Teaching Future Military Leaders the Value of Soft Skills

We have always believed the five attributes that make up our ACE-IT model are essential for any leader to master no matter what your profession. Recently we were able to share how those five attributes can be used to solve problems and navigate challenges, even in the military.  Thirty-nine NROTC students from USC participated in a three-hour webinar led by the Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking where they were introduced to the ACE-IT model for problem-solving and leadership. Through personalized lectures, discussions, and activities led by our team of experts, the students learned how the ACE-IT model could be applied to challenges in their own lives. The students, many of whom are studying hard skills such as engineering, mathematics and business administration, gained valuable insights into the soft skills or power skills that can help them in their academic journeys and future careers.

Dr. Ernest Wilson, the founding director of the Center kicked off the workshop, introducing the students to the Third Space Thinking methodology which focuses on five critical skills:  Adaptability, Cultural Competency, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity, and 360 Degree Thinking.  Wilson explained “ …  the conventional wisdom now is that hard skills like engineering and so forth are very important. But what is especially important, and especially missing, are the soft skills, the people skills. The term that our students in high school now and some of them in college are saying is that, given the coronavirus, given the political upheaval, given the economic downturn, the soft skills have really become survival skills across many different dimensions of the economy.” 

The Center’s Executive Director, Shellee Smith, and our Research Fellow, Alison Horstmeyer, took a deep dive into empathy and explained the importance of understanding others by actively listening to different points of view and putting aside assumptions or preconceived ideas.  Research shows that exhibiting empathy for others can translate into real results in the workplace, including increased productivity, collaboration and profitability. 

“Empathy is a huge part of being a leader because you get to understand things from the perspectives of others,” said one of the participants.

Another Midshipmen commented, “I learned it’s very important to look at problems from different perspectives of the people that will be affected by the outcome.”

Adaptability is another crucial attribute for all leaders to cultivate during these uncertain times.  

Professor Chris Swain and Dr. Wilson explained why today’s leaders need to be comfortable with ambiguity, flexible in the face of change, and exhibit mental agility in order to be successful in the military.

We then put the lessons to the test by giving the group a real life scenario to solve using the ACE-IT framework. 

“This really just broke down ways that I can improve moving forward as both a leader and someone being led,” said one of the participants.

Our final speaker, David Bishop, illustrated how he has used Third Space Thinking throughout his career in the entertainment industry to solve complex business problems.  As consumers changed the way they watched content, the former President of Sony Home Entertainment adapted to the disruption in the marketplace by negotiating output deals with competitors like Netflix and Apple.

“The television show Breaking Bad would not have been as popular if it wasn’t for the Netflix deal we did after Season 2,” said Bishop. “You gotta follow your consumer or they will figure out how to get your movie.”  The key to understanding the consumer or the customer is empathy.

“The biggest takeaway is that I am able to start training myself in everyday life to think more empathetically and be more adaptable  to understand different cultures/ be more intellectually curious. I want these attributes to become second nature to me.”

Overall, feedback on the program was positive. Many students and NROTC leaders left the program with a new appreciation for these soft skills.  Upon completion, Colonel Sean McBride, Naval Science professor and one of the organizers of the event on the NROTC side stated,  “That was a great event.  I liked that it was at the graduate level.  Caused everyone to think differently.  You all did a great job of keeping it moving, which kept even the young guys fully engaged.  I hope that we have opportunities to continue working together.”

The Center for Third Space Thinking looks forward to continuing our work with NROTC and helping build new leaders who are empathetic and adaptable in our military.