"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." Aristole
There are times when I am reminded of the reasons why so many people in my profession frighten and disillusion me. This week was one of those times.
I choose to address my subordinates by their first names. This is somewhat unusual for the enlisted corps of the Army. The normal course of action is to address Soldiers by their rank, their last name, the two combined or a nickname that has been given to them by members of the unit. Essentially, while they are obliged by courtesy and custom to address me by my rank, I am not required to do the same to them. I can say, "Go get me Johnson", or "Come here Sergeant" or "Go find Fen" etc, but when they address me, they are required to say, "Yes, Sergeant" or "No Sergeant" etc. They do not get to call me Jeff, or Fen. Most of them address me as Sergeant Fen.
A few weeks back, I was asked about this by my supervisor who disagrees with my approach and I informed him that I believe my choice to address my Soldiers by their first name was supported by regulation. He left it alone but indicated that he wasn't comfortable with it. This week though, he sent me an email that said he couldn't find a regulation supporting my position, so he asked me to find what I could. I also went looking and couldn't find it either. It appears that in the latest regulations the Army does not specifically address the issue.
So I posted the question on the Army's knowledge sharing website to see if others might know of a regulation that clearly defined what's right or wrong so we could settle the issue. And for 2 days my in-box didn't stop ringing with someones opinion on the matter. Not facts mind you, just their opinion.
My first problem with many of the responses was that most people interpreted my question incorrectly to begin with and assumed I was allowing a subordinate to call me by my first name. I was not. I was asking for the regulation that said whether I could, or could not, address them by their first names.
One of the responses I received was from a Sergeant Major. I will call him Sergeant Major X. I am including it below:
"Chief, or should I say Jeff…
I’m not aware of an Army Regulation that says how a Soldier must be addressed, but, the fact is it shows disrespect to the Soldier to address them by their first name. You say you want to call them by their first name, do you expect them to call you by your first name or the rank you have earned? Soldiers should be addressed by their rank as a military courtesy and show of respect to the rank they have earned. You are not their “buddy” you are their leader. When an occurrence happens that the leader is expected to counsel the Soldier in writing often times the leader who is their Soldier’s buddy won’t do it, then they come to the Sergeant Major and ask if the Sergeant Major will counsel the Soldier; that’s the wrong answer. This doesn’t mean the officers appointed over us can’t be friendly and cordial but it does mean there is a separation of rank for a reason and that should be respected. Address them by their rank sir and expect them to do the same for you any time you are in a professional military setting.."
I responded to the Sergeant Major with the following:
"You have the right to call me Jeff (which is in no way disrespectful because it is my given name), Sergeant, Sergeant Fenlason, or Fen (my nickname). that is your option by position. I display my courtesy to your position as a superior by addressing you by your rank. None of the examples I included above would be disrespectful towards me, nor would they be uncommon, nor would they violate any custom or protocol. My guess is that many senior NCO's routinely address their subordinates only by their last name i.e. "Go get me Jones". All I was asking was why shouldn't/couldn't I use "Go get me Fred" the same way? It also does not imply some form of lack of discipline as others have suggested. That would only be the case if using someones first name created an environment where the senior and subordinate engaged in other forms of behavior that diminished the standard.
One of the reasons that the Special Operations community consciously uses first names is to affirm the idea that as a professional and not just a rank I am counting on your contribution to the team and the mission. It's not the rank that matters, it's the competency and sense of mission accomplishment of the individual team members that determines the level of respect they enjoy."
Sergeant Major X's response troubles me. First, he claims it is disrespectful the Soldier to address them by their name. Second, he raises (as others did) the idea that by calling a Soldier Jeff instead of Fenlason I would somehow be opening the organization up to lesser form of discipline. That somehow the use of a first name versus the last has some affect on whether the Soldier does or doesn't do the right thing. Finally, and most importantly for me, I find his response to be hypocritical for I am positive that he does not address each subordinate by their rank every time, nor does always address them in a professional manner. I'm certain, having been in the profession for 20 years, that along the way, he has used only last names, or someones nickname, or even called a Soldier a disparaging term when angry or upset with their behavior. I know I have.
Another Sergeant Major (I'll call her Sergeant Major Y) concluded her comment by stating:
"I agree with all the comments as you are opening yourself up for issues. Calling your peers (same rank) by first name should not be done in front of junior Soldiers, either. I challenge each NCO to get our NCO Corps back to the professional and disciplined Backbone of the Army!"
