Leadership and personnel management training is a vital component of enabling good command in our Army. This critical training is delivered by residential courses, unit PME, individual PME, experiential learning and, to some degree, through the chain of command. But is the time allocated for this training enough to develop the qualities of a good leader – and in particular – a good section commander?
There is considerable training and development invested in junior officers and SNCOs. But are we really providing enough development to prepare section commanders before they lead a section, which the critical base level capability brick of Army's structure? Promotion courses for JNCOs include leadership in their curriculum but time is limited to explore it in too much detail, so specific and more practical methods could be utilised to better support their development as they come to terms with their new responsibilities.
Section commanders are generally younger soldiers who (in a comparatively short time) have progressed from being in a section with peers/mates to an NCO position in the same unit where they are required to lead and manage soldiers; in often demanding environments. An understated consideration for a section commander is span of command, or the number of direct reports or subordinates. The section commander has at least seven direct reports. By comparison, a sub-unit commander generally only has six. So the first leadership role we place people is one of the most challenging from a span of command point of view.
This article focuses on the leadership and management development limitations for section commanders in the Australian Army. It is accepted that there is a considerable focus on leadership development of junior leaders, but most of this is orientated to platoon or sub-unit command.
Focus on junior leadership
The development of a full-time platoon commander spans at least 12-18 months of residential training where a significant component is teaching the leadership and management of people. While I am not advocating to change that, it would seem the 2-3 weeks allocated to leadership on JNCO courses is comparably insignificant.
As testament to the greater demands on junior leaders, Leonard Wong (2004) commented that conditions in post-war Iraq were more complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable than in previous conflicts. This environment produces a cohort of innovative, confident and adaptive leaders able to adapt rapidly to disparate situations. He indicated that junior officers were making decisions in more chaotic conditions and were required to be more mentally agile as they simultaneously executed counterinsurgency and nation building operations. He provided the example of a platoon commander talking with a child in a conflict zone followed shortly after by a combat situation. However, it is the section commander who is directly confronted with this situation but it is seemingly overlooked.
If the section commander handles a situation badly there could be a significant impact to the relationships with the local populace. Conversely, a well-handled situation by the section can significantly bolster the support and allegiance of the local population. This is what we colloquially know as the 'strategic corporal'.
In the same vein the Ryan Review was tasked to study the Australia Army’s education, training and development. The review found the system was not broken; however, it was also not sufficiently knitted together to support future requirements. One of the pillars requiring development was mastery of leadership (ATI 5-4/16, p. 4).
The modern Australian soldier will need more training for the demands of operations. Preparing them will require more time and effort. For the section commander there is limited time to develop them. There is little opportunity to further expand the more theoretical lessons in the residential courses. A targeted PME program can be a valuable adjunct to this development and involve more practical insights to better support the developmental demands on the JNCO. PME such as online publications, guidance and mentoring to complement residential courses.
The Army in Motion document highlighted character built upon an ingrained set of values as an important component of leadership. It made specific commentary on developing this character through residential leadership courses, CO's hours and PME.
The functional approach to leadership first developed by John Adair posits that the leader must first be able to identify the needs that exist within the group and provide for those needs. It is the section commander’s mandate to develop and understand the needs of their section. While the platoon commander will have an awareness of the individuals’ requirements to support section members, the day-to-day management is the responsibility of the section commander.
Whether it is in a training or operational environment, a section commander must, in a relatively short period of time, while developing their own skills, also be the direct report for seven others who look to them as the mentor for their own development. While there is some training to accommodate functional leadership and mission command, there is limited opportunity from when they were a part of a section to now leading the section.
Leadership training for JNCOs
There is a recognition that with the number of operations, both domestic and overseas, the trained soldier requirement has increased with a corresponding need for junior leaders to lead them. From that demand, junior leader promotions are occurring more quickly. As a result, there is even less time to support a section commander’s development, which is further compounded by staffing shortfalls across Army. This results in a section commander rotating through roles to fill gaps; which in turn limits a section commander’s ability to train and become familiar with their own section and how to get the best performance from them.
This tempo also means experienced senior soldiers have less opportunity to spend valuable training time with the junior ranks. It is these interactions that would give the most bang for buck in a JNCO's development. The need was identified to provide a way to link officers and soldiers with recognised experts on a more regular basis. The conduit for this was the development of The Cove.
As the section is the fundamental capability brick of the Army, the development of the section commander, from a technical skills and leadership perspective, is critical to success in those areas. As has been discussed, there are significant challenges to equipping the section commander for that success. The question is: how can this be achieved with limited time available and many skills to master.
Specific and regular training for JNCOs on leadership and management seems to be insufficient, or at least not specifically targeted at the most opportune time. While residential courses provide everyone with the base knowledge, there is a need for – as much as practical – individualised specific training to ensure that the limited training time has the greatest impact on the individual.
Bringing together mentors or providing insights from senior soldiers who have walked the same path would accelerate this training. It is here that forums such as that provided by The Cove are a good mechanism to achieve the necessary gains robustly in as short a time as possible. The intent of The Cove is to facilitate, or nurture, development through teaching, mentoring, discussion and engagement at an Army wide level. This provides a useful forum to build upon the rapid upskilling of the leadership and management requirements of a new section commander. Other initiatives such as unit organised PME would also provide a prescriptive development opportunity for the JNCO.
Anecdotally, scheduled PME has been more ad hoc and not specifically targeted to an individual's development for a specific role. With the identified need for PME there is the requirement to make it more consistent, using several different forums including online capability.
Time is probably the biggest impediment to equipping a new section commander with all the skills necessary to lead a section. Insights and mentoring of a new section commander with their section, to complement the foundation of residential courses, can be achieved through forums such as The Cove. Being practical provides direct and pertinent education benefits. Being readily available and having ongoing access through online forums and links is also a style that suits the learning and information demands of the newer generation of section commander.
The importance of the section commander as the leader and manager of the basic capability brick of Army, and with limited time to develop that capability, cannot be understated. The requirement to lead seven individuals while also at the early stages of their own skill development in leadership provides a complex challenge for many. By its very nature, the Army has a strong focus on leadership development and while there are components of this early in a soldier’s career, a snapshot of formal periods of instruction appears to target junior officers more than JNCOs.
The development of soldier skills and regularity of multi-faceted deployments has tended to focus on the warfighting component of these skills. Similarly, reduced manning as a result of the demands of overseas and domestic operations has led to less opportunities for a section commander to lead a defined section while they develop. It has also meant less time before promotion, hence less time for the JNCO to develop their own professional mastery.
With these considerations, providing links to subject matter experts and mentors would be a good way of facilitating the ongoing development of the section commander. Such a viable link is forums such as The Cove and unit organised PME targeted at the section level of command. It should not be ad hoc, but a program that continues to support their ongoing development. The end state being a basic fighting element that is well led and capable in any type of operation, domestic or overseas.