Why Should I Trust the New Lt? What Platoon Commanders Need to Do to Be Trusted by Their Chain of Command
By Will Meddings
There are plenty of stereotypes about new platoon and troop commanders. Whatever rank you are, you’ve come across them. Platoon commanders with poor administration. Troop commanders who get lost. Platoon commanders who, in spite of over a year’s worth of basic and specialist training, still do not know the basics of how the platoon, company and battalion work. With all these stereotypes out there it is a miracle that anyone trusts a platoon commander. And as amusing as that might seem, it is an important issue. Strong, effective leadership is underpinned by trust. For a new platoon commander, that means being trusted by the platoon they command and by their company commander.
In my career, there have been three times that I’ve been struck by the importance of trust between platoon and company commanders. The first was when I was fresh into my first platoon command. I wondered what it was that led a company commander to trust a newly arrived platoon commander, fresh-faced and in their first few weeks of command.
The second was three years later, as a platoon commander at the Infantry Training Centre. I noticed that some platoon commanders were given significant freedom to operate and some were not. Put simply, those who were trusted by their chain of command had the opportunity to act as free agents, genuinely given the freedom to achieve their mission. It was mission command, granted on the basis of trust, or directive control, enforced due to a lack of it.
As a company commander, I was again struck by the centrality of trust in the profession of arms. The gulf in experience and understanding between a company commander and a new platoon commander is huge. How can a company commander trust a platoon commander when they are so inexperienced and he has so little knowledge of their abilities? And yet, some platoon commanders are highly trusted. They reap the benefit of being given genuine mission command. By contrast, others are not. They receive more supervision, feel more constrained and have fewer opportunities to contribute to the effectiveness of the company. They also find being a platoon commander significantly less enjoyable…
The Importance of Trust
The importance of being trusted is, however, not just that it makes platoon command more enjoyable. Mission command, the British Army’s command philosophy, demands rapid decentralised action, following a commanders’ intent and based on mutual trust. Platoon (and troop) commanders who are trusted have a significant advantage when it comes to operating and wining in combat. Being trusted is an essential part of creating the unity of effort and the winning tempo that modern (and, arguably, historic) combat requires. But in spite of all this, the fact remains that company commanders trust their platoon commanders to different extents, often depending on the task and the circumstances. So what is it that affects whether company commanders trust their new, inexperienced and unknown subordinates?
Shortly after setting up the Centre for Army Leadership I began a year-long research project looking at sub-unit trust. Over the course of 2018 and 2019 I spent over 40 hours interviewing former combat and combat support sub-unit commanders. The research aimed to get to the bottom of the question “What are the most important factors that lead sub-unit commanders to trust their subordinate platoon or troop commanders?”
30 former sub-unit commanders were interviewed. All were proficient leaders, with experience commanding regular sub-units in the field army. In the interviews they mentioned almost 150 individual reasons why they trusted one platoon commander over another. Taken together, these reasons provide an insight into what company commanders’ value in their platoon commanders, why they trust them and what platoon commanders need to do if they want to be trusted more.
The research found that there are some clear themes when it comes to trusting platoon commanders. Put simply, company commanders ask themselves four questions when considering how much they can trust their platoon commanders. They ask
- Does the platoon commander have the right intentions and are they acting for the best of the organisation?
- Do they have the competence – the right skills, knowledge and attributes – for the job?
- Do we have full and open communications? Do they approach, brief and challenge me?
- And do others in the company believe they are trustworthy?
At first glance these questions are simple, perhaps even obvious. On the other hand, the research delivered something genuinely useful to a platoon commander: what company commanders actually mean by those four questions. It is all very well knowing that your company commander trusts competent platoon commanders but that only helps if you understand what they mean by competence. The answer is summarised in the model below.
So company commanders trust platoon commanders who have the right intentions. Perhaps an obvious statement. But what do they mean by ‘having the right intentions’? If you are a platoon commander, here are the four most important things that make up ‘having the right intentions’. The first is more important than all the rest: selflessness.
