That Ranger School is a leadership school is not the only piece of unfortunate advice meted out to aspiring Rangers. Future Ranger students are also too often told that Ranger instructors will teach them everything they need to know. While not true, this claim does have at least a minimum basis in the facts of the course’s structure. The Ranger School curriculum is progressive and sequential. Classes are designed to teach students individual skills first, and then build squad and platoon tactics on top of these.
Students sit in class for hours (trying to stay awake) before going out to test their skills. But the school ensures that Ranger students will get four or fewer hours of sleep a night during their 61-day experience (or much longer for the majority who recycle at least once) to help create the stress that will test the students’ mettle. This is not a normal learning experience. Soldiers without a solid foundation of small-unit tactics before going to the school have a much more difficult experience than those with one.
Consequently, Ranger School is more of a character and leadership assessment than a leadership school. Students do learn whether they can lead (or follow) when tired, hungry, physically on the edge of exhaustion, and pushed to their often previously untested limits—but not necessarily how to do so.
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the United States Military Academy superintendent, often uses the analogy of a coffee cup to explain character. All of your values (duty, selfless service, courage, respect) are poured into the cup until it is almost overflowing. Then life gives your elbow a bump and your values spill out, exposing your true character. Ranger School is more like getting into a car wreck. It is a collision, not a jostle. After weeks of starvation, sleep deprivation, pushing toward physical limits, and stress—all while being evaluated—your true character will come spilling out.
To be sure, any soldier who attends Ranger School will be a better leader for it. Army doctrine ascribes to the ideal Army leader a “strong intellect, physical presence, professional competence, [and] moral character.” Ranger School graduates will have demonstrated their intellect in making decisions under extreme conditions, their competence in infantry squad and platoon tactics, their physical presence in multiple evaluated events, and their character attributes while working as a team member and leader to accomplish difficult missions. But any leadership development is principally a tangential function of Ranger School’s tactical instruction and assessment. Such development is not a top priority.
So for any soldier preparing for Ranger School: Expect to be tested, physically and mentally. Expect it to hurt. Expect to be hungry, and cold, and tired. Expect to emerge from the school as a better, more highly trained, and more proficient combat-arms soldier. Expect to learn the tactics that have worked for many generations of warfighters. But do not expect to be taught leadership.
Author’s note: For more on how best to prepare to succeed in Ranger School, read my article, “The Challenges of Ranger School and How to Overcome Them.”