This article was the winning officer entry in the 2022 Cove Competition. For more tips for OC's check out The Cove's 'Tips for Sub-Unit Commanders'.
During my handover takeover as Officer Commanding (OC) my predecessor held back providing too much detail, claiming that "it's your train set now". I was somewhat perturbed by this attitude as someone eager to, if possible, over-prepare for the competitive role. It did, however, bring a sense of excitement as it implied that I had a capability to mould and direct as I saw fit. How wrong I was… in my interpretation of the analogy.
As a child we think of a train set in terms of a toy that goes in whatever direction the arm pushes it, with absolute creative control. It can be an all-terrain vehicle traversing from carpet to tiles. It can crash through Lego walls and sometimes even fly. The reality is quite different. A train moves along a fixed track in a set direction with a stated destination. It’s far more rigid than the imagination of a child. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we use the analogy of the train set, the OC is more akin to the conductor and does not own the set. Therefore, one could conclude that this means the role and influence of the OC is not as liberal as one is led to believe. Let me tease this out.
Expanding on this analogy we can envision the train tracks as the Raise, Train, and Sustain (RTS) commitments. Immobilising the tracks, we also have Force Generation Cycle (FGC) and major activities to demonstrate and reinforce RTS objectives. These have a path-dependency and whilst scenarios may alter, training objectives may mature, and the scale may vary, sub-unit training nests within these culminating milestones.
The train represents the total capability under the command and remains relatively the same. It can't be a plane, nor can it be a ship, it’s a train that is compatible with the tracks. With force modernisation (FORMOD) the capability can be more efficient, capable, or survivable, but it's still a train; just with a better engine and potentially more carriages to consider. It also bears limitations to how far it can be modernised.
The carriages are analogous to the people and equipment. Depending on the ability to empire build (let's say 'skills as a tycoon') there can be more or less carriages. On occasion, some of the carriages are XX and garaged awaiting varying levels of maintenance to get back on the track. A well-meaning Unit Establishment Review can often leave your carriages wanting. Sometimes your carriages are given away for strategic reasons.
Finally, the carriages are connected to the Engine, which is not the OC, it’s the Sub-Unit Headquarters. Remember, the OC is only the conductor; which begs the question – what does the OC do in this deterministic analogy? Pulling out the reliable source that is Wikipedia, a train conductor does the following:
- Ensures that the train follows applicable safety rules and practices
- Makes sure that the train stays on schedule starting from the stations
- Opens and closes power-operated doors
- Sells and checks tickets and other customer service duties
- Ensures that any cars and cargo are picked up and dropped off properly
- Completes enroute paperwork
- Directing the train's movement while operating in reverse
- Coupling or uncoupling cars
- Assists with the setting out or picking up of rolling stock
Many readers are already drawing their own analogies from this list which predominately cover the governance or 'management' aspect of the role. From top to bottom: safe training is critical, training calendars need to nest within Brigade and higher formation plans, rest cycles are programmed, retention and transitions supported, rolling maintenance managed, orders drafted and released, taking responsibility during lulls, FORMOD managed alongside equipment husbandry including the cross-levelling of equipment in support of strategic aims. So far, it's an imperfect but generous analogy. But it's still depressing for an inspiring leader who has worked hard to be competitive and sold on a story of 'commanding soldiers as a privilege to earn'. What then can we extrapolate to make it worthwhile? Three things ring out.
The first is to gain perspective. Even without incorporating a leadership aspect (which will occur soon), the above is meaningful and important. Providing safe training delivered on time and in accordance with the higher commander’s intent is absolutely necessary and ensures the train is Ready Now (to a baseline level) and on track to be Future Ready. The Management station is often undervalued compared to the larger Leadership Depot where everybody loves to loiter at. When it comes to soldier welfare, the timeliness and accuracy of the paperwork can mean the difference in terms of retention or the support that member gets. Management is not a dirty word when you gain the right perspective.
The second is to practise visioneering. It’s a somewhat made-up word but the reality is that the carriages are being pulled along without necessarily having foresight into the path ahead. Cue the leadership aspect. Whilst an OC may not set the ultimate destination, they can communicate what it looks like, what the trip will be like, what the views will incorporate, and how many stops there are along the way. In most cases, the OC explains the unexpected interruptions; those moments when everyone needs to exit the carriage and work on fixing the track whether it's their core trade or not. It’s the OC who sees the value in the resilience that these moments bear, and recognises the contributions of those pulling small teams together to get the job done. Having this vision is a key tenet.
The third is to recognise your deprivation. Sorry champ, did all those participation awards, motivational memes, and overinflated PARs make you believe you were 'all that'? Let me rephrase it then: as good as we are, we can be better with a team. It’s the acknowledgement that the OC sucks at fixing tracks and they only hold enough knowledge to perform basic interior decorating on the carriages. Therefore, they need the team of experts, often referred to as subordinates, to provide the solution. Sometimes, the conductor is so focused on maintaining the tempo of the train, they haven't realised they should switch to electric powered or magnetic tracks. The subordinates did but they weren't sure how to raise it. Therefore, generate feedback loops and listen to the team. Understanding that you are deprived of being all-knowing is a good thing and a humble place to be.
So, the next time somebody says, 'it's your train set' you can reflect with slightly more realism and pragmatism. It can be a very exciting opportunity once you gain the perspective that management is valuable, that inspiring people through a united vision is leadership, and it's perfectly fine to be deprived of the right answer personally because you're a part of an excellent team that can collaborate solutions. That’s just some of lessons I’m learning, and I close in confirming that it is a privilege to command soldiers and recommend to those that are on the fence about a command pathway to hear "All aboard" in a positive sense… just "mind the gap".