My ‘Lessons Learnt’ – Four and a Half Thoughts on Sub-Unit Command
by Maj Gen (Retd) Patrick Marriott
I’ve recently written my first book, a book on leadership. It’s not that long; I wrote it for my children and it is privately published so that I could pass on some of the lessons I learned over the years. It’s been fun writing it. It likens leadership to a castle with foundations, a moat, towers, walls, a gate, stairs, steps and a keep. But it’s for children and probably not appropriate for officers about to approach sub-unit command. So what do I have to offer?
In my career I’ve commanded a regiment and a brigade and had the huge privilege of being the Commandant of Sandhurst. I don’t consider myself a great leader but I have met many who were truly wonderful leaders who inspired, helped and forgave me – frequently.
Sub-unit command is a fantastic and exciting level of command. I would like to give some ideas to help those about to embark on this critical level of command. So, here are four (and a half) pieces of advice. They are based on the lessons I learned during my own sub-unit commands and my time as both a CO and as a brigade commander.
They are not in any order of priority. Indeed, perhaps, my last half-tip is the most important.
Trust. Sacrifice control in order to command
First, sub-unit command is the earliest level of command when you have a small team working for you. This is not by accident. The span of command is now too large for one man or woman, no matter how gifted, to succeed. So you need help. You will also have, of course, troop leaders, platoon commanders or troop commanders below you.
The tendency for sub-unit commanders has always been to over-control their people. It is a mistake. So my first plea is that you trust your command team and your officers as fast as you possibly can. The faster and deeper that trust, the greater the reward will be. Your SSM or CSM will ensure none are over-faced and, in time honoured fashion, will keep you discreetly informed. You must trust his or her judgement too.
At Sandhurst I interviewed all the short-listed officer cadets for the Sword of Honour. I always asked the same four questions and carefully recorded their answers. It’s an incredible record of what some of the best of their generation thought of leadership at the start of their career. One question was very straightforward. “What have your learnt of leadership?”
The finest answer I received was simply “to sacrifice control in order to command”. The respondent won the sword.
So, from the outset, run your command with as loose a rein as you dare. Control less, lead more – and that means lots of trust. You can always constrain later. All of this is, of course, is at the heart of mission command. In peacetime the Army can tend, very sadly, to spawn process-minded controlling leaders; in war we sack the lot. It would be much better if we bred them out before the bullets start to fly. So, trust, delegate – and thus lead properly. Do not become a control freak.
Think beyond your boundaries
Second, though it may surprise you, sub-unit commanders are judged to have a sufficiently glowing candle of wisdom that they can understand the situation beyond their squadron or company. So those who don’t display that wisdom are quickly identifiable.
Therefore, my second tip would be to think ‘context and consequence’ beyond the boundaries of your command. My first sub-unit command was marked by an over-competitive edge. I’m afraid I probably had an excess of zeal to make my squadron the best. But it was often at the expense of the regiment.
My second sub-unit command was more relaxed – and infinitely better for everyone. I could see the bigger picture better and properly help my CO. I would advise sub-unit commanders to “think through others’ eyes”; great words given to me by Brigadier Ed Butler CBE DSO.
We all whinge from time to time against our higher headquarters. but until we can think through its eyes our command will simply not be contributing what it should. All of this is neatly summed up, of course, by ‘Think to the finish’, Allenby’s famous adage. I cannot better that.
Focus on development from the start
Third, the very best sub-unit commanders do not wait for the inevitable direction from battalion or regimental headquarters to ‘educate their young officers’ (or whatever). Sub-unit commanders are often fairly close in age to their junior officers and empathy will be strong. C S Lewis once wrote that the best teachers were always fellow students, because they understood better than teachers themselves, how their friends thought and why they found some problems difficult. So, my third idea is that you, as a sub-unit commander, focus, from the outset on developing your charges and, I would suggest, concentrate on leadership above all else.
In 1997, as a squadron leader, I took all my officers and SNCOs to Bastogne and we spent two days enjoying ourselves in the Ardennes. On one morning we studied the sub-unit defence and leadership of Team Desobry at Noville; in the afternoon we transposed the defence to 1997 and looked at the same defence but with modern weapons and tactics. Everyone learnt. That evening we all headed for a small Belgian eatery….
Be imaginative and don’t be beaten down by a lack of resources. There are literally hundreds of battlefields in the UK where leadership and enduring tactical lessons can be learnt. Most are near pubs. Find the time; it’s more important than any amount of PT.
Ultimately, the winning officers will be those that lead and think well, not lead and run well.
Be good enough to give something back
Fourth, initial sub-unit command is a pretty daunting affair. Everyone is a bit anxious about it when they first start. I certainly wondered if I had the professional knowledge to command an armoured squadron when all my junior service had been spent either with reconnaissance or the infantry.
‘Competence’ is one of the four towers of the castle in the book for my children. I’m afraid that, as a sub-unit commander, you will be expected to be good at your job! You do not have to be the greatest tactician, or logistician or the fastest on some dreaded run or other. But you’ve got to be good.
As a follow-on question to one of those prospective Sword of Honour winners, I once asked, “How good do you have to be?” It’s a revealing question. The best answer to this was, “Good enough, Sir, to give something back”. He also won the Sword.
Much of the first chapter of my book looks at leadership through the eyes of youth: what do they expect of leaders? So, my fourth tip for sub-unit commanders is don’t overly worry about your own professional competences, focus on leading – but you must be good enough to give something back.
And one more thing
Although I can think of quite a few more pieces of advice for sub-unit command, I think those four points will do.
I made so many mistakes as a squadron leader that my reserve of ‘lessons learnt’ is embarrassingly large. This leads me to one final extra half-tip which will, perhaps, aid those whom you command even more than yourself. Be reasonably forgiving. I am afraid that sub-unit command can feel quite important – and it is. But do not fall in love with yourself yet, please. You do not enhance your authority by being unnecessarily ruthless or unforgiving to your people. You were there once – and made mistakes. Pronounce innocent or guilty in your own mind. Punish correctly where necessary. Then forgive, nurture and guide.
You will be being watched closely. Your sub-unit will most certainly not be made up of royal cards. Most will be normal twos or threes of varying suits. But every player holds low cards in their hand. The secret of success is in how they play them.
Those who raise their people up to great things will always be judged by COs and brigade commanders as the very best of the best.
It was the criteria I used when I was in those roles. I still do to this day.
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