By Andrew Webster
Soldier development is a critical responsibility that is often overlooked by leaders. This is largely due to concerns about training gates and performance metrics or distractions by discipline issues. Focusing on these outputs rarely leads to the desired results if focusing on the inputs is not given equal attention. Junior Soldiers are our greatest asset and the most important input for the Army. Truthfully, Soldier development is often overlooked because it is hard; it takes time, empathy, discernment, and patience.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of Soldier development are too great to ignore. Capable Soldiers are a prerequisite for capable units. Soldiers that feel invested in are less likely to have discipline issues and more likely to reenlist. They are also more likely to excel at Professional Military Education and specialization schools. As a result, they will be more competent and capable leaders for the following generation. For these reasons, Soldier development is critical for the success of the Army today and tomorrow.
While each Soldier is an individual with a unique background, character, and set of personal goals, certain development principals can empower Soldiers to develop into strong members of a team. These principals – Inspire, Enable, and Build – can create a culture that overcomes many of the barriers to Soldier development that exist in many units.
Inspiring junior Soldiers is helping them to realize the possibilities that exist within the Army and to believe they can achieve their goals. Many young Soldiers are either uninformed about, feel overcome by, or belittle the opportunities for personal development that exist within the Army. This leads to a lack of motivation, and ultimately failure. An example where this is most apparent is in the high Day 1 failure rates at Expert Soldier/Infantryman Badge (EIB/ESB) testing. These events consistently have over a 50% failure rate on Day 1 despite it consisting of two of the most basic military tasks: a fitness test and land navigation.
The best way to inspire Soldiers is through the combination of direct dialogue and personal example. Junior Soldiers may feel out of place or fearful of asking questions because they do not want to draw attention to themselves or say something considered stupid. Talks by senior leaders to entire formations are often far less productive than conversations that ask Soldiers challenging questions and position them to be comfortable asking questions. Two-way communication intentionally gives the Soldier space to voice their goals, obstacles, and concerns. It also creates buy-in for a proposed goal like EIB/ESB. This is strengthened when leaders share personal stories that are relatable for the junior Soldiers. Few things will inspire a private as much as his squad leader or first sergeant telling about how they earned their EIB/ESB as a private to prove themselves over peers and leaders.
Enabling junior Soldiers means establishing conditions where Soldiers have the time, resources, and support to succeed. The challenge with this is that time and resources are always limited and there are often competing demands. Prioritizing Soldier development means being willing to sacrifice short-term gains for the long-term benefits of more competent and capable Soldiers.
There is rarely an ideal time to provide Soldiers with time or resources. There are always collective training events, inspections, or sudden emergencies that tempt leaders to out-prioritize the development of junior Soldiers. However, it is almost always better to send a young sergeant or lieutenant to a specialization course even if they must miss an important training gate, such as a combined arms live fire exercise. The collective performance may decrease temporarily but it will provide junior Soldiers opportunities to assume greater responsibility, which is a necessity in combat, and it will lead the young sergeant or lieutenant to become fully invested into the unit because they know they are trusted. Lastly, the Soldier will return to the unit with additional knowledge and skills that he or she is indebted, hopefully with gratitude, to train other members of the team.
In addition to providing Soldiers with time and resources, leaders should enable them by reducing bureaucratic obstacles such as the schools request submission process. These bureaucratic obstacles consistently delay school opportunities and can lead to enough frustration that Soldiers are less willing to seek specialization schools. Leaders should reduce these obstacles by working directly with staff to clarify standards for school request packets and then ensuring these standards are communicated to the junior leaders responsible for creating the packets. This seemingly simple step is often overlooked but can lead to a significant increase in school opportunities.
Building junior Soldiers is providing constructive feedback that ensures continual growth. It is the glue that ties all other components of Soldier development together. Building Soldiers occurs most effectively in regular, written and verbal counseling; but should not exclusively be via that means. This feedback uses both failures and successes as opportunities for growth by expanding Soldiers’ resilience and self-awareness.
Regular counseling sessions must consist of dialogues for reviewing performance and setting goals. They need to provide a clear picture of the Soldiers current strengths, weaknesses, and areas of focus. Based on this understanding, leaders and Soldiers should discuss and develop personal goals that are challenging but realistic. Personal goals should be holistic, not limited to quantitative measures like fitness or marksmanship scores, but also qualitative to include leader development and non-military goals. Lastly, a plan of action must be agreed upon that ensures the Soldier is enabled to achieve their goals.
Leaders should engender a culture of building subordinates first by setting the example. Whether a commander, platoon leader, or senior NCO, all leaders should provide their subordinates with regular and productive counseling that enables their subordinates a clear path for growth. However, leading by example is not sufficient. They must ensure their subordinates have a plan for building their own subordinates as well. When leaders at every echelon buy into a culture of Soldier development then the unit will become a more cohesive team with stronger teammates.
These three principles are not all encompassing, nor are they inherently unique, but they provide a structure for building a culture focused on investing in and developing junior Soldiers. They will need to be adapted for each leadership challenge and at times may not bear the desired results. However, they will consistently lead to more cohesive and productive units because of the investment and value that each Soldier will possess.
Captain Andrew Webster is an active-duty infantry officer and was a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWeb11.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or of any organization the author is affiliated with.