The U.S. Military Academy is known, by and large, for guiding cadets into the ranks of officership. The cadet company tactical non-commissioned officer is a part of a cadet’s leadership development during their four-year tenure. What training do these NCOs go through to improve their leadership skills, and educate cadets? What steps do they take to synchronize their leadership methods with officers to complete a mission successfully?
The Benavidez Leader Development Program, developed and established in 2015, aims to provide tactical NCOs a three-week executive education to refine their leadership qualities.
This year, the course culminated on Feb. 23 with the BLDP panel followed by a graduation ceremony Feb. 24 for 24 NCOs in the Haig Room of the Jefferson Hall Library at the U.S. Military Academy.
BLDP is similar to the officer’s course known as the Eisenhower Leader Development Program held at Teachers College, Columbia University. These training regiments allow NCOs and officers to speak the same language in terms of leadership development, Col. Todd Woodruff, director of the West Point Leadership Center and Eisenhower Leader Development Program, said.
“Typically, we run the first week at West Point and it is taught by our ELDP graduates, and, with a little bit of help, from the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership faculty,” Woodruff said. “Then the NCOs go down to Manhattan and have classes for the next two weeks on the Columbia University campus.”
Due to the pandemic, the program was re-arranged to follow COVID-19 guidelines. The three-week course was held locally at West Point in the Thayer Hotel. Moreover, the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership faculty pulled together and taught the content that would normally be lectured at Columbia University, Sgt, 1st Class Donald Seidle, BLDP noncommissioned officer-in-charge, said.
“We got psychology graduates from some of the best universities and we’ve got phenomenal teachers at West Point, who normally focus on teaching cadets, but are perfectly capable of teaching in this program,” Woodruff said. “It was important for us to have the instruction in person because this is a human-centric leader development focused curriculum. We knew we needed them to work together in small groups, particularly for the problem-solving projects that they were doing. So, we decided, rather than have it taught by Columbia University online, we would do it ourselves.”
The BLDP curriculum consisted of six small NCO groups solving problem sets involving racism, sexual assault, sexual harassment and suicide prevention. The curriculum also included developing strategies to prevent lying and cheating at West Point and went over concepts, ideas and issues dealing with honor, lying and cheating at the academy and how to integrate NCO’s into the West Point Leader Development System, Woodruff said.
One of the challenges of facilitating the program at West Point was finding qualified instructors to teach the BLDP course.
Along with his staff, Woodruff gathered enough resources and brought together civilian and military faculty such as West Point instructors, Harvard Business Ph.D. graduates and Columbia University business Ph.D. graduates, he said.
Woodruff added that it is rare to have a West Point instructor teach the BLDP course and was thrilled to have 1st Sgt. Natasha Orslene, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, who is currently transitioning out of the Army, assist in teaching the course.
“A few years ago, I was in BLDP cohort four and that was of course pre-COVID, so we got this experience where we had a week of BLDP here at West Point, and then two weeks down at Teachers College in New York City,” Orslene said. “In going through that piece, I got to meet some of the executive coaches who ran the Columbia Executive Coaching Program and they were the ones who taught the class and I thought it was just absolutely amazing.”
For Orslene, the BLDP course encompassed all the things she loved about leadership. After graduating from the BLDP course, her motivation to evolve as a leader, coupled with her fervent desire to continue her leadership education, landed her an opportunity to go through Columbia’s coaching certification program, which is about a yearlong, she said.
With her BLDP training, a background in cyberspace operations and a doctorate in Behavioral Modification and Development, Woodruff felt Orslene was the right fit for the task. They contacted her a week before she had planned to leave the Army.
“I was contacted in November of last year by Maj. Zachery Mierva (Instructor and Executive Officer in the Department of Behavioral and Leadership Development) and Maj. Shari Bowen (Current ELDP student). They were trying to figure things out (for this year’s BLDP) and they were of the mindset that they shouldn’t keep people in a bubble and do things virtually,” Orslene said. “And so, they had to figure out how to arrange the course in a way where the course was done locally but the quality of instruction, which Columbia University is known for, didn’t drop at West Point.”
Woodruff added Orslene was in an apt situation based on her prior experience and was able to deliver a coaching curriculum that helped Soldiers understand the importance of leadership in relation to leading Soldiers and working alongside the officer ranks.
During the course, she had a vivid idea of what the Soldiers were going to do and how they would perform based on their needs.
“So, part of what we did was expose the NCO’s to a problem-solving methodology, which we use with cadets and we've used in other courses,” Woodruff said. “The term is known as ‘hacking for defense’ which has nothing to do with cyber. Hacking for defense a problem-solving methodology that takes people from knowing almost nothing about a problem to being able to deliver a comprehensive solution to it in the shortest amount of time possible.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Demetrios Howard, the Company I-3 Tactical NCO with the Brigade Tactical Department, he felt the course was a great experience. He plans to take back all the information he gathered from the course and bring it to his organization to help build better leaders.
“As far as organizational management, recognizing talent and knowing where to put that talent in order to further develop those leaders, I think the program provided a lot of practical easy-to-understand knowledge that you can take back to the organization,” Howard said of his experience during the BLDP course.
Sgt. 1st Class John Katzenberger, the MS 300 NCOIC, believed the course was a humbling experience and added more depth to topics he had learned throughout his tenure in the Army.