U.S. Army provides leadership

The U.S. Army provides leadership doctrine for all its members in the form of a unified leadership theory familiar to virtually all their officers and non-commissioned officers. The foundation of this general leadership theory is the Army’s “Be, Know, Do” (BKD) model of leader development (LD). While the BKD model has many elements in common with more well-known academic approaches to leadership and LD, the BKD model has some distinctive emphases that set it apart from these more conventional treatments. This article examines the BKD model, evaluating its strengths and limitations, and then suggests how organizations interested in leadership development might adapt the model to their own particular circumstances.

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In choosing the most appropriate procedures for developing leaders, an organization must first determine what leadership precisely entails. For the U.S. Army, leadership is “influencing people by–providing purpose direction and motivation–while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization” (FM 22-100, 1999: 1-4). The broadness of this definition is noteworthy. It does not initially identify the primary sources of influence or distinguish between potentially different influence sources, and one could easily substitute “management” for “leadership” and still have a meaningful statement.

While such broadness downplays potential differences between leaders and managers in terms of motivation (Zalenick, 1977), operating perspectives (Bennis ; Nanus, 1985) and emphasized processes (Kotter, 1987), there may be little practical value in separating leaders and managers when it comes to development (e.g., Bass, 1990; Yukl, 1994). For the Army, the implications of a broad approach to leader development are enormous. Leader development becomes synonymous with “whole person” development. Because individuals influence others by their character, by their competence, and by their actions (FM 22-100, 1999: viii), effective leader development must focus on the type of person an individual is (“Be”), the kinds of competencies he has (“Know”), and the kinds of decisions he makes (“Do”). Put slightly differently, “becoming a leader involves developing all aspects of yourself” (FM 22-100, 1999: 1-6).

For HRM practitioners, the BKD model warrants a great deal of attention, given its endorsement and large-scale use by a major, highly diverse organization whose mission requires the ongoing creation of new leaders. Shaped and modified by actual experience in developing officers and non-commissioned officers in the different branches of the U.S. Army, various drafts and versions of the BKD model have influenced Army leadership doctrine for over 50 years. Thus, the Army’s long-term, continuing reliance on the model offers strong evidence of its robustness. Additionally, because it is the basis for actual leadership training at various organizational levels, the model necessarily elaborates on LD in specific detail and provides focused points for individuals to consider when executing LD for themselves, their people, and their organization (FM 22-100: ix). With some exceptions (e.g., McCauley, et al., 1998; McCall, et al., 1988), this level of pragmatic, “how-to” detail is rare in LD models.

The “Be, Know, Do” Model

The values, attributes, skills, and actions that form the BKD model are necessarily interrelated, and the integration of these elements working together produces effective leadership. In this respect, each side of the BKD triangle can properly be understood only in terms of the other two sides. Nonetheless, in the following sections, we discuss each component of the model separately for the sake of clarity.


Because the Army sees itself as a values-based organization (FM 22-100: viii), the BKD model places significant emphasis on “character-based” leadership. This orientation assumes that people are sensitive to the values and attributes explicitly and implicitly displayed by leaders, and that they are at least partially influenced by the example leaders set. Thus, the specific values and attributes reflected in these potential examples are crucial elements of effective leadership, and require careful cultivation in the leader development process. At a minimum, the values and attributes cultivated must reflect the organization’s mission and vision.

The BKD model stresses this aspect of leader development under the label of “character,” defined as the inner strength that gives a person “the courage to do what is right regardless of the circumstances or the consequences” (FM 22-100: 1-6). As noted, character consists of values and attributes. Values are crucial to leader development because values “tell” the leader what he needs to be, presumably guiding everyday actions. Additionally, institutionally-shared values can form the very identity of the organization, binding together all members of the enterprise. As a result, the organization is much greater than the simple sum of its parts (FM 22-100: 2-2). The Army as an organization uses seven core values to discern right from wrong in any situation: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage (see Exhibit 1). All its members are expected to endorse these values.

In addition to core values, the “Be” component of the model focuses on several groups of attributes crucial for leadership, and therefore for leader development. In the BKD model, attributes are defined as fundamental qualities and characteristics of a person. While the model acknowledges that some personal attributes are unchangeable, it assumes that many others can be learned or changed. The model groups those attributes relevant to leadership into three categories: mental, physical, and emotional.

Mental. The model argues that leader development should focus on at least seven mental attributes: will, self-discipline, initiative, judgment, self-confidence, intelligence, and cultural awareness. Will is the inner drive that compels individuals to keep going when they are exhausted and when it would be easier to quit. Self-discipline is the mastery of impulse that comes from the habit of doing the right thing regardless of consequences. Initiative is the ability to act when there are no clear instructions. Judgment is the ability to size up a situation, determine what is important, and decide what needs to be done. Self-confidence is the individual’s belief that he will act correctly and properly in any situation, including those that are stressful and ambiguous. Intelligence is the ability to think, learn, and reflect, and then to apply what has been learned. Cultural awareness is sensitivity to the different backgrounds of individuals and to the customs and traditions of different countries (FM 22-100: 2-10-2-15).

Physical. Three attributes come under this umbrella: health fitness, physical fitness, and professional bearing. The BKD model argues that individuals can develop these attributes. Health fitness encompasses the various personal actions a person can undertake to maintain health (e.g., practicing good hygiene, avoiding substance abuse). Physical fitness is the individual’s ability to engage in various demanding physical activities for appropriate lengths of time, without undue stress or the need for extended recovery periods. Professional bearing refers to the individual’s ability to convey a professional demeanor, projected through the person’s appearance and carriage (FM 22-100: 2-16-2-17).

Emotional. The final attributes considered by the BKD model are serf-control, balance, and stability. The model considers these attributes important for leader development because they help the leader to influence others and make correct ethical choices. Self-control is the ability to display the emotion and passion required to tap into the emotions of others. Similarly, balance is the ability to display the appropriate emotion for the situation. Stability is the ability to remain levelheaded under pressure and fatigue, and to display the emotions the individual wants others to display (FM 22-100: 2-17-2-18). Exhibit 2 summarizes the three sets of leader attributes.


The second component of the BKD model focuses on competence: what a leader must know (in the sense of both “know what” and “know how”). In the model, competence links character (knowing the right thing to do) and action (doing or influencing others to do the right thing). In terms of leader development, the model presumes that leaders are not only responsible for being personally competent, but that they are also responsible for the competence of their subordinates. The model argues that competence results from hard, realistic training, and that three areas are particularly relevant for leader development (a fourth area covered by the model relates to combat skills, which are outside the scope of this article). Effective leaders must know the interpersonal, conceptual, and technical skills that allow them to influence others.

Interpersonal Skills

Competence in this area means that the individual knows how to deal with people. From a leader development perspective, the BKD model underscores the importance of helping leaders acquire general skills in coaching, teaching, counseling, motivating, and empowering. In particular, the model emphasizes developing communication skills in order to convey one’s intent effectively and motivate others.