Recently in a DoD organization, someone asked a soldier what the return on investment was for them in exchange for sending that soldier to advanced training. The higher command wanted a storyboard template block, asking again what the return on investment for any event was. I immediately cringed. Not only is it shortsighted with a fundamental lack of human and organizational development, but it’s simply poor leadership. Let’s break down some of the failures in a small minded leader, and their leadership to illustrate why it destroys trust, cohesion, and productivity. We may even dive into some of how it impacts unit and organizational retention while we’re at it.
There is nothing more sacred to me than the team. I come from a small team background; I struggle to accurately express how important that role is. Your team takes you through hell and back. You might lose and gain many things, but the team is always there. Members may come and go, but you know that no matter what, you still have your team. Spouses may leave, jobs will come and go, addictions can arise and be fought off, but the team will remain. It’s the rock you cling to. Everyone knows that it has you, and you have it.
To me, the team is sacred and should be maintained above all personal goals. The team builds into the command, and the command builds into the larger organization. They all are there for the mission and the mission is the highest goal. If you’re a leader, remember your legacy is the soldiers you create, and your reputation is the same. You don’t matter, but what you do reflects your guidon, your organization, and the profession of arms.
*insert Who’s car we taking clip you know the one so Im not even going to add it.
As people move towards their goals - professional, personal, etc., some tend to matriculate onto the administrative team that manages the operational team. They might not always get invited to the team BBQ, but if someone calls for a switch hitter, they’re right back in the game. In theory, these guys have been on the teams, and will use that knowledge to act as an umbrella for what rolls down, protecting the teams operational missions. Now, I might be romanticizing this to a degree, because if you’ve read any of my past writing, or know me at all, you have no doubt noticed this is a core belief of mine. You are there for people when they need you, and they will do the same for you. It’s a social contract when you step into the job. And yeah, I tend to be quite a bit less risk adverse than a lot of people when I know I can mitigate it with a bit of roguery. Toss in a hearty helping of willingness to bleed for my flag when the mission calls for it, and you have a recipe for a team that needs some top cover. But I’m also willing to give my soul to the mission because I believe in it.
TEAM > ADMIN SUPPORT TEAM > COMMAND > ORGANIZATION > MISSION
I expect my leadership to be willing to do what they need to get me on time and on target when I am needed. But in order to be able to make a difference when you need to, you have to have the right training and you have to be ready for whatever comes up. To quote When We Were Soldiers “I hope you like training because the SGM and I love training.” As a professional, and really, just as a human, you should never turn down an opportunity to grow your skillset.
The enemy often dictates when, where, and how you fight. If you don’t have the right skillset, or the ability to adapt your current skillset, it will be an even worse day than it already is. Anytime someone else picks the elements of a potential life threatening encounter with ill intent, you’re already at a disadvantage right off the line. The admin support team, and those up the chain should pride themselves on having the best trained fighters for any mission that could come up. They should FIGHT to get their operational teams into any training possible until they beg them to stop. Concurrently, they should be working to get their teams into the fight. They should be preparing for the mission set they don’t even know they need yet. If the enemy can’t match you in one area, and you ignore other areas, you’re a fool and your people will suffer for it.
Asking a human what you get out of investing in their development only expresses a lack of leadership. The people you should be able to trust with your life need to recognize the same commitment to you as you do to them. If the person who is supposed to be working to get you training and development fails to see value in that, what is the point of putting effort into the leadership? From that moment, the teams will question your commitment to them and their desire to give themselves to your organization and mission will all but disappear. Why could we expect them to give value to someone who doesn’t give themselves in return?
Motivation will drop, trust will erode, and your command and control just went from easy to resistance in a span of seconds. The team might question the personal advantage you get anytime you task them; leadership will no longer be a word associated with you, but instead a pariah looking for their own gain. Every action you take, every personal development you take, every pass you submit will be under a microscope. And even when there is no ill intent, the teams see everything through a negative lens.
