Post Platoon Leader Series: Buy the unit coffee mug

Unit Coffee Mug

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.

An interesting aspect about military culture is the zeal commanders have for their current unit. While it’s always a little tongue-in-cheek (because how can it be possible for each successive unit to be the BEST they’ve ever served in), when done well, it really is internalized. You can tell when a leader really loves their unit and is giving it their all. That leader wants their subordinate leaders to share that same enthusiasm.

Which is why you should buy your unit coffee mug.

One of the first things I did upon arriving to my last unit was visit our museum (which is good advice in its own right). At the gift shop, I bought a stainless steel coffee mug. pictured above and on the right, nestled gently into a space in my MRAP during a mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

From day one in the unit, I had that coffee mug, emblazoned with our unit logo. It went with me to the field, to the National Training Center, to Afghanistan, to Dallas-Fort Worth for funeral honors, and I still drink out of it every day.

On multiple occasions, officers and NCOs would ask me where I got the mug. They liked it, and were always surprised that it was sold at our very own gift shop.

Besides the fact that carrying a coffee mug is good Army practice ( if the Army is there, coffee is too), choosing to identify further with your unit beyond what is required sends a signal to your soldiers, peers, and leaders that you support the unit. Simply buying the mug doesn’t necessarily “do” anything – you can buy all the unit swag available and be a terrible leader.

But, buying the unit coffee mug is a very simple way of displaying that “you’re in.”

You have to drink your coffee somehow, you might as well do it with a purpose.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: The Psychological Impact of the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant Working as One

www_usma_edu_caldol_siteassets_armymagazine_docs_2012_CC_ARMY__May2012__PL-PSG_pdf

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.

This might seem like common sense, but I’ve seen the opposite of it so often that I thought it worth sharing.

At just about every echelon of command, the Army pairs officers with a non-commissioned officer counterpart. It’s a brilliant system that favors the officer, because he or she is normally paired with a much more experienced non-commissioned officer. I’ve generally seen company command teams (CO and 1SG) and echelons above “get” how important it is for the command team to be on the same page.

At the platoon level, not so much.

When the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant act as one and are in agreement on how to run the platoon, the platoon responds. I have no evidence to back this up other than anecdotal, but there is a psychological effect of the senior non-commissioned officer and the platoon leader actually being in the same place at the same time and in agreement.

I know this to be true mostly because I have seen the effects of the inverse, as both an enlisted infantryman and as an officer. It is clear to everyone in the platoon when the platoon leader and platoon sergeant are not in agreement on an issue.

When this happens, Squad Leaders will tell their guys “Mommy and Daddy are fighting again.”

As an enlisted infantryman, I remember having a very strong platoon leader and a very strong platoon sergeant who both thought they knew exactly how to best run the platoon, and although they were both great infantrymen, their approaches were wildly different. This resulted in very vocal and very public fighting, which could get awkward in the platoon office in garrison or a patrol base in the field (or a hide site in Iraq).

As an officer, I saw other platoon leaders who were adamant that it was “their” platoon and made that point known a little too often to their platoon sergeants. As an aside, I’ve always been of the mind that it’s not the platoon leader’s platoon; he or she just signs the hand receipt.

Before my platoon sergeant and I ever did anything in front of the platoon, we’d talk privately to make sure we were in agreement on what we wanted to do or communicate. Once we understood each other, we’d get out there and do it.

As a piece of advice to new or would-be platoon leaders, I would suggest building a strong relationship with your platoon sergeant, establish the same goals, and to the greatest degree possible, never disagree with one another in front of the platoon.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: Use your Battalion Command Team

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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Post-Platoon Leader Series: Take pictures, share them

WHOMP

Ok, so I actually haven’t been a platoon leader for about six months now. I’m in transition mode, and I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience and evaluate what was useful and what was not.

I have never been a fan of the never-ending articles on “how to be a good platoon leader” chiefly because they usually boil down to “all you have to do is be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine.” The other thing is just about every former platoon leader thinks they were really, really good.

However, if you are a new or soon to be new platoon leader and are actually looking for that kind of advice, the best place to start is the Center for Junior Officers.

So instead of adding to the list of 69 things, I’m going to try to share some of the more obscure things that I found useful during my time.

