The Good OC
By Jon Healy
I finished company command some time ago. I often reflect on what I could have done better, and what useful advice I could offer others approaching sub-unit command based on my experiences. There are a few twitter threads and good submissions on this already in The Army Leader’s Sub-unit Command Series but there’s also one on ‘why I should trust the new Lt’ derived from interviewing company commanders. This made me wonder what sort of advice future company commanders could be offered by their subordinates, who have experience of working with their many predecessors.
We are often keen to offer insight retrospectively and frequently to subordinates and those following in our footsteps. But what about the other way around? Why not ask for advice from our subordinates? With the help of some key allies I drafted a survey to identify which behaviours are indicators of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ company commander. What I discovered was that most perceived good or bad behaviours stem from a company commander’s self-awareness; their understanding of how they are perceived; how they communicate; their ability to make sound and timely decisions; and their ability to consistently set a positive example for their sub-unit, and not use it as a career springboard.
The results are below and come in two parts.
Part one prioritises the attributes that people expect of a good company commander (referred to from now on as an ‘Officer Commanding’ or OC). Using the 10 attributes listed in the Officers Joint Appraisal Report, respondents prioritised attributes from first to last. Part two consists of responses to a series of questions about good and bad behaviours with free text answers. The survey had almost 90 respondents, with the majority coming from an infantry background.
Part One: Attributes
The ten questions are outlined below, each sub-title is the related OJAR attribute. The question was ‘A good OC should’ followed by several ‘behaviour’ options. The options appear along the horizontal axis, with the number of soldiers and officers choosing it as their first priority on the vertical axis, in blue. Where it aids highlighting a disparity, or close call, the respondents’ second priority – the behaviour they selected as second in importance – has also been added in orange. The graphs only show the overall response for the survey. However, in some instances, certain rank groups prioritised differently to the overall findings. Any instances where particular rank groups stood out from the overall results shown are discussed in the text below the graph.
Adaptability and initiative
Of the four behaviours, the overwhelming majority of soldiers and officers (33) thought ‘not flapping’ was the most important. ‘Supporting creative ideas’ and ‘be a calming influence’ were effectively joint second with 15 and 14 responses respectively. Interestingly, WOs rated ‘be a calming influence’ a very close second to ‘not flapping’ as their first priority. This is perhaps indicative of the figurehead role the OC plays within their subunit, and I think is clear on what Sergeant Majors are expecting of their OCs.
Awareness and understanding
‘Know what the troops are good at’ is a clear first priority chosen by 29 soldiers and officers out of 65, followed by ‘knowing a bit of everyone’s backgrounds’ chosen by 19. ‘Knowing what the troops are bad at’ is second priority overall selected by 29. However, there is a split between platoon HQs and the remainder. The majority of JOs and SNCOs, who form half the overall respondents, rate ‘knowing a bit…’ as their first priority; of the 19 shown, 15 are JOs and SNCOs. All the other groups clearly put ‘know what the troops are bad at’ ahead of ‘knowing a bit’. This is particularly apparent with the longer serving groups of WOs and Senior Capts, presumably because of their experience, and a reflection on knowing enough about individual or group abilities to allocate tasks effectively. It seems that, overall, knowing the troops’ capacity and limitations is most important for an OC, however, the platoon-facing leaders want their OCs to know a bit about their soldiers too.
Breadth of perspective
30 of 65 soldiers and officers prioritised ‘ensure the company delivers what the Battalion needs for the Battalion to do well’, putting ‘care more about how the company performs’ in second with 24. But again, this is not accurate across the board. SNCOs only separate the questions by one point; over 50% of JOs and JNCOs clearly favour company performance. The observation I made is that everyone understands the company is there to achieve Battalion success, but perhaps perceptions differ. Platoon level leaders may not intuitively understand why some decisions have been made, particularly if it seems that company activity is being sacrificed for external gain. As such, OCs need to identify difficult decisions, consider how they may be perceived by others, and clearly communicate the background and explanation as to why they have been made.
