Know Your Role and don’t be a NOBA!
In the Sub-Unit Command Series we’ve had advice from different ranks, branches and jobs in the British Army. I wanted to finish with some advice on sub-unit command of my own.
My interest in leadership began shortly before I took command of my sub-unit. You would have thought that this interest would have held me in good stead – and of course it did. By the time I arrived I’d thought hard about the detail of what I wanted to do. But the reality of command is that the more you get involved in the detail the more difficult it is to see the bigger picture. This is the case in most jobs; yet in command the pressures are much greater.
For me, this is the critical part of leading a sub-unit: looking at the bigger picture and converting what you see into actionable direction to your team.
It comes from knowing the roles in which you add value, avoiding becoming involved in activity where you add no (or negative!) value, and passing on your knowledge to those junior to you.
Know your role!
What’s the role of an OC? In his article Dave Godfrey argued that the Company is “the point in the Army’s hierarchy where the email stops and the people start… your core purpose [is] translating higher intent into military effect through the application of leadership and management.”
He’s right, of course. But when it comes to how you do that it is worth working out where you add value. Bill Sharpe, author of Three Horizons (Sharpe & Williams, 2013), believes leaders need to simultaneously hold three horizons while steering their organisation. These three horizons are:
- Managing business as usual today
- Innovating continuous improvements in outputs, processes and capabilities for tomorrow
- Creating the right direction for the business, looking well beyond tomorrow
Sharpe argues that we tend to prioritise 1, 2 then 3. In fact, he believes, a modern leader has to prioritise 1, 3 then 2. And the proportion in which you deliver these functions depends on how senior you are in the organisation. It’s best displayed as a graphic:
What is your role?
CGS is right up on the right-hand side; a strategic leader is all about setting the strategic direction. In fact, an OC sits less than halfway up. But Bill Sharpe’s theory suggests an OC needs to spend more of their time (by comparison to the rest of the sub-unit) on creating the right direction and environment for the sub-unit than each of the other two horizons.
Imagine this situation. An OC is putting her sub-unit through a range package. If it’s done well it will increase their capability. She won’t run the range – this is business as usual for the troop commanders and she knows it would be a waste of her effort. She could get involved in improving the ranges. She’s got plenty of experience that means she can improve each range to make it 10% better; she could ensure the training programme puts the squadron’s best shooting coach on every range.
However, the real value she can add is by appreciating that her sub-unit needs to re-role to a new vehicle fleet in the next 12 months, and her best coach will add the most value by going on a Driving and Maintenance Instructor’s course during the range package. This is adding the value that no one else can; often the value is not in the glitz task.
Of course, being an OC is about more than range packages, but the principle holds true. Identify where you add value in a disproportionate amount to the rest of the team. Concentrate your effort there.
Carving out the space to do this can only be done by not doing some activities that you could do better than your subordinates, but don’t have to do. This is the importance of delegation. Not that it frees you up to do more stuff, but that it frees you up to do more important stuff that only you can do.
Know your role; then understand what of that role only you can do; then focus your efforts on that.
Understand what others can do well enough; accept that they should get on doing it.
Finally, understand what not to do…
Don’t be a NOBA!
Last year a retired Major General told me a story from his time as an OC.
“It was the end of an exercise and my company were unloading their kit from the back of the 4 tonner. I had nothing to do; the exercise was over but I didn’t want to slip away and leave the guys to do the work. So I started to get involved, telling soldiers where to put kit and, generally, getting in the way by confusing things. My CSM came over to me.
‘Sir, stop being a knobber.’
‘I’m sorry Sergeant Major, did you just call me a knobber?’ I asked him.
‘No sir,’ he replied (smiling, because he totally did just call me a knobber). ‘NOBA. N – O – B – A. Not Officers’ Business: Administration. Go away and leave me to do this, you’re getting in the way.’
So I did.”
There are some activities where you add the most benefit. There are some where others can do the job well enough. Finally, there are activities where you will end up being a knobber if you get involved.
