Stam: Simulating leadership to forge better leaders


January 2017 will bring new leadership to the American presidency. It is hard to imagine the White House inbox will hold more complex challenges than those that confronted first-term senator and president-elect Barack Obama. No president since Harry Truman has been dealt such a difficult hand. Future presidents most certainly will.

How can we better prepare our leaders?

There are a number of ways to brief a president-elect on everything from international crises to natural disaster response. Yet we have repeatedly seen new leaders stumble when confronted with a complex series of events.

President John F. Kennedy struggled to deal with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion plans he inherited from the Eisenhower Administration. Even a second-term veteran like George W. Bush seemed overwhelmed in organizing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

The challenges are instructive for educators and policymakers alike. Would we let a pilot learn on the job while flying a passenger jet? A heart surgeon operate on a patient on her first time out? A SEAL deploy into battle before training? Of course not.

Pilots train on flight simulators. Surgeons rehearse in state-of-the art medical theaters. Special Forces prepare with scenario-based training.

Why then do we send public servants into the contentious policymaking arena - where the margin for error is so small and the stakes are so high- without the chance to rehearse, receive feedback, and understand the consequences of their decisions?

Americans need to re-imagine our approach to developing leaders. Many of our top policy schools, created in the 1960s, were designed as public administration programs, to equip mid-level bureaucrats to run domestic-welfare programs. Times have changed. Perhaps there was a bureaucrat gap to fill in the 1960s; today we suffer from a major leadership gap.

The current federal dysfunction so dismaying to voters and taxpayers comes as no surprise: Legislators duck accountability; the executive branch asserts ever-greater powers; and the judiciary is called in time and again to shape - even with a Supreme Court majority disavowing judicial activism - and make policy.

Citizens are aghast at policymakers’ unwillingness to forge the compromises our Founders expected. We must ask what our education system is doing to prepare our young people for service in such a contentious arena.

An effective school of public policy must help students develop sophisticated leadership skills. Leadership is the art of getting things done. Bargaining, negotiation, conflict resolution, consensus-building, and compromise cannot be taught using conventional pedagogy.

Instead, students must learn by doing. By practicing and feeling first-hand the weight and consequence of each decision.

Imagine if Kennedy had been through a simulation before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was brilliant then in averting nuclear war. Yet this scenario was foreseeable and could have been tested.

History provides context. Big Data and modern computational firepower offer unprecedented opportunities to build strong analytical toolkits. But higher education needs to do more. The academy must wake up and join the 21st century, which promises ever more complexity and technology-driven change.

Today, verbal presentation and mathematical modeling are insufficient skills. They fail to account for the nonlinear relationships that define human behavior. Human beings are anything but linear and rational: That’s the beauty of our species. We must refresh our approach to preparing future leaders.

We can, and must, use more policymaking simulation technology in our graduate classrooms and advanced-training centers. Think Model UN. Think data-driven exercises involving real-time role-playing. These exercises can test what might happen if a major hurricane hits the world’s largest naval port in Hampton Roads. Or test the policy options if the Syrian civil war drove hundreds of thousands of refugees towards Europe.

Socrates believed that in its purest form, education involved a teacher and student sharing a log and deep thoughts. Learning through dynamic inquiry. The modern “log” must become three-dimensional.

Social psychology - powered by multi-dimensional models running in computer-simulated environments - should stand alongside an appreciation for context (history) and an ability to conduct quantitative analysis. Simulation-based learning must become seamlessly integrated into the training of future leaders.

Public policy education leaders need to meet this challenge. Advances in technology and knowledge of how people negotiate effectively are readily available.

The public policy challenges ahead are manifold. Our new president, just like the next members of our town councils, will need to advance the public interest in a complex and fast-paced environment. We can help them now by fully applying promising new pedagogical methods. We can better equip all our future leaders to deal with the challenges ahead, both existential and mundane.

Allan Stam is dean of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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