Communications and influence
‘Give clear direction’ is a distinct first priority for all groups. Second priority is more interesting. ‘Explain the situation well’ is second priority overall, but second priority is not clear cut within the JNCOs, SNCOs and JOs groups. These three groups place additional emphasis on being approachable and speaking to the troops. So, while giving clear direction is critical, preferably with a sound explanation of reasoning and context, an OC must get out to speak with the troops and be seen to be approachable. The last point is not just to ease conversation, but to create an atmosphere where a soldier feels confident to speak with the OC regarding a professional or personal problem, and that they will listen and do something about it. This ties with the point seen in ‘Awareness and understanding’ about platoon-level leaders wanting their OCs to ‘know a bit about’ their troops.
‘Ensure the company is not endlessly thrashed’ is the first priority overall with 26 responses; ‘ensure the efforts of the company are recognised’ comes second with 20. Exceptions here are SNCOs, with over 50% placing ‘ensure the company is not thrashed’ as their highest priority, so much so that it skewed the overall result. This is compared to JOs of whom only 30% agreed, one of the few times that JOs and SNCOs were differentiated as platoon level leaders, and probably due to the SNCOs’ increased relative experience of being worked hard. Interestingly 73% of WOs together rate both choices for ‘recognition’ above concern over being thrashed. Perhaps there is a perception issue over what a WO and a SNCO see as being an enduring excessive workload, but an OC will need to get out to hear both sides of the story. What is clear is praiseworthy sub-unit and individual performances should be recognised and ideally highlighted to Battalion HQ, and as part two will show, using the company to take the limelight and highlight an OC’s drive or prowess should not.
33 soldiers and officers placed ‘sets the example’ as first priority, with ‘View SJARs / OJARs…’ as a distant second with 16. Over 60% of SNCOs and 45% of JOs prioritised ‘sets the example’, which were the most significant contributor to this distinct gap in the overall results. Perhaps as the arbiters of discipline, their OC’s conduct matters most. Interestingly, WOs place ‘work well with the Company Sergeant Major (CSM)’ second, placing it well ahead of MS responsibilities, which indicates quite how important the OC – CSM relationship really is to them. In fact, as can be seen by the selection of this behaviour as second priority overall, all groups place this behaviour quite highly. This indicates that everyone acknowledges the importance of the OC – CSM relationship: it needs to work. I put in ‘grips young officers if required’ as a leading question; surprisingly no group placed it higher than last except JOs themselves, who placed it fifth of seven; not high, but indicating they held it in higher regard than most. Perhaps this indicates a need for OCs to support JOs in policing poor behaviours amongst the officer cohort: ensuring officers adhere to the standards set for the soldiers. This, along with the statements in part two, may highlight the importance of OC’s role in unofficial development and social interactions within the officer body.
Physical and mental resilience
All groups were aligned on this: ‘knowing all aspects of your job’ is more important than ‘mental robustness’. When you consider second priorities, both are far more important than ‘having high standards of fitness’. Being extremely fit is not going to offset a lack of ability as a company commander, or an inability to hold yourself together, and this is recognised amongst soldiers and officers. Of course, OCs do need to be fit enough to perform their jobs correctly, and this is raised in part two.
Problem solving and decision making
‘Makes decisions when needed, not avoiding them’ is a clear priority, but the ranking thereafter becomes difficult as each group has a different view. ‘Listens to subordinates’ is important to SNCOs and JNCOs, and ‘develops and trust the company’ seem to be important to all. Interestingly, both officer groups rate ‘accepting failure in training’ very highly. This suggests a demand to be trusted and given latitude in training to make and learn from mistakes and failure. I would suggest further, from my limited experience, that the willingness of the OC to be comfortable with recognising an opportunity to take a risk and learning from a subsequent mistake would also support a culture of so doing in subordinates.
Teamwork and collaboration
‘Developing team confidence’ comes first (30) with ‘drive forward an inclusive culture’ in second (21) in the overall first priority selection. JNCOs prioritise ‘inclusive culture’ first followed by ‘seek collaborative answers’ as their second priority, a slight deviation from the overall. SNCOs list ‘develop individual’s confidence’ as a close third to ‘inclusive culture’. Clearly creating the team is what matters most to all, but the company working as a team matters most to those at platoon level, which links to the previous question’s findings.
