The Battalion Commander Effect

battalion commander on the radio in vietnam

Catching up on podcasts.

Great interview over at From the Green Notebook with COL Everett Spain on his research and paper concerning the “Battalion Commander Effect.”

Recently, U.S. Army Colonel Everett Spain coauthored an article in Parameters titled, The Battalion Commander Effect. Spain and his coauthors found that evidence suggests Army battalion commanders are a major factor in whether or not high-potential lieutenants stay in the Army.  In this episode, Joe and Everett discuss the research and dive into why self-awareness and humility are important traits for military leaders.

S3, Ep8: Everett Spain- The Battalion Commander Effect

The research and interview is focused on the effect battalion commanders have on junior officers specifically when it comes to retention. The research shows – not surprisingly, I think – that battalion commanders have a tremendous effect on junior officer retention, for a variety of reasons.

It was only recently that I actually began to fully understand how important the battalion commander is in an organization.

Yes, of course I know their role is important – but I didn’t quite realize how critical it is. I used to think that if the subordinate leaders (company commanders, first sergeants, and beyond) were good, a battalion could make up for the shortcomings of a weak BC.

Kind of, but not really.

That battalion commander represents the battalion – inside and outside the organization. It’s hard to get past that.

It wasn’t until I’ve had both good and bad battalion commanders and numerous different positions within different battalions over the course of many years to see just how critical the battalion commander is. It affects professionalism. It affects morale. It affects retention.

Have you ever been in an organization where people like to ask “Where’s the BC?”

The chief thing that I’ve learned, and what is discussed in the interview, is that the battalion commander set the culture.

There really is something special about that role – battalion commander – that I don’t think many people truly appreciate. The expectations are so high. We want that person to be the epitome of professionalism.

To inspire us and lead by example.

To put in the work but also go home at a reasonable hour.

To be an expert in their field – technically and tactically proficient.

To be in just as good shape as the much younger leaders.

To be firm and fair but also display empathy.

All that, at a time when the said leader is often in a mature family with older children.

I think about the leaders taking command now who grew up in the GWOT.

What ghosts have they accrued?

It’s a huge responsibility. I’m glad that the Army is doing more to find the right people for this position with the introduction of the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP).

One of the things that stood out to me in this episode was a short conversation on giving feedback – something Joe has discussed in the past as something he is working on (me too!). It’s hard to tell someone they are failing in an area or they are not hitting the mark in a certain domain. How can we do it more effectively?

COL Spain recommends leading off with a statement like “I care deeply about you, so I want to tell you…”

I like that. I think that works. For whatever reason, whenever I am ready to give a critique, I feel my body tense up and steel itself for a rebuttal – I get pre-defensive.

This other way – leading with care – disarms that.

There was a short aside towards the end discussing what the equivalent might be for the enlisted side – which leader in an organization has a significant effect on junior soldier retention?

I love that they hypothesize that it is the Sergeant First Class.

If we’re talking about retention – especially for first-term soldiers – it is that Sergeant First Class who will shape the impression of a junior soldier. I was fortunate to have a cadre of amazing platoon sergeants when I first joined the Army. Professional, firm, but with the right amount of empathy.

In Kuwait, just before the invasion of Iraq, my platoon sergeant scooped me up one afternoon to bring me to a tent that had a television because he knew that I was a news junkie. He knew who I was and he had an interest.

Those things stick with you.

And here I am.

Lots to think about from this episode – check it out.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: Use your Battalion Command Team

a unit brief army
Leader Talking to Soldiers

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

A hard thing for young leaders to grasp is that their subordinates don’t really want to hear them talk that much. As inspired as we think our thoughts and ideas are, there is a layer of scar tissue that builds up between people over time as a result of familiarity. For a platoon leader, getting your message across on day one is a lot easier than on day one hundred, before the platoon has learned your norms and idiosyncrasies – what you say you care about and what you actually care about.

One of the ways I found to break through the scar tissue is to use the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major – the Battalion Command Team – to deliver the message. If you’re doing it right, your message should be nested with theirs, so it shouldn’t be a hard sell. I viewed every planned or surprise Battalion Command Team visit as an opportunity to deliver an important message to the platoon straight from the top.

Regardless of what the Battalion Command Team is visiting for, they’re normally going to want to address the platoon. In the moments before this, I tried to speak with the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major (with my Platoon Sergeant, of course), and tell them what our issues were and what message we thought would be helpful to hear.

For this to be effective, you have to be comfortable telling your boss what problems exist, instead of briefing that everything is fine.

When I first started doing this, it felt a little uncomfortable. I felt like I may have been leaning in a bit too far with my Battalion Commander by laying out issues and recommending messages. Over time, I found that the honesty was appreciated. The Battalion Command Team seemed relieved to be asked to inject themselves in a way that might be directly helpful at the platoon level.

There’s a great feeling to be standing behind a platoon, listening to the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major hammer home an important issue that has struggled to sink in. It’s one thing if the Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, or Platoon Leader says it. It hits home completely different when it comes from the mouth of the Commander Sergeant Major.

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