The Modern Regimental Sergeant Major
By WO1 Lee Jones
I write this as I reach the end of my non-commissioned career, finishing my time as RSM of the 1st Battalion, The Rifles. Before I left, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I think it means to be an RSM these days.
Gone are the days when the stereotypical RSM was someone with a large frame, large moustache and spent their time as rear marker on CO’s PT. That RSM seemed to focus his efforts on guard, fire, discipline and shouting; a large presence seemed to be the most important factor.
Over the years the role has evolved; RSMs must now add more value to their soldiers, their unit and the Army.
Now, by no means am I the best RSM around. I have made a lot of mistakes along the path that got me here. But every one has helped me develop towards where I am now.
And perhaps nothing I write is ground-breaking or will change the world. What I can say is that I passionately believe what I write here and I practice what I preach. I believe I have added value to my soldiers, my unit and, in a small way, to the Army.
If I have done that, it has been by remembering that excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. By relying on my team, not just myself. By understanding my role – the important parts and the less glamourous parts. And by ensuring people are at the centre of what I have done, even though I always feel I could be doing more for them.
In fact, if I was to define the role of an RSM it would simply be that RSMs are the guardians of our soldiers.
Advice to The Modern RSM: Excellence Is Not a Singular Act
My key focus when I began was to build a legacy and develop both the RSM role and my soldiers. I saw it as my responsibility to ensure I had sufficient knowledge across the G1 – 9 spectrum, so that I was confident I would be able to deal with anything that came across my desk.
The modern RSM is younger, fitter, more robust, articulate and capable of bridging the gap between being a fighting soldier and a member of the unit’s key staff. Guard, fire picquets and other key duties remain, but you will spend a lot of time heavily invested in G1/3/5/7. A good RSM will add value to any situation and will be an important counsel to the CO. If you are the RSM you are a leader of training and assurance for Battalion events, to ensure the best possible training is delivered. You are a safety net for the CO, to ensure what the unit is doing is right. You are the exemplar of standards and the champion of leadership in a unit. You must be seen, be engaging, be the voice of the soldiers and must look down before you look up.
You must always be approachable; you are failing your soldiers if they do not feel that they can speak to you. I tried to maintain an open-door policy for all ranks; you are the senior soldier of the Battalion and have a lot of experience, so share it. People genuinely value what your opinion is and what you can contribute.
I recommend you be seen as much as possible. Get out and be on fitness with the troops. Do not underestimate how much of an impact that can have. RSMs should be fit and robust. I would take every opportunity to be on fitness with the subunits, as well as every promotional course selection cadre; I would not miss these. It was my job as the RSM to hand pick future leaders from these selection processes. You cannot do that from reading reports, you need to get amongst it. A one-hour fitness session says to the troops that you set the standard and are sharing their experiences.
As much as you are the enforcer of standards and discipline, even more so you are the champion of leadership; a coach and mentor to every soldier and officer you come across. People will watch everything you do, every decision you make. You must ensure everything you do is for the right reason. Analyse each decision and its possible outcomes; more importantly, consider its impact.
Do not ask people to do things you would not do; I often recall JNCOs and Riflemen on Op TORAL asking me why I was mopping the corridor. My response? “You are never too good to do a job that needs doing”.
My main effort as the RSM was to look down first. Always look down before you look up! As the guardian of your soldiers, you must ensure their opinions, concerns and thought processes are voiced in the top corridor. If you do not get this right you are failing; look after your soldiers and they will look after you.
There is quote by Aristotle that sums all this up for me. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I try to live by this motto.
Know Your Blind Spots
But while your example is important, do not be an individual. Use your team.
Too many times in recent years I have seen RSMs think their opinion is right, their answer is correct. “I am the RSM, I must be right”. Do not be that person. Listen to your team, ask for help, support, thoughts and opinions on things prior to pushing out direction. You will be surrounded by great people and there is always a better idea amongst those around you. You need to master unlocking those ideas and exploiting them. Use the wealth of knowledge around you and play to the strengths of individuals.
360 feedback is imperative to develop and improve yourself. Your Warrant Officers’ advice and recommendations are invaluable. Give them weapons free to hit you hard. Do what you can to encourage this culture in the wider team, especially amongst the unit-level leadership.
Every six months, my CSMs would answer a series of simple questions for me:
- What should I stop doing?
- What should I continue doing?
- Is my direction clear?
- Do you feel empowered by me?
- Do you feel I am approachable?
- What could I do better?
- Do I engage enough with the soldiers and officers?
- What would you like to see me do more?
- Is there any other feedback you wish to give? Fire away.
As well as your CSMs, make sure you have an experienced sounding board, be that an RQMS or a Late Entry officer. Have someone you trust that you can vent to, run ideas by and will be brutally honest with you. Sometimes you do not see it, but others will: you need people who will tell you when you have a bad idea.
Understand Your Role
You are in a position of command, and with that comes huge responsibility, more than I realised. If you do not accept the responsibility and are not there when you are needed you will fail. The job is very weighty and, honestly, you can do as much or as little as you want. I have thrown everything into the role and, as a result, I walk away each week pretty tired.
Sometimes you will get it wrong, on a few occasions I did. I often reacted too quickly. I’m not sure I got the balance right with the amount of time I did/did not spend in the Mess. I did not reward those outside the ‘top third’ enough. I did not manage my Regimental Duties team as efficiently as I could
All of these points I realised during my tenure and I reacted and changed. The lesson is: do not beat yourself up over failing. Even as a WO1, learn from your mistakes, move on, go again.
