell”) their skills to commanders who are empowered to select who joins their unit. The DoN may be able to learn from the U.S. Air Force’s development of a web-based “talent marketplace” for the assignment of its officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel and below.25 The Air Force will use its platform to “publish and manage the Vulnerable-to-Move List, submit and prioritize fill actions (requisitions) and submit assignment preferences.” This increases the transparency of the assignment process and enables officers and commanders to better communicate their preferences to each other. The Army also has ambitions to build a similar technological capability.26 The Navy’s own pilot project, however, continues to languish in bureaucracy, while the Marine Corps does not even have one yet.27

These pilots, however, still operate within the confines of the current manpower model and other established procedures. More radical proposals might include scrapping standardized tables of organization and equipment, mission essential task lists that reward achieving a bare minimum in lieu of contested force-on-force exercises designed to differentiate among commanders, and pay charts based on grade and time in service instead of actual talent and performance. Doing so would provide commanders more flexibility in how they organize their respective units and more opportunity to make tradeoff decisions that would signal to the Department the skills more readily valued and in which the Department should invest.28 Individuals would be similarly incentivized to invest in developing more valued skills, and they would have more opportunities to visibly distinguish themselves.

Significant changes are needed to develop a fundamentally better manpower system.29 Changes are also needed to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) and Goldwater-Nichols in order to allow for more variance from the cookie-cutter career paths currently established in our naval services. Additionally, there is opportunity for a bigger dose of informal training. Leaders at the unit level can develop the soft skills of their teams by encouraging them to take on new challenges (while also eschewing the “zero defect” mentality), teaching them how to ask good questions, encouraging them to learn from the perspectives of others, and bringing together cross-functional teams that expose members to more diverse viewpoints and professional networks.30

The Naval Education Strategy needs to recognize that current manpower systems can limit the potential for progress and hold the Department’s educational investments hostage. It is very important for the strategy to be clear-eyed about this issue. Systems and processes rooted in the industrial age risk trapping the Department in industrial-era thinking while the rest of the world has moved well beyond that. Because these systems and processes will influence the implementation of E4S, the Naval Education Strategy must incorporate plans that address these critical complementary elements.


Given the siren song of rapid developments in technology, there is a natural assumption that the Navy should emphasize STEM skills rather than soft skills. However, abundant evidence shows that it is the combination of soft and hard skills that is vital to giving us warfighting capabilities that create and maintain an edge over our adversaries. The job now at hand is to sharpen the Navy’s manpower bureaucracy into a tool that can deliver the right combinations of soft and hard skills that are needed across the service.31 In the spirit of the innovative and critical thinking the Naval Education Strategy hopes to foster, the strategy must not simply take certain constraints as a given, but rather challenge these constraints and all of the assumptions, systems, and processes on which the Department operates. Failure to do so will result in continuing to operate within the same industrial-era box and making only very marginal improvements, rather than fundamentally changing the manner in which the Department operates to prepare it for the challenges of today and of the future.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett is an active duty Marine Corps intelligence officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.


[1] We are grateful to William Gates and Chris Nelson for comments on earlier drafts. Any remaining errors were produced without help.

[2] Bill Gates, “Bill Gates: The Skills You Need to Succeed,” BBC News, December 14, 2007,

[3] Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019), 12.

[4] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018).

[5] We focus on skills in the context of education and not concerning the related and equally important aspect of the need for interdisciplinary research in our institutions.

[6] National Academies, Integration. Epstein documents how even in highly technical fields, curious outsiders can merge seemingly disparate but widely available information to make cutting edge contributions. Narrow technical specialists can be blinded by their own expertise. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 171-213.

[7] Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019), 7-8,

[8] Patricia Nilsson, “What Top Employers Want from MBA Graduates: The FT’s 2018 Skills Gap Survey Reveals What Lies Ahead in the Jobs Market,” Financial Times, September 3, 2018,

[9] Nilsson, “What Top Employers Want.” Nilsson quotes Susan Sandler Brennan, assistant dean at the career development office of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

[10] Kevin Gray and Andrea Koncz, “The Key Attributes Employers Seek on Students’ Resumes,” National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 30, 2017, Gray and Koncz summarize the results of NACE’s Job Outlook 2018 survey.

[11] James J. Heckman and Tim Kautz, “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills,” Labour Economics 19, no. 4 (Aug. 2012): 451-464.

[12] David J. Deming, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 132, no. 4 (2017): 1593-1640. Quote from the Abstract.

[13] Deming, 1627 (see Figure IV).

[14] Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership: How to Create More Value by Connecting Experts from Inside and Outside the Organization,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019): 132.

[15] Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, 132. Emphasis in original.

[16] “Cultural brokers” can serve as both bridges and adhesives. Bridges serve as a go-between for one-off projects, facilitating collaboration with minimal disruption to normal operations, whereas adhesives help build mutual understanding and more long-lasting relationships. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, 133.

[17] Deming, “Growing Importance,” 1595.

[18] U.S. Marine Corps, FMFM1 Warfighting (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1989), 70.

[19] Warfighting, 62-63.

[20] CPG, 2

[21] John Kroger, “Chief Learning Officer: Reporting Aboard,” Marine Corps Gazette (Oct. 2019), WE1-WE2,

[22] We specifically refrain from using the now almost trite term “talent management” since this term is oftentimes confused with a need for more bureaucratic mechanisms to centrally plan and manage officers’ careers rather than the removal of obstacles preventing a more optimal matching of officer skillsets to billets requiring them.

