Perception matters and the perspective of the Soldiers you lead provides insight. How are you being perceived? How do you know what they need from a Company Commander? Who is experienced enough to lend legitimacy to the enlisted perspective? Enter, the Noncommissioned Officer. Every young lieutenant can remember the Noncommissioned Officers who significantly impacted his or her career. When I arrived to my first unit, one week before deployment, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The leadership and perspective of my NCOs informed my leadership. One NCO in particular gave me even more than I could have expected.
This post was inspired by, and based on, an outline provided by a Senior Noncommissioned Officer with close to 20 years of service leading Infantrymen and Special Operations Forces in garrison and deployed environments.
My Team Leaders, Squad Leaders, Platoon Sergeant, and First Sergeant all played massive roles in my development as a Platoon Leader and Officer. But, it was the Platoon Sergeant of a sister platoon that later provided me some of the most valuable feedback and sound counsel. This was surprising because, at first, I thought the guy hated. He is perhaps one of the best NCOs and Army leaders I have seen in action, but I always got the feeling I was falling short of his expectations. One day, without reason, that changed.
When I was leaving the unit to go to the Maneuver Captains Career Course, MSG R sent me an outline of what made Company Commanders “Good” or “Bad” from the perspective of each level at which he had served. He also included insights on a Company Commander – First Sergeant Relationship and what training “done right” looks like. You can find these perspectives below.
PRIVATE / SPECIALIST
- Demonstrated a genuine care for Soldiers and Soldier issues.
- Knew the names of Soldiers and their wives.
- Were capable of general, yet personal inquiries during the limited interactions that occurred.
- Held all individuals equitably accountable for personal actions, regardless of rank, time in service, or past performance; no double standards.
- Promoted individuals based on demonstrated leadership, past performance, and future potential, not simply on time in grade or service alone.
- Encouraged and sometimes forced the attendance of military schools and pursuit of civilian education goals. Some Soldiers don’t realize their own potential.
- Publicly recognized top performers and individual Soldier achievements no matter how small; it is imperative to support and encourage innovative and adaptive leadership.
- Instilled a sense of pride in the entire company through their reputation and performance.
- Showed intelligence and respect for subordinates rather than trying to instill fear.
- Allowed double standards to prevail in the handling of UCMJ. Failed to remain equitable in punishments across the ranks.
- Failed to lead by example. The Commander should always be visible during individual, team, squad and platoon training. Make it a priority.
CORPORAL / SERGEANT
- Took an active interest in the development of Team Leaders and ensured the right NCOs held the correct job.
- Empowered Team Leaders to be decisive, aggressive, and adaptive.
- Held quarterly/semi-annual Team competitions to discourage complacency and increase Team proficiency. They consistently challenged and created learning opportunities for Team Leaders. Team Leaders earn their position on a daily basis.
- Trained leaders through their failures and understood if they aren’t failing, then they aren’t being trained hard enough.
- Failed to trust and empower the Team Leaders.
- Didn’t send Team Leaders to Ranger School or other force enhancing school, just to ensure top performers were available for STX lanes etc..
- Rarely took personal and vested interest in the development of Team Leaders.
- Maintained a firm finger on the pulse of the company (e.g. individual Squad Leader strengths and weaknesses).
- Instituted a robust and comprehensive Squad Leader development program. Squad Leaders need to be Subject Matter Experts of not only battle drills, but every enabling technology that will assist in the ground fight (e.g. CWIED tools, UAV capabilities, CCA communication and capabilities, various communication platforms, Call for Fire).
- Created a learning environment where Squad Leaders were not intimated or afraid to make a mistake. Squad Leader development needs to be peer-centric and isolated from their subordinates. They always provided a challenge and never allowed Squad Leaders to feel complacent in their job.
- Failed to ask for or accept input from Squad Leaders in developing training events.
- Didn’t empower Squad Leaders through a sense of ownership.
- Rarely ensured an adequate understanding of the planning process at the squad leader-level. They failed to utilize planning exercises or tactical decision games to drive home the importance of understanding Friendly Situation, Enemy & Terrain Analysis, and ultimately COA DEV.