Ahhhh. I knew that one was coming. Somehow, someway, addressing a Soldier by their first name was going to be the death knoll of the NCO Corps. We have to get "back" to some time in the past when supposedly we were a more disciplined and professional force than we are now. I wonder exactly when that time was? Must have been before I joined. The Army of my earliest years was almost completely disrespectful to junior Soldiers and you were very likely to have an extremely degrading nickname....if they even let you have a name at all! Most of the time you were just called "Shit-bird" or some other colorful colloquialism. Ahh yes, the more disciplined and professional Army. Please lets get back to that. Now that I'm a senior NCO, it'll be fun to constantly degrade people. Must be, because my leaders sure did seem to find a lot of joy in it when I was coming up.
So now, two Sergeants Major have responded and stated that using someones given name is disrespectful to them, lowers the standard of the profession, reduces discipline and leads to some unknown-but-scary possibility of opening a leader up for 'issues'.
[By the way, the 'opening yourself up for issues' theme came up more than once although not one respondent could state what the 'issue' might be.]
Is the noncommissioned officer corps so broken and weak that it cannot see one step below the surface to recognize that the professionalism and discipline of the organization had better be built on a much more solid foundation than names and titles if it is to survive and flourish in the future? As I alluded to in my response to Sergeant Major X, if this type of leadership approach is so incredibly detrimental, then why do all of our most elite units commonly work this way? And why does the officer corps not have an issue with it? In fact, on most officers evaluation forms, their superior will routinely comment with something like, "John is one of the top 10% of all the Captains I rate", or "Jane is the most competent Major on my staff." Following the logic of the the Sergeants Major, we must have a broken and undisciplined officer corps as well.
After nearly 10 years of sustained combat in two different theaters and most middle and senior grade Soldiers having multiple combat tours under their belt, I beg to differ. I believe we have potentially the most experienced officer and noncommissioned officer corps we have ever fielded serving right now. We have asked the force to learn on the fly and adapt to two vastly different battlefields, and come to grips with a type of warfare that they were completely ignorant of a decade ago. This Army, at this time, is more adaptable, more lethal, and, importantly, more thought full than it has ever been.
What does all this have to do with leadership? Maybe nothing, and maybe a lot. The cost of insurgent warfare on Soldiers and their families is coming home full force. We have a crisis in the Army right now. We are losing Soldiers to suicide and risky behaviors at an alarming rate. It has rightly been called an epidemic. The Army is imploring leaders at all levels to find ways to break down the barriers to communication and to rebuild the trust and confidence in our Soldiers that their leaders truly care for them. We are all struggling with the myriad of issues that surround almost 10 years of sustained combat and an operational tempo unlike anything we have ever seen. Soldiers are routinely stating that they feel disenfranchised and that their leadership only sees them as a number or a widget, and not a whole person.
[For information on the Army's year long study and response to the suicide and risky behavior issue, please follow the link below.] It as a large file (9MB) and might take a minute to download, but it is important to read and consider:
On page 31 the report offers the following vignette:
"A Staff Sergeant had a hard childhood. His father was in and out of jail and both parents used illegal drugs. When he joined the Army, he thought he had finally escaped his background. He was promoted through the ranks and was well respected by his leadership. He helped to emancipate his sister and was paying for her college. Following a very violent improvised explosive device (IED) attack, he started having difficulty sleeping and was waking up with nightmares. Shortly after deploying, his parents stole his identity and incurred a large debt in his name. One night, after arguing with his family, he took his life. His action took his leadership by surprise. He was viewed as one of the most resilient Soldiers in his company. "
"He was viewed as one of the most resilient Soldiers in his company...." And yet nobody knew that he had significant personal issues that weighed upon him so heavily that he finally succumbed under his burdens. The Army lost a Soldier. The Nation lost a warrior. The unit lost a leader. Why?
I don't know exactly why this particular leader decided to take his own life. Each suicide is as personal as the person who commits it. But, not uncommonly, it was only after the fact, as the investigation delved more deeply into this person's life and circumstance, did anyone come to understand that there was much more to him than his simple rank and title. That he was a person with a history, a family, with responsibilities and burdens that had nothing to do with the Army or combat. He may have been resilient on the battlefield and at work because his personal life was in such chaos that work was the only place he felt he had any control.
