One of the best assignments I had in the Army was an observer evaluator for an Army national training center called the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at FT Polk, Louisiana. JRTC enabled high stress, tough, and difficult training exercises for our Army brigade combat teams that would rotate through a free flow engagement operational exercise that lasted 24 hours a day for almost 3 weeks. The opposing force was highly skilled, familiar with the terrain, and was a formidable foe for the rotational unit going through the training. It was as close to real combat as the Army could make it, and for those who had been to combat, most would likely say that they would prefer actual combat than to go through the 3-week JRTC training activity.
My job was to be the observer of the brigade combat team, which is led by its brigade commander—a centrally selected colonel in the Army. As the brigade observer controller, I had free reign to go wherever I wanted on the battlefield and to attend whatever meeting, engagement, operation or activity that was taking place.
JRTC is a laboratory of leadership. Of the many commanders who had gone through the exercise, I was fortunate to observe some incredibly gifted leaders, and others who I felt did not deserve to be in command. I came to recognize outstanding leadership traits, and likewise, would also recognize bad leadership traits.
For example, you could walk into the exercise unit’s command headquarters and recognize right away if it was going to be a successful exercise—where learning would occur at all levels—by observing the unit’s “command climate.” When you walked into the headquarters of a high performing unit, you would notice right away a buzz of activity, with formal communication and informal communication. Junior staff officers were engaging senior leaders, and the senior leaders were stopping and listening to them. And when the staff updated the commander at the end of the day, everyone in each of the staff organizations was falling over themselves wanting to be the one to brief the commander. Ultimately, the leaders were proud of their work and wanted to show it off to the boss. In high performing units, everywhere you went there was a culture of learning, growth, and teamwork. People were exercising initiative, and in so doing, they were stretching, making mistakes and learning from them. And when they made a mistake, supervisors were underwriting their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. And the staff, the commander, and the entire unit were getting better every day with e operation. Said another way, the staff trusted the boss; the boss trusted the staff; and everyone within the staff trusted each other.
For unit’s that struggled, the command climate was markedly different. When you walked in, the atmosphere was quiet, cold as ice, and everyone was seated looking at their computer screen without engaging anyone. None of the formal and informal engagements that were evident in the high performing units happened here. And when it came time to brief the commander at the end of the day, no one within the staff units would want to brief the boss and it ended up that the senior staff officer did the briefing. As soon as the commander opened his mouth, you knew right away why no one wanted to brief him. Rather than uplifting and edifying, he would criticize and ridicule, and do so in public in front of their peers. In the end, no one exercised any initiative. They did only what they were told to do, least they get criticized for exercising initiative and risk making a mistake. There was no learning and no growth, which ultimately led to a terrible exercise experience.
What’s clear for these exercises and unit operations in general, is that the leader sets the command climate and, in that climate, the staff either found productive, uplifting, contributing work, where they felt good about themselves in the presence of their boss, or, they found themselves afraid to stretch and exercise initiative, because if they made a mistake, they were ridiculed and harassed. The command climate is a key indicator of the unit’s culture. Strong cultures are driven by strong values that the entire command adheres to. And that type of culture contributes to great morale, learning, development, growth, and mission success. It is worth stating the obvious: the person responsible for fostering a productive culture is the unit’s commander, or leader.