- Failed to send Squad Leaders to Ranger School or other force enhancing schools, just to ensure top performers were available for STX lanes etc..
- Allowed Squad Leaders to become complacent in their jobs. Squad Leaders need to understand that they are only as good as their last performance.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS
- Maintained a firm finger on the pulse of the company and its collective strengths and weaknesses.
- Always lead by example, from Physical Training through demonstrating subject matter expertise; look left/right compare your performance to adjacent commanders.
- Empowered PSGs by enforcing a Leadership Team mentality between Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants. LPDs were executed over OPDs or NCOPDs. No such thing as NCO or Officer Business, it is Leader Business. These two senior leaders fight the last 100m together and they must be synchronous, especially on the contemporary battlefield.
- Were constant students of their profession. They possessed the answers for seemingly everything applicable to the current mission.
- Applied due diligence at all levels of operational and administrative tasks. No task was too small to be done right.
- Maximized training events. It should never be “just another” M4 Range or a MG Range. Be creative, and take advantage of the time that these “mundane” events allow.
- Accepted two way communication with all leaders, but when the chips were down they expected complete and unquestioning execution of orders.
- Did not settle for substandard NCOs/LTs. If you were a non-performer you were removed from troops.
- Powered down to subordinates, but did not power off subordinate leaders by micro-managing.
- Micromanaged PLs and PLTs; allow them to make mistakes in training, but never allow them to make the same mistake twice.
- Went home before the NCOs – consistently invested less time than subordinates.
- When sought for guidance, failed to provide it. Always provide an answer… even if it is “Let me get back to you with a better answer.” Never allow a subordinate to feel that his or her development or question is not important.
- Publicly berated leaders in front of subordinates. There is a time and place for corrections, do your best to do so out of earshot from subordinates.
- Failed to balance PL/PSG Teams.
- Jumped to conclusions! Don’t lose your temper. Evaluate a situation and take a tactical pause before you react to a situation. Collect the facts, avoid knee-jerk reactions, and always make the best decision for the company in the end… even if this contradicts your personal feelings.
BUILDING A COMMAND TEAM
- A true Ranger Buddy with whom you share a complete confidence and trust.
- Share mutual understanding of the Company’s collective and individual leader strengths and weaknesses.
- Possess a singular shared Command Philosophy and Vision as a team – mutual assessment of the company as it is and as it could be.
- Expect the First Sergeant to be a genuine mentor for NCOs and the Platoon Leaders.
- Expect and enable the First Sergeant to be a SME in administration, training, maintenance, and systems.
- A team that is equally visible in all company events.
- A team that is personally committed to NCO/Leader development.
- Allow the First Sergeant to enforce honest evaluations and recommendations for promotion.
- Equitable respect. You may not agree 100%, of the time or on a topic, but do your best to control the situation and give your counterpart the space to absorb what he or she cannot control.
- You will have disagreements, but they must be handled behind closed doors and with mutual respect. When in front of the company you are always a team.
- Company level FTX: e.g. Company was in the field for a week, but platoons operated in Platoon Patrol Bases and conducted decentralized patrolling with squads and attachments. This empowered Squad Leaders to train their squads, facilitated working on the fundamentals without excessive criticism, and allowed the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant to train their squads and work on their individual platoon weaknesses. Allow the SL to be the instructor when possible.
- Any event in which you can shoot real bullets. These times can be limited, so maximize the time Soldiers have behind real bullets. Utilize training support centers to their fullest capabilities. Understand Range Control regulations, push the limits, and don’t accept word of mouth. Dig in the regulations and know what is and what is not allowed. Tribal knowledge can be the largest inhibitor of innovation/adaptability in training.
- Sim-munitions are the next best thing. Incorporate them into both urban and rural training scenarios. Logistically they are sometimes a pain to procure, utilize, and maintain, but the resulting training is invaluable.
- Any training event involving realistic external enablers (e.g. aviation, engineers, civil affairs, female engagement teams, etc.). But, don’t let enabler overload detract from the basics. Instead, incorporate scenarios that break the monotony of training and motivates Soldiers. Maximize training time to get the most value/ return on investment.
