On August 30, 2010, the Baltimore Police Department began a revolution in the way it trained and educated its police sergeants with the beginning of its first four-week Sergeant Leadership Course. This is no ordinary course; it consists of a four weeks of training encompassing everything from leadership to tactical decision exercises to team building exercises. Every operational sergeant in the department, to include officers who are currently on the promotion list, is required to attend. What it did not include was lectures using Power Point slides.

Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM) offers police officers a better alternative to traditional input-based or competency theory methods that currently govern most training programs at all levels. ALM is perhaps best described as “developmental training,” i.e. the development of the individual within the training of a first responder’s or leader’s task. It emphasizes teaching the “why” behind actions through an emphasis on the fundamental principles that should guide future actions and decisions. ALM is best suited to nurture innovation and adaptability, the characteristics that are absolutely essential in dealing with complex situations officers often find on today’s streets and in handling crisis situations. The recurring questions, however, are: How does one teach in an ALM environment? What are the how-to aspects of implementing the theory behind ALM? Perhaps most importantly, how does a trainer approach leader development using this philosophy?

This last question is of particular importance to police entry level and continuing education and training programs (as well as other law enforcement agencies, emergency medical, fire and security organizations). It is easy to proclaim the need to build adaptive leaders during a PowerPoint briefing, but it is another matter to train and educate people to produce such leaders. The Adaptive Leader Methodology provides a how-to guide for leader development and instruction within today’s environment. This methodology emphasizes nurturing, effective decision-making, and adaptability through experiential learning. In keeping with an outcomes-based approach to training, ALM focuses on the fundamental principles (the “why”) and encourages experimentation and innovation. Aspiring leaders are allowed to try, and sometimes fail, as they struggle to solve increasingly complex tactical problems. Each individual’s strength of character is tested through a crucible of decision-making exercises and communication drills that require the students to brief, and then defend, their decisions against focused criticism from their peers and instructors. That criticism becomes the nucleus and feedback mechanism to improve each participant’s decision making skills in the future.

“Law enforcement training must shift from training officers how to apply solutions and enforce standards to teaching officers how to frame problems and solve them.”

As a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department, I have been part of a determined collective effort to improve how we develop law enforcement professionals. I have implemented this approach within our department as course director for the Sergeant Leadership Course. With ALM serving as the guiding philosophy, retired Army Major Don Vandergriff has implemented instruction based on the ALM model within the Army, and is now starting to extend his approach to developing effective leaders to organizations outside the Army–law enforcement, businesses, and academia. It was clear that the old briefing- and lecture-based methods of teaching—called the competency model—were falling well short of where we needed our officers, especially our sergeants, to go given the complex environments they are facing; a change was necessary. ALM was our guide as myself and 20 other hand-selected sergeant cadre were tasked by Frederick Bealefeld, Baltimore Police Department Commissioner, to change our training methodology. We redesigned our lesson plans and team building exercises to grow the individual while achieving task proficiency. The results thus far have been astonishing and have far exceeded our expectations. The construction of the Sergeants Leadership Course was pivotal to its success. Typically, many large scale courses within police departments are riddled with bureaucracy and sometimes micro management from the top down. Following the essence and theme of the course, Police Commissioner Bealefeld wanted to build a course for sergeants constructed by sergeants. The commissioner provided very little input as to the courses content, though he has continued to provide absolute support in every other aspect of the new course, including personnel and assets.

Commissioner Bealefeld basically issued an order, then placed absolute trust and support in his subordinates to carry out the intent of his order. This trust and support from the commissioner empowered every sergeant involved and created an environment in which no sergeant would fail–and none have. Only sergeants were involved in the program’s development; several of us were promoted during the construction and execution, which will factor into its longevity.

“The main training difference between ‘adaptive leadership’ and traditional leadership is the understanding and acceptance that we cannot predict all the types of problems we will have to solve, so we must train officers who can succeed in almost any situation.”

Personnel considerations were another factor. As the course director, I was well aware that selecting outstanding operational sergeants was imperative to the program’s success. With that knowledge, we requested from the commissioner the participation of the best sergeants in the department, including sergeants from SWAT, CID, IAD, patrol and several other operational units. The commissioner was willing to interrupt his operational tempo by detailing these sergeants to develop the course. The commissioner’s support in this area is a critical example of his commitment to positive change and excellence in his department. This was critical to the program’s success. With the right people enrolled in the course and the best sergeants assisting in running the course, we could then integrate other successful techniques being used in the U.S. Army’s leader development-centric courses.

Beginning in 2007, several courses—including the West Point Department of Military Instruction (DMI), captain, lieutenant and non-commissioned officer courses—put ALM into practice. Some valuable lessons were learned along the way. Several programs, including the Sergeants Course, are enjoying unprecedented success and receiving enthusiastic feedback from our students.


