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Deal With the Causes Not the Symptom


J. D. Pendry


Knox Bellingham enlisted into the Army in February 1936.  In January of 1942, six years later, he was a first sergeant. He proved himself a capable leader and went on to be the Army's longest serving first sergeant, spending 15 years at the job.  Read Champion Six of Diamonds for the details of Bellingham's time as a first sergeant.


With the shortage of junior grade NCOs, there has been a push to get soldiers in front of promotion boards. Some noncommissioned officers are reporting that their commands are forcing them to put every promotion eligible specialist in front of a promotion board.  The common argument is that we may be promoting soldiers into the NCO ranks before they have the necessary experience or are otherwise ready to be noncommissioned officers and leaders.  Do you think Bellingham's six years experience was enough to serve as a first sergeant?


If you look back through the Army's history, you'll find other examples of those who were promoted early becoming successful leaders.  Experience levels are rarely good indicators of leadership ability.  Experience can make you cynical.  It can make you overly cautious.  Relying too heavily on it may cause you to lead in the past rather than the present.  New soldiers will never experience the things their predecessors did because times change.


There are plenty of examples where leaders relied to heavily on experience at the cost of many soldiers.  Look at the Civil War.  Revolutionary War battlefield tactics used in the face of modern weaponry resulted in incredibly high casualty rates.  Add trenches to those tactics and you have WWI where soldiers charged into the face of even more devastating weapons.  Fast forward to Vietnam and you have leaders experienced in conventional warfare applying those principles to an unconventional enemy.


Another lesson from the Vietnam War is that noncommissioned officers with little experience can succeed as leaders.  When we were critically short of middle grade NCOs, we developed the Noncommissioned Officer's Candidate Course (NCOCC).  You may have heard the products of that school referred to as Shake and Bakes.  In less than six months, and with no other experience in the Army or at leading, we took soldiers from basic training through NCOCC and had them in Vietnam as NCO combat leaders.


What I am struggling to understand here is at what point does experience become a factor when deciding who the leaders are or will be.  Or, is it even a factor at all?  Look back at NCOCC.  It wasn't experience that got these soldiers selected.  So, what was it?  Could it be that this select group demonstrated some of the qualities of leadership - self-discipline, a willingness to accept responsibility.  Were they self-motivated individuals with a desire to exceed the standard?  Maybe it was one or a combination of all these things, but their selection and resulting success had nothing to do with their experience level.


Experience or lack of it is only one aspect of this problem.  Another is to realize that a shortage of noncommissioned officers at the middle ranks, or a lack of confidence in the ability of soldiers to perform as NCOs are symptoms of something else.  We can treat the symptoms by putting every eligible soldier in front of a promotion board, but if we don't look to treat the causes of the symptoms what is to say we won't be right back where we are in a few years.


Give it some thought.  If you try to help a drug addict or an alcoholic by taking away the drugs and alcohol you're only treating symptoms.  There are deeper causes for those problems and to help the addict you have to deal with the other problems.


If the shortage of noncommissioned officers is a symptom then what cause or causes need to be addressed.  I'm sure there are others, but let's look at a few of the possibilities.



Granted, many of these causes are not in the NCO lane to fix.  The NCO responsibility is to fix those they can and then refer to their senior commanders the ones they cannot.


The other symptom is the lack of confidence expressed by many NCOs in the ability of some soldiers appearing before promotion boards to perform as NCO leaders.  If NCOs feel that soldiers who are otherwise eligible for promotion consideration are not ready then why aren't they?  I'm afraid this one lands back in our laps and NCOs must ask themselves some tough questions.



The bottom line is that basic leader development in soldiers is the responsibility of NCOs.  Some of the things I mentioned must be resolved at the Army level, but there is much opportunity at the unit level to develop young leaders.


I know this is long, but a couple more points.  Some soldiers will never be leaders because they simply lack the required attributes or desire.  When we force these soldiers into leadership roles because their rank requires it, the results are usually not good.  For soldiers who are highly skilled yet lack the attributes or in many cases the desire to lead maybe it's time to provide them a track that's not leader related by bringing back technical or specialists ranks.


If a soldier is eligible for promotion to NCO rank, his first line NCO leader should have documented his performance and his leader development.  The soldier should have a clear understanding of what's required of him or her or where they may be lacking in development if not recommended for promotion.


On the other hand, commanders and senior noncommissioned officers must be cautious about going against the recommendation of a first line leader when it comes to promotion.  To do this just to fill the ranks or make the stats look good is a cause that will produce many worse symptoms.