For a short week, this one sure had it's share of interesting events....
Due to the Columbus Day holiday last weekend, we only had a 3 day work week. Monday and Tuesday were holidays. For me, the big event was preparing to say goodbye to my friend, Chris. He separated from the Army this week and is heading home this morning to CT. I will miss him and wish him the best of luck. Chris has been a constant source of conversation, thoughts, and ideas about people, leadership, how it's being implemented today, and the general state of the Army. He is one of the most thoughtful and educated people I know. He has been a commenter and guest poster on these pages, and I hope that once he gets settled in he'll continue to share his thoughts and insights here. The blog is better off because of him. If we have any renaissance men left in the world, Chris is one of them. Enjoy the journeys ahead my friend.
But, the week was also filled with the usual amount of chaos. The long weekend provided a bunch of drama for the Division with DUI's, suicide attempts, domestic violence incidents, drug overdoses, arrests etc. And so, once again, the Chain of Command "took action". As usual, it started with an order from on high to develop plans to identify and assist 'at-risk' Soldiers. Those who the leadership believed needed extra attention or assistance to help with their issues. Where maybe an ounce of prevention could really equal a pound of cure.
As part of this there was a meeting Thursday afternoon for all the senior NCO's in the Division to have what was termed a 'town hall' meeting. The Division Command Sergeant Major wanted to solicit our input on what might be done to help curb the disturbing - and rising - tide of incidents with our Soldiers. Now, for the sake of the argument, I will take him at his word. He wants to help. I chose to believe that this was not being done only because it's a huge black eye for the organization and we need to show 'big Army' that we're doing something. I'll suspend my cynical doubts about intent and choose to believe that the man really wants to help Soldiers. He was soliciting input on what we were doing, what was working (and what wasn't) and what we needed to do differently, or better, to help.
The first person to speak immediately said that the problem was that we weren't chaptering Soldiers out of the Army quickly enough. The legal system was taking too long and all the problem children were making all the rest of us look bad. Which led to an explanation by the JAG NCO on the whys and wherefores of the perceived backlog. Then a female NCO stood up and wanted to address pregnancy rates and how some women were using pregnancies to avoid deployments. That brought on a bunch of whispering and shuffling and laughing from the mostly male audience. So, instead of being allowed to speak her mind and have her concerns addressed, she was disrespected by the audience and that was not corrected by the Command Sergeant Major. And on and on. After a short while, I stopped listening. At the end, the Command Sergeant Major came back to his never-ending theme of standards and discipline. Got to have standards and discipline. If we only had standards and discipline then these problems will go away. I left more frustrated and angry than I came in. A waste of time.
Then yesterday I received the email below. It's worth including here:
"I went home last night thinking about the ways commanders are trying to mitigate what they term "high risk Soldiers". No matter how I rolled the terms and "action plans" around in my head I couldn't grasp how a company commander could equitably single out Soldiers that he/she deems high risk and then apply an action plan for that Soldier to get back on the "right"path. This morning while I was at Starbucks drinking coffee, the idea of identifying high risk soldiers still troubled me. As I often do, I started talking to an E4 who had just finished PT and was getting a set of drinks and pastries, most likely for him and a buddy. As soon as I talked frankly to him and asked how he was, he told me his unit (with pride), that he was deploying a third time and that it was OK he was deploying because the tour and time away is what you make of it. What was really noticeable, his demeanor changed from neutral to motivated while I was chatting with him.Then it hit me. By singling out Soldiers and crafting action plans, we as leaders are taking the blame and responsibility off our backs and putting it directly on a Soldier. We will increase their personal set of burdens. The solution is one that's existed and been around for decades but due to combat operations, fast promotions, and a decrease in or lack of leader development we(leaders) have lost touch. Here's a complimentary action plan for leaders to mitigate Soldier misconduct: 1. Set the Example; lead from the front (if you're an asshole, most likely your soldiers will be too). 2. Build Teams (empower NCOs and then step back and let them develop solutions for their TMs, squads, platoons. Hold them accountable) 3. Treat Soldiers with respect (know your Soldiers, talk to them, praise them, encourage them, LISTEN to them) 4. Establish programs that make Soldiers winners (very few of your soldiers were high school standouts, they were average kids trying to get by) 5. Train Hard. Your Soldiers joined the Army for its challenges, esprit de corps and traditions. Don't be afraid to meet their expectations."
Finally, yesterday afternoon I had a great conversation with another friend of mine. She had been on the receiving end of a lot of pressure this week and was little beat down. I have not known her long, but she has a critical role as an advisor to the command and I really believe that she is in a unique place to effect change. As we were talking and sharing ideas, we both agreed that the Command Sergeant Major had missed the boat. That the problem isn't the system, it's not the lack of caring, or lack of resources to address the myriad of issues, it's the lack of understanding of the root causes. We keep treating the symptoms and not the disease. We keep seeing crime and suicide and misbehavior as the end result of some failed leadership, instead of seeing them as indicators of a larger problem.
