Sarge’s Corner: 5 ways to mentor our junior leaders

Okay so your thinking, ” But Sarge, I already know how to develop my troops, I took PLQ!” That’s like saying you know everything about your job because you passed DP1- sorry. And if you still said yes, we prob need to have a chat.   Anyway. Let’s talk about leadership and more importantly what leadership is, and what it isn’t!

LEADERSHIP IS….

Definition: directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success.

Well….that’s a mouthful.  I like to call this the word soup definition. It swirls around and around but has no actual purpose or practicality. Let’s break this down so everyone gets it.  Leadership is complex, but not because of the subject matter itself, but because people are complex.  Unique values, beliefs and life experiences are all packaged up into each individual soldier.  So how do we get them to do the things that we need them to do; word-soupthe things asked of us to do? We motivate and inspire.  Leadership is about one very basic, yet vital thing – people.  Know your people, know their history, know their lives and know what they want out of their life.  Only by doing this can we inspire and motivate them to put in the long hours, make the personal sacrifices asked of all soldiers. So let us look at the five things that we as leaders can do to help our junior leaders grow

  1.  Teach, Teach and you guessed it, Teach!!

So this might seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many managers don’t teach their subordinates (yes I use that term on purpose because if you aren’t inspiring and motivating then you aren’t leading, you are just managing). We as NCO’s must take the time to teach our troops all that we know.  We all know that one NCO who hoards the information and the corporate knowledge that they have accumulated over the years. These are called “Empire Builders” – don’t be one!!!!  We need to take time weekly or daily if you can, and teach our young leaders anything and everything. We need to show them how to get out of the forest before we cartoon-teacher-clipart-9drop them in the middle of it. If we do not do this we are setting them up for failure!  I teach my young troops everything from medicine ( I am a medic after all) to soldiering skills, but also I pass on my administrative and logistical knowledge and how it relates to the organization.  I have sat them all down and picked a topic and we just talk about what they think it means. Something along the lines of a leadership quote, or a term like transformational leadership, what does it mean to them.  At the heart of leadership in the NCO corps is our desire and willingness to educate our soldiers. Take the time with your troops, it will pay off in dividends.

2.      Give them positive feedback regularly.

angelou what they said

Who doesn’t like to hear these words ” I am proud of you!” and yet, how many times in your career has your Sgt, MCpl, WO or other superior said this to you.  Now if you have, think back to how it made you feel.  The profession of arms that we are members of is exceptional at pointing out a soldier’s faults, but how proficient are we at pointing out their successes?  Take the time every week at very least to tell your troops what they did well.  Tell them  “thank you” and when you feel it most appropriate, tell them just how damn proud you are of them.  Believe me, you will see a change in them.  There was a study many years ago that took students with behavioural issues and scholastic achievement difficulties and put them all into one class.  They were told daily that they were the best class in the school.  At first, they thought their teacher was into the sauce or something similar which would explain her illogical assumption about them.  After all, they were all “losers” in their own eyes.  Now day after day they were told how amazing they were, how smart they were and just how they were together in that class because they were just simply the best!  What do you think happened?  Well, they believed it, slowly at first but then it became a landslide.  Their heads were held just a bit higher, their shoulders slightly taller,  their confidence could be seen in their eyes a little more every day and their grades, they skyrocketed.   These formerly F students at the end of the year were succeeding where they had previously failed.  Our troops are no different.  Tell them how amazing they are and how they are clearly the best in the company, section or platoon.  Try it out for two weeks and you be the judge at just how different they become. Believe in them, and they will believe in themselves.

