#81 "Getting To Know You"

One of the more interesting dynamics of the blog has been that while many people read it each week, there are actually very few folks who publicly comment on my thoughts and ideas. Most prefer to respond by email and I'll usually end up with 3 or 4 notes each week from friends and readers who either ask more questions, or use the space to further develop their own thoughts. Although when I began this I somewhat envisioned an on-line dialogue between the readers and me, I have found that for a variety of reasons, many prefer to remain anonymous - which is fine with me. I am grateful for the feedback whether it is shared publicly or not.

One person who has participated in both manners has been Joe D. Joe has been a supporter of mine almost since the beginning of the blog. He is a recently retired officer and we met, almost by accident, when some folks were trying to locate me to discuss my time as a platoon sergeant in Iraq. Since then Joe and I have talked on the phone, exchanged numerous emails, and he has been the most public responder to many of my thoughts and ideas.

Last week Joe sent me an email detailing a conversation he had with a senior officer friend of his. During the course of their conversation regarding knowing your Soldiers, the senior officer commented that, "Junior leaders need to be taught that this is their responsibility and how to do it...they don't know they are supposed to 'know' their Soldiers like that or like we used to do when we were 2LTs." This surprised Joe a little and he asked me my thoughts on the matter. Below is my response:

"I think your friend is correct, but the issue is a little deeper than that. The way he laid it out implies that the leader doesn't have many of the same issues that the Soldier has. Therefore, we could send the leader to a class or school and teach them techniques etc for dealing with Soldier issues. The real problem seems to me to be that both the leader and the led are suffering equally. The leader who is also suffering really can't assist the Soldier who is suffering because they haven't yet figured out how to help themselves either. Your friends model implies the hierarchical leadership structure. And that structure relies on the experience of the senior to help the junior. The new paradigm is that the senior AND the junior are both 'lost' together which makes them somewhat equal. In fact, in the 'lost' model, it could be that while the junior has problems and issues, it is actually the senior who is suffering more and is less capable of making sound judgments.

We have never really 'taught' leaders how to take care of Soldiers. What we did was teach them leadership principles etc. We all learned 'how' to do it through experiential learning. I figured out how to fill out a AER form, or how to get the right paperwork to replace an ID card etc. The issues Soldiers face now are much more complicated than that.

'Knowing your Soldiers' is a tough subject right now, because as I have written about before, it seems to make 'old' army nervous. But, what really seems to be going on works like this....

I am a Sergeant (E5) coming back from my 2nd or 3rd tour. I have been blown up and been shot at....I have lost members of my platoon....I am having problems reintegrating with my spouse and family....I drink to fall asleep.....I am almost consumed with just making it through each day and trying to find some space to rest my brain.....My Solider is going through much the same experience I am except that he is looking at me to provide answers that I don't have. Now, I'm feeling even worse, because I know that he is counting on me (as are my family, friends, coworkers etc) and I cannot be everything to everyone. Something has to give. Selfishly, I have to take care of me first. From my Soldiers perspective I abandoned him......He loses trust in me.

All because I couldn't say to him, "I don't know the answer, but we're going through the same things. Let's figure it out together."

Joe wrote back that my outline of the situation made a lot of sense to him, but he questioned why I thought that getting to know your Soldiers on a personal level, "Made 'old' Army nervous?"

My response is pretty simple and yet very complex at the same time. And although I hope I don't lose any of the faith and trust Joe has shared with me by reprinting parts of the discussion here, I believe that the topic itself is too important not to share with others. The road ahead for leader development, and for taking care of our Soldiers depends upon it. The various crisis in our ranks (suicide, domestic violence, prescription drug abuse etc) will not go away by themselves. They are going to require leaders who are very very 'tuned-in' to their Soldiers. They are going to require leaders who develop a sixth sense and awareness of the subtle shifts and adjustments in behavior that alert us to Soldiers in need. They will require more than formulaic responses to critical situations and will put a premium on human being interaction over institutional reporting and charting. We must return to the people.

This 'people-based' model will break down many of the 'class systems' which are inherent in any hierarchical organization and are extremely prevalent in the Army where tradition, custom and fear of change are firmly entrenched. We teach new leaders the traditions of the officer and noncommissioned officers corps and then tell them that they are a part of that storied lineage and charge them to conduct themselves at all times to not bring discredit to their respective corps. They are constantly reminded that there are walls and barriers and distinctions between officers, noncommissioned officers and lower enlisted Soldiers and that those walls and barriers must be maintained. We see it every day when people talk about 'Officer business', or 'NCO business'. There are things that are theirs and things that are ours. There are norms and behaviors appropriate to each group, and there are invisible lines that are not to be crossed.

