Leading as a JNCO: An Army Reserve Perspective
By Huw Davies
How do you lead a section that ranges in age from 18-50 and contains civil servants, police officers, students and executives? How do you motivate soldiers for whom the Army is not their primary source of income? How do you career manage soldiers you only see for two hours a week at best? There are some real leadership challenges facing a JNCO in the Army Reserve.
Leadership in the Army Reserve is an often overlooked and rarely spoken about area of military leadership, but leading soldiers as an Army Reserve JNCO has taught me several lessons that will benefit Reserve leaders as well as regular leaders who command Reserve soldiers. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, Reserves are a crucial part of defence and understanding how to lead them will benefit anyone placed in command of these versatile soldiers.
The Reserve Context
Leading as a Reserve JNCO poses its own challenges in comparison to the regular army. Therefore it is important to understand how the reserves operates differently. The Army Reserve exists in order to support the Regular Army by providing Individual Augmentees, subunits and specialist skill sets to the Army and UK Defence. The Army Reserve is divided into two types. National units are specialist units that contain skills not found in the Regular Army such as specialist cyber, engineering, medical and intelligence capabilities. These make up the minority of the Army Reserve, with the majority of belonging to regional units. These are the Reserve components of conventional regular units such as infantry, RAC, non-specialist medics, intelligence and engineers.
The main difference between the types of reserve unit is the commitment required. In a national unit Reserves are required to complete a minimum of 19 days a year, whereas regional Reserves are required to complete 27 days a year. If this is achieved a soldier will receive their bounty, a commitment bonus that increases annually with time served. This is the minimum commitment expected and many Reserves will complete more days than their minimum requirement. In my squadron for example, most soldiers complete around 45 days a year.
Unlike their Regular counterparts Army Reserves do not have to turn up to training, they attend as and when they are available. Failure to meet the minimum commitment does not result in disciplinary action or termination. Rather failure to complete the minimum commitment bars the Reserve from receiving a bounty in that reporting year. As you can see, the Army Reserve is a complicated beast that requires intelligent leadership.
My experience in the Reserves has been in a Light Cavalry unit based in London. Due to the versatile nature of Light Cavalry a broad skill set is required. Light Cavalry soldiers need to be able to safely and effectively operate their standard vehicle platform, the Jackal, as well as communications systems and heavy weapons. They also need to be able to effectively operate dismounted from their vehicle and understand reconnaissance tactics, techniques and procedures. In addition to all of this they need to pass their normal Military Annual Training Tests every year and complete additional courses for promotion and to become instructors.
All of this needs to be completed (in theory) within 27 days each year by soldiers for whom the Army may not be their first or even second priority. The challenge of motivating and managing these soldiers falls upon the shoulders of their Reserve JNCO.
Challenges facing a Reserve JNCO
What should you know about the Army Reserve soldier? Unlike our regular brethren reserve soldiers come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and can range in age from 18 to 50. They bring with them a huge range of life experience and different approaches based on their civilian experience. I command a section that includes police officers, high ranking civil servants, students, bankers and small business owners. Each of these individuals bring their own life experience, and each soldier’s background is vastly different to the soldier to their left and right. Most of them are successful outside the Army; all of them juggle a civilian life, family commitments and their reserve service.
Now imagine trying to manage and motivate these people whilst managing your own civilian career and only seeing your soldiers in person a few times a month – if you are lucky. Whilst there are a myriad of different challenges when leading Reserve, some key themes emerge. The most common fit within four broad areas:
- Motivation. The Army is often a third priority behind a Reserve’s family and their civilian employment. Ultimately, the job that pays the bills is their primary focus. For the majority this is not their reserve career. Therefore it can be difficult to motivate a reserve soldier to commit to reserve activities when they are worried about their performance in their civilian job. If you are struggling in your civilian job you are less likely to turn up to a drill night or training weekend.
- Time management. Linked to motivation. The Reserves can consume a huge amount of time. Most soldiers in my squadron complete an average of around 45 days’ service a year. This is on top of a busy civilian job and family commitments. Balancing all of this can be challenging and one of the biggest reasons for reserve soldiers signing off is the time commitment.