But on the other side, if you invest in your people, they will invest in you. They might move to another unit someday, but they will always remember who got them there. What you don’t want to be is the person people think of when they don’t get the job they want. And more importantly, in the profession of arms, when your team is in the worst day of their life, and they need the training you denied them, I promise you, you will be in their minds. I can only implore leaders to invest in their subordinates as if it were their own career. Because it is. You are nothing without your team, and anything your subordinates accomplish, whether it be positive or negative, it is a direct reflection on you.
Leaders don’t belong in the spotlight, they belong behind their people, maximizing their teams potential, and helping them to achieve things they never thought they could. If you are that type of leader, you will become a fixture in their memory, but also their successes and the success they inspire in others. It’s a chain reaction, and all it takes is one. When they struggle, they will drive to finish the mission because they would never want to let you down.
What you should be doing is asking how to invest in our people. What have we done today to field the best damn soldiers on the planet? Your command isn’t the larger organization, and that organization isn’t the mission. The shortsighted idea that only your organization should benefit from soldiers training portrays an ignorant view of the larger picture. That soldier may not use that particular skillet in your mission, but when they move on to another unit, it’s all part of the larger organization and the mission at hand. To focus on the development that only benefits you directly instead of the overarching mission is nothing short of selfish. Do you want to have an organization that takes care of its people, or an organization that has to force soldiers to stay? Do you want people lining up at the door, begging to get in, knowing how great of an organization you run? Do we even need to get into the discussion of what a huge problem it is if you have to force people to stay through regulation, or by requiring high ranking approval to leave?
Everyone wants to see metrics for this, and metrics for that. Measurements of success are at the heart of the inherent failure to me. I refuse to believe that we have such selfish leaders in our ranks. There has to be another factor at heart. I know it is not what was taught at the leadership development courses - regardless of being enlisted or commissioned. How about looking at a metric focusing on how much you have improved your soldiers holistically? Measure your success on the amount of training your troops have completed. How many credits of education and personal improvement did they accomplish last quarter? Can all your teams function at the level above and below them? Can they perform in environments both friendly and hostile? What is the health of their marriages like? Do you know, actually know, your soldiers, and where they want to go in their career?
Your people don’t have to stay, but if you do a good job as a leader, they won’t want to leave. And speaking of second and third order effects, they will send more people your way. We are part of the best trained fighting force in all time. The education level of the average NCO and commissioned officer are virtually the same. That being said, we should all know better than to think our soldiers don’t have other options. Especially in high demand jobs, where the civilian pay can largely out pace the green suit equivalent (I’m looking at you cyber kids and trying to figure out how to clone you). Not everyone wants to be the tip of the spear their entire lives, and sometimes people just need to take a knee to find their heading. If your organization isn’t leading the way on operational activity, be the organization these groups recruit from. Be the place they go back to when they take that tactical pause. Pride yourself on feeding up into the highest echelons of the organization. Pride yourself on seeing your soldiers become more than you, and accomplishing the MISSION above self.
A good leader should never allow their own selfishness to poison the very people they are supposed to be developing. Take a knee and look at yourself in the mirror to make sure you aren’t a small minded leader. The return on investment as a leader should be in the growth of your teams and their promotion around you.
When I worked in another life, a long time ago, my assistants kept getting promoted to the same level as me. One day, someone asked me how it made me feel that all my assistants kept getting promoted to be my peers. My honest response was that I thought it was awesome, and I was trying to help them get there. From both a selfish standpoint, and as a leader, there were only pros. If I asked for something I needed, there was zero question in my mind they would give it to me. I also knew that if I needed cover or support, they were going to be there. Do you think they spoke highly of me to others? Would they likely allow others to speak poorly of me? I’m positive they never forgot who invested in them to push for their promotion. Now, reflecting back, do you think the soldier will have good things to say about the “leader” who asked what was in it for them if they invested in the soldier? Do you think the soldier will be there when their “leader” needs them?
I hate a problem without a solution so next I'll talk about how to not make this mistake.