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Building a NCO: Setting the Foundation


J. D. Pendry


"The choice of non-commissioned officers is an object of the greatest importance: The order and discipline of a regiment depends so much upon their behaviour, that too much care cannot be taken in preferring none to that trust but those who by their merit and good conduct are entitled to it. Honesty, sobriety, and a remarkable attention to every point of duty, with a neatness in their dress, are indispensable requisites; a spirit to command respect and obedience from the men, an expertness in performing every part of the exercise, and an ability to teach it, are absolutely necessary, nor can a sergeant or corporal be said to be qualified who does not write and read in a tolerable manner."

-Major General Friedrich Baron von Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, 1779


Major General von Stuebon wrote the prescription for noncommissioned officers when our nation and Army were in desperate need of professional soldiers and leaders. He knew that an army of citizen soldiers required professional noncommissioned officer leadership for it to succeed against the well-trained super power of the day.


If you've arrived at the point where you want to become a noncommissioned leader you too must understand the importance of the rank and evaluate your abilities against the requisites laid out by General von Steubon. Becoming a NCO is serious business and I want to help you get the blocks into the right places because someday you may be looking after my son or daughter.


It is difficult to be a good noncommissioned officer. If it had been easy, they would have given it to the officer's corps." - SMA Connelly


Where do you start?


Building a NCO is much like building a house. If it's going to stand straight and strong and weather the storms it must have a solid foundation. A noncommissioned leader's foundation is values.


You must have strong, positive personal values and embrace the Army's core values. The corner stone of your value foundation is integrity or more exactly personal integrity.


You need to determine if you have the most important NCO building block because understanding personal integrity and assessing your level of it is the necessary first step to becoming a successful NCO.


How do you go about that?


The best one-word definition for integrity is honesty. Personal integrity, simply put, is being honest with yourself.


Have you ever taken a physical fitness test, for example, and been disappointed with your performance? Did you have one of those critical self-talks afterwards where you promised to do better next time? Did you keep the promise you made to yourself? When you promised to do better the next time you made a self-commitment. The first step in developing personal integrity is keeping the commitments you make to yourself. If you cannot keep self-commitments, it lessens the chance that you can or will consistently keep commitments made to others - subordinates, peers, superiors - or to your unit.


The second important part of developing personal integrity requires you to be honest with you. You must ask yourself candid questions and answer them honestly. The basic questions to ask are those about competence. Do you posses the requisite skills, knowledge and attitudes outlined in General von Steubon's criteria for the selection of NCOs? Asking yourself that question is easy; giving yourself the honest answer is often difficult. If you cannot be honest and candid in your self-assessment, how can you be so with others?


Making and keeping commitments to ones self, and making an honest assessment of skills, knowledge and attitudes are the important elements to developing a base of personal integrity. Once you are comfortable that your personal integrity cornerstone is in place you can move on.


Next, assess your values.


The Army is a values based institution. That means that the leadership of the Army uses the core values as an integral part of the decision making process. A successful noncommissioned officer must also internalize and use those values.


Whether we consciously think of it or not all of our decisions are values based. If you are a NCO or aspiring to be one you must align your personal values - those on which decisions are based - with the Army's core values and use them to guide personal and leadership decisions. You must contemplate each of the core values, Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage (LDRSHIP) and internalize their meaning. Then consider the personal values of candor, commitment, competence and compassion. When you are comfortable that you understand and apply the right values to the business of soldiering and leading, you've made an important step toward becoming a NCO.


After addressing personal integrity and values the next tough question to answer is:


Why do I want to be a NCO?


When you ask yourself this question, be conscious of the first answers that pop into your thoughts because those are likely your honest reasons. None of your answers are wrong answers, but you must understand the important reasons for being a NCO. The challenge is sorting out your reasons and placing them in the right priority. For example, everyone who is or wants to be a NCO wants the privileges associated with the rank - and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem exists when the privileges become the focus. The desires to lead, train, and care for others must come before personal privilege. When your reasons are properly ordered, the privileges that come with your rank and positions will follow.


Your quest to become a noncommissioned officer must start with a solid foundation. A foundation of understanding and possessing the requisite degree of personal integrity, understanding and embracing the core values, and placing reasons for wanting to be a NCO in the right priority. Meet those difficult challenges and the first important stones to your foundation will be set. Next time we'll talk about conducting an honest self-assessment of your attitudes, knowledge, skills and abilities.


This is the first in a series of seven articles on NCO Self-development. CSM (ret) J. D. Pendry is the Author of The Three Meter Zone: Common Sense Leadership for NCOs.


Copyright 1999, James D. Pendry, All Rights Reserved