[23] Don Vandergriff, Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2015), 7.

[24] Deming, “Growing Importance,” 1598.

[25] Kat Bailey, “Talent Marketplace Assignment System Expands to All Officer Specialty Codes,” Air Force’s Personnel Center, January 31, 2019,

[26] Scott Maucione, “Army Begins Study to Change Its Talent Management System to Fit the Future,” Federal News Network, February 19, 2019,

[27] Nicholas Stoner and Alex Campbell, “Promising Talent Management Initiatives,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, August 20, 2019, In his CPG, Gen Berger introduces the possibility of developing one. See CPG, 7-8.

[28] See, for example, Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[29] Some significant work has already been done in this regard. See, for example, Peter J. Coughlan and William R. Gates, “Auction Mechanisms for Force Management,” in Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the US Armed Forces, ed. James E. Parco and David A. Levy (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press), 505-540,

[30] Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership,” 134-139.

[31] A parallel argument supporting the cultivation of such skills in our students relates to the importance interdisciplinary research and institutions that facilitate it (e.g., RAND in the 1950s). We hope to elaborate on this, and how one could capture synergies between interdisciplinary research and education, in another paper.

Featured Image: NAVAL STATION EVERETT, Wash. (Sept. 13, 2012) Aviation Administrationman 3rd Class Travis Clay, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), takes the Navy-wide advancement exam at the Commons at Naval Station Everett, Wash. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Robert Winn/Released)

Thinking for Seapower: Educating and Organizing for Intellectual Advantage

By Mie Augier and Nick Dew


In 1758 King Frederick the Great of Prussia battled Russian forces at Zorndorf, in the first major battle of the Seven Years War. In a desperate situation, three times the King sent a message to his youngest general Fredrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz: “Attack!” Seydlitz demurred, saying the time wasn’t right, his cavalry would be wasted. Finally the King sent a message that if Seydlitz didn’t attack immediately, the King would have his head. Seydlitz responded: “Tell the King that after the battle my head is at his disposal. But in the meantime, I will make use of it.”2

 “As an organization, we must anticipate changes in the operating environment and adapt to maintain an advantage. This can only be done by eliminating outdated personnel practices, adopting agile processes and continuously improving how we operate and fight, it is highly unlikely that the greatest naval strategists and leaders of our past … would be successful in todays’s bureaucratic environment. Simply put, the best naval strategists that our naval education enterprise can produce today will fail without improving the organization in which they operate.”–Education for Seapower Study Report3

Recent enthusiasm for critical and strategic thinking as part of a renewed focus on educating future generations of Navy leaders has rightly brought attention to the need for the Navy’s PME institutions to be agile and adaptive, and to the role of thinking and the education of thinkers. Preparing for the future fight means not just valuing agility in our officers, but also valuing agility in these vital organizations. It is important to consider several dimensions relevant to the recent discussions, including thinking about thinking, the importance of organizations, and what our educational institutions can do to better educate strategic and critical thinkers in the future.

An agile and adaptive response to the Education for Seapower Report (E4S) (as well as the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and National Security Strategy (NSS)) by our educational institutions can help meet the Navy’s educational goals by building critical and strategic thinking into curriculum, creating new curriculum concentrated on strategic leadership, and by helping inculcate desirable learning attitudes in officers to help them learn how to be lifelong learners. At the core of these initiatives is (re)emphasizing the teaching and nurturing of how to think rather than what to think, educating for judgment, and cultivating broad, curious, questioning minds – characteristics that are at the very core of critical and strategic thinking capabilities.

Some of these dimensions that are particularly germane to the E4S initiative need to be clarified. It requires putting E4S in the context of earlier debates within PME and naval education, as well as some relevant aspects from the civilian domain that are particularly suitable for educating for the ‘cognitive era.’

By integrating aspects of different institutional and intellectual approaches we hope to clarify some elements of E4S in the spirit of the interdisciplinary and integrative approach that E4S calls for. We make some concrete suggestions for how our PME institutions and the Navy can proactively emphasize (critical and strategic) thinking, as well as understanding the vital role of organizing itself in ways that capture and leverage those capabilities. Our objective throughout is aligned with the E4S goal of helping the Navy build and retain an intellectual competitive advantage that is likely to be central to its strategic competitiveness in the future.

The Character of the Contemporary Strategic Context

E4S can be understood as being a key product (along with the NSS and the NDS) of the current strategic context. All three documents emphasize some of the core dimensions of the current and likely future strategic environment that we (as a country as well as our PME institutions) ought to adapt to and get ahead of.

For the first time since the height of the Cold War the U.S. is realizing it is faced with adversaries that are providing substantive competition in many areas, ranging from big competitors who may rival our core strengths to smaller competitors who may not at first glance rival our strengths but may have studied our weaknesses. In the presence of multiple different threats our organizations need to be even more adaptive and flexible than in earlier periods when the threats were more concentrated and less diverse.4

In these kinds of situations, very successful strategies are two-edged swords because they tend to attract the most effort by rivals to mitigate them through imitation or countermeasures. This intensifies the competition further. In short, our rivals are also smart and we can expect that they will, like us, invest in becoming smarter.

