Building an Organization for the Long Term (Part I)

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Mon, Oct 19 - 9:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - Building an Organization

Having had – between here, Facebook, and offline – just about enough of a quorum to justify it, all right, I’ll talk some about how to build for the long term while serving in a grander organization which not only has no idea of building for the long term, but systemically and structurally rejects it. I think I have probably some numbers of readers, too, who could use the insights, but were too shy to ask. Yes, I suppose this also describes corporate America, too, for the most part.

To begin, brothers, sisters, it ain’t easy. It’s also risky.

Sometimes, though, if you understand what’s going on and how people think and work, and if you’re gutsy enough to take a risk, it will fall into your lap. A friend of mine, who had been an Air Defense officer but branch transferred to infantry as a senior first lieutenant or junior captain,1 inherited an air defense unit (I think it was a nuclear weapons holding unit but I can’t swear to that) from which the previous commander had been relieved. He looked at the three to five foot deep piles of never addressed paperwork and came to the logically unassailable position, “No frigging way. I couldn’t get this crap dealt with if I had ten years, which, as a matter of fact, I don’t.” Instead, he demi-organized it by category and left it piled high on tables. He then ignored it while digging into the problems of the unit and fixing those in some way better than merely patching over them. Again, if memory serves, only two inquiries came down about the paperwork. He dug the original requests for those out, answered them, and continued to ignore everything else. After six months, and only the two requests for actual action or response, everything else was gleefully shoved into the trash.

Somewhat similarly, I have seen people who looked at the next “do or die” useless nonsense event coming down the pike – EIB2 comes to mind – and said, “Fuck it. It’s just not that important.” They then proceeded to look to the event coming after that (these things are rarely a surprise), and began getting ahead on that, so that when it came, that next event was routine, and they were already getting ready for the next thing, and using the time, effort, energy, and attention saved to actually work on the important things. Mind you, you are risking relief for cause by doing this, because you are endangering your all important boss’ all important OER.3

The most complex example, though, is a Captain Hamilton story. I told you about him back in August of last year, I think, him and his hate-hate relationship with his then battalion commander, whom we shall call, “LTC Young.”4


I probably should interject here that there’s a difference between command and control, even though we tend to lump them together as, “Command and control.” Control should be obvious; it’s when what you want to happen happens because you’re managing it and supervising it directly and personally. Command, on the other hand, is when what you want to happen happens, but you don’t have to do a thing – at least nearly nothing – to make it happen. That is an ideal, though; there will always be some control required even in a unit that is largely under command. Sometimes, too, one has to exercise a lot of control initially to create command; you don’t get there by “wishing and hoping.”


Hamilton wanted a company NCO corps where the NCOs would train their own troops. Besides that this was power to his sergeants, ultimately, it also would relieve him of the burden of some of those recurring, predictable, “do or die” crises and allow him to command rather than control.

He thought about the problem for some weeks. It was complex, a Gordian knot of bad policy and procedure, tangled up over decades. The big single thing was that a micro-managing officer corps had, over the previous four decades or so, taken so much on themselves – because they could, because there were too many of them – that the NCO corps had been largely conditioned not to train their troops themselves, unless told to, and to leave it all up to the officers. You could see how bad a state this was by watching what happened – or, rather, usually didn’t happen – during “sergeants’ time.” Sergeants’ time, you ask? This was a 1980s fetish, which presumed that the whole problem with sergeants not training their own men was a result of lack of dedicated time to do so. Hence, typically, it would be mandated from on high that one afternoon a week would be devoted to sergeants’ time. It didn’t work for the most part. The sergeants didn’t know what to do with the time and, as with other fetishes, it was subject to being taken away from them on very short notice. What usually happened, though, was nothing. Sergeants time, rather than being an exercise in control at lower levels, usually meant the troops just disappeared as their sergeants lost control over them completely. In any case, simply giving unaccountable time was not the answer.

Another problem with NCOs training their own men was that, should a squad leader have a full squad, they’d all have arrived at different times, with wildly different levels of competence. Any good sergeant ought to be able to manage a couple of levels of training programs. It’s expecting too much to have him manage eight or nine or ten of them.

Third was that the committee approach held sway, whereby sergeants were taken away from their own men and tasked to train rotating groups in specific tasks – rather, usually a task – in round robin-county fair days of individual training. It all looked very efficient and the technical skills imparted this way were often quite good and well imparted. The moral decrement, however, was severe: “What? We’re expected to know all this crap to perfection but you, o, squad leader, aren’t competent to teach it all to perfection? That’s absurd! And why do they pay you more? No, no, years in service isn’t a good enough reason.”