Point 1: Be selfless
Company commanders believe that those who put their people and their mission first deliver the best outcomes for their company. Platoon commanders must selflessly put the needs of their mission and their soldiers above themselves, their friendships and their own enjoyment.
Nearly half of the interviewees described selflessness as making a highly important contribution to trusting a platoon commander. Company commanders believe that when platoon commanders put their soldiers before themselves the soldiers will return the commitment, building a stronger team. One highly trusted platoon commander “loved and cared for their soldiers and was selflessly committed to them, which told me soldiers would support the platoon commander in tough circumstances”. Another platoon commander’s “compassion built a team most would envy. When something went wrong, their whole team helped them unpick it”.
Other trusted platoon commanders displayed loyalty to the mission over their friendships. Company commanders trusted those who could balance the needs of the mission or job against their relationships with their peers, NCOs and soldiers. Poorly trusted platoon commanders shirked from “passing on bad news that would affect [their] friendship with [their] soldiers”, making both the platoon commander and the platoon less effective. Others had “an overly ‘matey’ relationship with their NCOs that led to them being overly influenced by them and unable to do the right, difficult, thing when the job required it”. Trusted platoon commanders had “a productive relationship with their NCOs that brought out the best from both parties. They displayed moral courage in the way they dealt with their soldiers”.
For some interviewees selfishness was about platoon commanders prioritising enjoyable secondary duties over their primary command responsibility, or about prioritising tasks that would benefit the platoon commander over tasks that would benefit the team. As one interviewee explained, the least trusted platoon commanders “sought out personal benefit. As a result they didn’t put team first. That kind of behaviour always delivers the worst outcomes for the company”.
Bill Slim said exactly what these former company commanders said.
Unselfishness, as far as you are concerned means simply this – you will put first the honour and interests of your country and your regiment; next you will put the safety, well-being and comfort of your men; and last – and last all the time – you will put your own interest, your own safety, your own comfort.
But of course, it is only worth putting the mission first if you actually understand what the mission is. Which leads to Point 2.
Point 2: Understand your 1 Up and 2 Up intent
It is all very good being talented, but if you are applying it in the wrong places then you are not helping the team move forward. To be trusted, make sure you understand your commanders’ intents and work towards them.
A quarter of interviewees mentioned understanding the higher commander’s intent. They explained that trusted platoon commanders act “in line with the bigger picture” and “understands their contribution to it”. Untrusted platoon commanders either did not understand the intent (through lack of ability or interest) or twisted the company or battalion commander’s intent to suit the platoon commander’s own ends. For example “If they didn’t understand the intent, instead of seeking clarification, they would pursue their own personal objectives”. Even the most selfless platoon commander, who puts their own needs last all the time, will not be fully trusted unless they can focus their effort towards their unit’s objective. As well as putting their mission first, they have to know what the mission is.
And if platoon commanders get it wrong? They had better own up, fast.
Point 3: If you make a mistake, own up.
Making mistakes is a normal part of a platoon commander’s development. But if you try and hide the mistake, and let it fester and grow into a more serious problem, you are caring more about your reputation than you are about your company. Not getting in quickly to admit a mistake is untrustworthy and self-serving.
Making mistakes was regularly mentioned but not in the way you might have thought. Barely any former company commanders distrusted those who made mistakes; most of them thought it a natural part of learning to be a platoon commander.
But plenty of them were crystal clear: if a platoon commander made a mistake and would not come forward to quickly admit it, they could not be trusted. Admitting mistakes demonstrates honesty but also creates the opportunity for the team to recover from the mistake instead of it developing into a more serious issue. For example “I knew they would come to me if they made a mistake. In this respect I felt errors we visible to me and I could deal with them”. Where platoon commanders hid their mistakes the company commander believed they were limiting the damage to themselves, instead of limiting any damage to the company or the mission. Another form of selfishness.
