More Than Just ‘Don’t Be A Dick’
By Dave Crosbie
In my last week of Sub-Unit Command, I was having a coffee with a friend. We were discussing the crux of good leadership at any level and mused that it probably boiled down to ‘don’t be a dick’. Whilst this thoughtful, lucid observation does have many benefits (simplicity for one), I decided afterwards that there were probably a few more factors to ‘good leadership’.
As I did after my initial Major’s staff job, I also wanted to reflect on the experience of Sub-Unit Command. Why? Because reflection makes us better, especially when it is ‘fresh’. It allows us to review what we thought would happen, why it did or did not, and what lesson we can take forward from the experience. Writing publicly about such reflections allows a wider audience to benefit from the process, either by identifying ‘good practice’ (and applying it), or by leaning from the mistakes of others. Both are beneficial, as I found myself when reading the SUC series in 2019; I was grateful for the honesty and clarity in these articles.
This piece hopes to add to that collective body of work, by identifying or reinforcing a few themes about leadership at the Sub-Unit level. After a rollercoaster two years including exercises, operations, and a tragic loss of life, I suggest up front that one theme trumps all others: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Whilst this may sound like business-management speak, its importance can’t be understated. Put simply you can have the best plans and ideas for your Sub-Unit, but if the culture isn’t right you are going to struggle to deliver them.
Think and plan, don’t cuff it.
This sounds obvious, but it bears restating. Some people won’t have this luxury if they find themselves parachuted into SUC at short notice. However, most people will be assigned into their SUC role many months in advance. Use this time to think and plan.
What has the Unit and Sub-Unit got coming up? What have they just done? Will they be tired, rehabilitating, or gearing up to the next challenge? What is their role? Where do you think you may wish to take the Sub-Unit in terms of focus and objectives? Things will inevitably change, but these early thoughts (and conversations, as appropriate) will begin to underpin the first and perhaps most important document you will write, and will inform the culture you strive for.
Write clear, useful & resilient guiding principles.
By the time you assume SUC, you will likely have 10-14 years’ experience under your belt. That experience counts: you will have a view on the role of your SU, and the values and behaviours you wish to inculcate. By considering where your SU has come from (experiences, history) and where it is going (role, mission), you can begin to lay out your intent and boundaries for your entire tenure, including your thoughts on culture. This may seem optimistic in today’s constantly shifting world, but I found the process incredibly useful.
My personal ‘command philosophy’ (the name matters not – call it what you will) did two important things. One, it forced me to absolutely clarify (in less than two pages) what was important to me, and what principles and standards I would hold dear. I spent weeks refining it. Second, it provided something of a promise to the Company: this is me; this is what I value, and these are the boundaries for our team. Stick to them – live the principles – I will too.
In sum the document allowed me to hold myself accountable, even when significant change was rocking the boat; I kept a copy pinned to my wall with the annotation ‘keep yourself honest’. Reviewing the document often is important too. If your guiding principles can’t be ‘lived’ (they don’t help decision-making) or they aren’t honest to you (gimmicky straplines just don’t cut it), then re-write them.
Once finalised, I found hand-addressing this document to every soldier and officer in the Company to be important – it became something personal from the OC to every individual on the team, a contract of sorts.
Clarity. No-one likes being a mushroom.
The chain of command is a brilliant thing. It allows you delegate (to the level of discomfort, and then some more), and allows your subordinate leaders to take your intent and add value at their specific level.
Equally, there are some things that should remain relatively ‘need to know’; the OC doesn’t need to brief everyone in the Company on everything, all the time. However, during my tenure I was regularly reminded of the importance of communicating clearly with all members of the Company, of – sometimes – leading them through uncertainty and tragedy.
Whether through written updates or (more importantly) a physical verbal update to the entire Company, there is sometimes nothing more powerful or reassuring than the OC standing up in front of their people and just being honest. Soldiers can smell bullshit a mile away, and no-one likes being treated like a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed on… you get it). Using Simon Sinek’s tenet of ‘start with why’, explain the desired outcome and the context, regularly. Discuss what is going on around the Unit and the other issues / challenges being faced by others.
I found that a well-informed Company, who had regular opportunity to ask the Coy HQ questions, would generally be more content and understanding of the fastballs when they do invariably come.
Pull up a sandbag…
Storytelling is a useful tool in building the team. The opening paragraph in my command philosophy read as follows:
The Infantry Company can do many things but be clear that our primary purpose is to fight and win. This fact must underpin all that we do, because we do not know when and where we may be asked to fight. So, we must be ready; physically, conceptually, and with our equipment. Be completely clear about what the infantry are for: engaging in close combat, taking and holding ground, and killing our enemies. No-one else in the Army outside the Infantry has the same purpose as us. Take pride in yourself.
