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Retaining Good Talent Through Inspiring Leadership: A Discussion with Colonel Everett Spain
Episode 84th October 2023 • Inside West Point: Ideas That Impact • United States Military Academy at West Point
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Join us for another episode of Inside West Point: Ideas That Impact. In this episode, we speak with Colonel Everett Spain about leadership studies and inspiring leaders’ impact the on talent development. We discuss Spain's research on leader evaluations and retention patterns, highlighting the importance of creating a positive culture. We also touch on the role of battalion commanders in shaping future leaders and the significance of innovation and intellectual development. Additionally, we mention the importance of character and the ongoing research efforts within the department.  


Chapter Summaries;  

0:00:00 Introducing Colonel Everett Spain and the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership  

0:02:10 Spain's personal experience with inspiring leadership  

0:09:30 Addressing the challenge of retaining and inspiring young officers.  

0:11:57 The voluntary nature of command and the need for opting in.  

0:18:57 Introduction to the Army Talent Management Task Force  

0:23:05 Challenges and considerations in talent screening and selection  

0:27:38 West Point as the intellectual center of the U.S. Army  

0:31:13 Leadership and strategic thinking for junior Army leaders  

0:33:21 The importance of thinking strategically for lieutenants  

0:35:52 The influence of character in high-stress situations  

0:37:41 Leaving a legacy of positive impact on others  


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This episode does not imply Federal endorsement.       




Dean: [00:00:00] Welcome to Inside West Point, Ideas That Impact. I'm Brigadier General Shane Reeves, the Dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Through a series of discussions, we will show you a different side of West Point where we will make even our most complex initiatives accessible to broad audiences and give you an inside view to our cross-disciplinary work, which is being applied throughout the world.

nd Leadership at West Point. [:

I can't list them all, but a few highlights include service as a platoon leader and staff officer. where he was a member of the winning team of the 82nd Airborne Division's Best Ranger Competition. He also served as a captain in Germany, where he deployed his company on the initial NATO deployment into Kosovo, after which they were recognized with the Ischner Award, given annually to the outstanding engineer company in the United States Army.


Everett has a Doctor of Business Administration in Management from Harvard Business School, a Master of Business Administration from Duke University's Fuqua school and a bachelor of science in environmental engineering from West Point. Everett, thanks for being here this morning.

Col Spain: You're welcome, sir I'll give you 20 later for that intro.

Dean: I Appreciate it. so we're gonna talk about a number of things today, but really. The title is about developing and retaining good leaders.

Okay. And you've [:

I mean, just generally, what got you into this, work?

ears. The first one was very [:

It was clear he was focused on his own career. He wasn't good with or really have a deep love for soldiers and non commissioned officers. And then about six months later, a second battalion commander came in. His name was Bo Temple. He was about five foot six, didn't have a ranger tab, which was pretty unusual for a senior leader in 82nd at the time.

soldiers, he loved officers. [:

But wow, you just wanted to be like Colonel Bo Temple. The more senior officers in our, lieutenants in our unit gave them the nickname of the Bone Crusher. In a positive way. And we'd say the Bone Crusher's coming and everyone would get excited. So, one of them took energy, one of them provided energy and a great example.


Dean: army. . First off. How as a lieutenant or a young soldier your whole world Is is that battalion or squadron and how impactful that person can be?

on retaining talent or contributing to developing talent. My first battalion commander, my first squadron commander, very similar. Very, very inspirational. Made the job very fun. Exciting. We enjoyed it. It didn't feel as if it was work. You felt like you were part of something important. Was this Black Horse?

th [:

So we'll come back to the battalion conversation, but you took that inspiration and then you started to. to focus some of your academic energy into that. And so what, what published works I would ask, [00:04:48] are you most, you've done a lot, but what are you most proud of? And why?