Point 4: When you are away from your commander, be reliable.
If a platoon commander is operating away from their chain of command they have unparalleled freedoms. Their company commander cannot supervise them. If you find yourself in that situation make sure you act as an ambassador for your company. If you cannot be trusted when there is no one around to supervise you, you will never end up in that situation again.
As you will see below, company commanders are clear that reliability is important to being trusted. However, when a platoon commander is operating at arm’s length from their boss reliability is particularly important. It says something about whether they are acting with the right intentions. It could be when they are operating under another unit, or when they are based in another geographic location. Whichever it was, these experienced former company commanders did not trust platoon commanders who abused the freedom of being away from observation. Particularly when their actions damaged the reputation of the company or unit.
In some cases this was related to drinking or acting inappropriately, “I couldn’t trust them to act appropriately when they drank”. In others it was about professional behaviour when representing their unit, “They were picked up for behaviour issues on an external course. It reflected badly on [the unit] and they didn’t understand the importance of this.”
If a platoon commander is unreliable when they are working away from their unit they are demonstrating that they do not sufficiently care about the damage they do to the team. Described another way, if a platoon commander acts poorly when unsupervised but under external scrutiny they are demonstrating selfishness and a lack of self-discipline. Distrust follows.
If a platoon commander is acting with the right intentions – for the good of the company, not themselves – the next most important thing that builds trust is their competence. When it comes to trust, there are five important elements of competence that company commanders look for in their platoon commanders. If you are a platoon commander, you will need to deliver these competences if you want to be trusted. And because leadership is a people business, the most important is about getting on with those people.
Point 5: Show some emotional intelligence. Build relationships that matter.
More than anything else, company commanders value those who can build teams and work with and through others – not just those who can do jobs well themselves. So if you are new platoon commander you need to work hard on building relationships across the unit. Leadership is a team sport. Show that you can form relationships that build value.
When it came to the idea of competence, company commanders clearly value one trait above all others: emotional intelligence, or the ability to build effective working relationships. It was mentioned more than any other competence and valued the most highly. Former company commanders trusted platoon commanders who “knew what was going on in the platoon. They had built relationships across the platoon so they had their finger on the pulse” and those who “could get things done through their personal relationships with others. They created social bonds that made things work”.
There is plenty of literature out there on emotional intelligence but it is worth focussing on why company commanders trusted those who they thought had it: because they build relationships that helped them get things done. The ability to build relationships creates leverage, allowing tasks to be achieved through others. Need to organise transport? It helps that you can work with the MTO. Attached to another unit? If you have built a rapport with the movers and shakers you will be able to navigate the organisation. If you cannot build functioning human relationships with your platoon you will be far less effective.
Point 6: Be good at your job, in and out of the field.
Company commanders trust platoon commanders who can master their profession. Be good at what you do, but do not neglect the less exciting aspects of your job. Be competent in the field. Understand doctrine. Know the technical requirements of your job. And know how to lead, manage and administer your platoon in barracks too. A company commander will not trust an officer who cannot do their job.
The importance of professional competence is no surprise. It is mentioned by almost every study into trust and Army Leadership Doctrine puts professional competence at the heart of the Army Leadership Framework, as “what leaders know”. Over a third of company commanders believed professional competence to be critical to trust.
Tactical competence related specifically to both tactical skills and knowledge of doctrine. Company commanders consider these to be the fundamental skills required of combat leaders. Trusted platoon or troop commanders “were professionally effective and capable in the field, which is their main role and purpose” or “deeply understood ‘why’ their organisations did things – they understood tactics, doctrine and had deep technical knowledge”. Distrusted ones had “a standard of military skills and fieldcraft that were so poor that I didn’t trust them to keep the soldiers safe. As a result I was concerned about the effectiveness of the platoon”.