It is in this context that E4S’ proposed investments in intellectual competitive advantage need to be understood. The Navy (and DOD in general) should expect that rivals will respond to E4S by ramping-up their own investments in education plus take actions that attempt to mitigate any advantages the Navy gains from implementing E4S. Competitors will furthermore respond with their own escalations of this capability.5

As a result, to win in the cognitive age it will not be enough simply invest in education as a means of creating an intellectual competitive advantage. Easy-to-imitate educational investments will quickly get matched or neutered by adversaries. If the Navy wants to develop more sustainable advantages, it will need both to invest in intellectual advantage, and combine it with ways of organizing that are not easy for adversaries to counter. These complementary elements will need to be built into the very heart of our organizational capabilities, not just as simple add-ons. Fortunately, there are some examples from the past that the Navy can draw on for inspiration.

Getting Thinking Right

Critical and strategic thinking is, and has long been, recognized as important topic within PME institutions. Key panels (e.g. the Skelton panel) and commissions have looked into this issue in the past and spurred reorganizations of PME to better educate thinkers. Furthermore, individuals engaged at all levels of our military institutions and organizations have used and been very aware of the importance of nurturing and leveraging thinking.

One outstanding example (of not just recognizing the importance of thinking but also organizing and educating for it) for the Navy comes from the reorganization of the USMC under Gen. Gray. Gray – who is mentioned on the first page of E4S – is well-known for restructuring the USMC for maneuver warfare and building it into the heart of the organization’s capabilities. This is an example of strategic leadership that specifically emphasized the role of thinking and judgment in the operating concepts and documents, and involved a substantial reorganization of the USMC to properly build and leverage thinking and judging capabilities. The transformation of the USMC of course involved other elements including significant debates in the USMC Gazette about these concepts (sometimes with strong arguments on all sides), an emphasis on free exercises and organizing after-action debates so that good ideas mattered more than rank, and protecting people with good ideas from being drowned by bureaucracy (usually organizations do the opposite).

A key element in the transformation was the emphasis on education, and Gray’s vision for thinking and judgement. As he noted:

“My intent in PME is to teach military judgment rather than knowledge. Knowledge is of course important for developing judgment, but should be taught in the context of teaching military judgment, not as material to be memorized…The focus of effort [of PME] should be teaching through doing, through case studies, historical and present-day, real and hypothetical, presented in war-games, map exercises, and table exercises, free-play, force-on-force ‘three day wars’ and the like…As education progresses…the material should grow more complex, but the essence should remain the same: teach officers and NCO’s how to win in combat by out-thinking as well as out-fighting their opponents.”6

An important insight about the nature of critical and strategic thinking skills the Navy needs to educate and inculcate comes from LtGen Paul Van Riper, himself a U.S. Marine, and the first president of Marine Corps University.7 Van Riper is, of course, well-known from the Millennium Challenge wargame for demonstrating the practical value of effective thinking.8 And he has important advice for the type of thinking that needs to be courted and what should be avoided:

“Considerable contemporary US military literature focuses on the need to develop critical thinking skills. Unknown to the majority of its proponents is the fact that critical thinking is a field dominated by analytical procedures. Systems analysis is at the core of many of these procedures. There are a number of organizations promoting critical thinking that endorse this analytic focus… [T]here are also numerous websites devoted to the subject that advocate analysis. I believe students need to be able to think critically, however they should shy away from the prescriptive methods advocated by those who champion a form of critical thinking building on…analysis.”9

Van Riper’s insights on the dangers of analysis (and the need for thinking) complements another well-known thinker in the defense field: Herman Kahn. Kahn, who in his era was widely viewed as a brilliant thinker,10 famously warned against some of the pitfalls detrimental to good thinking that can arise from over-relying on analysis.11 The evolution of Kahn’s thinking about thinking is a salutary tale for the PME world. In the 1950s Kahn became RAND Corporation’s top expert in Monte Carlo simulation (when he was hired his official title had been ‘computer’). But Kahn’s intellectual development ultimately led him to reject computational methods for thinking about the future, which “[C]ame to seem like precisely the wrong approach.”12 Among other elements, Kahn became highly critical of over-relying on models and neglecting model limitations. “Modelism,” as Kahn termed it, meant that analysts were in fact more interested in their model than the real world, which stunted their ability to actually understand the real world. Another favorite target of Kahn’s criticism was the use of statistical uncertainty as opposed to ‘real’ uncertainty. According to Kahn it is always real uncertainty that keeps commanders awake at night: “How many bombs will the enemy have? What size?…Secret bases? How good is he? Will his skill change? What surprises does he have? How good are we? …”13 Like Van Riper, Kahn’s example reminds us that in the PME world we must educate for problems that are analytically tractable where we can, but also educate for critical and strategic thinking that recognizes the inherent limitations and pitfalls of any particular analytical approach to problems.14

In a sense we shouldn’t be surprised at the direction these practitioner-thinkers point to for the kinds of thinking Navy leaders need to excel in. The etymology of critical thinking, for example, derives from ‘critic’, which means to judge or be able to discern. A study by the American Philosophical Association determined that core critical thinking skills include inference, evaluation, interpretation, explanation and self-regulation as well as analysis.15 This means that good critical thinking is a complex bundle of skills that amounts to much more than analytical adeptness alone. The same principle applies to strategic thinking.

