The Pleasure of Command: Reflecting on the Sub-Unit Command Series
By Matt Paterson
The introduction to The Army Leader Sub-Unit Command Series makes several things clear. It is a privilege with unprecedented freedom and autonomy; it is the culmination of your experience to-date; and it is the peak of team leadership. However, it can also be a daunting prospect. Any future sub-unit commander joins an already functioning team, already delivering under pressure and with a mass of preconceptions and stereotypes to combat, both internal and external. Within a short space of time you are expected to be up and running with a clear idea of the what, the how and the why – all with a personal touch.
Once selected to take over D Squadron of the Queen’s Royal Hussars I began to think more about my approach – we have all seen what we considered to be good and bad examples. I started with some advice to work out what I thought was important to me and drawing on my experiences came up with the following thoughts, including some stock phrases that particularly stuck with me:
- Communication and Teamwork. Early experiences on exercises and operations left me with a very strong dislike of failing to pass on information or clear orders – ‘don’t be jack.’
- Planning. Activity that was planned and prepared for methodically, went well. Whenever it was not, it rarely did – ‘to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.’ However, the real skill was in adapting that plan once reality bites – ‘planning is everything, the plan is nothing
- Prioritisation. It is not impossible, and things can be ranked by ‘critical/must/should/could.’
- Lack of Thought/Creativity. It really annoyed me when people failed to use their brains or experience, especially when there is so much to learn from both current operations and history. This was the same in camp as in the field and related just as much to how to effectively conduct tactical activity as it did training, fun and adventure.
- Angry Dad (Extrovert) vs Disappointed Dad (Introvert). Having seen numerous examples of both I know that I lean towards the latter. Recognising this was a real help in reminding myself of likely weak areas and where to focus.
- Caring. I care, possibly too much about some things. While I recognised to draw the line somewhere people who do not seem to care about what they are doing really frustrates me.
While the above was useful to help me ‘baseline’ what was important to me I felt I needed to do more study. Reaching back to my Intermediate Command and Staff Course was a good start point as I reminded myself of the spectrum of approaches and the Army Leadership Code in particular however, I felt that I needed to get more practical.
From that I read several books of which Turn the Ship Around, Eat that Frog and Legacy – What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life really stuck with me – as did a wider series of articles on Stoicism. They all seemed to reinforce what I considered important while providing context and nuance.
Yet it was two articles on The Army Leader that really helped the most. The first was My Lessons Learnt by Major General Patrick Marriot and the second Don’t Begrudge the Toughest 20%: advice on Company Command by Major Dave Godfrey.
General Marriot’s points really stuck with me and I thought I would share how I thought I would, and then tried to, live up to them:
Trust. Sacrifice control in order to command
This first piece of advice was going to be hard for me to do. My previous experiences had largely seen me working independently either as a detached Troop Leader, a singleton staff officer in Army HQ or in Regimental Headquarters which had left me with a desire to control things – I was not a great delegator. Yet I read, listened and hopefully learnt. The task was made easier by the Regimental system which handed me individuals that I knew and could therefore trust quicker. My new Sergeant Major had been a Lance Corporal in my Troop on TELIC 13 and two of the four Troop Sergeants joined D Squadron at the same time as me back in 2008 – and there were plenty of other seniors that I knew well. Yet there remained a great deal of new faces.
Here trust was enabled by some rapid displays of professional competence from the junior elements of the Squadron. As the post-TELIC/HERRICK generation with significant ‘time-on-tanks’, they really knew their trade. It was not a total success though. There remained individuals who were either unable or unwilling to take on delegation and the ‘good ideas’ club from the junior soldiers was exceptionally hard to fire-up.
Yet by making a focus of delegation and taking the mantra of ‘trust…but verify’ I felt able to hand over control of large aspects of the day-to-day running of the Squadron to some hugely competent young officers and soldiers – allowing me to focus on other things and allowing them to take ownership and grow.
Think beyond your boundaries
I decided this meant two things: ‘don’t blame your higher headquarters for things’ and ‘don’t jack on the rest of the Regiment.’ This was made slightly more nuanced by the fact that my Squadron was detached to either 1 RRF or 5 RIFLES for all my time and actually, due to Operation CABRIT 5, I only spent six months in the same camp as Regimental Headquarters. However, I think we managed to stay true and whenever people had to be re-balanced around the Regiment or we were asked to assist others we did.
Specifically, I think we never handed over our problems to another Squadron and always ensured a decent G1 or G4 handover for people and vehicles – not perfect, but good enough to not jack on anyone. I was also able to focus on wider Regimental business through being triple hatted as the President of the Mess Committee, the Pipes & Drums President and commander of the Rear Operations Group for Operation CABRIT 5.
