Want to annoy a Sergeant? Tell them that it is their soldiers who hold most of the power and the majority will lose their freaking minds… Here is why.
The army has mounds of information and advice regarding leadership and the application of leadership theory. A great deal of this is badly written, overwrought, or simply outdated but there are a few keepers amidst the hogwash. One of the things that always stuck with was that most situations whether military or civilian can be broken down in 4 parts: the Leader, the Led, the Situation, and Communications.
The particular publication that held this gem didn’t really delve too deeply into the implications of these parts in the modern military (regrettably) but the parts themselves are valuable and yet overlooked 90% of the time in the modern Army (I can’t speak for the other services).
By way of a disclaimer I feel the need to say that my experience is entirely from the support side of the Army and things are a bit different in the Combat Arms branches (although not as different as they used to be).
Most of the items in the formula are usually not within the purview of the Leader’s ability to change unless they are a unit commander and even then it is unlikely they have too much power until they reach Colonel or higher. Most NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers (Sergeants)) or Commisioned Officers really possess limited authority to change the people they have (more on that later), the situation they are in or the mission that creates it, or the means of communications at their disposal beyond the interpersonal realm.
The modern “Army Leader” tends to refuse to recognize this fact and ends up with a train wreck in short-order. Many if not most “Leaders” in the Army tend to believe that the only part of the equation not requiring any changes is the Leader themselves. They believe that they were given rank so that the rest of the factors would bend around them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The Leader is usually the only thing that they have the ability to change rapidly and/or radically. The modern Army basically does not allow “firing” a soldier under any but the most extreme circumstances. Thusly, the Led can not be changed by swapping them for other people in the way that civilians are able to do.
The Led are actually very aware of this by the time they get to a unit due to the horrible example set by the Army Basic Training. Modern BT really emphasizes that the Drill Sergeants are to pass the maximum amount of recruits and failure to do so will reflect badly on the Drills.
Thus the Led already know that they are unlikely to be dismissed and quickly they also learn that it is also unlikely that they will be punished in any meaningful way unless they actually commit criminal acts.
Likewise the Situation is usually beyond the control of all but General Officers. Normally you cannot choose where you will conduct your mission, what the mission objectives are, or when you will do it. Same goes for your living conditions, food supply, and other morale related factors. These things are changed at echelons just below God.
There is usually a limited amount of control over the way you communicate with the Led but it only goes so far and is quite constrained by the situation. The Leader may prefer using email for all admin actions but if the Led don’t all have access to computers for most of the day then email becomes useless as a Communications method.
This takes us back to the only thing a Leader really has absolute control over: they themselves. Most natural Leaders in possession of natural charisma, native intelligence, and personal appeal hate this fact. Many regard it is unfair or ridiculous that they should have to conform to the Led and not the other way around but nonetheless that is the case in the modern Army.
SGT Rock may have been able to give a recalcitrant PVT a pop in the mouth to settle them down but that option is far removed from today’s Army. The stick is largely gone and so is the carrot in most cases. This only leaves the Leader with one option: motivation through personal appeal, philosophy, and example.
The Old School of military leadership simply falls short on this. It relies on tools and techniques that can not be used in the P.C. Army.
Old School folks will tell you that an NCO should always back the plays of their superiors and never acknowledge flaws in the plan no matter how obvious or glaring. Most of all you should NEVER question a superiors orders or policies in front of the Led!. All this does in the modern Army is force the Led to draw one of two conclusions:
- The Leader is a fool and can’t see the obvious retardation of many decisions or policies.
- The Leader is a toady who won’t stand up to higher leaders an who doesn’t keep the Led’s interests at heart.
Both of these conclusions are recipes for extremely poor performance from the Led. They will do the bare minimum required o slide by and will sell out the Leader or make them look bad at any and every opportunity.
This is because it is the Led who actually hold the most power as a group. The Leader can order the Led to do something but when they do it poorly in front of superiors it is the Leader who will take to fall. Most of the Led are not even performance rated in any meaningful way where the Leader always has evaluation reports that can ruin a career.
A group of Led who consciously realize this fact and who have a Leader hey don’t like and respect is a terribly dangerous animal. They can ruin careers, cause the failure of missions, and ultimately cost lives on the battlefield.
Over years of leading linguists operationally I always used the same example when illustrating this problem to Old School NCO’s who thought the solution to everything was yelling, push-ups, and counseling statements:
“Look, you can easily force the linguist to sit down at a position and put their headphones for any number of hours but the thing you can’t make them do is apply themselves to finding targets or doing a good job of translating those jobs.”
Most of the time Old Schoolers didn’t respond well to that and reaped the “rewards” of poor performance and occasionally being relieved for cause (that’s a baaaad thing for an NCO). They were unwilling or unable to accept that the Army has removed most of the tools you need to force soldiers to do their jobs and do them well. Nowadays you have to make them want to do their jobs for little reason other than altruism. It is a difficult task, but it is certainly possible for some if not many of today’s soldiers. I will leave that part for another column perhaps.
* I do understand that this will be hard to swallow for some of my retired military readers but I assure that the Army of today bears little or no resemblance to the Army you served in. Sad, but true.