Values & standards
Overall, ‘genuinely demonstrates the Army values’ comes first by some margin with 25 soldiers and officers placing it first. Second was close, but once you factor in second priority, ‘moral courage – do the right thing’ is the second most important overall with 38 first and second prioritisations, and based on that methodology, even takes it past ‘genuinely demonstrates…’ with 37. In short, the moral compass matters. There are some interesting observations when you look at individual groups. The priority for JOs and JNCOs was ‘adhere to the standards they set the company’, and by some margin – 67% of JOs and 50% of JNCOs. Perhaps this observation again highlights the importance of being a role model for the JOs; the OC must behave as they would expect their JOs to. The need for OCs to adhere to their own standards becomes more apparent in part two, but this observation again identifies that the OC’s individual behaviour and standards set the tone for the company at all times, and this must be realised.
Part Two: Behaviours
What are the common strengths of a good OC?
Honesty, being humble, and being yourself are the most common positive traits mentioned. Effective communication features prominently, with senior Capts valuing an OC who is personable and will have a chat without an agenda. No other group mentioned this, which is presumably a reflection on the often demanding and at times thankless roles role senior Capts play in the Battalion, and certainly worth considering: creating a positive environment stretches beyond just the company and investing time to relate to these officers is of benefit to the wider Unit. OCs should not just talk to them when they want a problem fixed. Taking an interest in the soldiers, trusting subordinates, usually linked with application of mission command, and approachability, combined with a willingness to listen is particularly important for the platoon level leadership. Professional competence is important for JOs, who are the only group to have several respondents explicitly mention this, along with leading by example, with reference to extending that into the mess. I think this recognises that OCs, much like the WOs, really are embodiments of the Battalion and everything it stands for.
“An OC that … walks around asking uncomfortable questions about their company is one that will understand the thoughts and feelings of their people.” SNCO
“The best OCs I have seen were the ones that embraced collaborative working… with other OCs and … Bn HQ.” Senior Captain
“[The best OCs] …appear to be genuinely nice people with no hidden agendas.” Senior Captain
“Able to strike the balance between command and informality with soldiers and officers.” Junior Officer
What are common weaknesses in bad OCs?
These predominantly stem from the OC using and overworking the company for their own end, with continually looking up rather than down being the most popular failing across the board, including being scared to ‘say no’ up. Clearly this, or the perception thereof, occurs, but more clearly is that everyone can see it. Public dishonesty is featured frequently; examples included lying in a unit brief to avoid admitting a mistake. Arrogance and ‘knowing it all’ were frequently mentioned failings from SNCOs and WOs, along with an inability to make a decision. Being unapproachable was a key failing for all groups, which often linked to not getting out to see the company. ‘Hermit OCs’ was one weakness mentioned, indicative of an OC that neither leaves their office nor interacts with the troops socially or professionally. Shutting down ideas and stamping out initiative was a key failing for JOs, as was failing to meet own standards, echoed by SNCOs and JNCOs. Interestingly, being poor at MS was mentioned relatively few times, mostly by LEs and SNCOs. MS is a critical part of the job, yet deemed less damaging than these other failings.
“The worst OCs always complain about others to subordinates.” Senior Captain
“Usually didn’t seem to care about the privilege of command [and] also didn’t seem to actually enjoy it.” Senior Captain
“Thinking about their next job and using the company to their own ends. It is clear to the [soldiers] who does this.” Junior Officer
“Self-interested and somehow forgetting that leadership is about people.” SNCO
“If you can’t hear when things are going wrong, you won’t be able to stop them.” JNCO
What weaknesses are forgivable and why?
All groups were very open to accepting that OCs make mistakes. Interestingly, JOs, who particularly value professional competence as a trait of good OCs, are very accepting of mistakes, providing that it is admitted. There is a caveat in that mistakes must be learned from, and not repeated. One JNCO observed that the OC admitting mistakes encourages a culture where others feel able to, and interesting second-order effect on company culture. All groups again accept that OCs do not know everything, and are content with gaps in knowledge, providing they use the team to solve these issues – seeking advice is welcomed in problem solving. Most groups are content with heavy workloads for the company or platoons provided they are genuine demands, and accept difficult decisions once they are explained. Across the board, not being fit, or not being an amazing soldier is accepted, so long as the OC ‘turns up and puts the effort in’. In short, most soldiers and officers would rather OCs were more competent than better soldiers, accepted they lacked knowledge in some areas, and were transparent with it.
“It is refreshing to have an honest, ‘I don’t know, I’ll find out’.” Junior Officer
“Doesn’t need to be a ‘green machine’ as long as their brain is good.” Junior Officer
“Not being the fittest is acceptable, not turning up and giving 100% is not.” Warrant Officer
“None, in the long term.” Senior Captain
What does it take to lose trust in an OC?
