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 Amazon.com 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 baen.com.
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