Col Spain: I actually hope that's what's coming next. I'm grateful to have four cooking right now for publication. One of them we call Leaders Grading Leaders. Myself, Colonel Kate Conkey, Colonel Lolita Burrell, Dr.

per classes, our sophomores, [:

For example, sophomores are team leaders. Typically, juniors are squad leaders. Seniors can be platoon leaders or company commanders. Everyone has a job, and they're being evaluated A through F at West Point. But we're wondering how do you evaluate those folks. There's a one paragraph description of what a great leader is according to like an A grade and a B grade and a C grade for an average and maybe a substandard leader in some of the cadet documents.

hem all. Fifteen of them, or [:

And they talk about, hey, what is it when you see excellent leadership or you assign an A? What is it when you see a little bit below average leadership when you assign a C? And we're finding some really interesting results. We hope to have it published soon. Is it personal performance? Is it their subordinates performance?

Is it relationship you have with the graders? Is it their effort? Is it their attitude? Is it their, if they volunteer? What is it? So, stay tuned. That one's coming. That's

Dean: [:

Are they a relationship individual? Or are they a merit based person or is it both? I mean, that, that's pretty interesting.

Col Spain: One, one dynamic we did, we did in the article is for our 16 or so cadets, we had half of them from the bottom 20 percent of their, of the average military grade. In other words, their job grading, their leadership grade, and half of them in the top 20 percent of their leadership grade by random.

sir. And that is seeing how [:

Dean: Interesting. What are the, very briefly, what are the other, works that you have coming out here very soon?

Col Spain: So, you've seen a lot of articles in the military over the last 15 years. Or maybe, I'll call them op eds about, are the best and brightest officers staying in or getting out of the military?

tting Out, or Staying in the [:

So, we, we took 13 years of West Point cohorts, all of them. We operationalize what it means to be best and brightest. And then we measure those against retention patterns compared to their average performing classmate. And, stay tuned sports fans, we have the answer. Hopefully coming out soon. At a publication near you.

Dean: I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to wait by.

lot of our teammates is that [:

And we feel that way, frankly, professionally and personally. We can't really separate those perfectly, so our team has developed, is working on developing a 20 question scale where when done, it'll be validated so a leader can survey their formation and see if they feel like they belong or not.

we spend most of our lives. [:

So, this one is getting ready to be submitted for, for publication.

So that will be, that'll be [:

Yeah. Alright, so let me read you a quote. It's a, it's a quote that you cited but it's also from an individual who I hold in high regard from Secretary of Defense, at the time, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

class of West Point Cadets in:

The question was, he said, the greatest challenge facing your army, and frankly, [00:10:12] my main worry. And so he wrote that in 2011. Now, you recently published a, what is considered a very popular paper in the U. S. Army War College Journal of Parameters, titled, The Battalion Commander Effect. So, before going into the details of the paper, I, I really saw some, some parallels between what Secretary Gates asked in 2011, and where we are now 12 years later.

And the work that you're doing, it looks as if the work you were doing was somewhat trying to address his very concern. Is that true?

he Army to ensure we put the [:

It's unpredictable. Therefore, we need wonderfully educated, deep character based. Strong, caring, competent leaders to win our future nation's wars and defend our nation's cause of freedom here and abroad. So when you think about putting these leaders in front of formation, there's two parts of it, right?

Army right now, command is a[:

Dean: A lot of people may not realize that. So, let me just, let me rephrase that. So, if I am a the number one lieutenant colonel at the 101st, I can say thank you, but I would, I'd choose not to be, to compete for battalion

Col Spain: command. Yes, sir. As of today, you have to raise your hand and opt into the process.

e, oversimplified version of [:

And I would argue most of them that don't opt in are for those reasons. Some of those reasons are you're already selected for, let's use the battalion commander level. You're already selected for lieutenant colonel to be even eligible. So there's no transactional incentive to do so. You don't get additional rank.

ou don't get additional pay. [:

But transactionally, there's not a lot there. And at the same time, when family members you probably have high school age children, are very likely to. You might have a spouse with a certification that doesn't transfer. Well, and if you enter that battalion command [00:13:12] portal, or you say, I'm, I'm, I'm willing to compete, which we want our people to do, make no mistake, I want everyone to volunteer, actually.