The problem with that model is that while we are all busy maintaining the various walls and barriers, we are losing the person who needs our help. That person might be a young officer struggling to understand the current battlefield, a senior NCO who has been pushed to the edge by repeated deployments and the stress of constantly worrying about his/her Soldiers, or a young Soldier who doesn't understand what to do when the adrenaline rush of combat wears off and he/she cannot replace the feeling by any other means than dangerous behaviors. The need to maintain the walls overrides the need to reach people where they are. And too assist them without judging them. It may be that I can help my young officer counterpart to understand his responsibilities in the current fight, or that he might help me come to grips with the strain of multiple deployments, or that he can communicate with our younger Soldiers better because they have shared experiences due to age and background. It may be that crisis can be averted by these interactions if the walls and barriers can be removed.

In many ways, I think this conversation started a few weeks back with the whole 'first name' business. You could plainly see that my desire to use my subordinates first names rather than their last had somehow upset the apple cart. That the tradition of separation and distinction between the classes of Soldiers (Officer, NCO, Enlisted) was so strong that it invoked an automatic response when challenged. And quite honestly, if people read many of the responses written by 'Old Army' NCO's, you can walk away feeling quite disheartened by their dogmatic reliance on 'it has always been that way' type responses. Interestingly, they could not provide anything more than ill-founded worries that this human being approach might lead to some form of 'issues' down the road. That without the barrier in place everyone was going to suddenly forget who the boss was and it would lead to anarchy. Or, the other fear that somehow there would be too much familiarity introduced into the organization and then discipline would be corrupted. And yet, for those who did try to find the regulatory guidance that supported one method over another, the best they could come up with is that every Soldier be treated with basic human dignity and individual respect. The walls had gotten in the way. A person's name is their ultimate possession. To the world it represents who they are and what they stand for. It recognizes their individuality. To me, it is the ultimate form of the respect I have for them. The walls we have built for the institution don't really seem to recognize that.

Deployments and combat are uniquely binding events. When you spend a year living day-in and day-out with the same people, experiencing the same fears, joys, hardships and celebrations, you rapidly break down a lot of the artificial barriers that exist it home. Your rank, status, and position in the platoon doesn't make your feet stink any less in a tent crammed with 30 people, it doesn't make your personal hygiene habits any more or less acceptable to others, it doesn't make you any more or less able to love and miss your family. What does happen is that everyone gets to know, see, and respect the value of everyone else. The titular leader becomes as much a person as the lowest member of the hierarchy. A person in some ways like me and in other ways different. They get to see me as a husband and a father as much as a platoon sergeant or squad leader. And I gain the same understanding of them. To return home and in the name of tradition, heritage, and roles, forget those things is what leads to the feelings of abandonment and loss of faith.

Leaders are responsible to know their Soldiers. Not because the Army says so but because knowing them represents the ultimate respect for them. This kid who has put his faith in me and believes that I know the right thing to do in every situation had better have more than some superficial understanding of who I am. He is betting his life on it. I disrespect his service and our shared sacrifices if I will not meet him anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances when he needs me. When the barriers and walls prevent me from dealing with the person, and not their place in the organization, it is time to remove them and replace them with a new model.

A final thought: We routinely hear senior officers and noncommissioned officers speak about 'engaged leadership' as the answer to many of our institutional troubles. The problem seems to be that when these young people try to be engaged, the system is sending them a mixed message about the manner and method of their engagement. The system needs to accept that any manner or method that will help a Soldier to recover, to reach out, to accept help...to walk back from the brink... is acceptable. Any. Whatever it takes to provide each of us, no matter the stature or station the help we need - from anyone who can provide it, is the only way to enhance the organization. To recognize and support that is the job of every leader. And that happens by getting to know them.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. of course you have hit the nail on the head...but the changes needed to address these issues would "mandate" a cultural shift in our Army that is (sadly) not possible....toooooooo many "old timers"....who really have been in the fight at the level that you and others have...so they can't or won't understand.....

    your first names argument would fix so many of the problems....at so many levels


  2. ...I meant "who really have NOT been in the fight at the level that you and others have"