We highlight these issues because of the importance of getting our thinking about thinking right in the PME community. Others steeped in the military profession have long emphasized that critical and strategic thinking is not synonymous with analytic knowledge or the use of analytic tools. Because of this distinction, there are important differences between educating good analysts and educating good thinkers. Understanding this issue is easier when remembering the roots and broader context for the recent calls for more critical and strategic thinking within the defense and PME communities. The aim is to broaden a student’s mind, nurture and stimulate curiosity, and develop sense of judgment. All these facets have been emphasized in reports about the recent E4S study.16

Active Learning to Develop Active Minds: The Role of Experiential Learning in the Education of Thinkers

“There are no specific set of disciplines that must be mastered to be a strategist. People who think strategically come from a number of different backgrounds. What seems central is a cast of the mind that is questioning, eclectic, able to address the broadest kinds of issues and goals and able to formulate appropriate ways of achieving those goals…A high tolerance for the uncertainty that necessarily accompanies any effort to think…is required. Turning to what kind of academic study or professional training might be useful, I would start with business school training…”–Andrew Marshall17

“[A] most urgent national security task before us today is to intellectually prepare our leaders for … uncertainty, by equipping them with a strategic framework of how to think about the future.”–Education for Seapower Report18

Having discussed briefly some initiatives and ideas that were useful thinking in the past, we continue with a few suggestions on how to educate with an emphasis on thinking for seapower. Our proposal is that developing active minds is best done through active learning approaches. Two that are particularly worth mentioning are wargaming and case studies.

The use of cases as a teaching method has an ancient history. Arguably, this approach has been used in PME at least since von Moltke encouraged debate of scenarios in the Prussian academies in the late nineteenth century (and, informally, probably much longer). In the Prussian academy model, students were posed with scenarios, invited to suggest solutions to them, and discussed these collectively. Students were expected to show initiative and disagreement was presumed, even with the instructor, who was understood to be a comrade among peers.

Cases have been widely adopted in business schools in the last several decades, where they likewise encourage a combination of student initiative, disagreement, and vicarious learning from peers. The case methodology can be adapted for much wider use within the PME community as well. A key idea in cases is to help students improve in how to think, not what to think. It can be difficult for educators used to professing (based on carefully manicured and planned slide decks) to adopt case teaching as it requires that teachers be comfortable with the vagaries of an evolving class discussion. However, cases come with a prime benefit in that they give students ample opportunities to practice thinking through difficult problems and issues, and debating and directly experiencing how their peers think about them. There few methods that give students as many opportunities to practice thinking for themselves on a diverse range of issues in a limited amount of time.

The general point of wargaming and cases is that both are methods of active learning. For sure there are also other methods of active learning (simulations come to mind). In our experience case studies are one that works very well, but we would also encourage PME institutions to experiment with alternatives in an effort to discover what methods are most effective. Cases can either be decision forcing (What are you going to do now?) or reflective (What went wrong? What would you have done differently?). Both work well and a mix is probably optimal.


We have elaborated some central aspects of educating and inculcating good thinking in future naval leaders, in line with E4S’ insights into future Navy competitive advantages. As noted, intellectual competitive advantages are subject to rivalry, and it would be naïve to think that U.S. rivals are going to sit on their hands and allow the U.S. to establish an uncontested lead in this area. Instead, we must think critically and strategically about how we educate for thinking, and anticipate that our rivals will compete vigorously in this domain, just as they are doing in others such as shipbuilding and advanced technology development.

E4S, in pointing toward the importance of thinking, ought to lead our PME institutions to reflect on how they can better educate for this key skill. How do their curriculums support this aspect of E4S and, in turn, the NDS and NSS? How can they better adapt to the Navy’s emerging needs, or get ahead of those needs? How can our PME institutions align their own internal thinking and organization to deliver the vision of E4S?19 Hopefully, such issues will be a central element in the development of the naval university system going forward.

Finally, in order to realize the potential of its intellectual investments, it is imperative for the Navy also to be organized to better leverage talented thinkers (both individual and teams) than our rivals are. This entails identifying ways to combine intellectual resources (which are largely replicable) with organizational capabilities that are hard for rivals to imitate. The way the Navy puts its intellectual assets to use depends heavily on these organizational factors. It will do no good to have the Navy’s exceptional strategic thinkers exhausted by the inertia of a Navy organization that is well adapted to yesterday’s strategic environment, but not tomorrow’s. This means that the realization of E4S depends on more than the Navy’s PME institutions delivering the education of tomorrow. It also depends on the Navy getting itself organized to best leverage the strategic thinking capacity its PME institutions help to deliver. It will take the coupling of both intellectual and organizational resources to generate the kind of competitive advantages the Navy seeks – ones that cannot be immediately imitated by rivals.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.


[1] We are grateful to the late Andrew Marshall for helping us shape our thinking on the topic and encouraging the writing in the first place; and to Gen Al Gray (USMC, Ret), Capt Karl M. Hasslinger (USN, Ret) and VADM Ann Rondeau (USN, Ret) for comments on earlier versions. Any remaining errors were produced without help. We also would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Andrew Marshall. His ideas and legacy gives us much to build upon and learn from in the future.  

[2] p.169 in Jörg Muth (2011) Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II.

