‘An ethos of commitment to education:’ How WashU at Brookings teaches leadership to DoD, federal managers

This content is sponsored by WashU at Brookings.

The U.S. military has an acronym for the current state of the world: VUCA. It stands for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, now professor of practice for WashU at Brookings, said this is because the rate of change in the world “looks more logarithmic than arithmetic.”

That’s why leadership, mentorship and lifelong learning is so important for Defense Department leaders, both military and civilian, and across the federal interagency.

“Professions are defined by a number of elements that include a unique body of knowledge that applies to critical roles in a culture and an ethos or ethical belief system. Professionals are trusted by the culture that they serve because of their special expertise. Here at WashU at Brookings we are focusing on the professional ethos of a commitment to education and to lifelong learning,” Huntoon said of the curriculum.

Two of the ways that commitment manifests are certificates in public leadership and certificates in policy strategy programs. These programs both consist of courses that range from as short as one or two days, to as long as multiple months.

“They are connected indirectly and derivative of the executive core qualifications (ECQs) that are benchmark credentials for anyone in the U.S. government who wants to advance in senior leadership positions,” Huntoon said. “We regularly refresh our open enrollment and competitive educational programs given the extraordinary rate of change that we see in the world today, and we provide clear learning objectives and links to the leadership skill sets required in senior leader governance.”

For example, Huntoon said that WashU at Brookings recently held a two-day program on national security strategy. He said they brought in subject matter experts (SMEs) on every major region in the world to discuss current events and their connection to the National Security Strategy. Those SMEs included retired members of Congress, University professors, former or current members of the Executive Branch, particularly from the State Department and DoD, and even a former ambassador to NATO.

That’s one of the strengths of WashU at Brookings’s programs: It’s not a matter of teaching theory, but a matter of providing interactive learner engagement with access to field experts who possess both research-based information, as well as practical, applied knowledge and experience. It’s a mentorship model writ large.

“We have an extraordinary number of highly educated scholars. Just as importantly is the fact that they have worked and excelled in the subject matter which they teach. We have former members from cabinet-level to senior national staff with historic experiences in the National Security Council, across the interagency and particularly in the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community,” Huntoon said.

And that’s important for a program focused on teaching skills like critical and strategic thinking, national security policy, dealing with the uncertainty of rapid change and even managing governmental organizations through a crisis. Participants engage interactively and benefit from the experience of the SMEs, as well as from the rich governance experiences that they themselves bring.

The program can also involve local “staff rides,” where learners travel to Capitol Hill to spend time with congressional members and staff, and other stakeholders in the legislative branch. Staff rides can also be excursions to historical sites like Antietam or Gettysburg, where participants learn the leadership tactics employed by field commanders in the face of complex situations.

“Our teaching methodology is a hands-on, experiential learning approach that actively engages scholar and participant in a rich discussion of the strategic topic at hand. Our first-tier educators and practitioners are a rich resource here who focus on everything from teaching additional leader development skills to focusing on ECQs for those members of the military, both active or those who are transitioning to the civilian sector and may be interested in becoming a member of the Senior Executive Service,” Huntoon said. “We welcome all prospective participants who want to keep learning about this enormously changing globe and the actors in that dynamic international security environment.”

The certificate in policy strategy program includes additional elements of strategic thinking through case study examples and active class discussions. Huntoon said that includes looking at the national security strategy as it has evolved over the past seven decades. Participants compare the strategies from multiple years and multiple administrations, consider the major actors and their key roles in the process, and explore how that template for a coherent and consistent approach to national security policy has worked in different historic eras.

“We emphasize that since the beginning of a formal national security strategy program post-World War II, centered in large measure by the National Security Council staff process, by the size and makeup of its staff, and the relationships between the National Security Advisor and the White House, that there are major elements of policy continuity in the fundamental touchstones of U.S. national interests,” Huntoon said.

Learners also look at all the major policy stakeholders in that process to consider their different roles, guided by SMEs who have firsthand experience in the process themselves.

“Then we collectively discuss what it’s really like to both formulate and execute policy. And we talk about what it is like to manage events in a crisis, and about differences in organizational culture across the entire interagency to better understand how all the different elements of the government work together to produce a coherent security strategy for any administration,” Huntoon said.

“Here at WashU at Brookings we are committed to supporting government professionals who understand and gain from their lifelong commitment to learning, an essential task in this increasingly fast paced world of continuous change. Our innovative and expert team, complemented by the rich professional experiences of our participants, makes learning here an outstanding collaborative journey!”

For more information about WashU at Brookings’s curriculum, please visit https://washuatbrookings.org/.

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