Fourthly, while the sergeants of Hamilton’s company knew how to train their men, they didn’t really know to do it. In other words, they lacked the Pavlovian response, “Aha, here is some open time. I shall fill it with pain and suffering and much good learning, that my men, my sacred responsibilities, shall be better soldiers thereby.” Indeed, not only was that response not conditioned into them, decades of too many micromanaging officers had conditioned it right out of them. Exceptions were just that, exceptional.

Hamilton had a few years in the Army by that point in time. He’d seen the problem addressed before, in various ways. Chief among these was the “We’re gonna tighten things up, by God! We’re going to account for every man-minute” approach, which marginally worked until the next crisis du jour, whereupon it was promptly kicked to the curb. Indeed, nothing he’d ever seen, and he’d seen a lot, worked. It was obviously time to try something new.

Next week: Trying something – several somethings – new.


1 I misremember which; good grunt, though; we were in the Advanced Course together at Benning, then commanded sister companies at Stewart. He also wrote one of the better and cleaner cadence songs I’ve ever heard, Tarzan and the Monkey.

2 Expert Infantry Badge. If they gave stars for EIBs I suppose I’d have two of three of them. In 1981, when I was a second lieutenant, my platoon had the highest award rate of any mortar platoon in Panama, just under 72%, and the second highest of all platoons, the top platoon of which was an anti-tank platoon, led by a friend of mine who is now a minister. Short version, when I say the EIB is something between a nearly useless waste of time and a totally counterproductive criminal waste of time, I say so from a position of considerable authority.

3 Officer Evaluation Report


Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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  • James

    “We’re gonna tighten things up, by God! We’re going to account for every man-minute” approach

    Heh, in my experience this seems to always become do what we consider the most important things first and always…yes even if they are just window dressing. Often the stuff that is less glamorous or flashy seems to just get ignored or stopped for something that is unnecessary at best.

    I have a feeling also that the best commanders are good at command while the worse tend to obsess with control and fail there.

    • Tom Kratman

      Or succeed there, at least career-wise, if the system is such that only control is permitted and command made almost impossible to have.

    • James


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  • John Clark

    Can’t speak for the army, but if LTjg’s and LT’s are running things directly in a division then not only one but two levels of enlisted leadership are utterly worthless. Granted I’m not a big fan of the way we did nuke training in the fleet, too much on metrics and averages, not enough on actual learning. I used to threaten to beat my nubs with the Reactor Plant Manual, since the skin is a semi-permiable membrane and the only way to get knowledge across it is to raise the pressure across the barrier.

    • Tom Kratman

      Oddly, there are some segments of the army – artillery is the biggie that comes to mind – where the NCOs never lost their power and ability to train their own men. I suspect, but can’t prove, that its a mix of having something concrete – the gun – to train on and having not many officers in direct chain of command. (Even though artillery has a lot of officers, they tend to be doing other things.)

    • John Clark

      That is wholly believable, Unlike infantry, which as you are far more aware than I, where every bit of ground presents new and different challenges, the gun is the gun is the gun. I’ve never crewed a breechloader, but I’ve spent a bit of time on an 1841 6pdn field gun.

  • Duffy L. Sauers

    “Sergeants Time” could have/would have/should have been a great concept. If it was handed to good Sergeants who did their Job. But to often it was a scam. I have literally been told “Sergeants Time, oh we just put that on the training schedule because Battalion says we have to, we do not actually do it.” which is nearly as bad as “Sergeant, I have decided, as Your Lieutenant, that on this week for Sergeants time, you should do these tasks.” Sergeants Time was supposed to be 5 hours of skill level 1 Training on MOS and METL related Tasks under the supervision of 1st line supervisors (Team leaders and Squad leaders). When it worked well, you could look at the Training schedule or projected Training events and train soldiers on those Individual Tasks that you knew were critical to the collective tasks you would need for those upcoming training events. If you were good on those tasks then you could hone those collective tasks. The second approach for a good NCO, parallel to not in place of “Scheduled Training Events”, was the concept that everything is training, because Training is everything. No matter what you are doing, one of your soldiers may not be familiar with it. And that is when they learn.

    • Tom Kratman

      Wait for next week.

  • Pugmak

    I saw both sides of this as a snuffy.

    In 3MarDiv (2/4, weps), in the morning before formation, the NCOs of the platoon would all gather at the Plt Ldr’s office and go over the day’s schedule.

    Every minute that wasn’t taken up by some nonsense imposed by “higher” automatically defaulted to “low order training”. The NCOs (what few we had) would sketch out a quick plan for our misery that day and commence to inflicting it upon us. Learned a lot that way on a whole lot of subjects.