ALM emphasizes nurturing effective decision making and adaptability through experiential learning. Experimentation comes first through the execution of tactical decision-making exercises (TDEs) followed by student briefings of their decisions, plans, or orders. After the student explains himself and responds to criticism from his peers and instructor, the group executes an intense instructor-facilitated after-action review (AARs). The teaching is accomplished through these AARs as the students discover for themselves the concepts and principles included in that lesson’s learning objectives. Only after this has occurred is the theory or doctrine formally introduced by the instructor. There are no preparatory reading assignments or lectures prior to the execution of the TDE. Instead, these readings follow the exercises, allowing the students to more effectively absorb the information within the context that they already established during their experimentation in the classroom.

The tactical decision-making exercise is the basic tool that is used in ALM-based classes regardless of the focus. Each TDE consists of a scenario summary and a map with graphics. The instructor has the option to either hand out a printed copy of the scenario or to issue it verbally to his students, requiring them to listen closely and take notes. The TDEs in ALM-based classes are generally of two types: immediate decision exercises that give the students a few minutes to make a decision and planning exercises that are longer in duration and culminate in the briefing of orders. In either case, instructors give the students limited time and limited information to make their decisions and to complete their plans. This induces stress and allows them to discover for themselves that delaying decisions until one has “perfect intelligence” is both unrealistic and ineffective. As in combat, or dealing with crises and quickly evolving situations, fragmentary orders (FRAGOs) or changes that require the students to make new decisions are the norm. In this way, TDEs nurture adaptability and flexibility as chaos becomes commonplace.

A specific area of emphasis for instructors is the examination of how students use the information at their disposal. Can the the students distinguish between information that is pertinent in making decisions and that which is insignificant? Can they do so quickly? Are they then able to translate why that information is important and determine how they should use it? This is the essence of the Boyd Cycle, a 4-step theory of decision making that was first articulated by Col. John R. Boyd following his study of fighter pilots in combat during the Korean War. Commonly known as “OODA” (observation, orientation, decision, action), the Boyd Cycle is a useful framework for the assessment of students throughout any course using ALM. In ALM-based courses and workshops the focus is on the critical step of orientation because this is where the students attempt to make sense out of the information at hand. The decision that the student makes is important, but the process used to arrive at that decision is equally significant.

Although some might be tempted to draw parallels between OODA and the methodical, process-oriented focus of the Army’s Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP)–also known as the “analytical approach” in business and first responder circles-these two concepts are extremely different. The MDMP is a linear and analytical decision-making approach, while OODA is a how-to-think guide that allows for creative thought and innovation without the restrictions of a rigid step-by-step procedure. It is also important to understand that ALM instructors do not teach the Boyd Cycle. There is no block of instruction or reading assignment devoted to the academic aspects of the OODA Loop. Instead, the Boyd Cycle is an intellectual framework for ALM instructors as they guide the execution of TDEs. Students in an ALM-based course exercise their OODA Loops without knowing they are doing so.


“All training must be designed to include decision-making and developing judgment.”

Diversity is important in ALM-based courses. Army-focused tactical scenarios involve many different types of units as well as a wide variety of operating environments. Homeland security professionals including police, fire, EMS, and other organizations with similar missions—can apply the same approach. Students solve problems within the context of high intensity combat, peacekeeping operations, and counter-insurgency (COIN). This diversity of missions, which can be tailored to specific organizations, makes students adapt to the tactical situation of the moment. With each lesson, comfort zones grow larger regardless of specialty. While this diversity is absolutely essential, it remains important to keep everyone (instructors as well as students) moving in the same direction. William S. Lind’s theory of Maneuver Warfare offers a unifying framework that binds lessons through a common set of themes, and we have discovered this also applies to any organization that relies on each of its members to demonstrate adaptability as it operates in a highly intense and ever-changing environment.

First, students learn to approach their analysis of the terrain (or tactical environment) and the opponent (man-made or natural crisis) with the objective of identifying environmental elements they can use to their advantage. With respect to the enemy (criminal, terrorist element or Mother Nature), we teach our students to identify enemy strengths (which they must avoid) and weaknesses (which they must exploit).5 Rather than strictly focusing on producing an enemy course of action sketch, the cadets seek an understanding of the enemy that is useful for future decision making. This approach is applicable in any type of operating environment, but especially so when facing the complex problems of counter-insurgency or dealing with transnational crime or terrorist activities. With counter-insurgency, it is often more difficult to identify the weaknesses of today’s criminals, criminal gangs and terrorists, and a greater challenge to find ways to exploit them. However, the reality of our current conflicts shows that finding creative ways to defeat an asymmetrical threat is essential for our tactical leaders. 

