The US Army has had a historic problem in adapting the use of self-development. The concept is misunderstood, our definitions change frequently and often conflict, the graphic display of our leader development model is unclear, we lack practical guidance on how it could be executed, we confuse it with institutional learning, we lack supporting materials, and our leaders often lack the experience to mentor soldiers how to self-develop. The Army still struggles with a nineteenth-century, Industrial Age mindset that hampered the full integration of the education theory advancement in the twentieth century and threatens our ability to optimize for a twenty-first century battlefield. We continue to view soldiers as “cogs” in a machine who simply need to be stamped out through a refined list of education and training requirements. However, we must trust our soldiers to take an active role in guiding their own development. The Army must value non-assessable learning experiences or we run the risk of obstructing development. Without nurturing the trust required to support self-development, it is unlikely that we will foster the trust needed to utilize mission command.

While the Army has struggled to produce a consistent definition of self-development, the best and shortest definition I have run across defines it as “choos[ing] learning over nonlearning activities.” Special emphasis here should be on the word “choosing.” Self-development is driven internally, by intrinsic motivation. Individuals engage in self-development out of curiosity, interest, autonomy, and love of learning. While self-development is likely to lead to increased job performance and other rewards, these extrinsic motivations are not the primary driver.

Institutional Learning / Self-Development Divide

The motivation for learning is important. Two soldiers might perform the same learning tasks, but motivation is an indicator that one is engaging in self-development while the other is taking part in institutional learning. For example, what if a soldier is working towards a bachelor’s degree? If the soldier is a cadet and the degree is required by law to commission, we would define this as institutional learning. If the soldier was just interested in a subject and was taking the same courses to advance his or her own interests, we would define this as self-development.

I believe most of the confusion between what is and is not self-development results from trying to define learning experiences by their type instead of the underlying student motivation. But it is the internal motivation that is most critical to this practice. If we want to create “lifelong learners” or establish true “learning communities,” we won’t be able to do so by force. The scholar Malcolm Knowles, hailed as the “Father of Adult Education,” is credited with creating a fully developed theory of adult education that he referred to as “andragogy,” which recognized the need for internal motivation within adult learners. Within this theory, Knowles described the concept of informal self-guided adult learning, something he termed “self-directed learning.” The Army imperfectly mirrored many of Knowles’s ideas when it originally defined “self-development” in the 1994 edition of Department of the Army Pamphlet 350-58, Army Leader Development Program. Introducing a new jargon term, “self-development,” instead of simply adapting Knowles’s original term was unnecessarily confusing and ultimately keeps soldiers from discovering the wealth of civilian academic research that is available on the concept of self-directed learning.

It is important to note here that between 2010 and 2018 the noncommissioned officer corps made a critical error by using the paradoxical term “Structured Self-Development” (implying a sense of directed self-development) within the NCO education system. This term has been replaced with “Distributed Leader Course” to avoid confusion between the institutional and self-development domains. However, the use of this term will likely plague the Army for years to come as soldiers have become accustomed to thinking of self-development as simply required distributed learning and not the self-directed learning the Army intended.

While many men and women in the Army likely expect Training and Doctrine Command to set all institutional learning objectives, this is actually done by leaders at any level that dictates learning activities. While many leaders may believe they are creating self-development programs for their soldiers, they are really just creating unit-level institutional learning programs. If you find yourself in doubt of what is or is not self-development, ask yourself if the program is entirely voluntary. If participation in a learning activity is dictated, you are not in the domain of self-development. Don’t get me wrong, leadership assessments and establishment of educational programs to address known deficiencies among soldiers is critical to the Army’s success, but they are not self-development. Mission-critical education and training requirements should never be left for soldiers to learn through self-development.

Purpose and Value

The most significant value of self-development, arguably, is that individuals better learn how to learn. The subjects soldiers study and the methods they use aren’t as important as the greater understanding they find in how to discover and use learning resources. As war continues to become more technologically advanced and the scope of war ever increases, it is impossible to train and educate soldiers for every mission they are likely to be assigned with the training time available. This is where self-development demonstrates its value. Not only is it possible that a soldier might have become better prepared for a situation in advance, even if they haven’t they understand how to direct their own learning to find solutions. If we want to be more innovative and adaptive than the enemy, we need soldiers that recognize that the Army isn’t going to provide them all the answers and they have a personal responsibility to develop themselves. Additionally, self-development allows for greater diversity of thought as soldiers are free to explore whatever materials they wish. Institutional training cannot ever hope to match this diversity as, by its nature, it standardizes education instead of expanding it.

Self-development may be the best way to remind individuals about the true joy of learning. It is unfortunate that many of our current educational practices, both in the military and civilian community, seem to “beat down” learners. It is common for individuals to swear they will never go back to school again after completing a degree. However, humans are naturally curious. We greatly enjoy playing and solving problems when we can direct our own activities.