    In 2MarDiv, the unit I was in, (3/2, weps) the NCOs (full compliment) wouldn’t move without direct orders. We spent a whole lot of time sitting on our hands getting so bored that inertia set in and it became difficult to get us to do anything.

    In 1MarDiv (2/7, weps), it was a kinda happy medium. The NCOs (nearly full complement) kept us busy but no where near the level of constant effort as with 2/4.

    The overall expectations were different between the units as well. In 2/4, “garrison games” meant nearly nothing to an enlisted Marine’s standing in the outfit. Field effectiveness meant everything.

    In 3/2, the garrison games meant nearly everything. Field training was rare as hens teeth.

    In 2/7, the spin shine shit mattered but an enlisted Marine was also expected to have his crap all in one bag in the field as well.

    • Tom Kratman

      None of those sound quite ideal.

      Among the things it’s almost impossible – at least very unlikely – to get through the head of a jarhead no longer subject to reveille is that, “Sorry, no, but the time you spent in the field? The Army – barring 7th Army, which was an albatross around the neck of the rest of the Army – kind of sneers.” This isn’t to say that most or even much of the Army used the time and money spent all that well; mostly they didn’t. But some places, some times, were just splendid in ways I’ve never heard of any part of the Corps actually equaling. The Corps’ actually not all that well trained – lots of reasons for that, some of which aren’t the Marines’ fault – but they think they are in ways that pretty much ensure they never will reach a fraction of their potential.

    • Pugmak


      I agree we don’t and didn’t do quite as much of the uselessly formulaic box check type “make us look pretty” training. And, we didn’t spend nearly as much money on unnecessary fluff in our training areas. But, that’s about it.

      We did (and do) train. And it’s effectiveness has been born out in the field.

    • Tom Kratman

      Again, how many days- AND nights, because if you don’t stay out there half the time is spent on getting to and from, hence largely wasted – did you average in the field in the Corps? In the 101st, the 193rd, and the 24th, it ran from about 18 to 25 days and nights, monthly. The former was largely an exercise in pain, so I wouldn’t hold it up as an exemplar. In the latter two, while there was pain in plenty, for the moral value, it was more about technical and tactical finesse.

      It’s not that they don’t train; it’s that they think they train enough, and fool themselves that they can neglect to ask for much money for training, beyond IET, and still get much value. The Corps places altogether too much faith in a somewhat – but only somewhat – superior IET.

      Doesn’t even matter if you’re a light unit, to go to the field costs money; it costs in wear and tear, in medical expenses, in fuel – if only to bring out chow – and parts. Those are things the Corps does to itself but doesn’t seem to want to admit to (truth in advertising, former law partner was enlisted Marines, then USNA, then commissioned, infantry). The things it doesn’t do to itself but are imposed and probably unavoidable are things like floats, where not a whole helluva lot gets done training wise, for most the time spent.

  • Jack Withrow

    Col, Getting your NCO’s to train troops is impossible if your Senior NCO in the unit does not buy off on the program 150% and more importantly force the issue at his level.

    One unit I was in (not going to mention which one) had an extremely weak CSM, XO, and Bn Cmdr; the S-3 literally ran the unit. The 1SG’s approached the CSM that the unit had a problem with the training schedules and the tasks mandated for training. That CSM insured us he would get the S-3 off our backs, who was mandating what tasks we trained during both Sgt’s Time and during Hip Pocket Training opportunities. Needless to say that did not happen. So for the entire three years I was in that unit, all training was mandated from the S-3, who thought he knew what training was needed more than the Team Ldr, Sqd Ldr, Plt Sgt, Sect Sgt, or 1SG. The Plt Ldr’s were ignored as the 3 felt they lacked the experience to know what training their Plt’s needed. And the Company Cdr’s were only allowed 1-2 hours a day for any training they felt necessary. All the NCO’s in that Bn pretty quickly lost all desire to train their soldiers.

    So I guess the moral to my little story, is it is not just the fault of the Officer Corps when Sgt’s don’t train their soldiers. Weak Senior NCO’s are just as guilty. And as those Senior NCO’s set an example for their junior NCO’s, that vicious cycle just keeps repeating.

    • Tom Kratman

      Not impossible, but it takes a hell of a lot of force of character, willpower, ruthlessness, and indifference to personal consequences.

    • Jack Withrow

      Okay. I’ll bring up again next week.

      I just did not want the Officer Corps to get all the blame on this, as the Senior NCO Corps is just as guilty. I’ve seen more Junior Leaders ruined by weak SNCO’s than Officers.

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