As has been pointed out before, being a platoon leader is often less about fire and maneuver and more about managing people in the day-to-day minutiae of Army life. As the platoon leader, you are often the one who will create the storyboard that goes up to your Commander. I’ve written before about the importance of the smartphone – and by extension, the camera – to the modern day platoon leader. Taking and sharing pictures punctuates the great things your soldiers are doing, and over time they will pile up and you’ll have collected dozens, if not hundreds, of photos of your soldiers.

Your soldiers want those photos.

It takes time and effort, but it is worth setting up a means to get those photos to them. I setup a group Flickr account for the platoon and sent them invites. Every Sunday morning, while at home and deployed, I would upload the week’s photos to the site after scrubbing them for any security or suitability concerns.

While it seemed like a small thing at the time, and I often wondered if anyone even cared, I learned that if I skipped a Sunday soldiers would approach me asking about it. It became a rhythm event that they looked forward to so they could download and share their pictures with friends and family.

Lastly, more than anyone else in the platoon, the platoon leader has the latitude to stop what he or she is doing to snap pictures – at least during training events. Soldiers are often too busy doing their job to pause for a picture, but for the modern platoon leader, capturing the moment is part of the job. Not sharing those photos is a wasted opportunity to build morale through a zero-cost, easy to manage and sustain event.

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Should an Infantry Platoon Leader already have a CIB before deploying?


War in 2014/2015 was very much about just trying to get outside of the wire. It wasn’t easy. In 2003, a quick check in with the CP via ICOM was enough to get you to at least leave the wall of your firebase to investigate something just outside – alone. Now, the massive CONOPs produced for a mission are sent up days and weeks in advance of SP, and scrutinized by just about everyone in the chain of command and beyond before getting the ok. To get outside of the wire feels like a victory in itself.

And to engage the enemy, a blessing from above.

During this last deployment, I watched with interest as other lieutenants jockeyed to get on a mission – any mission – mostly so they could score a Combat Infantryman Badge. In other deployments, firefights were more prevalent, and entire units would get blanket CIB orders. Today, there’s a bunch of paperwork that has to get done, sworn statements, PowerPoint slides depicting the fight, and drone footage if possible. The requirements at times become forensic!

So to get to the point I led with in the post’s title, young infantry platoon leaders who didn’t have a CIB tended to position themselves however they could and within the scope of their influence to get on missions. This, in turn, usually meant a mission for the platoon or at least a part of the platoon, putting them out there and at risk. In plainspeak, the eagerness to get “after it” and earn combat badges acts as a significant influence on a leader’s motivation to volunteer or otherwise try to get outside of the wire and on mission.

On the other hand, as a platoon leader who already had a CIB from a prior deployment, I felt no urge to volunteer myself or the platoon for any unnecessary missions just to get us out there and perhaps have a chance at getting the award. I often wonder how my behavior might have been different if I didn’t have a CIB. Would it have resulted in me jockeying the platoon to get out more? What might have happened?

In saying all of this, I’m not putting a value judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe we want young PLs to be trying to get out as much as possible (although I tend to think not). And even with all of the jockeying, I didn’t see any PL needlessly put his soldiers at risk for some metal – although the point of this post is to say that it is precisely that which is possible.

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PlatoonLeader.net: The Junior Officer’s Best Kept Secret

Platoon Leader

I remember stumbling upon the now re-appropriated companycommand.com many years ago when I was still enlisted. I must have been searching for something Army related, and found myself on the site. I remember quickly closing the window in the same way you would if you accidentally clicked a “link too far” and found yourself on a website you really ought not to be looking. The gleaming silver bars on the page spooked me, reminding me of the seemingly omnipotent officers I knew in the 82nd Airborne Division. The thought of chatting with one or being in any way associated with a bunch of Captains – COMMANDERS – was terrifying to my younger, non-commissioned officer self.

I knew that the site existed though, as a resource for officers, at a time when social media was just budding and internet forums were intimidating and reigned supreme.

Fast forward to today, and the site still exists (although now in a more official capacity). But there’s also Company Command’s younger brother, Platoon Leader, which exists both in an official capacity (CAC required) and an easier to access, unofficial capacity.

The sites are great resources for junior leaders managed by a dedicated team of Army officers who aim to create a space to share ideas. It’s the same team behind the Company Commander and Platoon Leader blog on Medium which kindly published my article on the problems Lieutenants face when they write (as an aside, you should seriously consider writing for them as well).

Unfortunately, the sites are severely under-utilized.