I think that's in their best interest and the Army's and our nation's. But if you raise your hand, you enter that portal, all of a sudden, you have no idea, if selected, where you'll be in a year and a half. Now, we're doing a little better with it because now we just went to the one to N preference list.

ia. Now you can pick all the [:

So that's getting better. But I had a lieutenant colonel talk to me, or actually it was a colonel talking to me the other day from the soldiers he mentors, and he said, Yeah, Everett, if you opt into battalion command, it's an honor and it's awesome, but it's also five years of pain for your family. I was like, how's that?

you're going to be. So that [:

The second thing is after you command, there's three years expected of you. When you're in these former battalion command jobs, you have a war college zone in there. So you could have two to three moves. In the three years subsequent to battalion command. And those are just really painful years at a critical time in your family with high school age kids and working spouse probably with a certification by now that may be, not be state transferable.

opt in so we get that great [:

Dean: That's, so there's a lot to unpack there. And so let me back up a little bit. What drew you to studying battalion commanders and you're calling the battalion command effect, is it?

As you're saying these things in my head, I'm thinking, yep. Oh, yeah. Right. Like the timing is Yes, sir. Right at the point when you're probably at the highest level of personal stress, in terms of responsibilities, whether it's aging parents, whether it's kids in high school, whether it's a spouse's job maybe, maybe you yourself are ready to not move three times in a six year period, those type of things.

Give me a summary of what one of the most significant findings from the paper that you drew?

Col Spain: Sure, there are a [:

So, we can show empirically now with above a ninety, ninety five [00:16:12] percent confidence interval, I believe ninety nine, but I'll just say ninety five for now that that battalion commander is significant on that decision. So yes, battalion commanders matter. Now some matter to the, for the positive. Like my second battalion commander some matter for the negative probably like my first battalion commander Some don't matter because they might be just quote average but on average battalion commanders make an impact on that lieutenant's decision The second key thing we found was if you identified a high potential lieutenant's and there's lots of ways to do that but we identified about one third of all these officers and characterized them as high [00:16:48] potential due to a Due to some things that we can prove that These high potential officers, it matters more who their battalion commander was.

So a battalion commander has even more influence on the high potential officers. So if you, if you think about it, when you're a battalion commander, you should still lead assertively. You should do all the things you're going to do. And just realize, in addition, the context that you're the role model for those lieutenants.

. Lieutenant Colonel Reeves. [:

Dean: Do you think battalion commanders understand that, the impact they have on those lieutenants?

Col Spain: I don't know. I would assume that there are some officers that do.

And many that think, hey, I'm here to train these lieutenants, which in fact they are. They should also remember they're there to role model for those lieutenants. And part of that equals giving that, those lieutenants someone to look up to and to want to be like.

Dean: And inspire. Absolutely. Inspire those lieutenants.

this from obviously the, the [:

Col Spain: Sure, we, myself and our, my two co authors, Gautam Mukunda, a professor at Harvard. We hope this would be, have some external validity and be useful in Conoco or IBM or Walmart or wherever someone's working. Just the idea that I'm a [00:18:36] leader, my example matters to my subordinates beyond just how they do that week or that day, but also whether they intend to stay in my organization.

And if any organization can retain great talent, they're going to have a sustainable competitive advantage all day long. That takes on a, existential context for us in the Army, of course.

Dean: Yeah, that's, that is exactly right. So how would you relate this to your work as a senior advisor to the Army Talent Management Task Force?

doing with it? And then how [:

Col Spain: appreciate it, sir. So the Army Talent Management Task Force, was formed about 10, 12 years ago by that chief of staff of the army.

I forget who it was at the time, but it really got hyper, a hyper drive and a jet boost under general James McConville, his first year in the seat. And he had been come up a different route than most chiefs. He had been the G one in the army, the head personnel officer, head talent officer for the army.

rigadier General J. P. McGee [:

So we need to compete on people as our core. So we asked General McGee to, hey, can we transform our industrial age in very. Bureaucratic, but structured and very effective for many years, personnel system. Can we transform it into something that keep us in front of innovation for years and build the best [00:20:24] talent?

Before we even know even how to quantify that, he said, Hey, here, instead of, I don't want you to do a 10% change, jp, what I want you to do is a 10 x change to our personnel system. So we just unleash them as an organization that's external to two of our great organizations, army G one. And Army Human Resource Command as a little innovation cell that had some independence and had the Chief's backing.