There is so much I did not know or did not understand. Some things were small. After being the President of the Mess Committee as a Warrant Officer Class 2, I thought I had mess finances swept up. I did not. I had to learn quickly.
But the big things are even more important. I was ignorant about the religions and cultures of my soldiers. Take time to understand those in your unit specifically and ensure the unit is accommodating for all. That does not mean treating people differently, it just means you cater for all and ensure everyone is happy. I did not fully understand the importance of diversity and inclusion but during my time I came to recognise it as an important topic for the unit, the Army and society. When you need to drive a cultural change in your unit, trust and empower your junior commanders to support. They are our vital ground – support them accordingly. The key to solving issues is having them raised and discussed in the right way: once our people are aware and understand, they deal with it. When we, the chain of command, communicate the subject of inclusion clumsily or without engaging our people intelligently we generate new problems.
I also underestimated the problems with mental health in my unit. Until you are the RSM you do not really see the full range and seriousness of the issues which affect our people – regardless of their rank. It is something you need to grasp quickly and understand. You must ensure your CSMs also get this. They will not have fully understand the situation in their company until they took their post. Remember that everyone in your unit is a sensor and can alert the chain of command about an individual who is suffering. The alert can be lifesaving.
Make Space For People
Ensure you reward your people, from a pat on the back to a presentation; never underestimate the impact of rewarding someone. Do not just focus on the top third blades. Share the love as widely as you can. A key principle of the Army Leadership Code is how you apply reward.
Equally, people will approach you for advice on their career, their training plans or their personal circumstances. Ensure you have your door open and engage with people. If you are busy, re-schedule. Do not forget. Individuals come to see you for a reason. It will have taken courage and they will remember your interaction long after you have forgotten it.
For the same reason, ‘disappointed dad’ is a far more effective than ‘angry, shouty RSM’. Ensure that your people learn lessons from their failure. We all know what it feels like to be told you have let someone down.
When it comes to the interactions between the CO, RSM and their people, the same applies. COs and RSMs have traditionally lived in each other’s pockets but this should not be the case in the modern era. Do physical training and visits together but do not be shy to own your own diary and inform the CO of where you are going and what you are doing. Sometimes you are more efficient as a team when you manoeuvre separately; seeing more people and conducting more visits means interacting with more people. Remember: they will remember the interactions. Covering more ground spreads your influence.
Understand Leadership and Leadership Development
Understand the Army Leadership Code and use it. It is the handrail to develop your Junior Non-Commissioned Officers. Do not become wrapped up in it though. Always relate things to the real world and real experiences. I achieved good, thought-provoking leadership training through sessions where JNCOs briefed me on leadership styles from the civilian world, such as Michael Jordan and Elon Musk.
But realise you do not know everything about leadership development, too. There are some bright people about who can add to your knowledge. My local education centre in Chepstow delivered packages for my JNCOs covering topics such as cognitive fitness, problem solving, decision making, bias, heuristics, groupthink and assumptions. They explored why the military is particularly susceptible to some of these problems and made a board game based on an operational scenario designed to test decision making.
Get amongst fitness and lead from the front; as the RSM I focussed on leadership and fitness. You need to own this and push it. Push the will for competition. Ensure you maintain and develop a competitive edge amongst your soldiers. Fitness should be the base for everything we do. I achieved this through generating regular competitions between messes.
Do Not Forget To Make Space For Yourself
Throughout all of this, and although you are in a position of command and need to be on the end of a phone 24/7, you must find a way to switch off and enjoy your life. Do not let the appointment consume you. Manage your diary and time well.
Make enough time for your family. They supported you until this point so do not neglect them due to your busy schedule. My wife is great at grounding me and is another great sounding board who gives me a very different perspective.
This applies professionally, too. If you isolate yourself from your CSMs the role will be lonely. There is no need to do this. Maintain close ties and have a good rapport. You should be looking for CSMs to come to your office for a brew
Finally, set realistic and achievable goals. You got to RSM by being driven. Do not drive yourself too hard now that you are there. I had four goals:
- Be the best version of myself, always.
- Try and leave a legacy.
- Genuinely care about my soldiers. Do not just say it, show it.
- Promote an ethos and spirit of competition and the will to win.
Leave Things Better Than When You Arrived
I approached the role of RSM with everything I had got. I devoted a lot of my time to it so that I could walk away feeling I had achieved my goals and would be remembered for the legacy I had shaped.
I have learnt so much about myself along the journey. If you are due to become an RSM, do not underestimate how much support you have around you. Play to people’s strengths. Let your warrant officers advise and challenge you. And start the job knowing you will get things wrong. Accept it, learn from your mistakes and move forward.
The modern Warrant Officers of today were forged in the fires of Op TELIC and Op HERRICK. Our operational experiences, combined with our mission- and people-focussed attitudes make us a force multiplier. Purely through how we conduct ourselves, modern Warrant Officers are shaping the future leaders of the Army.
If we get it right, our soldiers will want to be like us. But to do this you have to buy into the idea of the modern Warrant Officer and the influence it can bring. Remember: success is when your soldiers emulate your behaviour.
Interested in advice from serving RSMs? One of our most-read articles is RSM Common Sense, by Steve Armon, written when he was RSM of 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, .