Why Some Army Colonels Won't Make the Cut for Command in New Assessment Course

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Several news organizationsparticipate in a teleconference media roundtable.
Several news organizations in and around the Pentagon participate in a teleconference media roundtable Jan. 23, 2020, with (from left) Maj. Gen. John Evans Jr., Maj. Gen. JP McGee and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, (U.S. Army/ Eric Pilgrim)

FORT KNOX, Kentucky -- As the Army overhauls its process to select colonels for brigade command, officials are acknowledging that some officers who might have slipped through the previous assessment process without raising a flag might now get turned back as unready.

And that’s a good thing, they say.

The service’s newest leadership assessment course, designed to dissect the personalities and leadership styles of hundreds of colonels and decide "who's ready or not ready" to become brigade commanders, will kick off its first class this fall.

In mid-September, about 350 lieutenant colonels and colonels will go through the Colonel Command Assessment Program (CCAP), a five-day course that is part of a bold Army initiative to redesign how senior leaders are selected for key command positions.

Identified by a roster number, candidates will leave their past physical and military skill accomplishments behind to face a range of tests to assess their physical fitness, intellectual prowess, psychological makeup, communications skills and strategic thinking.

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They will then go before a special panel for a chance to prove themselves worthy of command.

"We go through psychometric testing, we go through a psychological interview with the candidates, we have a writing assessment. We watch them in different things such as the strategic leader exercise, and we have all of these observations ... so all of this information is put together and then it really becomes crystalized in what we are calling the Army Comprehensive Talent Interview," said Maj. Gen. JP McGee, director of the Army Talent Management Task Force.

Candidates will sit alone at a desk, shielded from sight by a large black curtain in an attempt to eliminate the unconscious biases of a judging panel made up of a major general, two brigadier generals, two former brigade commanders and a non-voting sergeant major. Panel members don't know whether the candidate is a Ranger School graduate with multiple combat deployments or a tech-savvy cyber operator.

The informal practice in military senior officer promotion boards was recently described in a Rand Corp. study as "ducks pick ducks," meaning board members tend to select officers whose career accomplishments reflect their own experiences.

At CCAP, as well as BCAP, panel members judge candidates solely on how they perform during the week-long assessment; there’s little opportunity to rest on previous experiences or decorations such as the coveted Ranger Tab.

"They are able to figure out whether this is someone who is ready for command or not ready for command based on all of that information that is gathered up to the interview and then information that is further explored in the interview," McGee said.

CCAP is similar to the new Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP), which ran its first class in January and selected 660 out of a total of 750 candidates as ready for command.

The BCAP panel identified 90 officers as not ready for command -- about one-eighth of all candidates -- in some cases because they were deemed counterproductive or toxic leaders, McGee said.

Toxic leadership is an entire spectrum of behaviors ranging from traditional abusive conduct to erratic or incompetent behavior that often leads to ineffective performance, Melissa Wolfe, a senior research psychologist for the Center for Army Profession & Leadership, told Military.com.

"Our organization was tasked with finding the parameters of what is toxic leadership and what we found [is] that ... everyone was susceptible to it," she said. "It wasn't just this core group of evil people; all of us are able to exhibit these behaviors."

The key is the frequency that an individual exhibits these behaviors, Wolfe said.

"So, if you fly off the handle one day in the [tactical operations center], that does not mean you are a counterproductive leader," she explained. "It means you have had a bad day. This is about if you are consistently employing these behaviors to accomplish goals."

Toxic leadership traits in candidates would be indicated in "peer and subordinate feedback, it would be confirmed or denied in the psychological and psychometric testing, it could come out potentially when they ran the leadership reaction course -- we saw that in BCAP -- and it would come out again in some form or fashion in the interview," McGee said.

"I think the thing that is interesting when we are talking about toxicity, for the majority of those officers who were determined not ready for command because of toxicity, it was straight and unanimous that that officer was not ready for command," he added. "Five experienced professionals said, 'This is who should not go in command.'"

Other candidates who did not make the cut for command in BCAP were identified as "high-executive risk," McGee said.

"The high executive risk doesn't mean that they scored low in the IQ test," he explained. "It's a combination of factors that would say that, not only do they have low levels of cognitive ability, but it also manifested itself as not having enough coping skills ... so there are plenty of leaders at multiple levels who aren't the most brilliant, but they develop great coping skills in terms of how they delegate and work with people."

Again, McGee said, this would show itself in the cognitive/non-cognitive assessment; peer and subordinate feedback; the interview process; and through psychometric testing, which involves a standard scientific method used to measure an individual's mental capabilities and behavioral style.

"There was never just one thing; it was generally always multiple things," he said.

There is also a chance that candidates won't meet the Army height and weight standards during in-processing or fail the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) on day one. Passing both is necessary to be deemed ready for command.

Under the current Centralized Selection List Process, soldiers are only required to sign a form stating that they can pass an APFT and meet the height and weight standards, Army officials said. The soldier's last recorded APFT score will be listed in their personnel file.

After testing, "We know they meet the standards for height, weight and [physical fitness], they are better communicators and they will not have the negative attributes ... that lead to less than productive organizations," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin, who received a briefing from CCAP cadre on Tuesday, told Military.com.

But receiving a not-ready-for-command judgment at CCAP is not a death sentence for a colonel's career, Martin and McGee stressed.

"You have the opportunity to come back the next year and compete," Martin said. "And if you are truly self-aware and you think about what happened during the assessment and truly reflect on your previous experiences in your career, you've got the opportunity to improve upon that."

CCAP does not share detailed findings with a candidate's command, McGee said.

"All we tell their chain of command is they were not ready for command," he explained. "We don't give them a reason because we don't want to give them stigma of 'Hey, this person wasn't ready for command because of toxicity' because all of the sudden it's 'good luck getting a fair shake in that senior leader's eyes.'"

As in BCAP, all candidates will likely be given the opportunity to sign up for leadership coaching, McGee said, adding that most of the BCAP candidates who did so were selected for command.

"The people who were the lowest in terms of accepting coaching were those who were determined not ready for the command," he said. "You would think, if you are not ready for command, you would want to do some coaching to get better, but maybe there is a linking between the reason why you are identified as not ready for command and your unwillingness to take coaching."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: New Army Assessment Aims to Reduce Bias When Choosing Colonels for Command

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