“Raising the Bar” & Adaptive Leadership book talks with author, Don Vandergriff

“Learn How to Do Everything Better” is the tag line you’ll find on Major (Ret.) Don E. Vandergriff’s website. How he transitioned from a 24 year military career in the Marine Corps, Army National Guard and Army as an infantryman and tanker into his business is what we explore on today’s WoW- Words on Wednesdays.

It’s the first of our interviews with this educator and author currently based in Virginia, but hailing from Tennessee. His book, “Raising the Bar” – one of the 5 he’s published, was named #1 to the Cadet Command Mandatory Reading List for 2014.  It’s full title is:  Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War (See Amazon link below)

Don Vandergriff

Don Vandergriff

Vandergriff has devoted most of the last decade working on new learning methodology and training doctrine on how to develop and nurture adaptability into U.S. Army leaders. He has briefed four-star generals and Congressmen as well as the Secretary of the Army.

The adaptability methodology he created is used by US Military Academy, US Army ROTC as well as at the Army Reconnaissance Course (ARC). It is applied at the Army Centers of Excellence and Special Warfare Training Group and Ranger Training Brigade, as well as Law Enforcement.

While serving as professor at Duke and Georgetown University, Vandergriff developed the entire curriculum for the Army ROTC departments. He then persuaded chain of command to allow him to implement and as a result successfully evolve both programs into high performing organizations turning out top cadets nationally.

When he founded Adaptive-leader LLC it was to develop and share innovative approaches in:

  • Leader Development
  • Education and Training techniques
  • Team building

The goals are to impact both military and civilian spheres were decision-making and effective action are concerned. We’ll share more on his ideas about generational change in leader development paradigms in preparing for 21st Century warfare and of the science of creating more effective non-military organizations in upcoming posts.

………..and now Don Vandergriff gives MilSuccessNet readers a first glimpse into his work and his writing proceess in his own words….. 

 Welcome, Sir. Can you tell us how you moved from military man to author, lecturer, trainer and consultant?

I am a retired Army officer, and former Marine.

I got into reform because at one time, I was “fast-tracking” in the Army, and told one too many truths to the powers in place at that time. Got a poor officer evaluation report, all based on me telling the truth in responding to a question. The senior officer did not like the answer I gave him. From that point on, my career was trashed. So, instead of quitting and getting out, which was an early thought, my wife Lorraine told me simply, “Do something about it”.

I loved being a Soldier and a leader. So, it was disheartening to discover that one bad OER like the one I got, for just a three-month period for displaying moral courage, could destroy one’s career. So the writing and researching began.

It began with our personnel management system. Now, it has evolved into cultures and how to develop leaders. More specifically, it’s about how to create and sustain or evolve effective organizations to deal with modern, complex operating environments.

Raise the Bar on of 5 published books

Raise the Bar on of 5 published books

Can you talk a bit about the process of writing  for you?  Why did you feel this particular book needed to be written?

I am constantly researching about how to do things better, particularly how to develop and enable leaders to make decisive decisions under tough (combat) conditions.

What kind of research pulls you?

I must read 4-5 hours a day, and I am always looking at books  covering not only military history but any domain that deals with thinking, learning, how to build teams, how the brain works, etc..

My main goal is not to talk about the history of why someone lost or won a battle, but how they got developed (or not developed) to make the decisions they did. Everyone writes about the campaigns or battles, but how and why did Lee or Grant or their subordinates make good or bad decisions?

You want to know the ‘How To’

Don Vandergriff in training mode

Don Vandergriff in training mode

Can you share with our readers how you intertwine intense writing and research efforts with your consulting work, especially since you consult at Ft. Benning, Afghanistan and you are a trainer/mentor with NATO?

While I’m working on the missions I get, I also leave up the current project I am working on. When I’m on break or not active on a mission, I write on a book or paper or research on the topics I  think I have to do that day.

Some days I might only write a couple of paragraphs or a few pages or I might spend all my time researching a subject that I have to define or explain. Often,  it leads me to unplanned paths and to things I did not know about.

It’s great and very professionally satisfying to uncover approaches that work. I just did a lecture to a bunch of drill sergeants at Fort Benning on the history of Mission Command, and two of them afterward came up and said, “We get it now. No one has every explained the why behind mission command or where it came from. It makes sense now.”

This was based on the new book I was writing. That was great that these two E7s felt that way. It was also good to know that what they also liked was that I talked for 90 minutes with no power point (just a dry erase board). We involved the entire class.

Your presentations are often a lab for your research findings. Are you currently working on another book?

Yes,  Adopting Mission Command: A Superior Command Culture and How to Make It Work is the title.

We look forward to your notes on that in an upcoming “WoW”as I understand it is close to completion.

For today, can you summarize the books you have published to date?

Yes, my pleasure to share the titles.

Spirit, Blood and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century (Presidio Press, 2001). This book deals with the US Military and how to reform it do prepare it for 21st Warfare written by several protégés of John Boyd.

Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (2nd  Edition, AUG 2013). This book goes into the history behind US Army leader and Soldier development and how to move it from a linear, centralized top down force, to one that can conduct Maneuver Warfare and how to develop leaders to operate under Mission Command

Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptive Leaders to Deal with the Changing Face of War (2nd Edition, May 2012). Presents the adaptive course model on how to develop adaptive leaders through innovative training and education approaches.

Manning the Legions of the United States and Creating Tomorrow’s Centurions (Praeger, May 2008). It is about innovative recruiting and training for the US Army.

The Adaptive Handbook for Law Enforcement, with Fred Leland, (January 2014). Presents ideas on how to create adaptive and innovative law enforcement officers using innovative training and education techniques.

Don, we’ll take a break here and encourage our readers to explore your work.

It is clear there is a  flow in both directions of skills or practices –  army to corporate –  military to marketplace contained in your books and in your approach to adaptive leadership.

Next up, we’ll review your foundational system’s tenets covered in Raising the Bar and learn more about some of the critical info in Mission Command.

Connect with Donald E. Vandergriff on LinkedIn or Facebook as he criss crosses the globe.

For a quick link to Raising the Bar, click below.


  1. Candace Thompson says:

    Love what Vandergriff is doing! We could use more like him. Thanks for writing this, Helena Kaufman.

    • My pleasure, Candace. Thank you for your comment and visit to Military Success Network. It is our privilege to know veterans contributing at such a high level and to cover some of their work.

      Veterans, directly or through the work of their family, such as your book and story sharing!
      More to come from Don Vandergriff, to be sure.

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