'Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.' - Sun Tzu
Key Leader Engagement (KLE) is predominantly conducted to gain information or to influence behaviour. Mistakenly, KLE is generally thought of as engaging with civil leaders of local communities within an occupied country only. But if the aim of KLE is to gain information and influence behaviour, we should also be looking internally within Defence to our junior leaders.
The aim of this article is to promote internal KLE within Defence, as key leaders are not only community leaders, but are also junior leaders within our own organisation.
Whilst KLE across cultures with local leaders of a foreign country has to be managed and coordinated strategically with measurable objectives, the same principles should be applied between ranks within Defence both regularly and on a less formal basis. Junior leaders who are operating at ground level, and who are in the roles of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), have valuable information that can be passed internally back through the ranks. Because they are also working directly with soldiers – and often locals – they are in key positions to influence behaviour internally and to win the hearts and minds of the locals that they interact with. Finally, senior leaders within Defence should be reminded of the value of their junior leaders to ensure that exploitation of opportunities for information and influence are optimised for effect and to maximise resource efficiency.
To ensure that senior ranks get a free flow of information from their junior leaders, rapport needs to be established on both sides. Building relationships to the point of effective engagement and influence usually takes time. The establishment of trust and mutual respect adds validity to any message the senior leader provides to the junior, and also gives the senior leader greater confidence in the feedback being received about the situation and the members.
KLEs are generally useful for commanders to collect intelligence, but intelligence is not just about what a foreign leader can tell you, because our junior leaders are collecting intelligence often without knowing it. They will know the locals, they will know the subtleties of the characters of their members and their capabilities, and they will often know the terrain well. The value of a senior leader being able to obtain this information internally should not be overlooked, and instead should be fostered.
On the reverse side, when rapport and trust do not exist between senior and junior leaders, the senior ranks may get poor and stilted information back from the junior leaders. Information may be withheld inadvertently or on purpose, and the senior leader is going to have less influence on his or her members in a crisis.
Senior leaders should remember that their junior leaders are also engaged on a daily basis in a range of diplomatic situations with other parties and their own soldiers. For the unit to function cohesively, a senior leader can find a junior leader to be a very effective means of delivering a message to his or her soldiers to influence their engagement on a day-to-day basis. Junior leaders are key leaders to be engaged, because KLE is not about engaging to influence behaviour when a crisis arises, but about building relationships over time with enough strength and depth so that behaviour can be influenced and directed easily during times of crisis.
Engagement with key leaders should be designed to convey selected information to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately their behaviour. This same purpose of KLE applies directly to senior ranks engaging with junior leaders, but on a less formal basis. The goal of a senior leader in carrying out an objective would be easier if he or she could predict and influence the behaviour of his or her unit by having reliable engagement with the junior leader.
KLE with local leaders in foreign countries can also reduce a drain on resources. Rather than expending considerable resources attempting to take over insurgent strongholds and controlled areas by force, finding means by which the host-nation and insurgent organisations can find common ground and ultimately reconcile with each other has proved valuable. Likewise, if internal intelligence within Defence can be made better use of by developing KLE with junior leaders to gain that information, then senior leaders can be better and quicker informed. KLE responsibilities should be spread across ranks, with different levels of formality, otherwise the KLE requirements could become unsupportable themselves.
The bottom line is that KLE is ultimately about building personal relationships that contribute to achieving a desired end state. KLE is about strategic communication both within and outside of Defence, and up and down within the ranks. To ensure relevant information is gathered in a timely manner so that the situation can be influenced, senior ranks need to have developed a good working rapport and understanding with their junior soldiers through regular KLE.