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Research Questions

  1. In what ways can the development of reserve component (RC) senior leaders be improved?
  2. In what ways can RC leader development policies serve the goal of an effective and integrated Total Force?

Leader development is one of the most important priorities for the U.S. military. Most of the services and agencies conceive of development in broadly similar ways — a combination of experiences, education, and mentoring. RAND researchers explored in what ways development of senior leaders in the reserve component can be improved, and in what ways reserve component leader development policies can serve the goal of an effective and integrated Total Force. This research is part of a larger research effort focused on general and flag officer requirements in the reserve components. This perspective reviews current practices in reserve component general officer development and surveys some of the innovative approaches the services are taking. It also explains some limitations to these approaches and offers recommendations for building a more formal system of deliberative development and making maximum use of general and flag officer assignments to achieve both developmental and Total Force objectives.

Key Findings

There is a Distinction Between Individual and Institutional Leader Development, Though They May Overlap

  • Most assignments are not made strictly for "grooming" leaders, as that is a critical but ancillary activity.
  • Nevertheless, job assignments are the most powerful and effective tool for developing leaders.
  • "Broadening" — pushing leaders beyond their usual frame of reference to deal with unfamiliar issues by working across organizational boundaries to lead change or deal with a crisis — is integrally related to leader development.

Leader Development is More Situation-Specific and Contingent Than Universal

  • The relationship between experiences and development will depend on the leader; the key is not the job itself but the job as experienced by an individual.
  • Experience of a position alone does not always produce the desired developmental results; including reflection, mentoring, and peer discussions contributes to development.
  • There is little evidence connecting specific leader development practices with particular outcomes.

Each Service Has Established Concepts for Developing Senior Leaders, Particularly RC Leaders

  • The line between leader development as a general practice and the development of senior leaders is not always clear.
  • The services recognize that development is a combination of several components, the most important of which is experience.

Despite Progress, Current Practices Have Some Limitations Preventing Leadership Development from Reaching Its Full Potential

  • There is little evidence that particular experiences and education will produce desired outcomes.
  • Emerging development programs could be more consistent in application and design.
  • The coaching and mentoring that take place remain uneven.


  • Accelerate movement toward a system of deliberate development, using empirical analysis and individualized career plans.
  • Manage assignments for maximum development and Total Force impact, expanding the roles and responsibilities of officers in the reserve component, working to open active component jobs to RC candidates, and further opening RC access to joint, combatant command, and foreign officer slots.

This research was conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center.

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Perspective series. RAND Perspectives present expert insights on timely policy issues. All RAND Perspectives undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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