As an Army officer, I tend to spend a lot of time talking about, well, talking about officer things. And no, that does not mean discussing polo, the price of cufflinks, sipping brandy, and thinking of ways to make our NCOs lives harder, as some circles might believe. Although the brandy thing isn’t too far off since it sometimes feels like officers spend an inordinate amount of time discussing craft beers and the like than enlisted do. But I’m getting away from myself here.
Most of my writing on military leadership has been geared towards the officer realm since that’s what I know. I made the move from enlisted to officer seven years ago now, and while I try to keep the perspective of an E-4, it’s safe to say that my brain has finally made the move over to the officer side of the house. But that’s not to say that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the corps of the non-commissioned officer. NCOs will literally either make or break your career and/or unit. For all the training that officers receive, the single most important part of it often is “listen to your NCOs.”
And let me say here, I’ve gotten incredibly lucky: all the NCOs that I’ve been paired with in leadership positions have been some of the best I’ve ever seen. From platoon sergeant to operations sergeant to first sergeant, I’ve had NCOs that exceeded every standard put in front of them. Any success that I might have as an officer is a direct reflection on the type of mentorship I received from my NCOs. Now, that doesn’t mean I’ve never seen bad NCOs; I’ve seen and dealt with more than my share. Like officers, when NCOs go bad it’s a terrible thing to see. But by and large, the NCOs in my direct supervision have been outstanding.
So that said, here’s a few characteristics of highly effective NCOs that I’ve observed over the years.
Whether you’re on a patrol or back in garrison, an NCO that both understands and anticipates implied tasks is worth their weight in gold. As a platoon leader, executive officer, or commander, time is a precious commodity. We’re usually running this way and that, like chickens with our proverbial heads cut off. It’s the NCOs that ensure that the basic tasks are completed that can allow a mission to go forward or to keep a unit running. They are the oil in the machine that is the Army. And when NCOs stop being proactive and become reactive, then the unit basically grinds to a halt. It’s always painfully obvious when that kind of breakdown occurs. A unit can survive a poor officer; it cannot survive poor NCOs.
Know the Duty Position
It goes without saying, I suppose, that officers and NCOs have different responsibilities. But just exactly what some of those are and how they are split between the two can be a bone of contention for many people. It’s not just that officers plan and NCOs execute; there’s more to it. Take for example the relationship between the platoon leader and the squad leaders. Yes, the platoon sergeant mentors, guides, and directs the squad leaders, but those E-6’s are not the platoon sergeant’s. Successful squad leaders work closely with the platoon leader to execute her or his plans. Successful platoon sergeants know this and work closely in the background to ensure that everything is fully resourced, all troops are where they need to be, and in the right uniform. But even more than this, platoon sergeants, first sergeants, and sergeants major are the senior enlisted advisers for their organizations. If officers are not using them as sounding boards and guideposts, then that officer is bound to fail. When officers and NCOs understand their roles and stay out of each others way, it’s a beautiful thing to see. That’s when an organization can function with maximum efficiency. Otherwise, it’s just everyone tripping over each others’ feet, and if we wanted to see that we’d just ask the Navy to do some drill and ceremony.
NCOs are the backbone of the Army. But they are also the trainers, the confidants, the institutional knowledge, the conscience, and the teachers of the Army. One of the finest squad leaders I ever had was a quiet individual who just had the sheer presence of leadership that he carried with him everywhere. He didn’t brag, he didn’t shout; he just was. Multiple deployments, sniper qualified, he could most often be found teaching his Soldiers. Everything from marksmanship to demolition knots, he would work with them one-on-one until he saw the light of understanding come on in their eyes. I sat back and watched him one day after he had told me that he was going to get out soon; while I understood that he needed a change, I was still upset to lose such a good NCO. But as I watched him, I realized that I wouldn’t be losing him at all. He was training up a whole squad to be like him. And sure enough, those leaders have gone on to excel – and became mentors in their own right.
Know When to Step Back
This one is hard. So many NCOs are outstanding team and squad leaders, and so when they finally pin E-7, stepping back is a tough adjustment. Same with first sergeant. But in order to allow younger NCOs to grow, you have to be able to step back. Of course, you can jump in if asked or if things are about to go dramatically sideways, but leaders need to learn by doing. The best NCOs know that as they advance up the chain they have to become less hands on and pass the torch to the NCOs taking their place. Otherwise you get micromanagement, which isn’t pretty from officers and is downright ugly in NCOs.
Guide their Officers
I’m not saying that NCOs are there to babysit officers because otherwise I wouldn’t have had to initiate disciplinary procedures for an E-6 that acted like an E-1 (he was so bad that this is actually an insult to E-1’s) – but there is a certain amount of truth to that statement. Officers need a built in mentor and guide with more experience than they have. And even more than that, officers need to have someone there who’s not afraid to tell them when they’re on the wrong track. I use my first sergeant and executive officer as sounding boards – and they usually end up red-teaming my ideas, which works out incredibly well. But without that individual, there’s no check on officers who are the proverbial good idea fairy. And with new officers, it’s even more important, because they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to that NCO to teach them and put them on the right track for their careers. NCOs that fail to work alongside their officers do a grave damage to not only that officer’s development as a leader but also to all future Soldiers they will work with. Therefore it is a grave responsibility which should not be taken lightly.
Protect their Profession
NCOs carry the standard in the Army for discipline. But they also should embody the Army ethos, values, and creed. Yes, they should steward our profession, but they should also protect it; protect the profession from those who would undermine it with toxic leadership or by breaking faith with our Soldiers and the American people. Successful NCOs understand that they set the standard that they wish to see. They also take ownership of their roles and guard them fiercely. For example, my first sergeant has taken ownership of the unit manning report and personnel actions, because he understands that the overall strength of the unit is part of our joint responsibility. While I focus on training, he focuses on personnel. We both run ideas and plans by each other, and he ensures that as commander I have final say; it is an arrangement that works exceedingly well. He safeguards the profession by working with the platoon leadership to make sure that the right people are in the right positions. Understanding personnel actions is one of the key indicators I’ve seen in highly successful first sergeants. And a first sergeant that can effectively manage personnel is worth their weight in RipIts.
Lastly, NCOs need to have a passion for the Army and for their job. While this holds true for leaders at all levels, it is especially important for NCOs. Enlisted Soldiers will see their officers but most of the time will not be working directly with them 24/7. The NCO is the one that they see and model their behavior off of – or take notes on how not to be when they reach that level. In this way, the team leader and squad leader positions are the most powerful in the Army for effecting change. Passionate leaders imbue their own troops with that drive for excellence. Passionate, knowledgeable, driven, and empathetic NCOs can be one of the most dynamic forces for good in a unit. Especially empathetic. Yes, good NCOs uphold the standards and traditions of the Army and are fair disciplinarians, but they also realize that the Army is made up of Soldiers and that it is their duty to care for those Soldiers. Without empathy, the NCO cannot truly connect with their Soldiers and make them feel like part of the larger whole.
This was by no means an exhaustive list, but when you come across an NCO that Soldiers want to work for and officers want to work with, they by and large have these characteristics. And they make you want to hang on to them forever.
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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.
Cover photo courtesy the Military Times.
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