Secondly, it is vital that students understand the long-term consequences of their immediate actions. This requires the ability to operate within the framework of their commander’s intent. In order to reinforce this concept, students see orders as contracts between senior and subordinate. The higher commander assigns a mission (the short term contract) with the understanding that the subordinate leaders will have maximum latitude in figuring out exactly how they will accomplish that mission. The only stipulation is that the subordinate leader’s solution must not violate the commander’s intent. This intent constitutes the long-term contract between senior and subordinate.6 Ethical conduct and adherence to the rules of engagement (ROE) are always part of the commander’s intent, and this serves to emphasize the often strategic-level consequences of actions at the lowest levels. We have found the U.S. Army lessons from its current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan apply to everyday problems that law enforcement officers often encounter. Thus, the way the Army uses ALM also has applications in developing first responders’ abilities to deal with the conventional and unconventional threats they face. The final unifying theme in ALM-based courses is that they focus on the way that tactics are defined. In ALM-based courses, instructors describe tactics as unique solutions to specific problems, not tasks or drills that must be executed through doctrinal formulas or set procedures. Following fixed rules in fluid and varied situations not only results in unpredictability, it quickly becomes an excuse for not thinking. Since courses using ALM focus on how to think about tactical problem solving, while developing an individual’s competence and confidence, anything that discourages creative thought has no place in its curriculum.


Developing an effective plan for assessing students is the most difficult challenge for courses applying ALM, because of the tendency to seek easily quantifiable methods of assessment. In most course environments, much depends on a student’s class rank and the number of people a course graduates, so there is often a burning desire to remove instructor judgment in favor of a rigid, mathematical grading system. In short, there is a natural fear of subjectivity and a longing for the safety and presumed reliability offered in the objectivity of numbers and checklists. However, is it safe to quantify the intangibles of leadership and adaptability? How can creativity and initiative be assigned a number? Despite these questions, one thing is certain: fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice tests are woefully inadequate for measuring effectiveness in achieving the desired outcomes of training. Because the ability to memorize information is not a good indicator of decision-making skills while in conflict, there is no reason to use this criterion as a basis for testing. Instead, an ALM-based examination focuses on things much more difficult to quantify, placing a great deal of the responsibility and trust in the individual instructor.

Although some ALM-based tests require short answers, these examinations place students in a specific tactical scenario and require them to make decisions. Students must also explain the reasons behind their decisions in writing. For example, students might be told they are the commander for a convoy of vehicles that must travel to an assigned destination within the next several hours. After being presented with information about the composition of the convoy, a map, the nature of the enemy threat, and the specifics of the mission and the commander’s intent, the students must determine which route they will take and explain why that route was selected. The instructor then grades on how the student approached solving the problem using the information at hand and how well the reasoning was communicated. This gets to the point of examining “how” the student is thinking, but not “what” he is thinking.

Another (and more common) assessment technique that ALM instructors use is a graded TDE. Just like the short-answer tests, these are scenario-based and require students to make decisions on the fly. This technique is virtually identical to a standard in-class TDE with the exception that students are required to write out or brief their solutions to their instructors who, in turn, grade those solutions. In many cases, these examinations require students to produce a concept sketch with short hand-written notes concerning exact guidance for individuals, their teams, the sequence of events, and most importantly the purpose behind various actions.

“Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a leader.”

Regardless of the technique or format of the assessment, the tactical scenario must allow for multiple correct ways to solve the problem. For the assessment to be truly effective, students must have the freedom to actually make a decision on their own and formulate a plan rather than being forced to regurgitate a pre-determined template. If tests fail to allow room for creativity, students become focused on identifying the “approved solution” rather than thinking for themselves. In order to permit freedom of thought, scenarios must have a significant amount of ambiguity. The situation must be such that one could reasonably interpret the available information in multiple ways. Of course, this does not preclude the existence of wrong answers. Violations of the commander’s intent, unethical conduct, poor communication, or an unrealistic course of action all constitute failure. Additionally, if the student is unable to make a decision in the face of the time and information constraints of the test (the worst of all possibilities), he is assigned a failing grade. These automatic failure criteria are absolutely essential in communicating to students that they cannot achieve success in the class by going through the motions of employing a template or a checklist to the problem.

The intentional ambiguity in the scenarios necessitates other efforts to keep everyone on the same sheet of music when it comes to grading. It is vital to ensure consistency across the board in this area without imposing an overly restrictive grading scheme that would hinder freedom of judgment from the instructors. In order to effectively calibrate, all instructors must participate in a free exchange of ideas regarding the key concepts that are the focus of the upcoming assessment. In ALM based courses, these group discussions are referred to as faculty development (FD) sessions. Not all FD sessions focus on grading, but those that do begin with the instructors actually taking the test followed by an open discussion regarding the content of the exam and how to approach grading. At the end of this exchange, I would compile the applicable notes from the session into a short set of general guidelines. Because these guidelines are the product of a collective effort, they suffice to keep grading consistent among all instructors.