As is often the case in the infantry, I was fortunate enough to return to the battalion where I had grown up as a junior officer. I therefore understood the culture, ethos, and history of the battalion, and was keen to continue taking that forward. Careful to not simply resort to constantly ‘spinning HERRICK dits’ (which would have disillusioned many of the newer soldiers), I and the command team would routinely use the power of storytelling to reinforce the key messages in the command philosophy, and the precepts of people, profession and pride.
Repetition was key: on arduous PT sessions, Regimental history days, training for operations; always coming back to people, profession, and pride. Using these shared experiences as opportunities to ‘hook into’ a certain cultural narrative aimed to strengthen the entire team.
Linking personal effort on PT to experience of a CASEVAC, in turn to a specific Regimental battle honour, helped bond individuals with an institution that has a past, a present, and a future that they are now part of. There is probably a reason Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, suggests that ‘stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit’.
Ritualise to actualise.
The Infantry Company is an unapologetically tribal entity. That tribalism serves an important function: it ensures members of the team will fight for one another and encourages a practical embodiment of the Army value ‘selfless commitment’. The Company Commander has an important role to play in fostering a healthy sense of tribalism (noting that tribalism done badly risks undermining broader Unit cohesion, ultimately more important). There are numerous opportunities to instil this sense of esprit de corps, often through a sense of ritual.
The term ‘ritualise to actualise’ would be familiar to anthropologists and has also gained prominence as one of the All-Blacks 15 principles in James Kerr’s Legacy. Rituals – things done in public – reinforce the collective belief system and group identity. They allow a group to move from ‘talking a talk’ to ‘walking the walk’. By playing to the themes discussed in my opening command philosophy (and themes I regularly reinforced through acts of storytelling), I would actively seek to conduct ‘rituals’ in public. From publicly marking important Regimental history (both distant and recent), through to the public presentation of leaving gifts (Company branded port and ‘Essex eagles’), the intent was to ‘strengthen the tribe’.
The key point here was to undertake these events publicly – often at a Company parade. In the same vein, delivering praise in public was equally important, also adding to the collective strength of the tribe (as opposed to counsel, which should always be done in private). Again, the precepts of people, profession, and pride provided a useful framework through which to conduct these rituals, further reinforcing the chosen narrative.
Leadership really is ‘just plain you’…if you have empathy.
“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care”Colin Powell
In chatting to a soon-to-be-OC in another Unit, I suggested that during Sub-Unit Command around 80% of my time had been spent on G1 in the broadest sense. Whether that was interviews, report writing, leadership development sessions, impromptu chats over a brew, career management, or discipline (thankfully not too much of the latter); the people bit really was important. The G3/5 (operations & planning), G4 (sustainment) and G7 (training) were also important, but I had other good people to support me there day-to-day.
The Army Leader author was right when they suggested that a good OC needs to think about where they can add most value (don’t be a NOBA!) I decided early on that a combination of factors – principally age and experience – meant that I would serve the Company best by routinely applying focus and effort on the G1, the people. Reassuringly, this didn’t require much effort or any change in character or personality; it didn’t come at the expense of being a good OC, rather I think it enhanced the role. By engaging with soldiers as individuals, they became comfortable being open and honest with me and the broader chain of command.
Conversations before a Company parade; conversations during a block walk-round; conversations on PT, the ranges, or exercise; they all allow soldiers to get a measure of you and decide if they can trust you. And if they do, they will bring their problems to you. Some may be serious and require formal intervention by other agencies. Others will require an hour of your time and a pot of coffee. But in both situations, the ability to practice active listening and demonstrate some empathy is key.
And if a soldier is distraught? Do what feels right: I’ve hugged a good handful of my troops. Demonstrate that you have some humanity and that you really care about your people. Mainly because it is right, but also because it builds a trust and respect that underpins genuine fighting power. Soldiers will fight with and for people they trust.
But, it’s not just about being liked. Be good at your job.
If you read the paragraph above and think I’m suggesting you just need to be ‘Mr Nice Guy’ to get by, that is absolutely not the case (although I do recommend Rich Clark’s ‘The 3 K’s of leadership’ for great examples on varying your leadership style). Setting a culture where people matter is great, but you must not forget what the Sub-Unit exists for. In the case of the infantry, to fight and win.
The point is captured well in Doug Meyer’s article ‘You can lead, but can you fight?’: “eventually, if you are all leadership and no fight, you will be found out”. However, culture still has its place here. By constantly talking to ‘the 3 P’s’ of people, profession, and pride, it was easy to link most activity – PT, ranges, exercises and so on – to the requirement to be a good soldier who would win the fight. It comes a no surprise (Serve to Lead?) that the command team – led by the OC and CSM – need to lead the way. Make sure you don’t become a keyboard warrior.
