By Victor Littleton
The best professionals in any given field have a deep understanding of their profession, and they use that to mentor and lead the next generation of professionals. The best doctors seek out teaching positions and help create better doctors; the best lawyers oversee practices with numerous junior attorneys. The officer corps in the Army is set up differently; we place young and inexperienced men and women in positions of authority and ask them to lead the Soldiers of all ages and backgrounds without the experience to guide them.
This article’s goal is to assist platoon leaders, executive officers, maintenance officers, or staff officers gain an understanding of maintenance knowledge by providing three tips–listen, acquire knowledge, and seek development– which will help them become more effective maintenance leaders.
Consider the experience of a new maintenance platoon leader, a young lieutenant who just commissioned out of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). This platoon leader does not have a lot in common with his Soldiers, all of whom are mechanics and clerks who are mostly concerned about doing maintenance and other Soldier tasks. This platoon leader got a short block of instruction about the Army maintenance process in Basic Officer Leadership Course, but beyond that can’t change a tire or even pop the hood of a Humvee without assistance. Here is where the platoon leader might begin to feel a little alien, without real maintenance knowledge; the common language between his platoon sergeant, section sergeants, and Soldiers isn’t there. This platoon leader faces a steep learning curve, but fortunately there are ways to flatten this learning curve and get up to speed on maintenance.
The above-referenced young platoon leader was me, a young lieutenant who found himself in charge of 50 mechanics and an operational readiness rate about the same as the temperature outside during the German winter. People often use the term “taking over” when describing a new platoon leader assuming responsibility for a unit, but it didn’t feel like I was taking anything over. It seemed like the platoon ran itself, albeit inefficiently, and the numerous problems I identified were too complex for me to try and fix- I barely could understand what they were. The first few months were frustrating, and while I tried to “take charge” the best I could, I was unequipped to understand the very maintenance operations I wanted to change and improve. I would often think back to the Colin Powell quote that someone in my ROTC program told me “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” I wanted to be the type of leader which Soldiers trusted to bring problems more than anything. However, when Specialist Smith came into my office, covered in fuel and grease, and said “I tried to drop the V10 out the back of the 978, but I think I broke the V14 in the process and now fuel won’t stop leaking” I honestly had nothing for him. This Soldier had brought me a problem, and since I didn’t know what a V10 or V14 was (and only vaguely familiar with a 978), I really could not tell him what to do. “That sounds bad” I let out, embarrassed, “Let’s go talk to the motor sergeant.”
Two years later, I was promoted to first lieutenant and assumed responsibility as maintenance control officer, a position that placed me in charge of the entire battalion maintenance program. Without a Chief Warrant Officer counterpart, I was forced to learn the technical side of Army maintenance. In retrospect I now know this type of experience is not unique; officers from units across the Army face steep learning curves especially when it comes to maintenance.
First, good leaders listen and absorb. I asked questions and made Soldiers show me the faults on vehicles so I could start to understand what parts went where, and what broke looked like. Maintenance leaders need to read and understand their Equipment Status Report (ESR), then walk out into the bay and visually match up the fault listed on the ESR with the broken component on the vehicle. Ask questions, sometimes they will seem ridiculous from the perspective of a mechanic, but they are necessary for your development. Listening and asking questions creates situational understanding, which “requires individual and collective wisdom and judgment, often under demanding, chaotic circumstances, to discern what is actually so—the truth” (ADP 6-22). Collective wisdom can only be obtained by listening, and discerning the truth is not an easy task to do on your own. The motorpool is demanding and chaotic, and leaders must work together to work through problems and create viable solutions.
Second, acquire knowledge. An easy way to do this is to join every relevant Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) Facebook page you can find. To this day, I still peruse numerous 91B, 91C/J, 91D, 91E, 92A, 92Y, Warrant Officer, GCSS-Army, and Master Driver Facebook pages that can answer any question one could come up with about Army maintenance. Many are monitored unofficially by serious subject matter experts and can be great means of networking and keeping your finger on the pulse of a variety of MOS-specific and technical issues. Yet, Facebook often has misinformation and disinformation, not to mention Soldiers offering solutions to problems that are anything from unwise to illegal. Therefore, you also need to learn how to read and navigate an Army technical manual (TM). TMs can be scary, oftentimes lengthy, and difficult to access when only by “Interactive Electronic Technical Manual” or IETM. During lunch breaks, I spent time in the motor sergeant’s office, where the maintenance support device (MSD) was, and taught myself how to navigate and read TMs. Self-development is a huge aspect of leader development, and I highly encourage all officers to allocate time to self-development; to include reading technical manuals. In addition, put the TM to use. If you are a junior maintenance officer, I highly recommend that you conduct the maintenance on your assigned vehicle alongside a Soldier. In addition, if you have the opportunity, put on some coveralls and assist a mechanic with the higher level tasks.
It’s important to not let yourself get discouraged and advocate for your self-development. I was once gently scolded by a First Sergeant for helping my driver change the brake pads on our Humvee. He assumed I was helping because the NCO leadership had failed to plan to have a second mechanic assist with the job and I had stepped in out of necessity. I told him that was far from the truth and I was actually helping out because I wanted to learn how to do it, and I liked to get out of the office once in a while. That instance was just a misunderstanding, but that type of interaction can dishearten an officer who is interested in learning about maintenance.
There are senior leaders who dissuade junior officers from learning or doing anything technical, “that’s not your lane” or “you’re a generalist, not a specialist” get thrown around. While officers are generalists, young officers should be encouraged to learn as much about their job and the job of their Soldiers because once that company grade time is over- that’s it. Before that officer becomes a staff officer or commander he or she needs to be grounded in experiences that provide them a realistic insight into what we ask of our Soldiers. While these types of actions may seem unnecessary, they can improve mission command more than anything else for the maintenance leader. Doing maintenance tasks in your free time can strengthen mutual trust, create a shared understanding (especially when looking at an ESR), and can help you better frame how to accept risk.
All of those personal anecdotes lead me to say: you can’t be an effective junior leader without learning about your Soldiers’ jobs. Junior leaders need to listen, acquire knowledge, and find self-development opportunities, regardless of which branch or career field they are in. I encourage everyone to make an effort to learn about the people and the organization you lead, finding problems in the organization will be a lot easier. As we promote and take command and staff positions in more and more complex organizations, the opportunity to take your blouse off and change the brakes on a truck is going to disappear. Enjoy it while you can, and don’t be afraid to learn. Seek to be that leader that Colin Powell discusses, be a leader who is brought problems of all sizes and scopes, no matter how technical.
Capt. Victor Littleton is a United States Army Logistics officer and is the current commander of Bravo Field Maintenance Company, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. He previously served with the 603rd Aviation Support Battalion as Maintenance Control Officer and Maintenance Platoon Leader.