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A Commander's Philosophy

Captain JD Lock

June 1988


Upon my assumption of command in June 1988, an initial draft of the following article was provided to every member of C Company, 307th Engineer Battalion (ABN), 82d Airborne Division. While tailored to address my NCOs in particular and edited here to be generic in nature, the intent of this document was to establish individual performance criteria for all unit members.


In 1989, C Company was selected as the FORSCOM Itschner Award recipient and was runner up at Department of the Army level. Our success was primarily due to the quality of officers, NCOs, and soldiers assigned, though, I would like to believe that this command philosophy provided each and every member of C Company with the guidance and freedom of action necessary to focus on the unit's primary mission: combat readiness.


"No one is more professional than I." This is the first line of the NCO Creed and the standard of every Non-Commissioned Officer. It is said that the NCO is the backbone of the Army—a unit can survive without a good commander; it cannot survive without good NCOs. With today's force reductions, budget cuts, and proliferation of high technology weapons systems throughout the world, future conflicts may find us faced with forces either superior in numbers or equal in technology. Our significant advantage must be leadership and esprit; leadership that can provide the rational and coherent decisions needed in combat to accomplish the mission and not needlessly waste lives; esprit that motivates soldiers to drive-on under the most adverse conditions. In other words, we need a professional NCO cadre.


Our doctrine of decentralization and of seizing the initiative has placed an increased reliance on well trained small unit leaders who are confident in their abilities and who can create combat effective units that are proficient, disciplined, and endowed with a high degree of morale and esprit de corps. To create a combat effective force is the NCO's primary mission. No other task is as critical.


Many studies indicate that the reason a soldier fights focuses primarily around one factor, his comrades. Each soldier's survival depends not only on his own actions but also on the actions of those about him. Soldiers go into combat prepared to give their lives for the lives of their comrades. To come across as a coward in the eyes of these comrades in arms would be a fate worse than death, a form of living hell from which few would escape. This dedication to each other, as well as the unit, provides the necessary inertia to overcome one's fears and drive on to the Sapper objective.


General of the Army George C. Marshall once stated, "It is not enough to fight. It is the spirit we bring to the fight that decides the issue. It is morale that wins the victory." There are a number of time tested ways to achieve the morale and esprit needed to become a combat effective unit. To achieve this morale that Marshall speaks of within your unit, this commitment to each other, is the challenge a commander offers you.


In the British Army, it is said that officers teach soldiers how to die; NCOs teach soldiers how to live. The soldier's welfare, his individual training, and the maintenance of his equipment are the duty and responsibility of all NCOs. It is this concern for the soldier by the NCO that develops the esprit so critical to the success of a combat unit. "Know your soldiers" is one of the most fundamental building blocks of being a successful NCO. How your soldiers and their families live, and under what conditions, has a tremendous impact on their performance and ultimately that of your unit. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 is a case in point. Israeli studies indicated that one third of their WIAs were stress related casualties. Further analysis brought to light the remarkable fact that the wives of 80% of those stress related casualties were either pregnant or had a child born within the previous year. Knowledge such as this should help you identify potential stress related casualties early enough to provide them and their families the support necessary to keep that soldier an effective member of your combat team.


Esprit is also obtained by how we present ourselves. Integrity and credibility must be retained at all times. Once lost, they are nearly impossible to regain. NCOs set the example by their moral courage, self-discipline, personal appearance, and technical proficiency. NCOs seek to improve on their skills through advanced schooling, training, and professional reading. NCOs are physically fit. NCOs take care of their family responsibilities; if an NCO cannot take care of his [or her] family, how can he be expected to take care of his soldiers? NCOs take full responsibility for their actions, as well as the actions of their soldiers with the full understanding that the maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters. NCOs lead by example, establish the standards, and enforce them. NCOs know to what extent and in what manner to socialize with their subordinates; what type of confidence and willingness to follow does public drunkenness or rowdiness elicit in subordinates?


Unit standards are enforced by NCOs. NCOs are addressed as "Sergeant" by subordinates who come to a modified position of parade rest when they are addressed. Soldiers performing required duties are marched by the ranking soldier present. Field standards are maintained: pistol belts and chin straps are fastened, soldiers are properly shaven and camouflaged, "drive-on" rags are not displayed, and weapons are kept clean with the selector switch on safe. Soldiers are constructively counseled not only when they do poorly but also when they do well. Idle time is smartly used for hip-pocket and CTT training. Equipment is properly maintained and accounted for as are personnel. New soldiers are welcomed into the unit as comrades and made to feel part of the team. Attention to detail is the standing order of the day for NCOs and all missions and details are carried out with a sense of purpose.

We expect NCOs to take the initiative in the absence of orders; it is imperative for battlefield success. This will lead to mistakes at times. Commanders will underwrite those mistakes; that is part of their job description. Honest mistakes are normally easy to live with, learn from, and are to be expected. "The man who never made a mistake will never work for me; neither will the man who makes too many." Simply stated, there is room to fail; that is how one learns. There is one caveat to this adage, though - do not make a habit of failure or use poor judgment in the process. Failure resulting from innovation and initiative should not be confused with failure resulting from stupidity or laziness. Initiative is a key discriminator between a good NCO and an outstanding NCO. When in doubt, take the initiative and march to the sound of the guns. This philosophy in regards to failure pertains to all areas except for safety, arms and ammunition security, drug and alcohol abuse, mission assumptions, and personal integrity. These five areas are zero defect areas and require constant attention with no deviation from the standard.


Commanders are normally very receptive to suggestions unless they state otherwise. Usually, they will seek recommendations from their officers and senior NCOs prior to making a decision. At times, problems or disagreements will arise. They may be the result of guidance or directives from the commander or your superiors. They may be the result of some action external to the unit. When faced with a disagreement or problem, offer a viable alternative or solution. If there is one thing commanders cannot stand, it's a snivel. Professionals do not complain, nor do they question orders from their superiors once a decision is made. It is an NCO's duty to support the chain-of-command by accepting whatever final decision has been made as his own and carrying it out to the best of his ability.


A good NCO is also an integral part of a successful officer's professional development. Commander's expect NCOs to take care of their officers. Every officer is issued an NCO. Commanders have their 1SGs, platoon leaders have their platoon sergeants. It is that NCO's responsibility to advise and counsel his lieutenant—or captain as the case may be, thus keeping the officer out of trouble while he leads his unit. Without the NCO's guidance, support and respect, an officer will surely fail.


My final word of advice is to never waste your soldier's time. To do so will result in a loss of credibility and a significant decrease in morale and esprit. Always be prepared; to do so will only increase your soldier's confidence in your professional abilities. Work expands to meet allocated time. Therefore, establish daily priorities. Once these are accomplished, see if your soldiers can be released for the day; work to standard, not to time.


What can NCOs expect from commanders? They can expect commanders and the officers of their command to accept as their own the responsibilities and duties just outlined for the NCO. NCOs can also expect commanders to ensure that NCOs are taught and trained to be leaders of combat soldiers and to be prepared to execute the duties and responsibilities of the next higher duty position. But most of all, NCOs can damn well be assured that as commanders, we will do everything we can to be worthy of our command. Commanders will command the company while subordinate leaders command their platoons and squads. Micro-management is not a commander's style. That's why commanders have officers and NCOs.


The commander's standards will be high and at times not easily attainable. Morale and esprit are a state of mind. The more we act and train as professional soldiers the tighter we will bond. This bonding must become habit forming. With a dedicated and professional NCO cadre, no one should ever doubt that your unit "Leads the Way."

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