09 September 2009

Going Beyond the Book Answer

There are all sorts of things that I memorized for my promotion board. I can tell you everything from the muzzle velocity of the M-4 rifle to how many gallons of water a lister bag can hold. I can recite the noncommissioned officer and Soldier’s creeds, even if five very intense pairs of eyes are staring at me. Using a combination of the on-line Army study guide, various field and training manuals and the knowledge of the non-commissioned officers that help prepare for my board, I have accumulated quite a bit of information. Information that will, hopefully, make me a better leader in the future.

During my preparation, the non-commissioned officers that helped prepare me for the board would quiz me on these subjects. Almost all of them would ask me a question and wait for my answer. Nine times out of ten, I would give them the answer I memorized out of the study guide.
Most would accept my answer, but would ask another question in response. It would normally go, “That is the book answer, but what does that mean? Explain it to me like I was your Soldier.”

I had always known that being an NCO was more than enforcing rules, but that question helped me understand it better. Most Soldiers will do anything they are ordered to do. I am of the opinion that they normally perform that task better if they understand the purpose behind it.
Army leadership, as I learned it for my promotion board, is the ability to influence others by providing purpose, direction and motivation in order to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.

Many leaders make the mistake of providing direction and neglect to encourage the motivation. Some could care less about their Soldier’s motivation as long as the mission is accomplished.

A good NCO is capable of showing his or her Soldiers how their task, no matter how small it may seem, is important and necessary. I think all Soldiers want to feel like they aren’t wasting their time. Working for the sake of keeping busy doesn’t help anyone. It ruins morale, creates Soldiers who look for ways to avoid work and makes the Soldiers who don’t shirk their duty angry at the ones who do.

The best NCOs I’ve worked with found a way to make sure that I understood the purpose behind what I was doing. A lot of those jobs and details weren’t fun, but I understood the consequences to the organization if they were ignored.

The book answer will give Soldiers the correct information on how to do things, but it can’t give them the little tips and tricks that come from experience. I’m talking about the best way to lace your boots before a ruck march or how to close a duffle that is filled to the brim. Most NCOs don’t understand how much knowledge they have accumulated until they get new Soldiers; new Soldiers that don’t have the knowledge experienced NCOs take for granted.

In my opinion, a poor NCO rolls his eyes and makes that new Soldier feel inadequate when they ask questions that come easy to him. A good NCO shares his knowledge and then ensures that the Soldier has learned it. There is nothing wrong with an NCO showing a Soldier a task and then undoing it and asking him to perform what he just saw. Lessons like that are invaluable.
There isn’t an Army regulation that will tell you how to reach each and every Soldier. As an NCO, I hope I am able to remember that every Soldier reacts to situations differently. What is effective in reaching one Soldier may intimidate and hinder the job performance of another.

In my experience, senior leaders rarely ask “book” questions or give missions that fall in neatly with every Army regulation. On my last deployment, my brigade was doing things that were considered “outside the box” and were tackling unique problems that we couldn’t have anticipated. It wasn’t that we were throwing the book out the window; we simply had to write our own chapters and come up with our own answers.

As an NCO, I think that is what it all boils down to: coming up with answers. Naturally, some things are set in stone. Some things are just right or wrong. It doesn’t take a leader to simply do what every Soldier should be doing.

I believe good leaders use their experience and knowledge to figure out the correct answer when it isn’t spelled out in black and white. They try to understand the situation before casually throwing out an order and scrambling to correct a mistake that could have been prevented with more thought. A good leader listens to his subordinates and uses their knowledge base to add to his own. A good leader realizes that in the end, whether the answer comes “from the book” or from the hip is unimportant. The only thing that matters is if it is correct.

by Spc. Ben Hutto
3rd HBCT Public Affairs

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