Many of the responses I received this week had to do with the need to maintain some form of barrier between a leader and his/her subordinates. A lot of people said there must be some form of wall put up between the leader and the led in order to maintain good order and discipline. I disagree. These barriers must be torn down if we are to find ways to talk to our Soldiers and communicate with them and share with them, and help them carry their burdens in a healthy way until they can put them down.
Another thought that occurred to me in looking over the responses I got was the vast majority of them came from senior NCO's who have been in the Army during the period of peace and war. They came of age in a time when we weren't at war and their behaviors and norms were formed by that experience. We now have a completely different group of people serving who have been cultured in an Army at war. Their experiences have shown them what is important and what is not. They care little for a title or rank. They require leaders who make sound decisions, can see them as a whole person - not just a subordinate, and honor their service by respecting their contributions to the team and the mission. As I have mentioned many times before, they are also mostly Millennials who have a need to be a valued member of a team. And that value must be of a personal nature. They need to believe that they are individually valued for their particular talents and skills. They cannot and will not be seen as just some interchangeable widget in the Army machine.
I understand tradition and custom and history. I also understand discipline both individual and collective. My Soldiers are no less committed to their responsibilities because I choose to use their first names than they would be if I used their last. In fact, I asked some of them whether or not my form of address enhanced or detracted from their sense of belonging or mission accomplishment. Most said that while overall they didn't feel any more or less sense of mission focus because I use their first name, they did indicate they felt it created an environment where they were more comfortable expressing themselves. If they didn't understand what needed to get done, they weren't too embarrassed to ask. If they had a personal issue they sensed that they could bring it to me and have it listened to. If they needed advice, they felt as if I would give them my best consideration. Whether or not using their first name has anything to do with that feeling I don't know. What is important is that they feel it. That they share a sense of belonging to a team committed to serving Soldiers and that they can bring their concerns and needs to the table and have them addressed.
As the 'backbone' of the Army, the noncommissioned officer corps has a solemn responsibility to accomplish the mission and take care of it's troops. If and when something gets in the way of that, it needs to be considered and, and if necessary, removed or changed. If today's Soldier requires a different style of leadership than previous generations, then it is our responsibility to adapt the way we do business to meet that need. It frightens me that the Army has a 350 page report that is trying to answer the question why so many Soldiers are choosing to kill themselves or engage in behaviors that enhance the chance for injury and death, and so many senior NCO's are running around worried that someone is addressing someone else in a manner that makes them nervous. As one Staff Sergeant replied last week, "Don't we have anything better to do? Like maybe concentrate of preparing our Soldiers for combat?" I couldn't agree more. We also have something better to do by creating environments where our Soldier can come to us with their most intimate issues and problems and have them treated with dignity and respect. That is one way we can stop the epidemic in our ranks. Sometimes, it's not about your rank, your title, or your position. It's about whether or not your people trust you enough to talk to you. That is leadership. That is the essence of the NCO corps. That is what we need to remind ourselves of every day.
I overheard another leader the other day tell a Staff Sergeant that he wasn't one of the smartest Soldiers he'd ever seen. He also called two other folks Dumb and Dumber. In the first case, he told the NCO that "But I don't mean it in a bad way..." Really? What other way is there? And in the second case, I'm sure that Dumb and Dumber aren't their first or last names, and they sure aren't their ranks. I wonder if he thinks he enhanced their sense of belonging and caring about the organization.....just a thought.
My first name is Jeffrey. My last name is Fenlason. Both of those will tell you a hell of a lot more about me than my rank. I have earned that rank and I am proud of it. Not because it is my due, but because it allows me to serve more people in the best manner I know how. Sergeant Fenlason is a by-product of the person that Jeff Fenlason is. I am only due to respect that I have personally earned. If my Soldiers trust me and respect me, it is because they feel that I am living up to the two most important characteristics of a professional noncommissioned officer: Accomplishing the mission, and the welfare of my Soldiers. If I have done those things, then I don't really care what they call me. I will rest easy knowing that I fulfilled my duties. For I am a noncommissioned officer, a leader of people, who happen to be Soldiers.
By the way, most people call me Fen. That suits me just fine.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.