[3]  Education for Seapower Study Report (E4S), p. 11-12

[4] In thinking about E4S it is also important to highlight the dynamic nature of this competition, and its implications. A defining characteristic of near-peer competition is that it is a state of continual rivalry in which any action one side takes to put themselves ahead in the competition is subsequently imitated or countered by competitors. Every solution becomes the rivals’ problem, which sets-up a competitive cycle in which leadership tends to be a temporary zero-sum game. The competition is ultimately defined by the capabilities of the competitors; their available organizational and financial resources, and the strategic choices they make about where to invest their scarce organizational and financial capital.

[5] In fact, some might say that our competitors for quite a while have emphasized the educational angle at least as much as we — e.g. Chinese upping educating and also having education as part of their country’s measure of national power. We can only hope that we are studying their educational initiatives well too (as understanding how opponents think is key to trying to understand and anticipate what they might do).

[6] Commandant of the Marine Corps to Command General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, “Training and Education,” October 10, 1988.

[7] Van Riper has reflected on his own experiences and the importance of education; see Paul K. Van Riper, “The relevance of history to the military profession:  an American Marine’s view,” in The Importance of History to the Military Profession, eds. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[8] Micah Zenko, Millennium Challenge: the real story of a corrupted military exercise and its legacy. War on the Rocks, November 5, 2015.

[9] Paul van Riper, 2013, “The identification and education of Army strategic thinkers”

[10] B. Bruce Briggs, Supergenius: The Mega-Worlds of Herman Kahn (New York, 2000). Kahn is the acknowledged father of scenario planning.

[11] Kahn and Mann, 1957, Pittfalls in Analysis.

[12] Williams, World Futures 2016, p.480.

[13] Ibid p.17

[14] Understanding wicked and genuinely ill structured problems takes thinking and synthesizing information from many different domains and angles; an approach perhaps best illustrated in John Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” lecture. 

[15] Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, Peter Facione, November 1989.


[17] Andrew Marshall (1991), “Strategy as a profession for Future Generations” (In “On not confusion ourselves: Essays on National Security Strategy” edited by A. W. Marshall, J.J. Martin and H. Rowen (Boulder: Westview Press)

[18] E4S report, p. 9

[19] This is an argument for another day – but examples of central reports that in the past inspired constructive change in educational institutions are the Flexner report in medical education and the Gordon Howell report in business school education.

Featured Image: A graduating student of the Eisenhower School at the National Defense University shakes the hand of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford. (NDU photo)

Innovative Thinking: The Role of Professional Military Education

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes

“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”1

– Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler


Last year we reflected on the topic of innovation in military organizations,and hinted at the roles of education in developing strategic leaders of adaptive organizations. In the light of current debates and senior DoD/DoN emphasis on education and critical and strategic thinking (including recent Navy initiatives and the newly released Education for Seapower report), here we elaborate on some aspects of the role of professional military education in more detail.3 

Our military organizations must organize for innovation and adaptiveness such as recognizing disruptive ideas and preserving innovators who learn from failures. This emphasis has important educational dimensions: Our educational institutions must nurture and support the kind of thinking so central to any adaptive organization.

Two of the most important roles of education are to help students learn how to think, not what to think, and appreciate that learning is a lifetime activity. Fostering innovative thinking and broad understanding will help them adapt to (and shape) the future as well as fight smart if conflict breaks out. Our PME institutions can learn from their own pasts in thinking about how to educate future strategic leaders. In addition, we now have key strategic documents (National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the Education for Sea-power report) that PME institutions can orient toward when revising their educational programs and research to help undergird the national strategy in the future.

The Past as Prologue: Lessons from PME Institutional History

“War colleges … broaden the intellectual and military horizons of the officers who attend, so that they have a conception of the larger strategic and operational issues that confront our military and our nation.”4

– Admiral Stansfield Turner

“History for history’s sake is of no value to us. What is of value is the ability of our faculty to use whatever is necessary to educate officers to solve complex problems, manage change, and execute their decisions. This demands an extraordinary degree of mental flexibility and intellectual agility on the part of our faculty, whether they come from the world of practitioners or from the more traditional academic environment.”5

-VADM Ronald Route, former president of the Naval War College, 2004

Our PME institutions have rich histories and there is much to learn from studying them and incorporating them into our education.6 A major lesson is the tension between emphasizing “ready now” and “educate for future environments.” Such tensions also exist in other professions and professional schools; Herbert Simon saw the problem as one that needed constant attention because it involves integrating different (and sometimes opposing) forces, like mixing and stirring oil and water.7 Medical schools educate for medical practice while also doing fundamental research to improve the broad knowledge central to the future of the medical profession. The two sides – rigor and relevance – should not be thought of as opposites, but instead must be seen as two sides of the same coin when dealing with professional military education in order to facilitate interdisciplinary, empirically driven insights and understandings, concepts, and practice. Such integration can be achieved through emphasizing thinking and judgement. We need officers and enlisted to be able to conceptualize competition, conflict, and battle with active and open minds.

A brief overview of some major events in the institutional history of PME will be helpful:

PME began in Europe but by the late 19th Century it came to the U.S. with the founding of the Naval War College (1880). The establishment of the Army War College (1901) and Naval Postgraduate School (1909) helped channel the educational upgrading of officers.8 For instance, the first NWC president, Stephen B. Luce, saw his institution as a “place of original research on all questions relating to war, and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.” Its early curriculum combined intellectual rigor and practical relevance.