Across the board, trust is assumed based on experience and selection, although time is needed for it to develop. For the more senior roles, reputation plays a role. Perhaps a reflection on the infantry-centric respondents as we tend to remain in the same Regiment, but after 12-14 years, everyone comes with a reputation; WOs specifically state that an OC’s reputation defines them. As such, OCs need to work out what their reputation is before arrival in role. However, OCs will arrive with a head start in being automatically trusted, so it is up to them to lose! Generally, the trust gaining behaviours were the opposite to the trust losing behaviours. Dishonesty appeared more times than any other issue, along with Values and Standards failures and self-importance / self-interest. ‘Backing the command group’ and loyalty were key themes for both WOs and platoon level leadership, which I think allows for supporting the company when mistakes are made, and standing by the CSM when the company HQ errs to Battalion. Filling white space’ occurred a few times: perhaps this could be offset with better communication or even discussion on ‘the why’. Perhaps because of their position within the Battalion, senior Capts and LEs are far more explicit with their negative behaviours, listing immoral behaviour, bullying, lack of moral courage, fraud, laziness and lying as reasons to lose trust.
“Not defending me when I make mistakes or fail.” SNCO
“Not demonstrating to the company that you are professionally competent and the last person on the agenda.” Warrant Officer
“An OC who throws you under the bus without seeking the truth will lose trust.” Junior Officer
“Double standards and not supporting the CSM in times of crisis.” Warrant Officer
“Any officer who cares more about themselves than the soldiers they have the privilege of commanding isn’t worthy of a soldier’s trust.” Warrant Officer
What is the worst behaviour an OC can show?
Arrogance, lying, disloyalty and hypocrisy / double standards were the most frequently stated worst behaviours across the board, but selfishness and self-promotion appeared several times, paired with seeking to give a better impression up the CoC. Poor decision making featured, notably from WOs who perhaps see it more than most. There were two behaviours that I was surprised to see: firstly, refusing to own a bad decision, and secondly vindictive behaviour, including playing people against each other. Both of these seem so far off meeting the Values and Standards as unlikely to happen, but apparently not. Interestingly the only mention of MS at any stage by JNCOs featured here with an example of being honest in career management i.e. being truthful face to face and reflecting that in the SJAR, rather than the SJAR being an (implied as unpleasant) surprise. I think this is an important observation. For me, accepting the awkwardness of being honest with a soldier or officers’ potential and what they may not be able to achieve at the point of MPAR or OJAR is emotionally unpleasant but preferable to dealing with it later when perceptions and reality collide. Finally, a lack of empathy seems to have a significant effect on the company.
“A lack of empathy is very dangerous as an OC has no idea how badly they are corrupting a unit or what damage they are doing.” Senior Captain
“Whilst on exercise, demonstrating appalling personal discipline and professional commitment until hearing the CO is visiting and stopping all training to thrash the company through rehearsals to give a polished image.” Senior Captain
“Displaying [total field incompetence] …the troops began to refer to the 2IC as the ‘real OC’ in front of the CoC”. Junior Officer
“Dancing round decisions is not good for the company.” Warrant Officer
“OCs must set the example for two reasons; it sets the benchmark for the company and allows the OC to discipline without reproach.” LE Officer
“Not having a clue about successes, achievements, performance or potential of subordinates whilst simultaneously working to self-gain from them.” SNCO
In the fabled Army parlance: so what? Overall the LEs were particularly direct in their comments, as were WOs and both make valuable sounding boards. However, the remaining groups have different views in some areas; perceptions of those at platoon level may differ from those in the company HQ or above. It may be prudent for an OC to ensure they engage with a broad range of ranks within their sub-unit to ensure they keep alive to issues and concerns, and to identify areas requiring more explanation or a change in approach. In short, the OC is the figurehead and should behave accordingly. Six main points come from the survey:
- Personality. Do not flap! Understand the effect your behaviour under pressure has on the sub-unit; this seems especially important to WOs. Know enough about everyone so you can talk to them, but most of all know and understand what they can do, and what they cannot. Being a decent person is highly rated for senior Capts. Honesty and humility are rated highly by all. Having the confidence to ‘ask the difficult questions’ is important, rather than ignoring difficult issues, which fits with the high priority given to moral courage by all officers and soldiers.
