27 May 2017

The Top 5 Lessons I Learned at SAMS

by Major John Gallagher

The past year has been a great one for me. After years in the salt mines (KD time), I had the opportunity to attend the School of Advanced Military Studies, or SAMS, as a field select.

From the outside, SAMS was academically daunting. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but assumed it was a ton of reading and writing. Before KD time I served on the I Corps staff where I first worked with SAMS planners. Some were awesome. They could bring a team together in the most ambiguous planning situations and get things done. Others were not so awesome. They spent a lot of time lecturing, drawing on whiteboards, and being impressively unproductive. Overwhelming positive experiences on the I Corps staff strongly influenced the decision to attend SAMS. I hoped the course would help me to improve as a leader, officer, and planner.

My year at Fort Leavenworth exceeded every expectation. SAMS is an opportunity to deep dive into our doctrine, the theory from which it is derived, and the history that influenced key theorists. SAMS gave me the opportunity to gain a better understanding of people, networks, and systems. I learned new ways to think about problem solving through the lenses of complexity theory and organizational leadership. Though there is a ton of reading and writing, it was significantly less work than being an S3 or XO. I worked hard, completed all of the assignments, and still made it out of the library before 4 PM most days. The schedule gave me the opportunity to “rebalance” towards family time. Finally, SAMS provided the opportunity to interact with some of the finest military officers out there. The vast majority of the SAMS class was comprised of absolutely brilliant, humble, well-rounded officers who I’d fight beside in any war. Of all the reasons to work hard in the course, contributing to the discussion in my classroom was probably the most prominent.

SAMS was one of my top Army experiences. Though there are too many lessons to list, here are the top five lessons I learned in SAMS:

1. The role of history. Though I’ve always appreciated it, SAMS stressed history as a tool to understand the context of theory and doctrine. Rather than providing solutions to complex problems, history conditions the minds of military leaders. By studying history, military professionals gain an appreciation for some of the interdependent variables impacting a case study. In this context, studying history at SAMS allows planners to ask better questions when facing uncertainty or ambiguity. Each historical case study is a repetition that shapes a military professional’s way of thinking.

2. Science enables art. Though the Army Design Methodology and conceptual planning are important facets of the SAMS curriculum, the course reinforced the importance of detailed planning. You can draw big arrows on a whiteboard and quote Clausewitz until you’re blue in the face, but the course of action can’t be complete without the appropriate complement of relevant detailed planning. On big staffs, we often hand wave the details or revert to our “comfort zone” of detailed planning at the low tactical level (also not helpful). Good planning requires shared understanding enabled by clearly defining “the fights” (Corps Fight, Division Fight, Brigade Fight, etc).

3. Its okay to think before solving problems. Prior to SAMS, I thoroughly enjoyed the “hip shoot” or Leroy Jenkins approach to problem solving. I was experienced in snap decision making and would “knock down targets” in most situations rather than spend time thinking about them. In the back of my mind I felt that indecision or hesitation would be perceived as poor leadership. Although decisiveness is required in some situations, it certainly isn’t the correct approach for approaching complex or ill-structured problems. These problems require time and intellectual curiosity. SAMS empowered me with tools for addressing complex problems over time. One example is the monograph process, which required months of sustained research. Though not every planning effort will require the same amount of research as my monograph, SAMS has enabled me to solve complex problems over time through repetitions in research, refinement, and production.

4. No one cares how much you know if you’re arrogant about it. SAMS provides an excellent education, but planners can’t put it to use without humility and strong communication skills. No one enjoys an intellectual bully, someone who uses their knowledge as a weapon system or as a source of power. To be successful, SAMS planners must use their education in a way that enables others on the planning team to think and act. They distill key concepts from their SAMS education and integrate the principles into group planning sessions. Effective SAMS planners communicate clearly and succinctly, building shared understanding rather than trying to prove how smart they are through flowery and convoluted writing.

5. SAMS is about leadership. As an operational planner, senior leaders rely on your ability to bring a plan together, but they don’t except you to do it alone. The more perspectives you incorporate into the plan, the stronger it will be. This is more challenging than it seems when working on big staff. Good planning requires skill in organizational leadership, emotional intelligence, and communication. SAMS reminded me that everyone on an Operational Planning Team has something to offer. The role of the OPT leader is to recognize and encourage strengths within the team and unify action around the commander’s intent.

Though SAMS seemed like a daunting academic endeavor, it was one of the most rewarding years of my career. I highly recommend this experience to any field grade officers with time available following KD, or for junior Majors following ILE. SAMS is an excellent opportunity to gain insight in theory, history, and doctrine that shape the Army’s action today. It is a year with time to reflect on your career, work on your weaknesses, and increase professional capacity. Finally, SAMS is an opportunity to learn from some of the strongest up and coming leaders in the Army, sister services, and global partners.

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