#Leadership Through Example

Lieutenant General Don Holder’s Free, Non-Binding Advice for Battalion and Squadron Commanders

Lieutenant General Don Holder (U.S. Army Photo)

Battalion and squadron commanders have a profound influence across our military.  In the late 1990s, before assuming command of a squadron, I sought advice from then-Colonel Don Holder.  The “free, non-binding advice” he sent me proved invaluable.  Since that time I learned more about command at the battalion level by observing effective commanders in combat and in training.   What follows, printed with his permission, is a revised version of what now Lieutenant General, retired Holder sent me.  I added a few things and compressed or edited out others to help make his advice applicable across our Army.  Battalion and squadron command is particularly important because it is the last level of command in which a commander knows well all of his or her subordinate leaders from squad to company.  Battalion and squadron commanders not only have a profound influence on the readiness of our Army, they also have a profound influence on the discipline, morale, welfare, and professional development of every soldier in their organization.  

Understanding Your Role

Commanders are incredibly influential.  People will watch you closely and adopt your attitudes and standards.  If you say training is the most important activity, be there and demonstrate that you know what you are doing.  If you are emphasizing maintenance, be in the motor pool or arms room.  If you expect people to treat each other respectfully, treat people respectfully yourself.  Admit mistakes when they affect the unit.  Everybody makes mistakes; units forgive them in their commanders if those errors are infrequent, honestly made, and corrected.

Maurice of Saxe as a Marshal of France: "Few orders are best, but those must be rigorously enforced.”

You have enormous power as a commander.  So do all leaders in your organization.  It is unnecessary to shout, threaten, or intimidate.  Your words—or at least your orders—are literally the law.  Enforce orders calmly and consistently.  (Remember Marshal de Saxe—“Few orders are best, but those must be rigorously enforced.”)

Your mission is very simple.  Make your piece of our Army the best it can be.  Your battalion’s or squadron’s readiness and contribution to our Army’s ability to fight and win is the only sensible measure of success.  Use your mission essential task list.  Set high standards and measurable objectives.  Expect excellence; compete for, and recognize it; then-Colonel Holder followed then-Colonel Bob Wagner’s lead and recognized the top third of all units every quarter.  Soldiers like competition and recognition and want “rematch” opportunities for unit honors.

Communications are very important.  Send a clear, simple message almost continuously. Repeating those things may make you feel you’re overdoing it, but young leaders want the assurance that they’re pursuing the goals you think important.  Write guidance to your leaders and soldiers in "spot reports," standard operating procedures, training guidance, and policy letters. Develop your leaders to communicate clearly in their own reports, orders, and written products. Talk to your leaders and your entire unit regularly. Take advantage of monthly physical training formations, awards ceremonies, after action reviews, and mandatory training sessions.   Meet with your key leaders at least once a quarter to discuss goals and objectives and the coming events. Use the quarterly and semi-annual training plans as the vehicles. Review objectives and accomplishments of the past quarter, state the goals for coming quarters, review the calendar, and then talk about whatever is on your mind. Solicit their assessments and suggestions.

Focusing on Key Efforts

Develop commonly understood standard operating procedures.  Battalions and squadrons are tactical formations. Tactical formations base their actions on standard operating procedures.  Stress formations, maneuver techniques, battle drills, integration of all arms and joint capabilities, and standard unit fire.  

Foster initiative.  Insist that young leaders take action; mistakes of commission are acceptable, passivity is not.  Deliberately build opportunities for initiative into your training plans and make leader responses part of your after action reviews.

Soldiers and their families, Wiesbaden, Germany (Rolf Oeser, New York Times)

Take care of soldiers and their families.  Never underestimate your soldiers.  They are young people with lots of energy, courage, and ambition.  They expect the Army to be hard—and they are disappointed when it’s not.  Soldiers usually want to do the job they enlisted for.  Do not tolerate hazing, talking down to troops, sexual harassment, and other forms of abusive behavior.  Establish sponsorship and welcoming systems.  Family readiness groups are helpful if they understand their mission.  When you learn about a problem from a soldier, jot it down and follow up on it until resolved.  Be consistent in disciplining troops.  Realize that some good people are going to let you down.  It is tough business, and occasionally unpleasant, but discipline has to be impartially and consistently applied.

Building Your Team

Train your staff.  Battalion/Squadron is the first level of command with a staff.  Staffs are combat multipliers.  Invest time to train them.  Make it a continuous effort to compensate for personnel turnover and inexperience.  Do not do the staff’s work for them.  Emphasize anticipation and working within intent.  Check their written products and teach them to write clearly and concisely.  Always write your own intent statement and concept of the operation.  Minimize the use of PowerPoint.

Train your field grade officers.  The executive officer leads and trains the staff and runs the battalion/squadron.  Put him in charge of details.  Tell him where you want to go and let him find the way.  The executive officer speaks for you; accordingly, back him/her up.  Commanders can always appeal the executive officer’s direction but, if your executive officer is mentally with you, you will end up supporting him/her 90 percent of the time.  The same applies to your operations officer and your command sergeant major.