Part of this is due to the difficulty it is in getting to the “full” site which requires a CAC login, milSuite registration, and then a submission to join the forum. There’s been few times that I can remember having the time at work to browse through the CAC site uninterrupted – there’s always something going on. For most junior officers, that means their prime time to explore the site will be when they’re at home and off work, which makes the likelihood of making a successful “hook up” low, especially, if like me, you have a Mac.

However, the seemingly unscalable technological wall is actually quite scalable. It usually just takes an hour or two of dedicated, uninterrupted time and a large cup of coffee. Once done, you’re in.

Thankfully, there’s a non-CAC version of the forums that simply requires a username and password to join. Whatever the question is, there’s an answer out there. There are few new problems facing junior leaders today, and even the news ones are being faced by more than one of us. The forums provide a space for junior leaders to have those conversations outside of regular social media, where the replies are more likely to be snarky than helpful.

BLAB (Bottom Line at Bottom): Basically, if you’re a junior officer, you should sign up.

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The Platoon Leader’s Most Powerful (and annoying) Weapon

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The entrance of the modern TOC.

Traditionally, it’s the radio.

But today, in an era where the PL spends much more time managing personalities and painting a picture for higher than analyzing terrain or calling for fire, it’s hard to argue that there is any tool more useful than the smartphone. Instant communication, regulations at your fingertips, emergency GPS, calendar and task management – all combined to provide a powerful tool for the modern platoon leader.

It’s the camera, though, that makes the smartphone invaluable today.

When I first joined the Army in 2001, NCOs and officers bemoaned the recent intrusion of email in their daily lives and longed for days when they had regularly scheduled meetings and if they needed something, they just sent runners. When I got out in 2006, I was just beginning to see some of the more senior officers carrying around BlackBerry’s, furiously tapping out emails between events.

The iPhone wouldn’t be released for another year.

Without question, the most striking thing about the way the military has changed since I got out (2006) and when I rejoined (2011) is the prevalence of the smartphone. Just about everyone has one. And the scourge of NCOs everywhere are soldiers sitting around on their phones, tapping away at games, text messages, or social media.

In the good old days, soldiers just sat around.

As an aside, a significant decision that leaders have to make today is whether or not they will allow soldiers to bring their phones with them to the field during training. I’ve seen some leaders allow them and others outright ban them, going as far as conducting inspections and recommending Article 15s for soldiers caught in the field with them. Some might scoff at the notion of being allowed to bring smartphones to the field at all, arguing they have no place in training. Others might think banning them is overbearing and not taking into consideration changes in society. Interestingly, on the modern battlefield, many leaders and soldiers have cell phones with local voice and data plans.

Anyway, the fact that everyone has a smartphone and the effect this has had on work, relationships, and the like, and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing has been written about elsewhere. Here, I want to highlight its effect at the small unit level, in this case, the platoon leader.

Just as conducting classroom training and briefing has shifted to using PowerPoint as a default, the rapid proliferation of digital cameras – and especially smartphones – has resulted in documenting events with images as a near-requirement.

Stated another way, if training occurs, but no pictures were taken, did training really happen?

The “pics or it didn’t happen” adage has been unofficially adopted by Army leaders everywhere. In a media saturated environment (and the military is just as media-saturated as anywhere else), pictures are the best way to rapidly highlight what’s going on to a higher headquarters. Leaders respond to subordinate leaders’ elaborate training plans with “Sounds great, make sure you get some pictures.”

In the past, if a leader wanted to capture images of an event, he or she would have to get a camera, usually through PAO, combat camera, embedded journalists, or some other coordination. If they were lucky, they might have a guy in the platoon with a camera and willing to expend some film. There was rarely a requirement to capture training events on camera because it just wasn’t practical.

The fact that just about everyone has a smartphone today significantly lowers the bar, and capturing images is now generally expected. Not only is capturing the event in a picture important, but capturing it and quickly getting that image to higher has become paramount.

You’re only as good as your last storyboard.

With this, there are all sorts of pitfalls, operational security (OPSEC) being one of the chief concerns. It is easy to carelessly snap a picture that might contain something considered secret or confidential, which can rapidly become a significant emotional event for all parties involved, especially if the image is transferred to other devices or posted online.

There’s also the great annoyance of sending up pictures only to have them torn apart by an eagle-eyed NCO looking for uniform deficiencies or other violations.

You can send up a photo of a soldier standing over the still warm body of Osama bin Laden, but let that soldier’s eye-protection be sitting on his forehead and watch as the wrath of Hades comes flying your way in the form of a nasty-gram.