Changes in the 1980s and 90s were fostered by the Goldwater Nichols Act and the Skelton Panel. The Skelton panel in particular recommended that despite finding many courses and programs and faculties to be “excellent,” “the existing PME system must be improved to meet the needs of the modern profession at arms.” Ike Skelton saw officer learning and education as a lifelong process, and that studying military history was central to it.9 The report’s recommendations included upgrading the quality of civilian and military faculty and improving thinking and jointness.

Each PME school evolved and adapted differently to societal and institutional changes. General Van Riper describes how the Marine Corps, led by the Commandant General Gray, underwent a comprehensive transformation to reemphasize education, including reading and learning outside one’s specialty, and building strategic and critical thinking into the organization.10 Gray noted the importance of ideas over rank or titles in the debates, aiming to instill in young Marines the courage to think differently, and to learn from failures, not fear them.11 Gray’s educational vision also led to the founding of the Marine Corps University, intended to emphasize thinking and judgment. The recent Education for Seapower report fittingly begins with a quote from General Gray, and it also notes the importance of his educational efforts as relevant today.

We mention this not to show that all was great in the past but to indicate that there is much we can learn from institutional experiences in focusing on the future. With this in mind, here are two observations to aid educating and retaining innovative thinkers:

  • There was room for innovative and strategic thinkers in the past in our PME institutions; both from inside and outside the system (without trying to imitate businesses such as Google). For example, John Boyd’s “Patterns” briefings as well as Bill Lind’s efforts and writings influenced the development of maneuver warfare in the USMC and somewhat less directly, AirLand Battle in the Army.
  • Cultivating and retaining innovative thinking requires forceful leaders. They challenge the status quo, and are vital to an organization’s ability to adapt. They are also not always right. Creativity includes the ability to fail, and learn, and not be punished. No-defect cultures kill creative thought.12

Over time educational institutions (like all institutions and organizations as they grow and age) tend to become routinized. A culture of normalcy crowds out ideas and people that “don’t fit.” Having discussed some of the institutional aspects needed to improve education for strategic and innovative thinkers, the next section touches on some of the intellectual and methodological aspects.

Successes from the Past as Lessons for the Future

Developing active minds is best done through active learning. Mental agility is cultivated through case studies of military history and participatory learning, for instance through free-play exercises and wargames in order to help teach thinking and judgment. Case studies and gaming are examples of active learning methodologies to help students think through uncertainties and ambiguities of the future, helping to create an organizational culture for continuous innovation and adaptation in peace and in war.

Gaming helps to imagine possible futures that participants and students live through and learn from. Wargames do not produce precise predictions of what will happen, but they expose officers to similar patterns, supporting their understanding of expected or unexpected situations and their intuitive decision making. As Nimitz said about the value of wargames: “The war with Japan had been [enacted] in the game room here by so many in so many different ways that nothing … was a surprise except Kamikaze.” Nimitz said wargamed conflicts during his NWC years “more than any other experience” prepared him for wartime command; as he noted: “The enemy of our games was always Japan, and the courses were so thorough that after the start of WWII – nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected. …I credit the Naval War College for such success I achieved in strategy and tactics in both peace and war.” There were, of course, many surprises at the operational level such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Nimitz wanted to emphasize how vital wargaming was to prepare the fleet to adapt to Japanese success while preparing the USN and USMC to take the offensive.

Wargames have played a crucial role in experimentation and testing new ideas without going to sea; thus they serve as a first step beyond innovative thinking toward adoption and implementation.13 Gaming and experimenting at sea both contribute to adaptiveness of military organizations, allowing them to perform with existing capabilities and learning what new ones must be added.

PME applies at all levels. Although most commentators implicitly or explicitly emphasize PME for mid-level and senior officers, professional military training and education is also important for junior officers and petty officers. By far the biggest part of CNET and the Navy training establishment is devoted to current effectiveness. Seamanship and safe navigation are an important part of the effort. We believe, however, that attention should be devoted to how to think: To stimulate curiosity, broaden minds and help develop innovative thinking to anticipate future environments of conflicts, the attributes of new enemies, and anticipated technologies to employ or confound. An advantage of training and educating the best junior officers and enlisted men is that they have not yet become encumbered by the cautiousness embedded in many senior officers. The Navy and Marine Corps must nurture innovative thinking at all levels. The graduate education program at NPS is for junior officers. Here educating for future change is an important part of education.

PME for senior officers is centered on mental activity. Combat is in the domain of physical activity. A characteristic of current combat is its very short time constant, which is wholly different from the more leisurely pace seen in strategic planning and technological development. Response to a missile attack must be almost instantaneous. Preparation for swift deployment takes thoroughness and foresight.

Because this preparation for operations in peace and war is mostly in the domain of physical activity, education extends beyond the schoolhouse. Shipboard training, wargames, and training on simulators, all can help shape the mental and intellectual ability to understand and conceptualize conflict. One of the first applications of simulations was the early development of flight trainers.

