What is ‘Leadership’ in a Global Pandemic?

By 1st Lt. James Bond 

During the early stages of my time as a commissioned officer, I have read many books and sat through countless guest speakers pertaining to the topic of leadership and what it means to “take care of your soldiers.” It initially seems a simple concept, but in practice can sometimes prove to be difficult. During the recent pandemic, I found myself confronted with this question yet again, what does it mean to take care of your Soldiers? 

In 2021, the rate of suicide and mental health issues in the Army climbed 15 percent (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/military-suicides-rise-15-as-senior-leaders-call-for-action).  It is a well-known fact that the exact reasons for mental health issues and suicide are complex. What is evident is that the many stressors that lead to mental health issues were extremely prevalent this year due to the pandemic. Stressors such as unemployment, civil unrest, and war zone deployments. These things are especially true for Soldiers in the Army Reserve.

We, as leaders, often stress to our Soldiers the importance of communication, and that we can only address the issues that are brought forward. However, early on, I found this method to be ineffective. I had a good understanding of the damage the pandemic brought to both the economy and employment. It is a fact that most Soldiers in the Army Reserve depend primarily on the income received from their civilian careers. It was also true that millions of people across the Nation were left unemployed. So, was it really possible that none of my Soldiers were experiencing hardship during these unique times? 

I looked objectively at myself and asked, how can I help my soldiers? How do we as leaders motivate and influence Soldiers to accomplish a mission, when the mission is the furthest thing from their mind? Looking at it from this angle gave me a new perspective, and with that, a new approach. The first thing I made sure to do was conduct my own research on the topic. I learned that a Soldier’s pride can make asking for help no easy task. I learned that many would rather suffer in silence than admit that times are hard and they need help. 

I felt that rather than trying to force it out of Soldiers, I should instead make time at the end of each day to inform them of programs such as the Army Emergency Relief Fund (https://www.armyemergencyrelief.org/). It is a program that can assist Soldiers with things such as child care, financial counseling, and quick assist loans that aid up to $2000 and can be approved through the Soldier’s chain of command. As well as the fact that USAA had emergency financial assistance programs available that provided Soldiers with zero-percent interest loans, as well as confidential mental health counseling through Military One Source.

Additionally, the Army provides mental health services. For example, the 108th Training Command does this by holding suicide intervention training for junior leaders multiple times a year (https://umtclasp.com/resources/intervention/ace-si/). On a local level, Joint Base Lewis-McChord offers free short-term services through Military and Family Life counselors,  or MFLC (https://home.army.mil/lewis-mcchord/index.php/my-Joint-Base-Lewis-Mcchord/all-services/mflc). 

With counselors in over ten units, Soldiers can utilize this resource to receive confidential aid that is not reported to their command. In the event a counselor cannot address a Soldier’s needs, that Soldier will be given a referral to receive medical counseling at a nearby facility or through TRICARE. As leaders we cannot keep our Soldiers informed if we ourselves are not.

During the final months of 2021, I once again found myself asking the question of “what is leadership.” To be a leader is to be fluid, capable of adapting our thought processes, and changing our methods. The year brought about many unique changes, and as a result, we as leaders needed to adjust to those unique changes. We must be able to look objectively at ourselves and question if we are doing all we can to support the Soldiers who put their trust in us. We can only accomplish this by constantly asking ourselves the question of, “what is leadership.”

Other Resources:

USAR Psychological Health Program; https://www.usar.army.mil/PHP

Veteran Crisis Line; 1-800-273-8255 Call and press 1

1st Lt. James Bond is a Charlie Team Leader with Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 414th Regiment (Cadet Summer Training), 1st Brigade, 104th Training Division (Leader Training)

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