3.    Let them fail…and build upon it

Calvin-and-HobbesAs leaders, we want to see our troops succeed right? But do we not learn more from our failures than from our successes? When our troops fail it motivates them.  We of course, on the other hand, want to correct it right away. Now I am definitely not saying to just let them wallow in their own destruction but that after the taste of failure is fully formed we ensure that we find the lesson and lead them to it.  Some failures have far-reaching implications. This is no truer than in my profession as a medic, we do after all “bury our mistakes” as they say.  Medication errors or lack of documentation in a patient file is a serious grievance and one that does need to be remedied.  But instead of placing them directly on administrative action/punishment perhaps preparing a re-educating program would be more appropriate. Not only will they know they failed, but they see that when they do fail you will not automatically feed them to the proverbial wolves, but instead show them that it is okay to fail in certain circumstances and that you will always take the time to show them the path to success.  Punishment and administrative action do have their own place, and yes I do know that every soldier is a unique individual and this method may not be for every one of them.  However,  by employing a build them up and not tear them down approach to failure, the lessons learned will be greater and it goes back to tip 2… see the connection?

4.    The importance of professional development

As much as it is our responsibility as NCO’s to teach our soldiers, it is equally the responsibility of the soldier to be in charge of their own professional development. This includes courses, reading and the pursuit of lifelong learning.  This, of course, starts with you. If they see you reading often, seeking professional and personal improvement, they will be more apt to do it themselves.  Maybe stress the importance of professional development by linking it to the PD that you do with your troops.  For example, tell them growto read “On Combat” an excellent book and one I believe is required reading for all soldiers.  I suggest this read to all of my MCpls and Cpls as not only does it talk about leadership but also psychological resiliency in the battlespace.  We then will have PD sessions talking about certain parts in the book.  And yes if you’re thinking ” But Sarge, this sounds suspiciously like homework?” you would be correct.  Learning does not stop and end with career courses but it is just the beginning in a long career of learning.  Another trick I personally use, is to leave articles and magazines around the office knowing very well they will pick it up and read it.  I then coyly ask “Hey, did you read that cool article about…. what did you think?”  Then that starts a conversation.  PD doesn’t need to be a formal lecture in the classroom or lecture hall, it can just be a discussion about leadership, or medicine in our case or any topic while on a road move talking to your Cpl.  Actually, those are the best times to teach, to build them up and to professionally develop your leaders and senior soldiers.

5.   Losen the leash

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This is one of the, if not the most important lesson I have learned as an NCO.  The disease of micromanaging is rampant in many large organizations, the military is no less susceptible to this organism that grows contempt and erodes a leader’s respect.  This goes along with letting your soldiers fail.  Don’t second guess their every move or decision.  At the end of the day we want our junior leaders to be able to take our place at best when we call in sick one day and at very worst upon our death on the battlefield. Allow them to make the decisions and support their decisions.  Sure, it may not be what you would have done, but then again we got from shooting in a three rank formation with the officer calling every shot (literally) to free thinking consummate professionals somehow.  Do not force them to run every idea by you, by doing this you instill a relationship of mistrust not one of cohesion. If your young leader is forced to run every decision by the Sgt or MCpl every single time how will they become the Sgt or MCpl one day when they have never been trusted to truly lead. When my MCpl asks me “Sarge I’m gonna do this, is that okay?”  I just explain that I trust their judgement. Sure is there a chance it might fail or not go according to plan? Sure!  But will he learn from it? Of course. Is this to say I turn a blind eye and just let them run with anything and that I don’t do quality assurance checks or supervise – hell to the no! I know everything that happens in my section, I know who does what and who didn’t do what.  I know because that is my job.  But they don’t always need to know that now do they 🙂

Leadership isn’t easy. but when we remember that our job isn’t always about medicine, or putting bullets down range. It isn’t about turning the wrenches to fix the broken vehicles or comms equipment.  Our job as NCO’s is about people; leading them, educating them, building them up and correcting them.  It at its core is about trusting our soldiers to do the right thing at the right time.  We lead people not automatons.


PLQ-  Primary Leadership Qualification.  The first leadership course for all Canadian Armed Forces members
DP1- Developmental Period 1 – the first career course after Basic Military Qualification. Also synonymous to QL3 for many support trades such as Medic, Trucker, Supply and Clerk.
MCpl- Master Corporal. An appointment in the Canadian Armed Forces between Cpl and Sgt 
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