Because PME education must foster curiosity it cannot be reduced to recipes or checklists. Its benefits are often intangible—instilling attitudes of inquiry and curiosity that include:

  • The development of future strategic leaders. There is now a recognition that the education of strategic and innovative leaders is paramount. Our recent Defense Secretary James Mattis is a product of this; as General Van Riper noted, reflecting on his own time as president of MCU and the educational reforms General Gray launched “the work to overhaul professional military education continued under the sure hands of others …. Perhaps no better manifestation of the results the Commandant anticipated exist than the performance of the senior Marine commanders, Lieutenant General Jim Conway, and Major Generals Jim Mattis and Jim Amos, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”14
  • Identifying innovative leaders. There is rarely room in large organizations to cultivate creative thinking by everyone. Some officers are better at reliable execution. It is hard for both to shine, and for leaders to become aware of the contrasting talents. PME can both help enable students to sharpen their thinking; stimulate their curiosity and creative instincts; and help them think how to use this to make their institutions more innovative, for instance through thesis work. It can also help them recognize the uses (and limitations) of analytical thinking versus critical and innovative thinking and how to apply both in appropriate ways in the strategic and operational contexts in their futures.

Having discussed some chronology and themes relevant in the past for the present debate, we turn now to a few specific actions to refocus PME toward the future.

The Education of Future Innovative and Strategic Leaders

“PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity. We will emphasize intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors. PME will emphasize independence of action in warfighting concepts to lessen the impact of degraded/lost communications in combat. PME is to be used as a strategic asset to build trust and interoperability across the Joint Forces and with allied and partner forces.”

– National Defense Strategy

Educating leaders who understand the changing challenges and can adapt to them requires an educational environment that enables growth intellectually and professionally through rigorous and relevant education and training. While the National Defense Strategy recognizes problems in current PME, it also gives us commanders intent for how to improve PME to make it a national strategic asset again. Together with the National Security strategy, as well as the Education for Seapower report, these documents provide themes and insights into the likely trends in the future security environment for our PME institutions to orient toward in both research and education. Themes should include the following elements.

Organizational adaptiveness. The ability to respond to the unexpected is central to organizational resilience (as is emphasized in the NSS). History, case studies, broad reading, and wargaming help deal with unexpected futures. Together with the cognitive and attitudinal skills needed to think critically, students will widen their horizons, learn to recognize trends, and anticipate changes in the security environment and adapt to them.

Peace through Strength. There is an emphasis in the NSS to preserve peace through strength as well as ability to achieve surprise if needed.15 Our PME institutions must teach future strategic leaders to understand how our competitors understand the world through their eyes. This often means leaving the comfort of our analytic frameworks and theories; but what we lose in analytic application, we gain in insight.

Organizational and operational capabilities. Long-lived forces must be adaptable in time of cooperation, competition, confrontation, and conflict. They must be able to confront competitors of various sizes and in various kinds of unfriendly territory. Future leaders and decision-makers must know both how to contain intense but short conventional wars as well as fight in extended, low intensity conflicts.16

Avoid over-dependence on high tech. As an example, GPS jamming is likely if we face near-peer competitors so old school tactics must be part of combat training. We must also prepare for cyber warfare. As another example, artificial intelligence will be embedded in future near-peer warfare, but its methods are best inculcated as an extension of human intellect, not a replacement for it. Third, in exploiting unmanned and robotic vehicles, high technology should be avoided when tasks can be accomplished by small, inexpensive, single-purpose units deployed in large numbers.

Heretofore we have shown ways PME rewards students. Other lessons apply to faculty activity and curriculum development. For example: interdisciplinary and holistic problem solving and collaboration is increasingly relevant (as is the need for faculty research across disciplines and departments with an eye for applying their research and teaching to issues relevant to national defense).17 This is increasingly so as the problems we confront become more complex and ill-structured (‘wicked problems,’ in the jargon of the day). Our best leaders emphasize and understand unstructured problems. Understanding them (and their possible solutions) usually entails cooperation between faculty in several departments or teams of officers from several different professional disciplines and perspectives. The emphasis on interdisciplinary research echoes insights expressed earlier by Herman Kahn, Andrew Marshall, and James Schlesinger that emphasized interdisciplinary strategic thinking with warnings against “modelism” and “toolism” approaches. They also recognized the importance of history and of educating and researching for national defense, not contributing to textbook civilian approaches.

Actions to help achieve PME Excellence

“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”

– James Mattis

PME must foster broad thinking and encourage curiosity.18 A fundamental aim of graduate education is to provide mental frameworks that foster wide-ranging exploration, a willingness to take risks, and a resolve to learn from and overcome failures. Top Navy and Marine leadership must promote innovators in peace and war.

In addition to helping to achieve the education of innovative leaders, military education must help re-invigorate all military institutions and re-energize Service culture. PME should support the National Defense Strategy that emphasizes readiness to execute now at the same time it explores alternative futures and possible future changes. One must build forces that operate in the present, but because most Navy ships and aircraft have 25 to 40-year service lives their long-term suitability must be checked against prospective geopolitical and technological futures.

Our recent Secretary of Defense had a clear vision to foster change, providing inspiration for the decades to come. He wrote, “we must shed outdated management and acquisition practices, while adapting American industry’s best practices. Our management structures and processes are not engraved in stone” (Mattis, 2018). Military administration and educational motivations need to be as adaptive and flexible as the most successful, swiftly changing, private corporations.19

Successful education inculcates attitudes and a talent for lifelong learning. As the Education for Seapower report notes: “a most urgent national security task before us today is to intellectually prepare our leaders for … uncertainty by equipping them with a strategic framework of how to think about the future … gained through a continuous, lifelong process of learning” (p. 9).

