Lead with the best version of yourself.

Hands Belong in Pockets!


By CSM Michael S. Burke

I recently watched an NCO escorting a Soldier through the clearing process. I watched him help organize paperwork and ensure it was in order as he went to each station. He was talking to him in a calm manner and even when they realized he was missing a critical part of the paperwork, he remained calm. He went to the counter, explained the deficiency, and asked where they needed to go to rectify the situation. This NCO was engaged and acted in a way that warmed the heart, despite the fact he was escorting a Soldier who was being separated from the Army dishonorably. 

But there is a plot twist to this story…

This NCO’s hair was almost long enough to put in a ponytail, it wasn’t even remotely tapered, and the product used made it look like something out of a bad movie based in the 1950s. Additionally, he was wearing a bright white bracelet I could only imagine was made by one of his children. Of course, this Soldier was in uniform. While he was demonstrating productive leadership , he was violating standards outlined in Army Regulation 670-1. I could have let it go but what you tolerate you perpetuate…. 

This situation presented an amazing mentorship opportunity. As they walked by, I asked the NCO to sit down beside me (6 feet apart and both in face masks of course). I told him how proud of him I was, and that his conduct and attitude while escorting this Soldier around was exactly what we need out of leaders. 

Then I asked him the following question: “if one of your soldiers had the same haircut as you, what would you do?” He knew where I was going with my line of questioning and stumbled through an excuse. I stopped him and told him I wasn’t mad, it was just a simple question. He walked me through the corrective action he would take and a decent explanation of the standard. 

Once he finished, I told him he was spot on but he would be a hypocrite for making this correction. As NCOs, we’ve removed the option in terms of standards. If we have to enforce the standard then we have to set the example. Our personal opinion has no place in the regulation and we cannot choose which standards to follow. Armies depend on discipline and as long as a standard doesn’t violate moral or ethical values, we ruthlessly enforce it. If we feel strongly against a certain standard, then we advocate for change. 

For our next topic of discussion, we moved to the bracelet. I asked him if one of his kids made it. He indicated this assumption was accurate, and I tapped my pocket sleeve. This spot is where I keep the bracelet my daughter made me. She asked me to wear it to ensure I stayed safe when deployed. After I explained the neon green might put me in danger while deployed, we reached a compromise, and I’ve carried it in my pocket ever since. 

As leaders, we need to look at on-the-spot corrections as mentorship moments, not an opportunity to impose our frustrations or positional power, or to belittle others. When that NCO walked away, I told him again how proud I was of him and that I was confident he would think about what I said. My hope is that he not only corrects the discrepancies within himself but others, because standards matter. 

Oh, and yes, hands go great in pockets but the Army says we cannot — so I bought gloves. 

Command Sergeant Major Michael Burke is 1st Security Force Advisor Brigade’s Command Sergeant Major at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has 14 combat deployments as a part of 2d Ranger Battalion, served as a ROTC Military Instructor at the University of Washington and the 33rd Regimental Sergeant Major of the historic 2D Cavalry Regiment. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense of the U.S. Government.



5 thoughts on “Hands Belong in Pockets!”

  1. CSM,

    Your actions exemplify exactly what we need more of in the Army. Coming from a Junior Officer, I appreciate hearing examples of leadership like this. To correct, advise, and mentor is not only a sign of respect but shows true leadership that Soldiers seek out.

  2. “What we tolerate, we perpetuate.” I agree wholeheartedly, save my application would be toward regulations that serve no purpose toward our warfighting profession. We have a uniform for appearances, and we have a uniform for work. I’m not opposed to wearing the former more, and maintaining standards becoming of such. But if I am to be attired in a cloth designed to conceal my image with the earth and foliage, to enable my capabilities to fight and win the nation’s wars, why should I worry about anything other than being the best at my particular combat duties? Regulations like this serve to needlessly harangue soldiers on vaporous ideals of discipline and tradition and instead of enabling time that could be spent to effect such high standards of proficiency, consistency, and dedication. When a soldier has mastered all tasks of their combat application, then we can devote time to the parade field. No mother has ever thanked the Army for a squared away son in a pine box built of mediocre training and toxic environment.

  3. Matt—you set up a false dichotomy between what I assume you’d call garrison discipline and the discipline required to be tactically proficient in combat. The former, if instilled in an effective manner (e.g, like CSM Burke did), begets the latter.

    Mastering basic uniform discipline is one (of what should be many) prerequisites that signal a soldier may be ready for increased responsibility. While there are those “mavericks” who are notorious garrison soldiers but excellent in the field, they are the exception.

    Best to be safe in not tolerating/perpetuating—he who can not be trusted with small matters cannot be trusted in large matters.


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