Case Study: Training that Drives Exceptional Results

Excerpt from “Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity Through Leadership that Matters” by Gary Morton.

Most military units’ primary mission in times of peace is to prepare for the violence and chaos of combat should hostilities breakout. Training, particularly field training, is vital to that preparedness and essential to mission achievement. The Cold War’s most combat ready U.S. Army tank unit devised an innovative approach to dividing up its crucial field training time that was instrumental to its unprecedented success in winning every simulated battle at the grueling National Training Center (NTC). Task Force Commander Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Fred Dibella dubbed the approach “the one-third/two-thirds rule.” Lessons from this extraordinary military unit’s disciplined adherence to this rule are applicable across a wide variety of training experiences in organizations from companies to nonprofits.

Here is an excerpt from the book, “Commanding Excellence,” that explains the fundamentals of the concept:

The One-Third/Two-Thirds Rule

Fred Dibella termed it the one-third/two-thirds rule. It applied to field training and to the planning of combat operations between receipt of mission and the mission’s start.

As Dibella put it, “Discipline yourself and everyone so that two-thirds of the time, as a rule, has to go to the trigger pullers, to do whatever they need to do. Nobody knows that except them. It happens because you’ve ingrained it into yourselves and into your staff.”

This simple rule was a crucial enabler of our ability to devise, test, and accept or reject new ideas.

In training exercises leading up to NTC, Dibella held to the rule and consistently left two-thirds of the time to the level below the task force. In a nine-day training exercise, we would spend three days conducting simulated engagements at the task-force level. The other six days were for the company commanders, allowing them to focus on what they felt their unit most needed. The company commanders would follow a similar process, dividing time between company-level exercises and platoon-level training. Individual tank crews received a similar treatment in their platoons. This time allowed us to develop and experiment with our new ideas.

The point was that at every level, leaders could gain the precious resource of field time to work on their unit’s specific strengths and weaknesses. The playbook helped to define those specific activities the unit needed to excel in, and the one-third/two-thirds rule gave them the time to actually excel. If the unit was good but not great at some activity that was critical to their role in a play, they would drill and drill until they could execute with excellence. The focus facilitated a deliberate practice of those things that were central to each unit’s combat proficiency. While they were doing this, the general atmosphere allowed new ideas to percolate. The champions for an idea would have the time to try it out, to experiment, and to verify or reject the idea.

The playbook counted on Alpha to be “the central killing power of the task force,” as Dibella described it. He also used to exclaim to every tank crew in the task force, “Nothing else matters if you don’t bore-sight the gun tube!”

That process of aligning the main gun with the optical sights of the tank was absolutely crucial. If the gun and the sights were misaligned, the tank was little more than a 60-ton moving target; it would not be able to hit targets accurately and inflict damage on the enemy.

In Alpha, we were fanatical about hitting targets; our accuracy in long-range tank gunnery was vital. Our strong compliment of master gunnery school graduates constantly experimented with methods to improve our bore-sighting techniques. In MILES gunnery, you did not have to contend with range-finding systems, since the laser shot is a direct line of sight; but any slight misalignment meant that long-range shots—anything more than 2,000 meters—would miss the target.

Alpha’s crews worked and worked until they devised the best techniques for aligning the sights. Then we drilled it until every crew could make a near-perfect bore sight that would stay consistent for the entire day’s maneuvers every time. Without the field time and freedom to experiment, this never would have happened.

Each company and each platoon used their time to experiment and to deliberately practice their main roles in the plays time and time again. This atmosphere of experimentation engaged the creative process. Leaders developed customized training approaches. Team Bravo, the lead in our attack plays, needed to be great at land navigation. Bobby Campbell (former platoon leader in Bravo) spoke of a technique Bravo’s commander used to hone their land-navigation skills. “We used to have company training missions downrange Fort Carson,” Campbell said, “and we’d have stand to, and Joe Moore would announce a grid (definition for a point on a terrain map), and everybody had to move to that grid for breakfast. The first unit there got to eat first. The last unit there had to serve. So we grew up with extremely high expectations.”

Company commanders, platoon leaders, NCOs, and soldiers knew that Dibella and the chain of command would allow them to do what they thought best. Crews and NCOs also knew they could use prized field time to try out their most interesting ideas. It helped to bring out an outpouring of ingenuity that became a significant force multiplier. The one-third/two-thirds rule gave everyone the time to work on the things they needed to improve.

Applying the Rule

For organizations with a clear mission or purpose, an effective training program should grant all levels a marked degree of autonomy to devise and conduct essential training. Formal training planned and managed from a corporate office or administrative headquarters is valuable, but should consume no more than one-third of the available training time. Give lower-level managers and supervisors the time and resources to conduct training specific to their people and their team’s particular roles in the overall organizational mission. This will engage nearly everyone in the process of honing and improving their skills and, over time, dramatically improve organizational effectiveness.

Excerpt from “Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity Through Leadership that Matters” by Gary Morton

West Point distinguished graduate and Stryker EMS senior co-founder Gary Morton is the author of “Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters.” For more information, visit and follow @garymorton6.


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