Self-development might be the key to remind us that not all learning is as painful as some of our institutional courses make it out to be. I have certainly found this to be true in my own self-development. I first listened to the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz through the free audiobooks available on In this way, I was able to fully explore his thoughts, at my own speed and interest. As a result, I have had a lot more pleasant experience with talking about his ideas in comparison to my peers that were rapidly forced through limited sections of Clausewitz’s work while searching for test answers instead of really engaging fully with his ideas.

Self-development supports an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Since you learn according to interest instead of being confined to individual subjects, learning may lead you to cross several academic disciplines. With each new discipline you encounter, you can gain new tools and analytical methods that you can apply across disciplines to give you greater insights into possible solutions to problems. This polymathic or “generalist” mindset might provide distinct advantages on the battlefield, especially in leadership positions.


As an institution, the Army should avoid any formal assessment on self-development out of fear it will negatively impact the practice. Any formal standard designed to assess self-development may redirect an individual’s selection of self-development practices and ultimately prevent the soldiers from optimizing their self-development. For example, if we attempted to measure the number of books soldiers read per year, they might be incentivized to race through reading without taking the time to truly engage with the material. More broadly, they might also prioritize only the self-development practices assessed and avoid other nonstandard learning experiences.

In a 2001 Joint Forces Quarterly article, Army Col. Mark McGuire found that strategic leaders placed more of an emphasis on self-development than leaders at lower levels. While that may indicate that the importance of self-development grows as individuals move into strategic leadership roles, it might also indicate that those who are natural self-developers tend to outperform their peers. This would suggest that there is no need for a formal assessment of self-development as the advantages of engaging in these activities are made manifest in operational and institutional performance.

However, the Army should embrace and encourage personal assessments. While learning how to assess your own learning takes practice, it is a valuable skill for soldiers. If you find yourself reading a book and don’t find any value in it, stop and redirect your learning. It is far better for you to read another book that you find more interesting than it is to become resentful of reading. If you find yourself struggling with the ideas within a text it is absolutely okay to put it aside until you better understand the subject and return to it later. You should be constantly asking yourself if the learning activities you are engaging in are supplying the types of information that can solve your problems and have utility in your life. You should learn to recognize when and how you learn the best. You should reflect on how you can better integrate self-development within our lives.

Leaders’ Influence on Self-Development

While leaders cannot dictate to soldiers the requirement to engage in self-development (again, if they do, it is no longer self-development), we can communicate its value and lead by example. Working with an exceptional group of soldiers, I ran across a way to do both with something we called “Coffee and Clausewitz.” A group in my office would naturally gather at the coffee pot in the morning. While we were waiting for the coffee to brew, one of us would share something interesting from our own self-development that would be followed with a group discussion. It only took fifteen minutes a day and started our day with creative thoughts and ideas. The group was entirely voluntary. Soldiers could come and go as they pleased. It was a wonderful peer-learning community that inspired soldiers to search for useful ideas and information on their own time. I learned so much from and about my soldiers as they talked passionately about the subjects they were interested in. We all got the benefit of being introduced to new ideas that we might not have been naturally interested in studying. Other soldiers soon noticed the higher performance of our group and would join us and engage in self-development themselves.

While self-development is driven by the individual, leaders should be prepared to support the efforts of our soldiers. This might mean providing recommended resources and sharing what self-development practices you have found useful when asked. However, we should be mindful that the individual soldier has full autonomy in this learning domain. Like good mentors, we recommend but do not become upset if the soldier chooses another path. We should also be mindful to present information in a way that encourages soldiers to also look elsewhere.

Leaders must ensure discipline throughout their formations, of course. But we should also remember that we cannot build adaptive units through externally imposed discipline alone. We must leave areas where self-discipline and internal motivation can be exercised. If the Army wants to maximize the advantages of mission command, we must build a community of trust. This means supporting soldiers who take the initiative to drive their own actions through internal motivation. We must abandon the nineteenth-century, Industrial Age outlook that will inevitably fail to produce adaptive soldiers simply by stamping them out using a strict curriculum. Our soldiers need time to “play” with ideas and problems. The solutions to many of the problems of the next war are not likely to be found within our manuals, doctrine, or textbooks. We must allow our soldiers to develop their learning capacity throughout their careers so they can overcome the unpredictable obstacles they face on the battlefield.

The unfortunate reality is that the Army will continue to struggle with soldier engagement in self-development. While the Army as an institution works toward correcting the errors in our educational theory, leaders can begin today in modeling and supporting self-directed learning for their soldiers. Leaders can begin to foster the trust that is critical not only for self-directed learning but for the use of mission command, as well. By protecting time for self-development, leaders will not only enjoy the benefit of having soldiers with more knowledge, skills, and ability, but also one that can adapt at a speed unmatched by the enemy. It is time to empower our soldiers to become the adaptive learners that can deal with the complexity of the twenty-first-century battlefield.


Dr. Franklin C. Annis is a National Guard officer and veteran of the Iraq War. He holds a doctorate in education in curriculum and teaching from Northcentral University. Dr. Annis hosts the Evolving Warfighter YouTube channel where he shares his research on military self-development.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Sgt. Heather Doppke, US Army