And of course, the dumb things that soldiers do are now routinely captured in pictures or video and shared with the world.

While these developments may seem strange to some and terrible for the force in the same way people curse PowerPoint, these changes are not necessarily bad – just different. The landscape is changing, and the way wars are fought is changing. Just look at all of the wild pictures in the ISOF Gold series I’ve been running. While some of those photos are goofy, there is an effect that they have on the populace – by sharing candid photos of Iraq’s elite forces at work, a message is being sent that their security forces are out there. And when they conduct an operation, they make sure to take out the camera phones and start snapping pictures.

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♪♫ Que Sera Sera, the PL is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do, whatever will be, will be â™Şâ™«

You can't spell lost with out LT.

One of the unique facets of Army leadership is the concept of the leader being responsible for “all the x-element does or fails to do.” It’s an incredible level of responsibility, and it essentially applies to every echelon (i.e.; the Team Leader is responsible for all his team does or fails to do, Company Commander, Battalion Commander, etc.).

This is is how the concept usually manifests: a leader being called into his boss’ office and asked: “Why did Private Snuffy get wasted and smash all of the windows of the Generals’ residence this weekend?” The question is typically asked in a manner which suggests you had something to do with it. Likewise, if word gets around that “something bad” happened somewhere in a formation, one of the first questions asked (among officers, anyway) will likely be “Which platoon was it? Which platoon leader?”

Dumb things happen in the Army, and soldiers make mistakes. Good leaders recognize that while it is doctrinally correct that the platoon leader is responsible for everything in the platoon, good or bad, there is also an absolute limit to what he or she can immediately control. If a soldier in a platoon gets a DUI, it is likely that whole chain of command will be standing on the carpet answering for it. Ass chewings will commence, lessons will be learned, and everyone will go on about their way.

Sometimes, while taking said ass chewing, a junior leader (or even a senior leader) will feel frustrated for being blamed for the indiscretion of a subordinate who might have two or three subordinate leaders.

“How the hell was I supposed to stop Specialist Ronald from driving nude through the front gate blasting Ride of the Valkyries!?”

Without question, the reality of the doctrine is such that an individual leader cannot, within reason, fully account for the actual failures or successes of a formation. That is, the platoon leader cannot through sheer will or even the most immaculate planning and execution carry the true responsibility for success or failure. There are too many other leaders and factors involved.

FM 3-21.8 Chapter 1

But the reason this high burden remains is because without it, it lets leaders off the hook. If the platoon leader is not responsible for everything his platoon does or fails to do and can simply pass the buck to a subordinate leader for a problem soldier, there is no great incentive to shape the platoon to accomplish goals. 

The burden of leadership is absurdly high precisely because the stakes are also high – especially in combat.

Of course, like I indicated earlier, the adage is usually uttered for soldier mishaps and minor discipline infractions. The best platoon leader in history will have a soldier who inevitably does something stupid that will get the platoon leader an ass chewing or nasty email from one of his bosses. If he is wise, he will take it, learn from it, and que sera sera.

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Nobody seems to care about the XO

Over the past couple of months, there have been a few articles on things a good Platoon Leader (PL) should do, or things people wish they did when they were a PL (69 TTPs for Successful Infantry Platoon LeadersWhat I Wish I Knew: Cadet to Lieutenant in Afghanistan). These articles are passed around for future and current PLs to digest. People have been writing these tips and lists for years.

The whole Platoon Leader thing is strange. Future officers – especially infantry officers – spend years thinking about what they’ll do when they finally get there and become a PL. They read memoir after memoir (after memoir after memoir). They watch movies and television shows about it. They are reminded  – ad nauseam – about how it will be the best time they will ever have in the Army, a dismal thought, thinking you might top out when you begin. All that time and energy spent fantasizing about that first job, a drop in the bucket of an Army career.

From the enlisted perspective, the Platoon Leader signs the hand receipt and a good platoon should be able to function without a Platoon Leader altogether. And as a very wise senior officer reminded me before I commissioned, “the Army doesn’t need platoon leaders – it needs field grade officers – the platoon will be fine with or without you, you are there to learn.”

And after that platoon time ends? Then what?

Some PLs get ‘speciality’ platoons (scouts or mortars), some move on to staff functions, others become Aides to Generals. And some PLs become Executive Officers, ‘XOs,’ second in command to the Company Commander. It’s an important job that pretty much no one spends any amount of time thinking about. I’m not sure anyone has ever written a memoir about their wartime service as an XO.