One of the essential principles of ALM is the requirement to treat students like adults instead of children. This encourages them to take ownership of their development and training. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most frequent positive comments from students—how well the instructors involved them in their educational experience. If the expectation is that they cannot be trusted to do anything without micro-management, then they will act like children. However, if the expectation from the beginning is that students must think and act on their own and take responsibility for their own training, they will almost always conduct themselves responsibly. 


  • Use real problems as the basis for training
  • Generally start with the particular rather than the abstract theory
  • Focus on the why, not just the what and how
  • All teaching must combine doing with explaining and student understanding; all training requires employing skills to solve problems
  • Standardize by outcomes, not by inputs or processes—allow both teachers and students the opportunity to try new approaches— minimize controls
  • Create an environment in which it’s ok to make mistakes—penalize only failure to think or failure to try
  • Constant feedback is essential—and must be acted upon
  • Assess what’s important rather than what’s easy to measure
  • Align incentives. What’s rewarded? What’s penalized?
  • Cross-share what’s worked and what hasn’t at all levels

We used this principle when the cadre participated in the ALM workshop “Deciding Under Pressure and Fast” held last year. This approach inspired a surge in enthusiasm from students from several Army courses. What they seem to enjoy most is the fact that they are actually allowed to make decisions and figure things out on their own. Rather than being asked to regurgitate lists of information, they are required to think creatively under pressure. Many of students took the time to voice their opinions of the training during the Sergeant’s Course. Their comments on the method of instruction (ALM) were almost uniformly positive with statements, including the following:

“The previous classes, especially in-service, seemed to be merely checking the box. ‘Okay, here is a situation and here is how it was resolved. Study it and know it.’ I didn’t like that approach very much. I enjoy the way we did it this in the [sergeant’s] course because it was really my plan or decision that failed or succeeded.”

“BPD courses in the past have been monotonous and boring. The approach of this new course required us to take an interest, make a call, and put ourselves in the shoes of a real leader on the street.”

“I think the class discussions were the best part of the course. We went over alternate solutions for TDEs, and we had to defend ourselves against criticism. This made me more confident in myself, but it also showed me other perspectives and made me work on dealing with criticism.”

Putting ALM into practice in our homeland security disciplines (law enforcement, fire, EMS, medical, search and rescue, etc.) courses will take a lot of time and work on the part of many instructors. It will be a collective effort executed within the overarching framework of an outcomes-based training environment. Although there are always improvements to make, it is clear that Army instructors using ALM in coursework results in resounding success, and students and instructors alike enjoy the experience. Most importantly, the level of performance in the classroom has increased from previous courses. The results speak for themselves: ALM is an effective tool for teaching and developing adaptability regard less of the environment. It is here to stay in the Army, and hopefully it will take hold in law enforcement as well.


is a 14-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department. He was the facilitator in the use of the adaptive leadership methodology and outcome-based training in the sergeants leadership course at BPD.


(U. S. Army retired) has applied the principles of the adaptive leadership methodology successfully throughout the Army and he continues to do so in the Army, the Marine Corps, and the Baltimore Police Department.

The authors would like to thank Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld and Adam Walinsky for their support; without it, the Sergeants Leadership Course would not have happened.

  1. The Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM) is the product of the efforts of retired Major Don Vandergriff, a well-known and influential thinker in the area of leader development, who is a contractor in support of the Army Capabilities Integration Center Forward (ARCIC Forward). Initially, this instructional method was known as the Adaptive Leader Course (ALC). The name was changed to more clearly reflect that this is an approach/methodology rather than an actual course of instruction at a schoolhouse.
  2. Donald E. Vandergriff, “Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War” (Washington, DC: CDI Press, 2006) pg 77-111. Chapter 3 of this book outlines the program of instruction (POI) for a course that employs ALM-based instructional methods. Vandergriff’s approach is also supported by the latest learning theory of Dr. Robert Bjork of UCLA.
  3. (Klein, Gary Ph.D, 2003) In his book “Intuition at Work,” Klein discusses his experiments and studies on how first responders make decisions under pressure and utilize the Recognition Primed Decision Making Process.
  4. Ibid., pg. 47-49
  5. William S. Lind, “Maneuver Warfare Handbook” (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985) 73-89. Lind describes these concepts as enemy “surfaces and gaps.”
  6. Ibid., pg. 13-15. Lind describes the commander’s intent as a long-term contract between the commander and his subordinate leaders. The immediate mission is what the commander wants done, but he allows his subordinates the latitude to exercise creativity and initiative in determining exactly how they will accomplish that mission.
  7. Ibid., pg. 12.