But do not get the impression that leading troops in war is everything that matters to a company commander. Competence at the in-barracks role is important to them too. Several of these experienced company commanders specifically mentioned that they were not only interested in tactical ability. Interviewees talked of a platoon commander’s “professional competence across the board” and that they trusted those who were “competent and confident across the full requirements of a platoon commander, not just in the field”.
Point 7. Be consistent. Be reliable.
The quality of a platoon commander’s output matters, but so does their ability to consistently deliver that quality. If you produce low-quality or inconsistent output you will need, and receive, additional oversight from your company commander. If you want to be trusted, demonstrate consistency in your professional output. It is no good just delivering when it suits you.
Company commanders trust platoon commanders who are consistent and reliable. One interviewee explained that their trusted platoon commanders “were reliable. If they had a task delegated, it would happen on time, and at the expected quality or above, every time. Even complex tasks”. Another described an unreliable platoon commander, explaining that “generally, he needed more direction, checking and realignment because his plans wouldn’t always work” as opposed a reliable one where “every time, I could give them a task (with effects, times and boundaries) and I knew they would deliver something that would work effectively”. So trust is built through both competence and the repeated demonstration of it.
Point 8: Be diligent. Attention to detail matters.
There is always a temptation to ‘wing it’. Platoon commanders must not succumb to the temptation, no matter how good they think they and their platoon are. Diligent platoon commanders, who do not cut corners and give tasks the attention they deserve, are more trusted and are rewarded with more freedom.
The temptation to cut corners is everywhere for the busy platoon commander, especially if it seems that everyone else is doing it too. Yet company commanders are clear: they trust platoon commanders who carry out tasks diligently and pay attention to detail in both planning and execution. Untrustworthy platoon or troop commanders “display a lack of attention to detail leading to poor organisation” or “aren’t rigorous and take shortcuts”. The worst of them, “in certain circumstances, stop giving a damn. They are less diligent”. The result? “I always have to be on their back”.
On the other hand, platoon commanders are trusted if “they give tasks the right level of rigour or attention”. An important part of that is giving planning the respect it deserves, rather than winging it and relying on the platoon commander’s (or their platoon’s) ability to get them through. Diligence and attention to detail are about being conscientious. They are also to do with maturity and self-discipline, and Point 9.
Point 9: Be mature and disciplined. This is not (always) a game.
Enjoy your job and do not take yourself too seriously. But equally, remember that good tactical leaders know when to show self-discipline and can think about the long-term consequences of their actions. Platoon commanders who act without thinking through the consequences make the kind of mistakes that company commanders need to step in and unpick.
Maturity was mentioned by one in five former company commanders but they were not thinking about the age of their junior commanders. Instead they were discussing the platoon commander’s self-discipline or ability to act with a long term view. Platoon commanders were trusted if they “were more mature and self-controlled” or “were mature, self-disciplined and level headed. They understood the consequences of their actions”.
Field Marshal Edmund Allenby urged his officers to ‘think to the finish’ when they were planning and acting. It was a phrase adopted by Major General Patrick Marriot, one-time Commandant of The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. When platoon commanders act without having thought to the finish, or when they act impulsively, they create second- and third-order problems. Part of that is because of a lack of experience. But a bigger part having the self-discipline to avoid the easy win now and think about the longer term solution.
Point 10: Do not be afraid to approach, brief and even challenge your company commander.
Most company commanders want platoon commanders who can openly and honestly communicate with them. Approach your company commander with information, back brief them and query the plan. Some even like to have their plans challenged – but check first and learn how to do it right.
The average platoon commander might find this hard to believe, but one in five company commanders value a platoon commander who approaches them to offer unsolicited information – either to back-brief them on tasks, ask for more direction or appropriately challenge shortcomings in their plans or ideas. The secret, of course, is in doing it right.