In the personnel world, when, you know, I study and I've written about leading change.

ance, and there's individual [:

So it's always seen as taking someone's power, even though that may have nothing to do with the intent. It's just reorganizing how we're doing things. And so that person may feel offended and dig in and go personal on it. So yes, it could. If, if we want to innovate and be a people first army, including staying ahead of our competition, both known and unknown, it's got to be a spot where you [00:21:36] can take prudent risk as a leader and be backed up by your chain of command in the systems.

Dean: So, let me push on a couple of things on, on this. Is it possible the pendulum could swing too far? Or maybe there's a a belief in something that isn't playing out. So I'll give you an example. You mentioned earlier the number of, the ability to...

or timing in life, but is it [:

Move in and out of your groups, but realistically the type of person that is normally in the army You're your type A's are not gonna really that's not gonna be something They're gonna want to do because they're not gonna look to their peers and say I'm gonna be happy with them being promoted as I sit in this position.

I'm trying to see how these [:

Col Spain: Hey, sir. You're right on target Anytime you have a talent screening process, if you're not very careful, you're going to lose qualified candidates from opting into that system.

If you look at West Point Admissions, we've got a very complicated system. I've been on the admissions committee for years, and that may be a different conversation, but every part of that application is well meaning and has a purpose. But cumulatively, if you look at that system, we're three times as hard to apply to West Point as it is to Harvard University.


Dean: As we move into this era of competition, certain things are our advantages and certain things are disadvantages.

e an expeditionary army over [:

Character work on, so here, underlying character. But one of the, the most important characteristics is being willing to take risk. And so how do you incentivize taking risk if this is in the back of an individual's mind?

Col Spain: Well, when you want something to happen, you have to role model it.

ht? I appreciate you pushing [:

Dean: Yeah. Okay. What inspired you to take on your current lines of research?

Col Spain: So, you talked about innovation. Well, for me, in my role, if I can present a new idea in writing, that can trigger some significant conversation which can lead to some significant innovation.

cience or social sciences or [:

The faster we can do it, the faster we can innovate. And some other things about research I've learned through the years is research is really hard because you have to write something down and you can't go back and say what I really meant was. Or did you consider this? Or here's a defense against an attack on that idea.

t evaporate unless it's been [:

Also, it's fun to try to publish in peer reviewed. Now, a peer reviewed journal typically means that idea is sourced. Take your, your name and, and institutional affiliation is stripped off it. It's sent to two to three experts in that field. They comment on it and say, yes, it's worth publishing or it's not, or challenge you to make it better before they make that consideration.

And if you publish in a peer reviewed journal or book, that means the idea is solid. It doesn't mean it's a perfect idea, but it means it's solid and it's passed a certain level of scrutiny, which really says that innovation is worth thinking about. tried to publish in what we call open access journals.


So, I've been focusing on open access journals that people can read, because I want the sergeant and the captain and the colonel to be able to see my stuff. Another cool couple things about research and innovation is a little bit of immortality. Yeah, I'm a person of faith, but in this world, it gives you immortality in that your ideas [00:27:00] last forever.

Right. And therefore you last forever if you publish it. That's really kind of fun. Another thing is that it locks you in that immortality with people you love. All my co authors are people I care deeply about. I've been able to co publish and welcome onto my projects as people did for me early in my career.

Fifteen West Point junior faculty or so. And you get to spend time with them. You get to bat ideas with them. You get to try to improve the world with them. And then you're published together forever. So it ties me to people I love. And that's been a real treat in innovating through research.

Dean: A couple [:

And when we talk about innovation, innovation is oftentimes only thought through a technology component. But innovation means so many different things. And you're doing that just as you talk about some of the work that you're doing. So how about a, not a battalion commander, someone who was not a battalion commander, but an army leader that influenced you the most and why? Yeah.

Col Spain: Sure, a, sir, one of them was Command Sergeant Major Todd Burnett.

