Cover photo: Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, U.S. Army Pacific commanding general speaks with a Soldier currently training on the Gulkana Glacier near Black Rapids, Alaska, March 10, 2015. (Sean Callahan/US Army)
Taking care of Soldiers. That’s a favorite catch-phrase used by leaders, usually of the sergeants major variety, to describe any number of things: extra duty, reflective belts, professional development, reflective belts, no tattoos, no wearing headphones, no leave, no walking on the grass, NO, SERIOUSLY, GET OFF THE GRASS, and reflective belts. The problem is that taking care of Soldiers is hard, because the purpose of the Army is to fight and win the nation’s wars, which takes fighting, which hurts Soldiers, which has created cultures in some units where Soldiers are merely tools to an end.
Yet, you can’t have an Army to wage war with unless you have Soldiers. And oddly enough, Soldiers don’t like being treated like tools. By and large, Soldiers like be treated fairly, trained well, and be better than everyone else at their jobs.
In Michael Shaara’s work of historical fiction, The Killer Angels, Confederate General Robert E. Lee says to his fellow officer, General James Longstreet, “To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. That is… a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.”
While this conversation is fictional, it captures one of the key problems with being a leader in the military. To be a good and effective leader, one must create a bond with one’s troops, demonstrate that you care for them, and develop them as future leaders. This creates esprit de corps, raises morale, keeps troops trained and ready, and imbues them with the desire to succeed. On the flip side, you must then be willing to order these young women and men into combat situations with a realistic expectation that they will come to grievous bodily harm and/or death. And that’s not an easy thing to have on your conscience.
Still, the key point to all this is that to have an Army for leaders to lead, you have to have Soldiers. How do we get and retain Soldiers? It comes down to talent and expectation management, something that the Army needs to work on as an organization with nearly one million uniformed personnel.
First, you need to have a clear and directive vision for your troops. Whether this comes in the form of a philosophical mission statement or as a variety of goal-oriented metrics is up to you as a leader, as long as it gives your Soldiers a clear idea of what your end state is. Now, as a combat engineer platoon leader, I could say that my end state is nested within the company mission statement: to provide trained and ready sappers. But what does that mean to the average nineteen or twenty year-old who has to pound pickets, lug demo around, and not get much sleep? Going back to what I said earlier, by and large, Soldiers like to compete, and they like to win. Building a healthy culture of competition that gives Soldiers tangible goals (APFT, marksmanship, best Soldier and best squad competitions) that further the higher unit’s mission will directly empower your troops with the drive to succeed. This even includes the non-sexy metrics. I noticed that after my Soldiers had won Sapper Stakes and Battalion Soldier and NCO of the Year, they also improved their on-time evaluations, height/weight, and quality of their counselings. Winning breeds winning, as the old saying goes.
Setting realistic expectations is also important when it comes to recruiting. If a potential recruit is presented with unrealistic expectations for their career, they are bound to be disappointed in their first enlistment and are less inclined to reenlist.
It is also important to pick the right person for the right job. Sometimes that 11B infantryman is not the best choice to be an infantryman. That doesn’t mean that they’re not fit for the Army. Sometimes they just need to know that there are other options out there for them in the Army, and maybe they are more apt to be a mechanic or an engineer. Maybe they have experienced life changing events – such as starting a family – and are no longer as gung-ho to be in combat arms as they once were. Or they could be tired of the monotony of turning wrenches and would be happier in a combat arms unit. It is on you as a leader to identify these Soldiers on a case by case basis to determine if they are better suited elsewhere, and work to make that happen. Talent management is critical to keeping Soldiers in the Army. Now, of course there are cases where some individuals just don’t fit at all, and that is to be expected. But again, this is why you are paid to lead.
Above all, treat your Soldiers like human beings. They have lives and expectations of their own. A Soldier is less likely to renew their contract if they feel that they are being singled out for some reason that is not tied to their performance. They want to be treated fairly, and if it is not a detriment to the overall mission, there is no reason why they should not be. One of the most common complaints I hear is that Soldiers feel as though no one thinks about their family life. The Army gods have an incredible and insatiable appetite for time, and demand a lot of those who serve. It is therefore incumbent upon leaders to do their utmost to give Soldiers time with their families when possible; because the very nature of our profession means that a lot of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays will be missed. And if a Soldier sees that you are genuinely trying to do right by them and their family, they will be far more likely to endure these absences in good humor rather than resent you – and by proxy the Army – for them.
Empowering your junior leaders goes hand in hand with treating Soldiers like human beings. One of my squad leaders once pointed out an E-4 who was studying field manuals during down time. We quizzed him on what he learned and were sufficiently impressed that we gave him ownership of a platoon mission during a company exercise. Once we were on the objective, I turned over the construction of a triple standard concertina obstacle to the E-4, who absolutely rocked it. Under the eyes of the brigade commander, no less. Both the squad leader and the E-4 came away with pride in their skills and organization, and the mission was completed to standard. It was a win-win for everyone involved. Take advantage of these opportunities in training to let your junior leaders grow and develop; or fall flat on their face, because that’s part of training as well.
Be honest with your troops; and expect the same in return. This can be done through constant, clear, and open communication. When counseling a Soldier, whether developmental or quarterly, treat it as a two-way street. Listen as much as you speak; give them time to talk about their goals and expectations. Then find a way for theirs to match yours, or at least put yourselves on a track to achieving this end state. Sugar-coating a counseling or evaluation does a disservice to yourself and to the Soldier. It may be awkward as hell, but rest assured, it will be far worse if you let problems or issues simmer below the surface.
Promote your Soldiers when they are ready and do so by merit. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen good Soldiers hold the same rank for years when their less-competent peers advance merely because of time-in-grade. This plays hell with their morale, which can directly impact the mission and retention. The converse is slightly more difficult; just because you can promote someone, doesn’t mean that you should. It is an intensely difficult conversation to have, but if a Soldier isn’t hitting the mark they should not be promoted. The easiest way to convey this is with a sit-down informal talk with the Soldier and their first line leader, in addition to their formal counseling. Emphasize all the good things they have done and the potential that you see in them; then give them direction on key areas to improve. Let them know that you are not singling them out personally but that you have the good of the organization in mind, as well as their best interest. Odds are that they have seen leaders who have been promoted who should not have been and will recognize that you are doing the right thing. It is then on the Soldier to turn things around, fix the things you have identified, and get on track. Merely telling them that you are taking them off the promotion list and not taking the time to have this conversation will create a bitter and resentful Soldier. And who can blame them?
Lastly, reward merit, counsel failure. Or in other words, praise in public, discipline in private. Sometimes a Soldier’s failure will be in the public eye, and that is enough to make them want to change. But don’t be the leader who screams at a Soldier in front of formation, unless that’s how you want to be treated as well, in which case, what the hell is wrong with you? Make sure that you are recognizing quality performance that goes above and beyond the expectations that you set at the beginning. Soldiers want to be recognized for the good work that they do; and will be more apt to continue on their course if they know that their leadership sees them.
So really, when we get back to taking care of Soldiers, it comes down to treating them like human beings. Soldiers with a sense of purpose and who feel like they belong are going to be more combat effective because they will be better trained and more motivated. Leveraging their talents and understanding their unique issues will create a trained and ready force, make you an adaptive leader, and keep more Soldiers in the Army so that we can go forth and kick ass together. It is the way that we observe the sacred trust that the mothers and fathers of our Soldiers have given to us, and it is one that we must keep.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.