- CALFEXs are always a favorite – make sure they focus on the basics of fire and maneuver while pushing the limits of “range-isms” to make it as close to combat as possible.
- Incorporate site-unseen iterations prior to dry/blank/live iterations.
- Crucible training events that test your unit physically and mentally – with a clear sense of purpose – bring the unit closer and strengthen the team. It is through these events that camaraderie is born, you develop pride in your unit and its leadership, and you earn respect from your subordinates and peers.
- Be engaged as a Commander and First Sergeant Team. Empower your Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants to plan events, but absolutely stay engaged and coach/mentor them in the right direction. Start the planning process as early as possible and maximize resource capabilities. Training meetings are at times mundane, but are critical to building shared understanding. Use the 8-Step Training Model – it works!
Worst Training Events:
- FTXs with wasted training time. This allowed Soldiers to sit around waiting on company directives. Ensure there is a clear timeline and task/ purpose so platoons can operate autonomously.
- Events where specified feeding/chow times imposed restrictions to training. Soldiers completely lose focus and the overall training value is lost. MREs and the occasional hot soup/coffee will boost morale, but won’t degrade training. If you are going to serve hot chow, make sure it is tactically procured and flexible to the timeline/ pace of the operation. Train as you fight – eat like you would in the environment for which you are preparing to fight.
- Poorly planned or resourced events – it shows and the Soldiers can tell. “Copy & Paste” training demoralizes the formation.
- “Check-the-block” training events and mundane ranges.
EXPECTATIONS OF A PLATOON LEADER
- Platoon Leaders have to “put their name” on every order, (i.e. take ownership and never say, “the Commander/ Higher wants us to do this”).
- Due diligence, due diligence, due diligence – faithful in little, faithful in much.
- If they do not have a Ranger Tab, hand them a packing list and help them prepare for it. You are doing them and their Soldiers a favor by expecting and training them to return.
- Always tie down your ACOG…Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants need to conduct Pre-Combat Checks on each other.
- Seek development from their Platoon Sergeants, but take charge of their unique position and opportunity to develop their Platoon Sergeants.
- Seek the input of their Squad Leaders in COA DEV; even if they don’t use the input in the end, it builds a sense of trust and confidence within the platoon’s leadership.
- Don’t try to be the fun PL or best friend of leaders in the PLT. They are the PL and must act accordingly at all times.
- The Platoon Leader’s ability to integrate with the platoon, truly partner with the PSG, and ability to coach and mentor Team Leaders/ Squad Leaders will determine the success of the platoon.
- Must intimately understand the construct of the platoon, its strengths & weaknesses, and how to get the most out of the platoon.
- Platoon Leaders are going to make mistakes, but they can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. Soldiers suffer the failures of their Platoon Leader. (As a commander, your training scenarios should help produce those mistakes. If they are not, you are not challenging your leaders enough).
I kept this advice in mind and printed in my “50 Meter Book”, through all of my commands. It helped guide my plans as a Company Commander. The one addition I would make, is that a Leader looks for opportunities to help those laterally and vertically. My Platoon Sergeant taught me well and I still benefit from a great relationship with him today. At the time, I wanted a better relationship with MSG R too. I believed (my perspective at the time) that he was waiting for me to prove myself. In a more recent conversation he gave me the benefit of his perspective:
“I was a young Staff Sergeant having just made the list for Sergeant First Class, just shy of 9 years in the Army, and the youngest/newest Platoon Sergeant in the Company. Leader development was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just surviving and trying to do the best I could. I was still learning how to be a Platoon Sergeant. Developing a young platoon leader was a relatively foreign concept to me. Luckily, there was plenty of mutual development between my Platoon Leader and me throughout our time together and after. By the time I departed the Company, I was just beginning to comprehend the importance of leader development and how to do it.”
That is the crux of perspective. To MSG R, he was the youngest/newest. To me, a brand new Platoon Leader, he was a seasoned veteran with a wealth of knowledge. Which brings me to one last matter of perspective: Never doubt the impact your leadership can have. I am thankful for the relationship I had with this great NCO then and still maintain today, much as I am thankful for the countless other NCOs who continue to teach and train me. Their partnership to prepare our Soldiers and formation for war is invaluable.