In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth Chris Hadfield makes a similar point.
“In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.
Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.”
As the OC, you’ll be the senior person and you’ll want to add value everywhere you can. Just be aware that being in charge doesn’t make you a plus one in every endeavour. In fact, as you begin to step outside of your core role as OC you start to transition more towards being a zero. Keep going and you become a minus one.
Officers are comfortable with admin being minus one territory. Just watch out for other zero or minus-one zones.
And remember that if your involvement has a value of +0.05, but comes at the expense of disempowering your subordinates, then in the long run you are probably a minus-one. And you are probably being a knobber.
You will always add value when you pass on wisdom and knowledge
There is one activity that, without doubt, is core to your role and where you will be a plus one – developing your subordinates. During my initial interview as an OC my commanding officer (now commanding a brigade) told me about his biggest surprise from when took over as an OC: just how much more experience he had than his officers.
This might seem an obvious statement. But you will likely have some troop or platoon commanders who have been commissioned less than a year. Your second-in-command, unless they are an LE, will probably have less than three years under their belt. In comparative terms, you will have between four-times to ten-times the experience of your junior officers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself wise; you are still, without doubt, experienced.
You learnt lessons in Regimental HQ, on tour, in your Initial Grade 2 appointment. These lessons – on tactics, management, leadership, analysis and even human nature – need to be passed on as quickly and effectively as possible. I made a similar point about personal development in an earlier article; these advantages will compound if you do them right.
As Patrick Marriot wrote, ‘ultimately, the winning officers will be those that lead and think well, not lead and run well’. I would add that the same is true for your NCOs as well. Some of your Sgts will have been Cpls a couple of months ago.
So claw out time to develop them. Run a mock promotion board with SNCOs and officers grading. Invite your young officers to observe Bn-level meetings. Run table-top MAPEXs or MODEXs. Talk about risk analysis, attached arms, how the AGAI system works. Refresh them on report writing – you will benefit in time saved on rewrites.
In the time running up to command start writing a list of the things you wished you’d known as a young officer. Then go further; what had you wished you’d known before you were Ops Officer? Finally, ask your subordinates what they want to know more about. You’ll soon end up with a list that will fill two years.
There’s a pragmatic reason to do all of this. The better your subordinates are the more times you become a zero. The more often you can add zero value the more often you get to concentrate on the areas you add value: zone three, creating the right direction for the business beyond tomorrow.
You won’t get it all right
Finally, remember you will get things wrong. Sometimes because you pushed the envelope and it went wrong. Sometimes because the nature of the job is high-risk and high-cost. Other times you will just have screwed something up.
You will trust a soldier you shouldn’t have. You will not trust one you should have. You will miss great opportunities and maybe you will push the sub-unit too hard when you should have let off the steam. Remember that mistakes are normal and happen when you push the boundaries and try new things. How you deal with failure will be noted by your team.
Bill Slim had a great quote about regrets (you can read the complete quote here).
I had a sort of a motto, “No details, no paper, and no regrets”…
… When I say “no regrets”, that is important. You do the best you can. You may have gotten it wrong; you may have lost a battle. You may even have lost a good many of your men’s lives which hurts more, but do not have regrets. Do not sit in the corner and say, “Oh, if I had only gone to the left instead of the right,” or “if I had only fought in front of the river instead of behind it.” You have done the best you could – it hasn’t come off. All right! What’s the next problem? Get on to that. Do not sit in the corner weeping about what you might have done. No details, no paper, no regrets.
In Summary: work out the value only you can provide; delegate the rest; watch out for areas where you think you are a plus-one but you are really a zero or minus-one; continually pass on wisdom; and do not regret failures.
These lessons took me two years to learn. They still hold me in good stead.
If you want more advice for sub-unit commanders then check out the Sub-Unit Command Series. It is a series of articles written by brigade commanders, senior officers and former sub-unit commanders, all aimed to make you the best OC you can be.