Build your relationship with the command sergeant major.  Command sergeants major vary in their individual experience, talents, and strengths.  Trade on their strong points.  Make them responsible for developing non-commissioned officers.  Ensure that the command sergeant major sees all personnel actions affecting enlisted soldiers.  Schedule one-on-one time with the command sergeant major regularly if it does not occur naturally.  Ask the command sergeant major about his/her expectations of you and what you should expect in return.  Discuss your basic interests, priorities, and expectations.  Ensure the command sergeant major is responsible for coming to you with any concerns he/she has about policies or plans.  

Make captains men and women of consequence.  Delegate every bit of authority you can to them and assure that everything gets to the soldier through his or her chain of command.  The reason for this is that it builds confidence in and the custom of obedience to captains.  In combat, captains make life and death decisions.  Soldiers must look to them as leaders in all things.

Recognize lieutenants as combat leaders.  They fight alongside their soldiers and control a substantial amount of combat power.  Build them up as leaders; all soldiers look to them when things are tough and they have to lead by example.  Although lieutenants must learn and grow on the job, do not countenance any view of them as apprentices or novices.  They are not “LTs.” They are lieutenants and platoon leaders.

First Sgt. Raquel Steckman salutes her platoon sergeants with the 374th Engineer Company (Sapper), headquartered in Concord, Calif., during formation. (U.S. Army Photo)

Focus on sergeants as the foundation for combat readiness and effectiveness.  Non-commissioned officers not only provide the unit with tactical and technical expertise, they ensure the discipline, training, and motivation of their soldiers.  If you have a problem with a soldier, ask him to “go get his sergeant.”  Recognize and promote your best sergeants.  Stress the squad leader’s and platoon sergeant’s role in fostering confidence.  It is soldier’s confidence in their own training, their team, and their squad leader that allows them to suppress fear, fight, and win in battle.  And it is sergeants who ensure all members of their team are committed to the Army’s professional ethic.  

Preparing to Fight and Win

Make training the first priority.  Be there. Use the training schedule as your guide to what is happening and do not call ahead.  Be uncompromising about training standards. Insist that training is well-planned and well-executed.  Realize the damage your commanders and non-commissioned officers do to their reputations when they preside over screw-ups. Inspect training and do not accept excuses for poor administration. Watch for over-scheduling, inadequate preparatory time, changes to the training schedule, soldiers absent from training, uncritiqued training, and absence of training objectives at every level.  Do this: ask leaders for their training objectives, then ask "why".  Fight late taskings and the diversion of resources. Consider the semiannual training briefing a binding contract and arrange for external support through that medium. Insisting on execution of the training schedule as it was published five weeks ago is a form of respect for your soldiers. If you jerk them around on planning their own time, they may conclude that you are either indifferent to them or incompetent.

Train based on your vision of war.  Replicate as best you can the complex environments and hybrid enemy organizations we fight today and will fight in the future.  Build change, casualties, and bad information into all training.  Rush things from time to time.  

Develop leaders.  Do this through training, education, and experience for your officers and non-commissioned officers.  Conduct seminars on mission essential tasks to develop a common understanding of your unit’s mission.  Develop other venues for captains and lieutenants to talk about our profession and warfighting (such as breakfasts and brown bag lunches).  Link leader professional development to developmental counseling.  Be the lead trainer for your platoons and companies/troops/batteries.  Take your officers on staff rides, training exercises without troops, or other professional development trips to build mutual understanding and to promote free exchange of ideas up and down the chain of command.  Encourage your command sergeant major to do the same with the squadron/battalion non-commissioned officers.  

Stress maintaining communications, fighting and reporting, simple orders, and complete reports. Have a plan for mission command that covers movement of command posts and placement of key leaders. Use multiple control measures to facilitate fragmentary orders and flexibility. Take the time to think before issuing orders. Rely on standard operating procedures for orders production and internal coordination. Think ahead of where you are, anticipate opportunities and problems, set conditions for future operations, and consolidate gains.

Prepare a clear mission statement, intent, and concept of operations.  Focus on key tasks for intent.  Make the concept of operations - the how, when and where of the plan - the centerpiece of your orders and assure it is understood two levels down.  The concept guides your subordinates for as long as the plan holds up.  It preempts a lot of questions and uncertainty if it is well done.  We have put so much emphasis on commander’s intent, and more recently on over-abbreviated mission templates, that our ability to articulate clearly how we will execute operations is diminished.  The cost is that we fail to get the most out of our organizations initially and we deviate from our plans prematurely.  

Assessing Your Battalion of Squadron

Remember that good units typically:

  • Share and borrow ideas eagerly;

  • Communicate freely;

  • Respect others and expect strong performance from them;

  • Want frank assessments of readiness and effectiveness;

  • Understand that failures occasionally occur because they push the limits of their capability;

  • Laugh a lot.

Again, remember how influential you are as a battalion or squadron commander. You can have a positive, profound effect on generations of soldiers and leaders by developing a unit in which excellence is self-sustaining.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is the Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

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Header image: An M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank lays a smoke screen during maneuvers in Operation DESERT STORM.