Finally, education of our most innovative leaders is important both for executing the current national security strategy today, and for preparing future generations to adapt quickly and effectively so we won’t be caught in a catch-up mode.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement he has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the U.S. Naval Institute.

We are grateful to VADM Ronald Route (ret.), Andrew Marshall, Chris Nelson, and General Alfred Gray for comments on early drafts, and helpful suggestions. Any remaining errors were produced without help.  


1 Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler

2 See

3 See, for instance, “Service Leaders Rethinking Navy and Marine Corps Education” (USNI news; Other recent documents discuss the need for critical thinking skills as requirement for Navy officers. We shall refrain from trying to define critical thinking here; though we do want to note the importance of not defining it as “kind of like” one’s favorite topic or approach or discipline. There are decades of research on critical thinking and how it helps facilitate learning that we respect. In the context of PME, the most important aspect of critical thinking is the ability to think critically about strategy and strategic thinkers in order to develop better leaders. General Gray’s founding of MCU (Marine Corps University) and overall vision for PME was very much in the spirit of education for critical thinking and the importance of judgment. Additionally, when applying critical and strategic thinking to educating for seapower it is essential to not just ‘import’ a civilian approach and/or study well structured problems (Van Riper has elaborated on this).

4 Cited in Sinnrich & Murray (eds): The Past is Prologue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 9.

5 Naval War College Review, 2004.

6 Many of those echoes of past debates are as relevant now as ever. For instance, Scales; question on ‘are we too busy to learn’ (USNI Proceedings, Feb 10, 2010), and his recent book, “Scales on War”, also taking on important discussions on the human dimension in war.

7 See, Herbert A Simon (1967): The Business School: A problem of Organizational Design. Journal of Management Studies.

8 Our PME institutions have not been without flaws; sometimes too drawn to the lure of the individual disciplines (which, as Andrew Marshall reminds us, can produce “trained incapacity” for strategic and innovative thinking). Another danger (which Scales reminded us in his piece ‘too busy to learn’) is that war is “not a science project”; calling attention to the need behavioral and social science in thinking about war and conflict (also see Scales, “On War” book for elaboration).

9 Skelton said: “It is a process of education, study, reading and thinking that should continue throughout an entire military career. Yes, tactical proficiency is very important, but so too is strategic vision. That can only come after years of careful reading, study, reflection, and experience”.

10 Paul K. Van Riper (2006): The relevance of history to the military profession: An American Marine’s view. In Murray and Sinnreich (eds) (2006): The Past as Prologue: The importance of history to the military profession. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press.

11 Van Riper (2002) noted in looking back at the importance of this emphasis: “Leaders at all levels welcomed ideas; ranks of the authors of innovative notions mattered little. What counted was the ability of new thoughts to prove their merit in wide-ranking, open debates in service schools and journals” (Van Riper, “Preparing for War takes Study and open Debate”, Proceedings, Nov. 2002).

12 Another trap to avoid is excess supervision; as the Marines recognize in FMFM-1: “We cannot rightly expect our subordinates to exercise boldness and initiative in the field when they are accustomed to being over-supervised in the rear” (p. 65).

13 Though we don’t elaborate on it here, equally important as an active learning tool is case studies, as emphasized by Gen Gray, including in his upgrading of USMC education, and founding of MCU.

14Van Riper, 2006, p. 51. The emphasis on active learning and thinking is also embodied in core documents / ‘how the organization thinks’ too. E.g. “Professional Military Education is designed to develop creative, innovative leaders” (FMFM-1)

15 As noted: “China and Russia challenge American Power, influence and interests attempting to erode American security and prosperity. … at the same time, dictatorships of DPRK and Iran are determined to destabilize religions, threaten American people and our allies, and brutalize their own people”.

16 There is a need to think about the possible big changes coming, not just militarily but the larger shift towards Asia in terms of economies. Another possible big change is the likely far away areas of possible conflict (further away than Europe was our earlier focus), together with possible widespread use of anti ship ground based missiles. If over time, there are more areas where our surface ships will be in danger. How does that influence the balance of power between competitors, large and small?

17 At NPS, interdisciplinary problem solving and understanding is emphasized, for instance, through individual curricular and active learning approaches (including case studies and war gaming); faculty collaboration across specialties; research on department of defense problems; thesis work, and special initiatives (such as the CRUISER program) that have rapidly and efficiently advanced the state of the UAV technology and tactics. A national defense focus can be encouraged even more by having faculty focus their research and educating to focus on supporting E4S/NSS/NDS.

18 As the Education for Seapower report notes: “we must educate leaders who have the skills required to solve problems that cannot even be imagined today” …. “This will require an educational system that looks to the future as well as the past, which is agile enough to adapt as new problems are identified, and that will help us understand them. It is a system that must be built on the insatiable curiosity of naval professionals, both operators, professors, and researchers alike” (p. 13).

19 As also noted in the Education for Seapower report: “As an organization, we must anticipate changes in the operating environment and adapt to maintain an advantage. This can only be done by eliminating outdated personnel practices, adopting agile processes and continuously improving how we operate and fight, It is highly unlikely that the greatest naval strategists and leaders of our past … would be successful in todays’s bureaucratic environment. Simply put, the best naval strategists that our naval education enterprise can produce today will fail without improving the organization in which they operate” (p. 11-12).

Featured Image: The Thinker in front of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)