We have never been in this place before as an Army and we are not prepared to deal with it. That was explained to me by my Dr.yesterday. He said that previously, during the draft-era Army, we conscripted people, used them for the duration of the conflict and them turned them loose. We - as the institution of the Army - never had to deal with the aftermath of war that we participated in. We never had to see the problems the war had created. By the time many of those problems manifested themselves, we had already discharged the conscripted Soldier and he/she became society's problem. With the all-volunteer force, that dynamic has changed. However, because we went for almost 30 years from the inception of the all-volunteer force to fighting and maintaining it in the present conflict, we have no systems in place to deal with the troubling human factors of sustained conflict. It's not that the Command Sergeant Major and other senior NCO's don't want to help, it's that they don't know how to help because they were never really taught or educated about dealing with people and behavior. Not is any real sense. They were given catch phrases and lists of traits to memorize, but not how a 20 something year old is supposed to offer advice and counsel to another 20 something who is struggling to put his/her life back together after the adrenaline rush of combat. After watching a relationship fail, or not being able to come to grips with things that he/she saw or did, or friends lost etc.
My friend spoke of compassion. That struck me because for every leader trait we espouse and value and hold as a requirement for success, you won't find compassion on the list. She made the point, that every other leader quality is wrapped up inside of the word compassion and she is right. Compassion and understanding are the bedrock of trust and trust is the glue that allows people to do things or believe in things that they never would have previously. That can be a goal, objective, cause or Chain of Command. With compassion comes the willingness to see the problem or issue from a perspective other than your own. A willingness to look at the best solution to the problem for the individual, not necessarily for the leader - or even the organization. A willingness to suspend judgement long enough to develop a workable, sustainable course of action for the Soldier.
As an example, my friend pointed out a case where there was a significant rise in marijuana use within an organization. The telling part is that it was among senior NCO's. Under normal circumstances, it's very difficult to believe that these people would endanger their careers to take the chance of getting caught. But, sadly, it happened. Now, the issue here is not whether or not they should receive punishment. If convicted, they should. I have no debate with that. I do have an issue however if we don't pause for a second and ask what conditions have created this situation and then try to address those root causes and not just the symptomatic behavior. Treating the symptom without addressing the causes will not end the spate of issues we face. Is it possible that these folks are having difficulty readjusting to life outside of a combat zone? It is a known fact that after the sustained adrenaline rush of combat, it can be extremely difficult to adjust to life without it. Could it be that they have suffered losses and cannot sleep at night without suspending reality for awhile? Could it be that no matter how hard they try, there aren't enough hours in the day to meet the unreal expectations and demands placed upon them as they prepare for another return to combat? Are these mitigating circumstances that may be contributing factors to their seemingly uncharacteristic behavior? Could we not ask those same questions of the young woman who is considering an intentional pregnancy to avoid an upcoming deployment? Or the destructive behavior of domestic violence?
Compassion does not mean that we don't have to uphold the standards of the organization. In fact, when exercised correctly, it actually makes upholding them easier to accomplish. But punishing people without taking into account the larger issue will not solve the problem. Using involving and caring for those who are struggling proves that the organization cares and wants to assist them with solving their larger issues and is the key to developing trust and faith. It proves that the leadership truly understands the strains they face.
If you look again at the quote above, one of the interesting parts is the contention that the 'plan of action' actually absolves the leadership of real responsibility and places an even greater burden on the Soldier to now have to act in a particular manner in order to convince the leadership that they are no longer 'at risk'. I hadn't thought about it that way. We, as leaders, somehow believe that our solutions are better than those of the person suffering. The problem is that we are not suffering. Our solutions make perfect sense because they have no personal emotional content. Compassion would make the entire command dedicated to - and take ownership - for the recovery of the Soldier, not develop some sort of well intentioned checklist which fails to meet the Soldier where they really are.
Again I come back to knowing yourself and looking for new and people-centered solutions to the tough human problems we face. All of the behavior issues and problems we are facing are ultimately of our own making. By neglecting human factors training in every leadership school we have we have created an Army that in many ways is incapable of dealing with the very people who we pretend to lead. No wonder they lose faith so quickly. As soon as they see that we are incapable of truly caring for them, their families and concerns, they will refuse to follow us and we will be rendered impotent and incapable of earning their trust again.
Thanks D. Compassion may just be the answer. It could be what ultimately saves the Force.
By the way, check out this link: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/10/draft-army-capstone-concept-hi/