It’s a strange transition, PL to XO. You’re still a First Lieutenant (usually), like most of your fellow Platoon Leaders, so you don’t ‘outrank’ them, but there is no question that you are ‘over them’ in terms of where you stand in the chain of command. The PLs don’t call the XO ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and since they are likely the same rank, no salutes are exchanged. If the unit’s officers are tight, it is likely that the XO and the PLs already know each other pretty well and might even hang out with one another on the weekends.

Since there are no good resources to go to, no memoirs or movies that glamorize the role of the XO, the XO is very much defined by the Company Commander and First Sergeant. Sure, there are things that most XOs take care of – maintenance, coordinating chow and training, for example – but these things are often also attended to by the Commander and First Sergeant. The lines blur.

Specifically interesting to me is the relationship between the XO and the Platoon Leaders. Is it the XO’s role to ‘wrangle’ the Platoon Leaders and keep them in line with the Commander’s intent, or is that outside of his lane? Should the XO serve as a ‘sounding board’ for the Platoon Leader’s gripes? Should the XO provide mentorship to those PLs or leave that to the Commander? How is the XO supposed to manage the social relationship with the Platoon Leaders now that he is “second in command?” Can he still go get drinks with them after work, or is that now unprofessional?

Of course, it is easy to say “the commander should make clear his expectations of his XO in his initial counseling,” but the reality is that these transitions are usually fluid and fast. They’re often over before they start. When a Platoon Leader steps in front of the platoon and gives “the speech,” he’s thought and trained about that moment and the coming moments for years. The poor XO gets a text message late on a Friday night that says “ur new XO of B CO starting monday good job.”

What I’m saying is I think we’ve reached max capacity on Platoon Leader articles. I can sum all of them up with the below quote, anyway:

Be really good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine.

I’d really like to see an article titled “69 Tip and Tricks to be a Successful Executive Officer.” I welcome your comments.

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Fieldcraft: Platoon Leader Planning Board

COA Sketch

You may recall a couple of years ago (sheesh!) I was posting ‘fieldcraft‘ articles pretty frequently. Well, the intervening year had me busy doing the King’s work, but now I’m back in the field and thus, a new fieldcraft post.

It was highly recommended to me by my commander that I develop a “planning board.” You may recall my post on building a plexiglass map board. It’s kind of like that, but a little more involved.

The purpose of the board is to provide the leader with a tool in the field for planning a mission. It is highly customizable, and I based mine off of my commander’s, though I added things that I thought I would find useful.

My board is made out of four pieces of 8 1/2″ x 10″ plexiglass (from Lowe’s Hardware), copious amounts of 100 MPH tape, some transparency sheets, dry erase markers, binder clips, plain pieces of white paper, excerpts from the Infantry Leader Card GTA, and an execution matrix that I created.

This isn’t hard or expensive to build. It just takes a little time.

After building the thing, I wasn’t really sure how useful it would be. I brought it with me to NTC, and I can confidently report that it was a great tool. Most useful was the blank space in which I could draw out simple COA sketches and the execution matrix which pretty much ran my scheme of maneuver. Often I had simple graphics that I could use for a given mission which helped me on the ground (yes, I brought this thing with me on missions).

This is definitely something I’ll take with me on deployment. I’d like to refine it, though. I actually didn’t use a lot of the weapons data – so I might modify what I put on that front piece – maybe planning info? I’d also like to find a way to stow this thing on my gear without needing an assault pack. I’m not sure what that would be – maybe a D-ring attached to it? I don’t know.

Anyway. It’s a good tool and I’m happy to share it with you.

Instructions:

1. Tape the edges of the plexiglass first.
2. Use a piece of 100 MPH tape to connect the pieces of plexiglass together, ensuring you leave enough space so that it will close on itself.
3. With the fourth piece of plexiglass, tape it to the top (or bottom) of the middle piece so that you have the ability to insert a map or graphics. You can also place extra pieces of transparency paper inside of this space to keep until you need to use it. Use a binder clip to keep it closed.
4. Place a piece of white paper on one of the boards and tape it down, and then place a piece of transparency paper over it and tape that down – this provides you a space to write/draw on.
5. Use one side to tape down relevant data – I chose weapon system information, engagement area development, and call for fire information.
6. On the backside, tape in a pouch to store markers, protractors, and whatever else you want to store.

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