Renny McPherson has a thought-provoking article in the Boston Globe about why the military may not be producing enough innovative leaders such as General David Petraeus. McPherson argues:
Petraeus may yet be hailed for saving the day. But he also got a new boss and moved one step down the chain of command. How does this happen to the best our military has to offer? Why was there no other general to take the job?The short answer is that the US military has failed to produce enough leaders like Petraeus--the kind of broad-minded, flexible strategic thinkers needed to lead today’s most difficult missions. And a large contributor to this failure is the military’s inflexible system of promotion, which can actively discourage young officers from getting the mind-expanding, challenging experiences that could turn them into potent generals.
McPherson explained the major conclusions from interviews with 37 top military leaders, who were provided assurances of anonymity when they commented:
Given a guarantee of anonymity, they talked openly about the experiences that had helped them become better strategic thinkers. They reported that most beneficial experiences--sustained international experience, civilian graduate education, and taking on special opportunities out of the military mainstream--were the very ones that they felt discouraged from pursuing. As one interviewee said, ”My career has been an aberration. I am surprised I’ve achieved up to this level.”
What's the lesson for companies interested in developing future leaders? Mind-stretching assignments may be "off the beaten path" at times. They may involve multiple lateral moves, different kinds of educational experiences, or assignments to smaller, seemingly inconsequential - yet highly innovative - parts of the business. They may not be on the usual "career track" for managers. However, such challenging, unconventional experiences may be just the right type of diverse experiences required to develop an innovative and creative leader of the future. When charting the career path for a "high potential," the question is not just how to enhance the skills required to climb to the next rung on the corporate ladder. The key is also to think about broadening their perspective and enhancing their critical/strategic thinking skills for the long haul.