Enabling Our Leaders to Make our Army Ready
As the current Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has stated in many forums, readiness is our top priority – why is it so difficult? As a leader of a brigade, I would like to ask any leader reading this article if you find readiness easy? If you do, then you may opt to stop reading right now. If not, welcome to the other 95% of our organization. So let’s be fair. What I mean by readiness is “green” in all key metrics that allow a person or unit to deploy with minimal preparation. Is the cause of difficulty navigating systems? Lack of school slots? Lack of doctors or medical appointments? Employer conflict? Geographic dispersion of subordinate units? There are many potential root causes to why readiness is such a challenge. I submit that the root cause of 95% of the problem with keeping readiness levels in the green is not system or process related at all, but rather the lack of attention or priority by our company level leaders (notice I did not say lack of ability). There are some leaders who genuinely get it, understand how to use tools, metrics and expertise in their formations to achieve significant results- but from my experience these are the exceptions and not the rule.
Just the other day I hosted a town hall with a couple of my companies. It took a few questions and about 30 minutes before the crowd warmed up to present some significant and fundamental issues that affect readiness. The first red flag question was Special Duty Assignment Pay. Several Soldiers have consistent issues with SDAP pay, even after reporting it and having it fixed. The next set of questions revolved around a Soldier who has not had his basic issue completed or missing equipment for four years. Imagine that, four years! A third question was again wrapped around Kentucky Logistics Operation Center and getting funding for Army-issued individual equipment or TA-50.
Of course, I inquired about medical readiness and asked why anybody should ever go red with plenty of advanced warning of anniversary dates and a culture that soldiers are responsible for their own readiness, right? Wrong! With three levels of Command Sergeants Major on-stage- the BN, BDE and DIV, we were able to diagnose pretty quickly. Without writing a complete dissertation on root cause analysis of these problems, they were all preventable and from company leadership, if not battalion. So why is readiness so hard?
As a former platoon leader and company commander I always carried a leader book – right next to my FM 5-34, Engineer Field Data. My tracking system was not electronic, but rather analog; a paper, a list, names and dates from everything from schools, to physicals, to APFT, to family names and addresses. This by-name management was drilled into me at every school I ever went to…Reserve Officer Training Course, advanced course and officer basic course by using Troop Leading Procedures and issuing Operations Order after Operations Order. At some point between the early 1990s and today- we have determined that teaching young leaders how to be accountable is somebody else’s responsibility; perhaps their mother or father’s responsibility? It is a systemic issue that we have perpetuated with the last 15 years of war – that junior leaders have not been challenged to be responsible because they have not been given the chance to grow- the leaders of my generation (or the one before me) did it because that’s how they were trained- and now my generation is retiring and that skill is perishing fast! Mission command and allowing junior leaders to make mistakes and grow for the benefits of the Army is one of Gen. Milley’s tenets. A leader book is one of those tools along with some mentoring and tasking that junior leader’s need- and they need it fast. The answer cannot be- the system is down- therefore we stop whatever we are doing. Wrong!- Get on the phone, call them into a meeting, do whatever those junior leaders need to do in order to disseminate information or gather it without the system.
After conducting that town hall the other day, myself and the three CSMs gathered the 1SG and company commanders and huddled in a corner of the drill hall to provide some mentoring that could have prevented at least half of the problems identified in the town hall. A predictable answer to why Soldiers were not green on readiness was not understanding or even knowing when their Soldier’s dates were for various MRC events. I explained using a leader book to one of the company commanders and 1SG’s and the next day I presented them with an example- the 1SG looked at me like a deer in the headlights! That’s not what the system shows he explained. “What does the system show?” I asked. He said it was down. So does that mean we waste another BA waiting for it to be up next month? Wrong again! If he had the book and the dates printed out like the example I gave him; he could walk to each of his Soldiers and ask instead waiting for a piece of technology to provide the initiative. He was essentially paralyzed not knowing what do next. Imagine, paralyzed for not having a system to give him a simple list of names…what if he was on the battlefield, how would he fair in a more complex environment when a PHA list becomes a show stopper? See my point? We have done this to ourselves in the way we have trained; set low expectations of our junior leaders and lack of follow up to learning. The kicker is that this is not an overnight course correction.
So what do we do now? First we need to stop treating our junior leaders like we are helicopter parents and making their bed. We need to task these leaders with difficult and challenging tasks that will take them out of their comfort zone so they grow. If this means being risk adverse (not talking about breaking any UCMJ laws here) and holding folks accountable and most likely making them uncomfortable- then so be it. I am a firm believer that when you are out of your comfort zone are you are most likely in a prime learning zone for which the lessons will resonate for a long time. Give them the tools (leader book) and instruction and then leave them alone and follow up on their progress with spot mentoring. No more everyone gets a trophy- that provides a false sense of accomplishment for the under achievers and gives no incentive for those that want to achieve. It kind of gets you where we are today with many of our junior leaders – a static line that must be influenced by some other factors or leaders for status quo to change. Our leaders are smart and they are able and capable- that’s the good news. We must capitalize on that intellect and capability immediately.
In closing, we have all been briefed about the potential or likely peer to peer threats that our country could face in the future. The scale of warfare with a peer to peer engagement will be unlike anything that this or the last generation has fought; only those veterans of WWII or before would know. If you have ever watched the television series Band of Brothers- what level of leaders fought the vast majority of engagements and what was their level of responsibility for the duration of armed conflict? They were the junior officers and NCOs; but history never repeats itself. Start preparing and challenge your leaders today.