- Self-awareness. This stands out as something to consider and is a theme throughout most of the responses. Overall self-awareness is critical, along with being aware of how different groups might perceive things in different ways. Fortunately, a company automatically provides you with a sounding board, if you choose to use it. There is an element perhaps of ‘theatre’ or ‘stage management’ to some activities, and you will need to know yourself as well as the company atmospherics to identify when it could be of use. But you can only project the personality you have… just know what it is.
- Company vs Battalion. If there is such a thing… Company success is great, but generally all officers and NCOs understand that the company is there to deliver Battalion success, not the other way around. But it is 50:50 with JNCOs and JOs, so you will need to explain why the company is taking a hit sometimes. Acknowledge success and individual performance, ideally up the CoC, and do not just look up and seek to please. Everyone below you can see it, and they all detest it. Loyalty is critical business, particularly for WOs; create an inclusive team and back up your subordinates and the command team.
- Decisions. Make decisions, be clear about what you want and communicate it effectively. The requirement to make timely decisions was highlighted in the groups OCs will most frequently work with: SNCOs, JOs and WOs. If you are not going to make a decision, then explain why. If you cannot explain why, then perhaps just make the decision; there were statements across the board about indecisiveness. Listen to your subordinates and involve them in decision making. Furthermore, trust them, and allow them to make mistakes, attributes particularly favoured by platoon level respondents. My experience suggests the right actions to delegate are those that make you feel nervous; everyone learns from them, and they usually work out.
- Communication. Seek feedback from both company HQs and platoons as each may have a different perception of excessive workloads; the truth may lie halfway, but you can’t get it without listening. You need to be approachable, and it seems to be the cornerstone to a lot of problems raised. If a subordinate is comfortable asking ‘why’, then it becomes pretty easy to identify missed decisions or poor comms. Speak to the troops: get out of the office! Speaking from experience, this is remarkably easy to ignore. Make the time: they will inevitably be on guard at some point, then at least they have nowhere to hide from your terrible dits. Only will power can make it happen, or not. Everyone notices. Self-awareness is key with communication; try to understand how you can be perceived by others who perhaps lack your situational understanding or 14+ years of experience: this affects verbal and non-verbal communication. If you talk down to some groups, or do not enjoy your job, it shows, and, again, everyone knows.
- Example. OCs are Battalion figureheads. They must set the example and it is as important as doing MS properly, more so for SNCOs’ who have to enforce the same standards. OCs adhering to the standards they set is critical activity for JOs, who also want that ‘example’ to extend into social mess life, and they are eager to develop and be trusted. Mental robustness is more important than being fit, both are trumped by knowing your job well. However, everyone accepts gaps in knowledge and mistakes, once at least. However, in the British Army, most OCs will have 4-6 months’ notice of their appointment, giving plenty of time to invest in professional ability. I will add that it requires effort to continually be aware of your own example whilst meeting the standards you set for two years, but it is critical activity. It cannot be faked for long. This point relates straight back to self-awareness.
One of the best things about the Army is that very few people get up in the morning determined to ruin someone else’s day, but everyone gets it wrong from time to time. I recognise errors I made in the commentary above. I would be surprised if any of these observations will be news to anyone reading this. Almost everything identified here is an extrapolation of those found in the ‘why I should trust the new Lt’ and a glance at the ‘Leadership Framework’ found in the Army Leadership Doctrine will detail all those good behaviours cited. I think perhaps what is news is that these poor behaviours do exist, which means that all of us post-command have made these mistakes, whether we reflect on and accept it or not when we are giving advice to those about to take on command. More important than that is that every rank group can see these good and bad behaviours. Everyone.
Slim is often quoted as saying leadership is “…just plain you… the projection of personality”. He also added four qualities to that: courage; will-power; initiative; and knowledge. All of these have been addressed in some form above. But this survey has identified that most of the perceived good and bad behaviours are a direct result of the OC’s personality, and affect everything an OC does, irrespective of how professionally competent they are. Knowing who you are, how you react to various situations, and how you interact with others is paramount. Which should be a good enough reason to have a decent think about what sort of person you are, including asking others how you come across to them, before returning to a command appointment.
If you want to learn more about what it takes to be a good sub-unit commander, or to lead any team of up to 150 people, read more articles from our Sub-unit Command Series.