A look at leader development: Grace under pressure

By Tara Clements

I remember very clearly answering a phone call from my director late December 2016 and being stunned at the news: I had been selected to represent the Army for the 2018 DOD Executive Leader Development Program (ELDP). Fast forward to October 2017: I found myself in Southbridge, Massachusetts, gaining not only the education needed to continue to grow as a DOD civilian, but the experience, too.

Over the next eight months, I’ll share my experiences with ELDP to provide a ‘peek behind the curtain’ in an effort to show others what this leader development program is like. My hope is that by sharing my experience, it answers the nagging questions you might have after reading a standard program description that leaves you wondering what’s involved, what you can get out of it and why you should take the time to work through the application process.

A little about me: I’m a proud Army civilian with 15 years of service of doing communications outreach, and I’ve been afforded outstanding opportunities. I also go by ‘Mom’ and ‘Mrs.’ and all the juggling that entails. And yet, after 15 years and accomplishing most of my personal and career goals, I found myself wondering, ‘What’s next?’ That, in combination with a very supportive leadership chain, drove me to complete the intense application process.

I’m proud to serve in a civilian capacity and want to grow to serve in positions of greater responsibility. To do that, I realized the need to stretch myself. Fifteen years in a discipline certainly builds a professional acumen, but let’s face it—it gets a little comfortable. But here’s the deeper reason I competed for a slot in this program: As a civilian, I’ve never been in a warfighter’s shoes, and they’re who I’m working for. I’ve been a family member, worked with them, shared their stories, covered training exercises, ceremonies, events, and the like. The opportunity to experience a little of what our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines do every day to gain a deeper understanding of who I’m working for provides a unique opportunity for a DOD civilian.

A little about the program: For 32 years, ELDP has provided civilian and military professionals from each service and several DOD agencies with structured experiential learning opportunities with the warfighter. The goal is to develop a diverse cadre of future leaders with the joint and interagency perspectives and competences needed to lead teams, projects and people. In simple terms, we get to sweat together at physical fitness training at o-dark-thirty, eat together, adhere to uniform requirements and overcome challenges together for a taste of what it’s like to build teams and bring them to the finish line. All for our customer: the warfighter. After all, that’s who we’re all working for.

One tradition at CORE is known as Warrior Games, a team-building experience involving physical challenges that are designed to build team cohesion and have a little fun. Each team draws a tribe from a hat and has to create a team uniform. Team Four drew the ninjas. Can you tell? (Courtesy photo)

One tradition at CORE is known as Warrior Games, a team-building experience involving physical challenges that are designed to build team cohesion and have a little fun. Each team draws a tribe from a hat and has to create a team uniform. Team Four drew the ninjas. Can you tell? (Courtesy photo)

The combination of classroom and hands-on training supports the DOD Civilian Leader Development Continuum at the levels of leading self, leading teams and projects and leading people.

STEP 1: APPLY

The first step in the process is completing the application. Here are a few things I wish I knew before I applied (and please note that this is particular to the Army folks out there). Plan for a 6-8 week window to complete the application process, and keep in mind that applications are typically due in April or May. Before you even start typing, schedule an office call with your supervisor and the senior leader in your organization because their support is imperative and requires some effort on their part. You’ll need a general officer endorsement letter and this is something that should be coordinated as early as possible.

Another key endorsement is the functional SES. I learned along the way that this is the SES associated with my career program. You’ll also be required to submit a doctor’s note stating you’re in good health. This is important because of some of the physical rigor associated with the program.

If this sounds a bit daunting, it’s for a good reason: If you can’t get through the application process, you will likely not get through the program. DOD and the Army are making an investment in you through this program, and they’re looking for people who can represent the service well.

Lastly, once you finally hit submit on that application, expect to not hear anything for a few months. Your packet will go before a few boards, with the process culminating with an interview. (Mine was by telephone.) One month after my November interview, I was notified that I had been selected for the program that started in September 2017.

STARTING WITH CORE

Here’s how it works once you’ve been accepted. Generally, participants plan to be away from work for roughly one week a month for 10 months (September – June), participating in a series of TDY deployments. It all begins at CORE—described as Cohort, Observations, Reflections and Experiences. This 10-day program in Southbridge, Massachusetts, brings together 62 driven professionals from all different services. We arrive as individuals and leave as a team.

On each TDY deployment, a new student leadership team is established. This is composed of a series of team leaders, group leads and the cohort lead. I remember wondering on the plane ride to Southbridge who would be selected to lead this first round, and feeling empathetic about the challenge ahead for them. So imagine my surprise when I was told during in-processing that I’d serve as the cohort lead for the first deployment. Although stunned, I embraced the role. After all, this is why I signed up—to be stretched, discover more about myself and learn how to be an effective leader.

It was tough—it was a challenge—it was …. leadership. Not only did I have to flex between my role as the cohort lead and a proud member of Team Four, I also had to work through challenges associated with leader positions—the people part. Working through dietary needs to accommodate allergies, preferences and restrictions; deciding on daily PT (and yes, we were up for 5:15 a.m. runs, weights, push-ups—with those classes taught by cohort members); and developing and agreeing on standard procedures for communication and movements. Whether it was food, schedules, PT or group decisions on protocol issues, I had my dose of the challenges any leader faces with a group of highly skilled, highly motivated individual professionals. And I’m better for it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

LEADERSHIP IS HARD

Not only did the education modules teach me more about myself—strengths and weaknesses alike—I had the valuable opportunity to put that into practice, establishing a chain of command, communication channels and standard operating procedures on how to efficiently and quickly move a group of more than 60 people. And there was some fun and a lot of team building. Lots of role-playing and perhaps an exercise in dressing as ninjas to compete in our version of the Warrior Games on a very warm Saturday afternoon.

My big takeaway: leadership in action is HARD! You have to want it, and have to maintain a degree of humility, perseverance, grace and grit to see it through. I also gained a name for my leadership style: servant leader, because I’ve always believed in setting the conditions for others to shine and be successful.

A group of mentors (known as the red shirts), who happen to be alumni of the program, provided outstanding support and guidance throughout my experience. At the end, during a feedback session on their observations of my experience and style, “grace under pressure” was used to describe my presence during times of stress. This was a revelation for me because my feelings on the inside at times felt far from graceful! But, I learned that my presence is a strength and is something I can be confident in and continue to develop.

My first experience at CORE was exceptional. I’m inspired by the opportunities afforded to me through this program and by the 61 other individuals who’ve earned their spots in the cohort through their dedication to improving themselves, becoming effective leaders and supporting those who support us: the warfighter.

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