- Career management. The Army is a complicated beast, especially when you don’t interact with it every day. As such, trying to career manage Reserves when you do not soldier everyday yourself is a challenge. There are a large number of trade courses, exercises, promotion courses and instructor qualifications that need to be completed. Advising soldiers on which courses or exercises to complete in their limited amount of reserve time is challenging.
- Command style. Many Reserves are successful in civilian life and so certain command styles do not work. Imagine running your own company during the working day only to be shouted at (for what seems like no reason) during your free time. Bear in mind Reserves cannot be compelled to attend training: they are effectively on a zero hours contract and if they are treated poorly they simply will not turn up.
What makes a good JNCO for the Reserves?
The role of a reserve JNCO is challenging, so how can you be a successful leader in such a complex frame? There are particular qualities that some of the most successful JNCOs, those that often go on to promote, all share.
- Emotional intelligence. Soldiering is a people focused profession regardless of your rank or trade. However, in a reserve context this attribute is especially important. The ability to understand a person’s background, particularly their civilian job, and adapt your command style where appropriate is vital to success. The way you communicate with an 18-year-old student and a 48-year-old father of two who runs his own business will be different. It is worth bearing in mind that Reserves are not soldiers all the time, so it takes a bit of time for them to get back into a military mindset; being aware of how you interact with people will ensure you get the best out of your subordinates. Take the time to get to know your soldiers and their individual needs. Some are more ‘high touch’ than others. Those with issues in their civilian life – be they work or family related, will require more attention. It is impossible to fake this understanding, so in order to get the best out of your soldiers you need to know them both in a professional (Army and civilian job) and personal (family) context.
- Flexibility. Churchill said that “the reservist is twice the citizen”. This is especially true in our modern, technology-driven Army. In order to be effective on operations the modern Reserve needs to commit a lot of time to the Reserve so that they are qualified and competent. This requires more commitment than one evening a week and one weekend a month. Commanders must be prepared to do business via email, phone calls and instant messaging rather than face-to-face. Lack of access to MODNET on a regular basis will force you to be flexible in your approach. One thing we can all take from the recent coronavirus pandemic is the power of virtual communication. Reserves rely heavily on WhatsApp and online communications. This can lead to information saturation, so be aware of the amount of information you are sending out virtually. Sending a 1000-word WhatsApp message may seem like a good idea at the time but trust me, it is not. Be flexible in your communications approach but be wary of over-communication.
- Willingness to step up. Last minute drop outs and non-military emergencies will interfere with ORBATs on exercises so be prepared to step up as a JNCO. Whilst this can be annoying and frustrating, do not view being asked to step up as being ‘seen off’but rather as an opportunity to be developed and exposed to a higher level of complexity.
- Professional competency. This one is pretty obvious, but you cannot expect your soldiers to follow you if you are not a good soldier. As a JNCO you need to live and breathe soldiering. The standard you set will be the standard your soldiers will follow, so if you are unhappy with your soldiers’ standards look in the mirror. Be the best soldier you can possibly be. If you are fit and lead by example you will not go far wrong.
- Personal motivation and self-discipline. Leading soldiers in the reserves is challenging and can be a thankless task at times. This can lead to a lack of motivation on occasion, especially when you are under pressure from your civilian life. However, you cannot pick and choose when to be a JNCO. You owe it to your soldiers to lead them to the best of your ability, so you need to have the self-discipline to lead even when you yourself are unmotivated.
Why is this relevant to the Regular Army?
In my experience, the Reserve is often misunderstood by the Regular Army. Given that all our future operations will include Army Reserves to a greater or lesser extent – the mobilisation of Reserve units during the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example – it is vital that regular soldiers and officers understand how the Reserves work and how best to manage those that fall under their command. It is also vital that the Army looks further afield when it comes to leadership.
Everyone, be they regular or reserve, can benefit from looking outside their organisation for leadership inspiration and advice. Just as the Reserve forces draw much of their leadership inspiration and training from the Regular Army, so can regulars learn from the reserve approach.
If you want to read other articles relevant to JNCOs, read a Sandhurst Colour Sergeant’s reflections on what he did wrong and right on promotion to Lance Corporal in The Unpopular Man: Leading as a Lance Corporal