He was Command [:

He'd say, Sir, You got to care that much and he put his hands as far wide as he could reach on both ends just to create a big like two yard, three yard stick long. You got to care that much, sir, about your soldiers. So that stuck with me forever. You know, a couple of cadets inspire me, or many cadets. Thomas Moore and Levi [00:29:24] Bell, both rising seniors at West Point. KSL are the key summer leaders. In other words, they volunteered to lead in high places at West Point, even though leading your peers here, as we talked about, is not the easiest thing to do.

They volunteered to put themselves in that crucible. They helped lead the Elevation Initiative, a club I sponsor for people that want extra leader development. And when they have... Just three weeks ago, we were in a session together, and Levi and Thomas are asking, Hey, Not what do you want to get out of West Point, but what are you going to give back to West Point?

e. These are things that are [:

I mean, these guys are just incredible. They're just incredible.

he air and take that oath of [:

And so we have the, we have a great privilege of being here sitting on the academic board and and you lead one of the most impactful departments at the premier leadership institution. You happen to be. The head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. Where you focus on preparing cadets for the challenges that they'll face leading soldiers as you, as you just laid out.

one of them obviously would [:

directly impacts them as they walk out the door?

Col Spain: No, I appreciate that, sir. Good question. First of all, leadership is not necessarily related to rank. It's related to how much you care. You care about your country. You care about the army. You care about your soldiers. The second thing is Colonel Todd Woodruff and I recently published a an article called the apply strategic leadership process.

s we partnered with Columbia [:

And you know what? We couldn't find one At least it was simple enough for for us to understand. So he said hey, let's write one then Yeah, so he wrote a four step theory that's good for leaders leading strategically and no matter what level of a leader you are You're a strategic leader both in the context of your leadership matters you know if you're all alone in in Syria or wherever in a patrol base and [00:32:24] You are the America's, you are America's point of contact with whatever's going on.

It's just so impactful. But also it's strategic in that you're building leaders for tomorrow. Those privates, one of them is going to be the Sergeant Major of the Army. You know, your, your sergeants are going to be your next first sergeants. When you're a company commander, your lieutenants are going to lead battalions.

So you're just inspiring them and it helps you to look into the future with strategic leadership is really what it is. How do I lead my organization so a year from now it's where I want it to be?

Dean: This is quite interesting. So you're, this is, this is not something I would think the Army would have talked about.


Col Spain: Well, it's integrating a couple of things we've already talked about, sir. One of them is a comment I've made a couple of times to be at the nation's decisive point. And that was actually said by General Retired Scotty Miller former commander of the Delta Force and then commander of the four star level overseas and the [00:33:36] reality is any officer can be at that spot and they usually can't predict they're going to be there and they have to be prepared to do so.

Right? The, being at the end of a cell phone's camera, right, makes that even more likely with the advent of social media, etc. So, A U. S. platoon doing the right thing and making a hard decision under stress can have a very different effect than the opposite, right? A platoon doing what you would consider to be not a right thing at a, at a very important time in our, in our nation's history.

ext or characterization, but [:

So, absolutely, sir. You just, we have to have our lieutenants thinking strategically. And it's fun for them too. It enables them to stretch their minds and push.

Dean: You discussed character. What are some ways that you think, not just junior officers, but any officer, or really anybody, can start to help develop their character?

Col Spain: Hey, sir. Thanks [:

We, we look at character in a different way than it's been looked at before. If you think about, sir, this is a rhetorical question. When was the last time someone developed your character? Right? You're a general officer. If I ask myself that, it's not very often. And it's not because [00:35:24] people don't care about me.

But that's just not something in our culture that we develop senior officers character. And behind that is probably an implicit assumption that people's character... It's a little bit like radioactivity. It lasts forever. It never goes away, right? So any

Dean: sort of Or it's static. It gets static. Like at some point your character's

Col Spain: set and that's it.

Crystallized, right? And crystallized in a way that's high enough, right? That's high or strong enough. So that's an assumption we just turn over and we say we, we're gonna choose not to believe that assumption and assume that character has a half life and to do so we created this visual model of inside each of us is a character reservoir.

And [:

And so, The issue becomes in when you have a, a high stress character issue that you should rise to the occasional one, but there's a lot of reasons why, why you could fail. Do you have enough of a character built up in your VAD at that moment to make that decision? That's the model. Of course it's oversimplified, but it's a [00:36:36] visual to help us understand.