Focus on development from the start
This was an area where I felt confident albeit several factors played into it. The previous Commanding Officer had instigated a standing session for leadership development which I was able to continue with, ably supported by the resources from the Centre for Army Leadership, some excellent podcasts and a Squadron Sergeant Major passionate about mental health and resilience training which we blended in.
Due to unit moves etc we also had significant periods without any vehicles to maintain or guard duties which freed up two six to eight-week blocks where were genuinely free to explore different training opportunities. We used CATT, the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, a lot with bespoke training packages; we did local English civil war battlefield studies; went on Troop level expeditions walking UK long-distance routes; found vacancies on established adventurous training courses; physical training became more varied; and we did MATTs properly.
All of this was enabled by giving individual troops and their hierarchy responsibility for delivering on activities. Some soldiers also managed to get away on university short courses and attachments to Army career offices. Not all were so keen on breaking out from a camp/exercise-based routine and given the large number of other training events in the year, care had to be taken to not impose on family time.
Be good enough to give something back
This was an area I was concerned about. No gym bunny I knew that I was not going to be the OC that smashed the entire Squadron on a run and the fact that I had not commanded a tank since 2008 was a concern for me.
So, I made sure I was fit enough when I turned up but that I spent a lot of time re-educating myself on tanks. I was aided in this by ARMCEN and the Land Warfare Centre who fed me a diet of armoured reading to top up the Combat journals, British Army Review, doctrine and other information that I hoovered up prior to arriving. In the end I felt I was good enough to give something back, principally on the planning, management and tactical sides as well as perhaps some classic Squadron Leader eccentricity when it came to ‘fun’ things to do.
…be reasonably forgiving
I was fortunate that my tour saw few discipline issues. I attribute this to our levels of activity that reduced the opportunity for long periods of boredom but it must have also been down to low-level gripping of issues before they arose.
Where issues where response was not clear cut, as in a CDT failure, I learnt to pause, reflect and then move forward rather than going to far in the heat of the moment which is where mistakes can be made, confusion sown and the wrong perceptions given.
Maj Godfrey’s contribution is more practical in nature but really develops the points raised by Maj Gen Marriot – I found them also hugely useful.
- Principle 1: It’s the last 20% that requires real leadership. You will probably not realise where your efforts will end up being focused but when you do, commit. Identifying where only you can make the difference is critical and will lead to success.
- Principle 2: You will need to balance mission command with mission control. As explained above, I was able to do this because I had some excellent junior officers and soldiers. If I had to identify one position that was critical to develop – your Second in Command. With a competent, trustworthy Second in Command I was able to detach myself from the detail of some areas and focus elsewhere. In my experience, it is hard to have a bad Sergeant Major or Quartermaster Sergeant because of the experience they bring but also the wider checks and balances that exist with G1 and G4.
- Theme 1: Maximise training opportunities. Hard to disagree with…it is all about exploiting opportunities, of which there are many, and using creativity and tactical reality to make it interesting. Finding the right way to fill ‘dead’ time is hard but if it works and there is a clear benefit then the soldiers will buy into it.
- Theme 2: Raise People’s Horizons. Personal development is often hard to sell to sceptical soldiers so I found that by targeting courses at key ‘influencers’ we were able to raise the profile and encourage more to come forward. Equally Adventurous Training needs to have people to champion it or it never seems to stick. We chose a few activities and focused low-level course attendance on them. The hope being that with 10 or so doing Mountain Biking Foundation, for example, that some will want to keep going and develop their skills.
- Theme 3: Maintain your company’s readiness. Little and often is spot on, you will rarely get everyone in one place and so constantly chipping away at readiness measures works. Delegating physical checks works well with the ‘trust but verify’ principle and Defence Connect allows the completion of a large number of mandatory courses and training. Understanding the management systems is OC business but new dashboards being rolled out such as MUSTER will improve the way we engage with this data. The area you cannot really delegate is PAPMIS and WISMIS. It is clunky, time consuming and not entirely idiot proof but if you understand the principles and write clearly on it then you will make progress.
Thee Handover Points
In summary, I read a bit, thought a bit and planned a bit but tried to not overthink my approach to sub-unit command. I was aware that events and people would drive me in certain directions whether I wanted to or not – and opportunity awaits at every corner. However, taking the time to reflect ahead of this amazing, privileged appointment will pay dividends. As I arrived to start my handover, I had decided that my key points were:
- Don’t be jack
- Care – about yourself and your profession
- Use your brain
After all of this I am confident that I handed over an effective, efficient, going concern to my successor. Morale appeared to be high and they were focused on the next task, Operation CABRIT 7. I was sad to leave. If this is of use to just one person then great but to anyone reading this prior to Sub-Unit Command…it is a blast, look forward to it!
For more advice for sub-unit command check out the rest of the Sub-Unit Command Series.