I found the following quotation in an anthology titled "Patriot Hearts" by Maj. William T. Coffey, Jr. It struck me because of it's similarities to many refrains I hear today.
"In the Korean War...I was a 2nd Lieutenant, commanding a company. I had a Corporal as a platoon leader, a Sergeant as a platoon leader and one other Sergeant in the company. That's not the way you want to go to war, but that's the way you have to go to war. So we have to train our people the best we can so we're able to perform in whatever manner we're called upon. I've always been amazed at what individuals can do when they have to, when called upon, particularly in combat. Understrength units, properly trained, can fight like hell." - General Edward C. Meyer
Many units I work with fit this general description. The Army simply cannot fill them fast enough with the exactly right mix as described by the organization charts. And even if the Army could, many units are serving in ways that they were not designed for, so some of the skill sets called for in the organization chart have no bearing on the mission they are confronted with.
The difference between Gen Meyer's comment and many I hear today though is profound. Meyer accepts that although his unit was understrength, they worked to the best of their collective abilities. The situation could not wait. Today, many units routinely complain that they cannot do what they have to because the right people are not in the right places. They complain that the Soldiers they do have aren't capable of doing what must get done. While there is truth that they are short critical personnel, and there may be truth that the Soldiers they do have cannot accomplish what must get done - my point here is that fixing part 2 of the above and not worrying so much about part 1 is the key. The acceptance of the personnel limitation plus the understanding of the limitations of those you do have on hand and the recognition of what must get done is the critical first step in creating a cohesive and mission focused organization. Meyer's quote also lends credence to my personal belief that you have to train people first and then take care of the task. If a twenty something Corporal is serving as a platoon leader, don't expect a lot of MDMP (Military Decision Making Process), it's just not in his/her vocabulary. They don't teach it at NCO education schools. That doesn't mean that they can't do it, just that the manner and method used to teach it might have to be different. A 2nd Lieutenant as a company commander? In combat? The thought frightens people. Why? While modern Full Spectrum Operations are complex, multi-layered and evolve rapidly, that doesn't mean that you had to have attended the Captains Career Course to be able to figure out what to do when people start shooting at you, your vehicle gets blown up, or you have casualties.
We have to start training the folks we have, with whatever their experience levels are, and adjust how we do it to match what must get done. But how? First, I think it begins with trust and a thorough review of the problem(s). A leader has to outline for the group - whatever its composition - the challenges they mutually face. Second, the recognition and determination that they will solve their collective problem together. That each of them must participate. That there is a sense of interdependence. When a unit or group does those 2 things, they have begun to solve the issues that confront them.
But, then there is the 'politics'. The need to accurately convey to others the realities (personnel and otherwise) the unit faces. Sometimes, the very manner in which that conversation takes place can profoundly effect what happens to the unit. Senior leaders may be able to change the make-up of the unit once they are aware of the critical need. They also may not. If the senior leader cannot affect a personnel change, they may have to consider a mission change. If that is not possible then possibly they will have to accept a different training method - outside of standard Army doctrine - that will assist the unit to accomplish it's requirements. If the senior leader is supportive of this an understrength unit can be extremely successful. If not, the results can be disastrous. If the senior leader expects an understrength, and incorrectly assimilated (personnel serving in positions they have no training for) to act in the same manner as a full strength unit, then that unit will likely fail. And the Soldiers will lose trust and faith in their leadership.
So, 3 points here. First, understrength units can be extremely successful. Their success is reliant on the recognition of the personnel and skills they do have - not who they are missing. Second, since this is the reality that many units face today, quit complaining and figure out how to solve your problem. Finally, commanders at all levels need to honestly "see" their unit, report that to higher, and then explain how they intend to go about accomplishing their mission in spite of their challenges. As I often say when conducting marksmanship training, the task (combat) and the standard (winning) will not change. The conditions are always the variable. And changing conditions require changing solutions to ensure that the standard is always maintained.