Some company commanders value this behaviour because it helps improve the quality of a platoon commander’s outputs. As one said, “they always came back and asked for clarification or read-back when given a task. They also asked for my advice. It meant the product they delivered would be in a better state”. Backbriefs and questions also show that platoon commanders understand what is being asked of them. Another explained that they trust a platoon commander who is “willing to reasonably challenge me. When they do it means I know they understand my intent. It shows they have thought about adding value to the plan”. Some company commanders mentioned an additional benefit. They trusted platoon commander who “had the courage of their convictions and were willing to challenge me over some of my potentially hare-brained ideas”. In an era where we increasingly expect subordinates to give well-considered challenge, some company commanders are mature enough to accept their platoon commanders have something valuable to add.
So, platoon commanders, do not hold back. Many company commanders value junior leaders who are willing to approach them, back brief them and challenge their ideas.
And a final point: Reputation matters
Let us be clear: while this is the final point, it is one of the most important. Reputation matters. A lot. A good proportion of those former company commanders mentioned how important a platoon commander’s reputation was. Reputation mattered because knowing what others thought of a new platoon commander provided some additional, independent, assessment of the platoon commander’s ability and trustworthiness. The words the company commanders use speak for themselves:
“I was warned by the CO that they needed to be watched, due to a lack of leadership and professional skill”. “They had done well on an external course they had been on. Essentially, they had been externally validated and scored well in one of their key technical competencies”. “The Squadron Sergeant Major and the Staff Sergeants told me they were not competent”. “I knew that the soldiers didn’t trust them, personally or professionally”.
So reputation matters. This means that all those behaviours a platoon or troop commander needs to display in front of their commander, they need to display in front of the rest of the battalion, too. Their performance on external course and in other organisations will be and will have a strong bearing on whether or not they are trusted. Equally, how well they are trusted by the rest of their company – particularly their soldiers and Senior NCOs – will be taken into account. As General George S Patton said, “You are always on parade”.
In Summary: Why Company Commanders Trust
What does this all mean for platoon and troop commanders? First, let me say these points come with a health warning. The intention is not to create a generation of sycophantic platoon and troop commanders who bend over in order to please and be trusted by their 1RO. In fact, not every sub-unit commander is a paragon of virtue, nor are they all equally trusted by their Commanding Officer. That said, as long as platoon and troop commanders act honestly, with integrity and within the Army’s leadership code, there are ten very simple yet critical ways for them to build trust. To be trusted, and to reap the freedoms and job satisfaction that this trust brings they must help their company commander answer four questions:
- Do you have the right intentions and are you acting for the best of the organisation?
- Do you have the competence – the right skills, knowledge and attributes – for the job?
- Are you able to fully and openly communicate with them?
- And do others in the company believe you are trustworthy?
Providing the answers is not black magic. There are consistently important behaviours and characteristics that lead company commanders to trust their new Lts. So be selfless. Put soldiers and the mission before yourself, and put the mission before your friendships. Understand and act within your commander’s intent. Admit to mistakes and be reliable when at arm’s length – safeguard the unit’s reputation. Show emotional intelligence and build useful and meaningful professional relationships. Be consistently and reliably competent, in and out of the field. Pay attention to detail and be conscientious in your job. Do not be afraid to approach, backbrief and challenge your commander. Most importantly, act this way with everyone, because your reputation matters.
These simple rules do not, of course, guarantee a platoon commander will be trusted. However, they are the result of deep analysis of views of some successful and experienced former company commanders. They offer the best route to trust I can think of. In all, platoon command should be one of the most enjoyable jobs in the army. Part of that enjoyment is having the freedom to exploit opportunities and make the most of the responsibility of command. But this freedom only comes to those who are trusted.
That freedom, and the trust that enables it, is out there for the taking if you know how.
Subscribe To The Army Leader
Download the full research paper Trust-Building Factors in Combat and Combat Support Sub-Units
Media Credits: Images © NATO shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, © Commonwealth of Australia 2019 shared under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 and © Crown Copyright.