Learning Leadership Army Style

In 1993-94, I spent enough time with the Army to appreciate how much it focused on learning. As one colonel said, "We figured out that it's better to learn than be dead."

But until recently, learning occurred within a culture of command and control, in carefully structured and formal processes. According to a January 2005 article by Dan Baum in the New Yorker, officer training had become so bureaucratic that it was encouraging "reactive instead of pro-active thought, compliance instead of creativity and adherence instead of audacity."

Then came Iraq, where the enemy is constantly changing tactics and developing new methods for killing our soldiers. In this volatile environment, traditional processes for capturing lessons learned are too slow. Soldiers need instant knowledge about what just happened to a fellow soldier in Faluja or Baghdad.

Because soldiers are in constant electronic communication, they are able to create virtual communities of practice. Soldiers can share knowledge instantly, in the midst of battle even, rather than waiting for information from the chain of command. As a result, many tactics and responses now come not from Army doctrine but from immediate firsthand experiences.

The pre-eminent virtual community of practice is, launched in 2000 by Nate Allen and Tony Burgess, company commanders based in Hawaii who spent evenings on the porch sharing stories and lessons learned. Realizing the value of these conversations, they set up an informal website to extend these to other company commanders.

By 2004, membership exceeded 10,000 and the Army, assessing the value of this community of practice, brought the site in-house. The Army chose to support the site rather than to shut it down, even though it meant relinquishing control and ignoring training protocol. Today, CompanyCommand is in widespread use and has spawned additional sites focused on specific weaponry or personnel needs.

In Iraq, the capacity for generating real-time, collective intelligence is essential for survival. It also has changed the nature of learning and battle tactics in a large hierarchical system. CompanyCommand is a brilliant example of how a conversation begun on a porch catalyzed connections and demonstrated real results that emerged as a system of influence focused on learning rather than command and control. Educators, take hope.

— Margaret Wheatley