Do every PT session with the Company, and ensure you’re comfortably well up there in the top third. If you’re slipping, make the time to train some more. Make the time to get to the ranges and demonstrate competence with your weapon (and, probably, get some great coaching from your JNCOs at the same time; they made me much better with a pistol). If you’ve been at staff for a few years and are a little rusty with a map and compass, get out and brush up before that first big exercise. Make sure your fighting kit (webbing, daysack, bergen) is squared away.
In short, you need to be good at your job. If you can’t navigate, march, shoot and communicate to a good standard, how can you ask your troops to?
Think beyond your time.
Again, I cannot lay claim to an original point here. One author talked about defining success as what his Company would achieve the year after he left. In James Kerr’s Legacy the All Blacks discuss the concept of ‘leaving the jersey in a better place’.
As an OC – an important but transient role – thinking beyond your time is crucial. This can be challenging when you are rightly focused on the here and now and, importantly, setting the culture on your watch. But it is on this last point – culture – where you can genuinely think beyond your time and set both the Company and your successor up for enduring successes. For me, the purpose of the Company was clear: to be ready to fight and win. Everything had to underpin that.
The six principles I decided the Company would coalesce around were:
- A team of teams. The Company is greater than the sum of its parts. Trust, common drills, clear communications, and mission command will help elevate a good Company to an excellent Company.
- Think 1-up and understand 2-up.Understand what your commander is trying to accomplish and do all you can to help achieve this. Be prepared to step up. Understand our teams desired outcome – if you are not sure, ask.
- Keep attacking. Both on and off the battlefield. Offensive spirit is a principle of war with wider utility: exercise a positive, driven spirit in all that you do. Take pride.
- Embody the Regiment.Stabilis: be steadfast and calm; live by our ethos. Live up to our history. Take pride in the Eagle. Our organisation has a past, a present, and a future. Honour it. Be part of it. I want you to make your mark.
- Live by our Values and Standards.Remember your chosen profession – the right to bear arms on behalf of the nation. Set the tone and always live by the British Army’s Values and Standards: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, and selfless commitment. Always: Lawful, Appropriate Behaviour, Total Professionalism.
- Be better tomorrow than you were today.Be professional and operationally excellent, but never arrogant. Always seek to improve and share knowledge. Have a plan, and always finish the job to the best of your abilities. Think beyond your time and set others up for success.
Culture however was not formally ‘briefed’ to the Company – I wanted it to permeate, evolve and become lived over time, guided by actions and experiences. Culture in this sense (noting it is a notoriously contested term) is about learned and shared behaviour, and the patterns that form over time.
The Company culture then was a combination of our purpose, the principles that guided us, and often hung off the 3 P’s of people, profession and pride. Whilst the mission, the chain of command, the location, and many other variables can and do change over time, I genuinely believe that one of the best things you can leave your successor is a positive and healthy culture.
Sub-Unit Command can be a daunting privilege. You train towards it, are lucky enough to be selected, and then it flies by. If two years = 104 weeks, minus 6-7 weeks a year for leave, then you can expect about 90 weeks in work over that two-year period. With exercises, ranges, operations, professional development, and other activities quickly filling up the Forecast of Events (FOE), it is important to think about your approach prior to assuming the role. On reflection, I suggest the following themes for consideration by anyone about to become an OC:
- Think and plan, don’t cuff it. You owe that to your people.
- Write clear, useful, and resilient guiding principles. Let people know where they stand.
- Seek to drive clarity into all you do, especially ‘the plan’ and the FOE.
- Actively consider the power of storytelling.
- Ritualise to actualise, publicly and regularly.
- Be an authentic, honest version of yourself. If you have empathy and compassion, show it.
- You also need to be good at your job. Actively seek to develop your subordinates and your team too.
- Think beyond your time – “leave the jersey in a better place”.
Most importantly and underpinning all the above, is the approach Peter Drucker is credited with; understand that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Actively consider this and invest in it from the very beginning with your team. The ‘what’ invariably changes in this job; if you have the ‘why’ tied down then everything is just a little bit easier.
My approach and the culture I encouraged within C (Essex) Company 1 R ANGLIAN wasn’t perfect – far from it – but it helped us all excel in a few areas and weather some really challenging periods. If you are reading this and are about to go into Sub-Unit Command, most of all enjoy it. It is an absolute privilege.
For more articles on sub-unit command, visit the SUC Series here.