One foot in front of the other may be the only way forward during a ruck march, but in many cases creative thought is required to make the best decisions in and out of combat; the ongoing Innovative Leaders Course is giving students the skills to problem solve in those situations.

"It's meant to encourage people to express their ideas," said Lt. Col. Andrew Phillips, Fort Jackson's Army Reserve assistant chief of staff, who is overseeing the class's operation on-post. "(It) enlightens the ability … to develop a solution that may not be mainstream."

The two-week, interactive, discussion-heavy course kicked off March 4. Sixteen students, both civilian and active duty, are in session at the 81st Readiness Division.

Rob McClary, seminar leader from Fort Leavenworth's University of Foreign and Cultural Studies, is teaching them operational decision-making abilities. The focus is on the importance of using the creative thought process and avoiding groupthink.

"A lot of times we have people sitting back on the sidelines, not wanting to share their ideas, but their ideas are great ideas," said Innovative Leaders Course student Sgt. 1st Class Santana Darby, an initial military training senior non-commissioned officer at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. "When people feel as though they do have a plan, they don't want other people to say, 'Hey, that's not good enough.'"

The course emphasizes the message that everyone's input matters and encourages current and future leaders to speak up when they have ideas.

The curriculum hones in on divergent and convergent thinking -- brainstorming all possible solutions to a problem, and then narrowing down the possibilities.

During his time in active duty as a Marine, instructor McClary said he realized the need for innovative leaders who possess those creative thought-related abilities.

"I saw sometimes the system didn't support that," McClary added. "The culture has sometimes challenged leaders and sometimes gotten in the way of innovation."

That inspired him to teach the course after earning his PhD in Adult Education from Kansas State University.

"The military promotes from within," often creating a rigid, strictly tradition-based culture, McClary said.

Since the strategic environment is constantly changing, that can lead to "bad outcomes," he added.
"If everyone's thinking alike, then no one's thinking," Phillips said. There is more than one solution to every problem, and the old ways aren't always the best ways, he added.

"You fall into that lull of 'that's the way we always did it,'" Phillips said. "If you're stovepiped into that, it's hard to break out, because it's comfortable."

The Innovative Leaders Course helps students step out of their comfort zones to come up with the best solutions possible, he said.

"We live in a world of ever-accelerating change," said classmate Dan Thomas, environmental
division chief for the 81st Readiness Division. "If we're not innovative … then we'll fall behind."

Staff Sgt. Daniel Emerson of the Leader Training Brigade said that while enrolled, he hopes to learn how to present his new ideas to leadership in a "tactful way" to avoid stepping on toes.

That often happens in the hierarchy of the military, Phillips said.

"We are all pigeonholed" by our experiences, education and backgrounds. We all think we know the right solutions, Phillips said. The course teaches students to question that assumption, use critical thinking and "look outside the box" for answers.

"(The course) gives them the confidence to engage," no matter their position or rank, and question the traditions and routines entrenched in the Army culture, he said.

Classmate Alex Parker of Moncrief Health Clinic commented that the course has taught him how to determine when to bring forth new ideas.

"You don't always need a new idea; sometimes you've just got to get to work," Parker said. "Sometimes there's a need for innovation."

That lesson and others offered by the curriculum are widely applicable, Phillips said. That's why classmates come from so many different segments of Fort Jackson to include MEDDAC, the LTB, the 81st RD and the 165th and 193rd infantry brigades.

Students are tasked with spreading the knowledge they obtain to improve their organizations' problem solving abilities.

Student Dwight Blue of the 165th Infantry Brigade said he intends to implement a number of the techniques that McClary has taught into his unit.

"A young person's idea is important," Blue said. "It's easy to take lemons and make lemonade or take chickens to make chicken salad;" incorporating new ideas is more complicated, but pivotal to foster growth.