Military Leadership Part 2: Officer v. Enlisted

By: Peter Sessum

USMC enlisted and officer ranks. FYI a Lance Corporal does not outrank a 1st Lieutenant because he has been “promoted more times.”

If I were a human resources manager and had to fill two position in a corporation, one for CEO and one for a factory shift leader and only had to choose from an Army Staff Sergeant and a Major. Knowing nothing else about the two candidates, I would make the Major the CEO and the Sergeant the shift leader. The reason; generally, officers are better at the big picture and political side and NCOs are better at directly leading people. In a situation where there is only one position open of a middle manager/office manager, I would take the sergeant without hesitation.

This is not to say that enlisted soldiers are not good at big picture, but their careers are more about the people they lead and not as much jockeying for position. Each platoon sergeant in a company can work together, but the captains in a TOC will cut each other’s throats to get a better Officer Evaluation Report.

Relationship to subordinates
The terminology itself sets the tone of the relationship. The term “superior officer” is used when referring to an officer of higher rank. However, the higher ranking NCO is called the “senior sergeant.” The difference from superior to senior makes all the difference in the world. Superior means better, but I don’t know a single enlisted man that thinks officers are better people.

An enlisted soldier can spend his entire career side-by-side with troops. An E-8 (master sergeant) platoon sergeant would have day-to-day interactions with his soldiers. Once an officer makes 0-3 (captain) he is off to staff or command at the company and higher levels. He might not have any hands on leadership with anyone outside his staff. After a while, those troops stop being people and start being icons on a map.

Leadership approaches
Being an NCO means wearing multiple hats. You have to be a boss, big brother, friend and counselor. Being an officer at the lowest level means being a manager. The performance of an individual soldier will reflect on his first line supervisor, but it is the performance of the entire platoon that impacts the officer. Because of that, both officers and enlisted have different approaches to dealing with below average soldiers.

The last thing a good sergeant wants to do is kick a soldier out of the military. As long as they are not a catastrophic screw up, every attempt is made to help the soldier improve. This isn’t about making everyone clone troopers; it is about getting the best out of your soldiers. I have had poor performing soldiers and I know what it is like. When I had a soldier that could not pass a PT test I did everything I could for him. Including doing PT twice a day. I did every push up he did and ran every mile with him. I did not just stand on the sidelines and yell at him.

The performance of subordinates reflects on all leaders. Officers, however, lack daily personal contact so they look at overall performance. The response is to get rid of anyone that doesn’t meet the standard. For a sergeant it looks worse to get rid of a soldier than to help that soldier meet the standard. Unless, of course, that soldier is a catastrophic failure.

In civilian terms, you are in charge of 10 people. Three of them are not meeting projections. The officer response is to get rid of them. Then the numbers will show that everyone is meeting 100 percent projections. While that is less productivity than 10 total workers, it is about justifying the decision to higher.

The NCO approach would be different. An NCO would be tracking progress and know who was not going to make projection early. Instead of getting rid of lower performers, attempts would be made to increase their productivity. Retaining workers will lead to increased morale. Knowing you won’t be fired for one bad month/quarter/whatever will usually make workers pleased with their job and happy workers are productive workers. There is no one leadership style that works for everyone. Some people need to be pushed more and some need more freedom.

High morale in the workplace will not just affect the slackers, it will have an impact on the other workers too. Also, since workplace value is not just based on productivity, keeping someone who might not be producing as much can still add to the team. The old guy with a ton of experience can help mentor younger employees.

Written v. Verbal
This is the main difference between officers and enlisted leadership roles. Officers love to get it all on paper. Sergeants prefer to do everything verbally. Written corrections create a paper trail which is something sergeants try to prevent. Granted, an NCO’s verbal correction will most likely be accompanied by some pushups.

Three written incidents constitute a pattern. You can get rid of someone with a pattern of poor performance. In civilian terms, an employee is late, misfiles her TPS report and misses her quarterly projection goals. This shows a pattern of poor behavior and therefore she is terminated.

The NCO approach will involve a verbal counseling session. This includes listening to the reasons for being tardy. After that discussion, as long as the employee isn’t late again, the matter is dropped. When she screws up the TPS report, again, she is corrected and the matter is dropped. The NCO approach will also know that while she missed her quarterly numbers it is because she was new and needed more mentoring in the beginning but has been the top producer the last two months and was just shy of making up for the first few weeks. If you keep her around, she will be on pace to be the best worker ever.

Why This Matters
This is important because the other workers will see that anything can get you fired, even if you are good at your job. Three incidents over an 18 month period is not really a pattern of bad behavior if the rest of the time the soldier is stellar. What your people will learn is to just do what is necessary to not get fired. It is better to inspire your people to work hard because upper management will not fault you for having one person with low numbers if you have the best department in the company.

It isn’t really their fault. It is how officers are trained. They want to get everything on paper and that is what they trust. You have to convince them that you are not the dirt bag that the paper suggests. It is a leadership failure on the NCO is the soldier fails.

Knowing how the military leadership styles work will help work with veterans in the civilian world. Since most soldiers deal with NCOs, that is the better approach. If a vet makes a mistake, talk to them on how to fix it and then let it go. This is really important so I will say it again LET IT GO! Throwing a mistake back in their face months later will cause you to lose their respect. There are slackers in the military that need to be reminded over and over but the professional soldier just needs minor adjustments to excel at any job.

It is also important to note that this is a broad stroke look at leadership styles. This is how things work in large units like the Infantry. Sergeants in staff positions can be more political than other NCOs. Officers in jobs like Military Intelligence. Civil Affairs or Special Operations have different daily interactions with their troops than officers in combat arms and might have a more personal relationship.

Officers that used to be enlisted are generally accepted by troops to be the best officers. They know what it is like on the other side of the house and take care of their troops better than any other.

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2 Responses to Military Leadership Part 2: Officer v. Enlisted

  1. Matthew Proehl says:

    That last line about prior enlisted officers is wonderful, and also something that I would have loved to see more of. In fact, I think that some of the other militaries in the world have people progress through enlisted to get to officer first. Our system, I think, fosters too much separation between officer and enlisted. Especially in the Navy, where they still hang on to a lot of traditional stuff, like getting served and eating with silver silverware. I just always felt that if someone is going to effectively lead, they have to have been-there-done-that.

    On the flip side, sometimes leaders need to make really tough decisions, and having been-there-done-that may foster a bit too much empathy for the guys to be able to make the tough decisions. Not everyone is capable to separating themselves, so maybe that culture of separation is needed…


  2. dennydog says:

    The worst slur ever directed at me, which I thought was the best praise, was from Battalion staff officers and a couple of BCs; “You think too much like an NCO!” They never understood why I thanked them…


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