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  • Writer's pictureAmber Williams

Using Group Relations to Develop Leaders in the Military

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

By: Rod Smith

I was hooked after my first encounter with group relations theory. I sat in a room with approximately 90 other people for about 36 hours over the course of three months. In accordance with the theory, we examined unconscious group processes in the study and exercise of authority. Prior to this experience, my leadership discussions focused on cognitive processes, and observable actions at a personal level. This first encounter with group relations engaged cognitive, affective, somatic, and spiritual processes at personal, interpersonal, team, and organizational levels. With so much showing up by examining unconscious group processes, I wondered how this theory could be used in a performance organization like the military.

I got my chance to find out. I teach leadership to undergraduates at the United States Air Force Academy. I begin my classes by defining three concepts: holding environment (Winnicott, 1956), projections (Vaillant, 1977), and adaptive challenge (Heifetz, 1994). Depending on what level of leadership I am speaking on — personal, interpersonal, team, or organizational — I will then introduce a theory or framework such as the Big Five Personality Traits, Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1982), B.A.R.T. (Green & Molenkamp, 2005), or Power (Tillich, 1954). Finally, I offer a discussion prompt that allows gender, race, sexual orientation, politics, spirituality, and socioeconomic systems to emerge. To keep the discussions from being too abstract, students must complete three tasks: 1. Surface the systemic perspectives within the prompt; 2. Use course concepts to address the emerging adaptive challenges; and 3. Note how their actions impacted self, others, or the situation. My role is to offer observations of these dynamics, create mind maps as the conversation unfolds, and to maintain appropriate stress levels for development to occur.

The results have been wide-ranging, and multi-level. Students have reported understanding themselves on cognitive, affective, and spiritual levels; and bonding with each other in ways they did not think possible in a class. One group of students drafted an ebook on their experiences of conversations on race, gender, and sexual assaults, and created a framework based on attachment theory to explain the leadership development of each class member. Another group designed a thematic study, and reported ideas on how to address the sexual assault culture from the perspectives of gender, and sexual identity. The shifts have been transformative and permanent.

One student shared it best, “I never thought sitting in your classroom hearing everyone’s perspective was going to do much for me, but I find that I use those lessons everyday with my family, peers, and superiors. As I have been able to shift those perspectives, we create better solutions to our problems.”

The work continues.

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