Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – A new method the Army has adopted to help forge strong leadership by motivating officers and noncommissioned officers to embrace professional self-development, is underway at Fort Benning.
The method, known as Project Athena, is being put into operation Army-wide, and uses a battery of online self-assessments and other means to give leaders feedback that will help them develop. It looks at personality traits and tendencies, social and other skills, so they can pinpoint what to strengthen and what to fix, and chart a set of actions to become the best leaders they can be over time.
Athena focuses on developing self-awareness among junior and mid-grade officers – lieutenants, captains and majors, and noncommissioned officers, or NCOs.
The three are: "institutional" – various schools and other formal instruction; "operational" – through what leaders do as they perform their job, whether in garrison, in the field, or in a combat zone, and through self-development, he said.
The Army has designed Project Athena to bolster the self-development pillar, Fisher said.
"Athena was derived to give officers, initially, and now NCOs, an opportunity at the earliest points in their career to get some of the same reflection points, and to be able to see themselves and then to work on those things that are identified as needing improvement throughout their career," said Fisher.
The self-assessments cover three main areas: leadership, cognitive, and personal.
They delve into such matters as the leader's emotional stability, physical fitness, mental toughness, optimism, whether one is introverted or extroverted, communication skills, among many other areas. And they allow a student to survey others for candid feedback on the student's leadership abilities. Lieutenants and junior NCOs can survey their peers; captains, majors, and more senior NCOs can survey their peers, subordinates, and leaders senior to them.
Results of the various self-assessments – which the students are not required to disclose but are encouraged to act upon – help them see what strengths they have and should continue to build on, and where they may fall short and need to improve. They then write an individual development plan, or IDP, and discuss it with a more experienced leader who helps them chart a set of actions to pursue their goals.
Athena was developed by the Center for the Army Profession and Leadership (CAPL), part of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Fort Benning has phased in Athena over the past nine months or so, Fisher said. It has "fully implemented" it for officers, and is adding it to one of the courses taught here for NCOs.
"Athena is intended to be the continuity in self-development throughout the career of an officer or an NCO," said Fisher.
Officers Army-wide take part in Athena as students at three stages of their careers: lieutenants at the basic officer leader courses that qualify them for service in their chosen branch; captains attending the captain's career course for their respective branches; and as majors, when they attend the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC), at Fort Leavenworth.
That process for officers and NCOs is mostly the same at each stage, but the content varies somewhat based on the stage and the Soldier's career branch.
At Fort Benning, officers encounter Athena while attending the basic officer leader course for their assigned branch, ABOLC (pronounced A-BO-lik) for Armor, and IBOLC (pronounced Eye-BO-lik) for Infantry. Captains in those branches engage with Athena's self-assessment process tailored to their rank and branch when attending MCoE's Maneuver Captain's Career Course.
Those two branches comprise the Army's maneuver force, and its Soldiers are trained here by MCoE.
With the Army now in the process of extending Athena to the NCO corps, various installations, including Fort Benning, have the task of introducing it on a pilot basis into the professional development courses that NCOs must take as they progress through the stages of the Army's Noncommissioned Officer Education System, or NCOES.
For maneuver branch NCOs, Fort Benning has been chosen to set up Athena within its advanced leaders course, or ALC, which includes Armor ALC and Infantry ALC.
The next ALC classes are scheduled to start here March 26, and will for the first time include the Athena process, said Rory O'Brien, chief of program evaluation with MCoE's DOTD. O'Brien leads MCoE's working group for implementation of Athena at Fort Benning.
The Athena process is largely the same for NCOs as for officers – taking the online self-assessments, making an individual development plan, meeting with a counselor, then acting on the plan.
Whether officer or NCO, once students have done their self-assessments, they write their IDP.
It's left to the students' discretion as to how much, if anything, from the assessments, they set down in the IDP.
Officials here say a major aim in bringing Athena into operation is to ensure leaders know that the personal information and insights about them from their assessments are not material they must share with anyone else if they prefer not to.
"They are strictly for self-development," O'Brien said of the assessments, "and they can't be compelled to share the results with anyone."
But students are encouraged to at a minimum make the most of the insights the self-assessments afford them, and to be self-honest and realistic in drawing up their IDPs, officials here said.
"So the intent, and the hope, is that the IDP will be partially informed by the Athena assessments," said O'Brien, "and that that officer, NCO, would, as they're developing that IDP, take the results of those assessments into account when they're trying to address potential gaps in their performance or things that they want to address as a leader, from a cognitive, leadership or personal standpoint."
With the IDP done, the student has a sitdown session with a member of the school cadre. That cadre member will typically have more years of experience than the student, and can offer practical advice on how to best pursue their development goals.
"So," said Lt. Col. Craig Butera, director of MCoE's Command and Tactics Directorate (CATD), "based on their experience being in the Army and their experience being a leader on Fort Benning, they're able to assist that Soldier, informed by that person's developmental desires and objectives. Help link that Soldier in with resources on the installation or at their next duty station.
"And then it's up to the student to take that counsel and take it to heart, adjust the goal or adjust the amount of effort and energy they will commit towards achieving it," he said.
The hope, said Fisher, is that the students will in effect say, "'I can get a lot out of this counseling session if I share what I've been able to learn about myself through these assessments. And get a perspective from someone else, to get that wingman's perspective, that mentor's perspective, that I wouldn't get otherwise if I didn't take advantage of sharing that data.'"
During the discussion of the IDP, the cadre member giving the guidance can steer the student to a variety of resources for follow-through.
That might include books to read, courses to consider taking, online videos to watch, or other actions. If a student's goal was to become a better public speaker, the counselor might suggest signing up for a public speaking course. If in the physical fitness area, improving one's running time was a goal, there could be suggestions on adjusting one's training regimen, or seeking more in-depth guidance through the physical fitness experts at Fort Benning or another installation.
"The leader," said Fisher, "holds on to the IDP over a period of years and it's reviewed at successive stages of professional schooling.
"You're going to be carrying that with you from course to course and from assignment to assignment," he said. "So the idea is that that individual development plan will be worked on in between courses at your operational assignment, and then reviewed every time you return to the schoolhouse.
"And at some point they're going to come back to the institution with that same IDP hopefully in a more developed state than it was when it left the institution last," said Fisher.
Leaders' assessments remain available to them online.
"The student can always access their assessment results from anywhere, at anytime," said O'Brien.
And the Project Athena website includes a self-development tool that will also steer the leader to sources of help, he said.
"So based on what you assess as your gaps and your areas that you want to work on, it will produce a list of resources that you can then at your own pace access for that self-development," O'Brien said.
Athena gives leaders in today's Army the advantage of self-development being made part of a formalized system, something earlier generations did not have in the same form, officials here said.
"Had I had the benefit of these types of assessments being offered, not just once but multiple times throughout my career," said Fisher, who has served as a battalion commander and brigade commander, "I think I could have done a much better and more focused job in self-development. And found much greater benefit later on in my career, having those different points of view."
"There was never anything in the institutional domain," said Butera, "where students could systemically receive feedback to help illuminate these developmental opportunities.
"When I was a captain, didn't have, didn't know of any opportunities to illuminate developmental areas before I took company command position," he said.
"This is an opportunity for Soldiers to understand those areas that will enable them to be more effective leaders, before they go to the Battalion Commander Assessment Program and the Colonels Command Assessment Program and then discover that their leadership style was not effective, he said.
"I think it helps them understand these aspects earlier in their career," said Butera, "and then enables them to become better leaders earlier than any other model that I ever knew of existing before."