Mutual Respect and the Modern Army
By WO1 JJ Fraser
Recently I observed US Army Command Sergeant Major Crosby asking a few UK soldiers what their achievements were. Almost every reply was based on promotion. As I walked away, I asked myself the same question and found that I could not answer it.
Over a few days, I thought about the question long and hard. I thought about my upbringing, my family, and the changes that have taken place in my lifetime. I considered my deployments, postings, and sporting achievements. After thinking about this question for some time and contemplating these areas of my life and career, I concluded that my real achievements were not based on rank, job satisfaction or financial gain. They were about the development of others who I have worked with. On reflection, I consider that helping others to reach their full potential is my fulfilling achievement. I want to share my experiences.
Our Army branding once asked us to “Be the Best”. As an organisation we strived to create this mindset in our soldiers. Today’s branding asks this new generation of soldier to put themselves in front. “Some people are okay with okay, some puts themselves in front”. So let me share my thoughts from my experience as a WO1 (RSM) and as a referee with the Scottish Rugby Union. I want to help others understand the new generation of soldiers and how, through effective communication, coaching and mentoring, we can get them to put themselves in front.
The influence of modern society on the military are different to those of 24 years ago. There is a real uncertainty in society that runs through the mind of the new soldier. The current political situation and the speed in which technology is changing plays on their minds due to the closer connection that they have with technology in comparison to those who enlisted in 1996. More than that, these soldiers go through a process of elimination, and if they have five interests they will have five different jobs. Technology has changed the way they communicate, from the Internet to smart phones to WhatsApp, Snapchat and even the way they order food.
New soldiers could be seen as visual learners. They are more inclined to communicate by the use of smart phones on WhatsApp and Snapchat than to get involved with long drawn out conversations. To some of the older commanders they might be seen as ‘different’. But as commanders we must adapt to the way they communicate and ensure that we understand how to get the best from our soldiers. This is even more important when you consider that, in my experience, some of these new soldiers find it hard to analyse problems without the use of technology and their emotions are in a screen. Appreciating these differences is key, and throughout my career I have learnt the importance of investing time in understanding the needs of the soldier of the day.
The commander of the past has always gained respect by understanding the soldier’s needs, to better understand what music they liked, what football teams they support. This requirement has not changed. Commanders still need to know their soldiers, perhaps more than ever. To fully understand this new generation, however, you need to know how they communicate, perceive others and most importantly how they process information. All of this will enable a greater relationship with them, help you establish mutual respect, and allow you to connect with them in a manner that they know best. By taking the time to find out about their background and what motivates them, you will gain respect from them in return. There is no such thing as “back in the day” or “this generation does not have any respect”. These thoughts need to go if you wish to foster mutual respect with your soldiers.
Today’s commanders need to know how to communicate effectively with the new soldier to help them unlock their full potential. During my career I have placed great value and importance on self-respect and honesty. These values are important to reinforce when communicating with this generation of soldier; to get them to do tasks that they may not normally do on their own, to put themselves in front.
In June 2017, I attended a Scottish Rugby Union Referee training weekend. During the weekend there was a module on changing behaviours. This module was based on a psychological approach to effective communication. I was about transferring the responsibility back to the players through communication. This module proved very effective for me as both a referee and as the RSM. It allowed me to remind people of their responsibilities and why they need to change their behaviours before any action needs to be taken. On the rugby pitch, this approach requires the referee (leader) to share the knowledge and experience that the players (soldiers/followers) do not yet have, allowing the leader to use their experience to prevent failure and develop those around you.
During the initial stages of my appointment as RSM, I handed out a letter to all mess members. I outlined what the Commanding Officer and I expected from them in terms of support and the standards that were to be maintained. This letter was no different to a pre-match brief that I would give to both teams and captains before a rugby match, to outline the standards and mutual respect for officials, other players and my decisions. As the letter and brief are clear and concise, they help communicate my message in a manner of asking rather than telling.
In recent weeks I had to take action with a Captain on the rugby field. During the early stages of the game it was evident that the players had not listened to the pre-match brief. I therefore had no other option but to transfer the responsibility to the team captain to take ownership of his players and their actions. When chatting to him I verbally communicated to him that the high tackles and penalty count must come down as my options were being limited. And that the use of a card would disadvantage him and his team, be it through a player leaving the pitch, or further penalties. As the Captain couldn’t control his players I acted to maintain the correct levels of safety, the standards of the game and my credibility as a referee. Throughout my time as RSM, I have maintained this approach within the Mess; of communicating individual responsibilities to reinforce my letter and only acting when other options had been exhausted.
Coaching and Mentoring
Leaders in today’s Army need to nurture those that have answered the current Army recruiting call to “put themselves in front”. They must meet the offer and ensure that we unlock soldiers’ full potential. Soldiers, at any rank, find it hard to step out with their comfort zone. It is human nature to focus and do what you are good at. Soldiers routinely struggle to believe in themselves and their ability to achieve high standards. If we can instil confidence in them they will excel, developing their current capabilities such that they grow in confidence. They will embrace the next challenge and get out of their comfort zone.
As they strive for personal and professional development they should naturally begin to embrace and seek the opinions and feedback of others both up and down the chain of command. This will create an atmosphere of collective self-improvement, team work. As the individual moves from an individual mindset to a collective one they will routinely strive to succeed as a team but must still be mentored to ensure that they view failure as an opportunity to learn. Over time their current skill sets will improve. They will concurrently develop new ones resulting in an individual that is accountable for their actions, responsible for their team and committed to long term professional and personal development.
Understanding and taking ownership of your responsibilities is important as a leader. It is something I have always prided myself on throughout my career. But leaders must go further. They must work to truly understand the responsibilities of those around them. They must give clear guidance to the soldiers under their command. This enables independent action and will assist when delegating tasks as there is always an element of culpability in the delegation presses.
During my rugby playing days and now when refereeing I have worked to better understand everyone’s responsibilities on the field and who is culpable for their actions. As this new generation of soldier perceive and process information differently than the previous generation, leaders need to mentor and coach them; “a good leader is a good teacher”. After all, you would not ask a rugby team to play a game without the players knowing the rules. Or without a captain or a pack leader. Neither would you expect a player to play in the front row without being coached and mentored. Coaching and mentoring our soldiers will develop their skills and foster mutual respect, in themselves and in those around them. It will also develop belonging and will create a culture of putting themselves in front.
Soldiering does not change
Soldiering does not change but the soldiers do. The importance of knowing your soldiers can never be over stated, it will earn you respect. Once you have changed the mindset of the soldier they will put themselves in front of others; a culture that will ring through the fire team, section, platoon, and company, and in turn will create a healthy competitiveness within all sub-units.
When communicating with today’s soldiers, ask before you tell, and give clear direction with a unifying purpose. Understand how they communicate and most importantly how they process information and perceive others. Soldiers will recognise and appreciate your respect for them. If they fail you will be able to help them learn and develop because you have their best interests at heart. Commanders, irrespective of time served, need to look for the best in our people as they remain, as ever, our greatest asset. We need to be looking not just at what they can achieve now, but at what they could achieve in the future with the right coaching and mentoring.
When you take the time to truly understand this new generation of soldier your mindset and vision will change forever. You will be surrounded by those who put themselves in front.
One of the British Army’s most inspiring Regimental Sergeant Majors often talked about respecting soldiers. He explained all about it when he was the first soldier to lecture at the Army Staff College. You can read his advice in On Discipline: A Speech By RSM JC Lord MVO MBE.