Our point of, of adding to the body of knowledge, we hope, is to conceptualize that model with leaks in it that you can never fully block. Yeah. Okay. You could slow it down the leaks a little bit, but they're always going to be there. There's things in the body of knowledge called ethical fading ethical fatigue, et cetera, to back these up.

. Right? How do you do that? [:

Mentor people in character directly, not just technical stuff for your organization, at all ranks, right? Read books on people with character. Take courses on character. Study and reflect on your own character. So all these things are ways you can invest in your own character and others under the concept of, if you don't pour in when they need it, it won't be there.

m, the military program, but [:

But our expectation when an officer walks out of West Point is that they demonstrate that character that you just described. So... What do you hope your impact is on the Army broadly when, when eventually it's time for you to walk away from service?

Col Spain: A friend of mine described it as your dash. You know, if you, if you look at a tombstone in a cemetery and we've got a really neat cemetery here at West Point that there's some legends in there.

nna pass and you have a dash [:

It sounds kind of it through research and that sounds a little bit selfish. Maybe that is or a little bit vain. Maybe that is at the same time. I I want to push and hope that I'm more humble and say, I'm not sure.

rth, I hope to be a positive [:

I hope to come to work every day and do good. To put my, my country and others before myself and my family before myself. Work as hard as I can for, for those, those teammates and call it a day. I study leadership as a lot of people do, and, and it's gotten, the basics have gotten simpler, right?

ng. The fundamentals are the [:

Those two things, if, if I can model those day in and day out, I'll feel like maybe my dash mattered, and whether I'm given credit for it or deserve credit for it, it's not really important. It's

what do I do when I become a [:

He said make sure it matters. Make sure what you do matters as a platoon leader. Let's talk about your department a bit.

Because one of the things I'm extremely proud of, and I know you are too, is Our junior faculty and just, it's really amazing who those individuals are and what we expect from them. So can you just give us a taste of some of the impactful research going on in your department ?

hology is... The interaction [:

But that's not relevant these days at all. How to design a F 22 cockpit. So it's more easy to fly for the pilot to take full advantage of those capabilities of the aircraft. Those type of things. Very relevant. She's got lots of, her and the engineering psychology team, Colonel Burrell and others have lots of cadets involved in research about trust in machines.

alent of a front line, and I [:

Am I going to put that robot, am I going to go through the effort of bringing that dog with me, a robot dog. Set it up, send it out, and believe what it has tells me back. Right? That's trust. And we can think about it on all of our equipment. Do you put it in your backpack because you trust you'll need it and it'll work for you or not?

jor Scott Newsom, Lieutenant [:

And what's great followership mean? Let's, and they're, they're figuring that out for us, and could push our army a little bit in a good way. So, those are just some of the things. There's great research all up and down the hallway. Dr. Morton Ender maybe the top military sociologist in the nation. He's got a book coming out on military families and spouses, and how this the last 20 years has affected them, and that'll inform leaders to make better [00:42:36] decisions in the future, and learn what we can from both the good and the not great stuff.

Dean: It's interesting how much fun that is to have all those talented individuals in the same hall, butting into each other, and that dynamic creates such... Great ideas. It's great. So let me segway , what's a book you recommend aspiring leaders read?

Col Spain: A couple. One is called Alpha. It's about Navy SEAL, former Navy SEAL, Eddie Gallagher.

in the leadership of junior [:

What was the other one you said you had? Oh, yes sir. Another one's called Lead From the Heart by Mark Crowley. It's a little bit, it's just fun, but it's a great book on just the fundamentals of leadership that I just love.

Dean: What is the biggest difference at the Academy from when you were a cadet?

Col Spain: Well, I'll tell you one thing that hasn't changed, sir. That's the indoor obstacle

course [:

You know, and, and it was put into place and it's lasted a day and it's just awesome. Overcoming obstacles, physical challenge just wonderful.

Dean: This has been a lot of fun. Thank you, sir. We could, I could go all day. This is, we'll do round two. We'll do round two,

se be sure to tune in to the [: