Company Command: A People Business
There are plenty of articles floating around the internet that address company command. I know this because I read the majority prior to taking command 12 months ago. The last thing a future company commander needs is another article talking about the nuts and bolts of command or the importance of property accountability. While the functions and systems surrounding the position are extremely important, there are more abstract lessons and philosophies that can be gained from your time as a company commander, many of which can be applied to all leadership positions.
I compiled the six most important leadership strategies and philosophies I developed during my time in command. These are meant to address the bigger leadership picture. They are things that I may have understood prior to command, but developed a deeper appreciation for once I was thrust into the position. These particular leadership points are transformative and range from an appreciation for human behavior to trust and ingrained selflessness.
You have to BELIEVE you are working for your people.
Terms such as “servant leadership” and “working for your people” are commonplace in today’s military. While it is nice to tell the people under your command that you work for them, the proof is in your actions. Committing to this mentality takes a fundamental change in the way you think. It must become part of who you are and why you do everything you do. If it is not ingrained in your character, you will eventually give in to the human nature of self-preservation. It is not enough to give grand speeches to the troops and tell them that they can call you or stop you in the hallway with concerns and problems. You have to be completely dedicated to your people, and completely consistent in your words and actions. Basically, you have to ACTUALLY CARE.
If you lead with genuine concern and empathy, your troops will respect you in success and in failure. Make no mistake, this is incredibly exhausting, but if you are doing it right, you will be thinking about your people around the clock. When was the last time I checked in with Sergeant Smith? Is Private Snuffy doing okay after the death of his father? How is Specialist Doe dealing with the UCMJ and separation? Find a way to track birthdays and anniversaries and acknowledge these events. Tap into the individual passions that your people have, and amplify them, celebrate them. If you truly are working for your people, you will be emotionally invested (and emotionally exhausted!). This is the price of working FOR your people. It is what they deserve from their commander, and it is a heavy load to carry, but if you want to do it right there is no other option.
Your Company is not a zero defect environment.
Exercise thoughtful risk management by promoting disciplined initiative through clear and concise guidance and intent. People make mistakes. Your leaders are no exception. Some mistakes are preventable, but some are the product of the environment or operational tempo. It is crucial that your reaction to mistakes is consistent and proportionate. There are certainly times when gross negligence is involved and you must handle it quickly and sternly, but it is more likely a mistake that was unintentional or unavoidable. Let your junior leaders know that you know they are not perfect, and you are not perfect either. You do not expect the company to be perfect.
If you want your junior leaders to let you know when something has gone wrong, or a mistake was made, you must formally reinforce this concept during initial, quarterly, and semiannual counselings. Informally, your immediate actions after receiving bad news will impact how comfortable your leaders are telling you bad news in the future. If you are a perfectionist, you will need to force yourself to develop the framework to absorb mistakes and respond positively. It can be likened to a sandbox held together with nails and another held together with strings. Maintaining flexibility will allow for less sand to escape because sand will escape whether you like it or not. If you are too rigid and uncompromising, the nails will come loose and you will lose half the sand instead.
My first sergeant and I regularly discussed the probability of failure and the possible consequences. An example is a quarterly physical fitness challenge with more than 300 participants. The probability of perfection is very low, but the impact of small failures throughout is also low. Therefore, we would allow our NCOs to execute with these minor failures present, and learn through experience. On the other hand, if it was a battalion or brigade level event, our level of direct oversight would be higher due to the impact of failure. This is a constant assessment throughout your command time. Your success as a leader will be determined by your ability to identify the “no fail missions” and your success as an agent of leadership development will be determined by your ability to identify learning opportunities. When did you learn the most? When you found success, or when you endured failure?
Trust is more relevant to your success than it has ever been.
Organizations have changed significantly since the evolution of technology and the internet. We live in a highly connected world, which is far more complex than it was even 25 years ago. Leading in this environment is more challenging, as there are many more variables that are out of your direct control. The Army realized that our operational environment was headed in this direction and instituted mission command, replacing command and control. More recently, command and control has reemerged in doctrine, but mission command is not going away. The larger your company, the more you will need to lean on mission command. As a commander for a company of more than 400 Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and civilian contractors, I knew that I would not control every aspect of the organization using the framework that defines command and control.
Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6.0 (2019) defines mission command as “the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.” The key to your success in command, particularly if you have a large diverse formation, is to trust your subordinates. If you try to control every aspect of the company, you will not be successful. Instead, you will need to influence the influencers within your formation. Your command and leadership philosophies must be at the center of everything you do. Be consistent and persistent in your messages. Be patient; the transformation in your junior leaders will not happen overnight but, eventually, they will start believing in what you represent. Instead of you infusing your vision and philosophy into the company by yourself, you will have enlisted multiple leaders to help.
All Soldiers are YOUR Soldiers. You are a commander and a senior leader in your organization.
A common phrase echoed throughout all military organizations is “take care of your people”. As a commander, you should certainly heed this advice and exercise it through words and actions, but if you truly want to develop and take the next step as a leader, you must care of all people. As a company commander, you will carry a heavy emotional load and it would make things much easier if you maintained focus on your company and only your company. You may even be successful with this strategy, but the larger organization will not have felt your impact after you move on and those outside your sphere of influence will not have benefitted from your leadership.
Many are very familiar with the Fort Hood Independent Review, an investigation into the command climate at the Army post in Texas. This report lays out many of the issues that led to disappearances, murders, and criminal activity on Fort Hood, but many military leaders read the report knowing that this did not happen overnight and that this is not isolated to Fort Hood. What was the root of the problem? Leadership. While it is vital that you take care of your people, company leaders across all services must take ownership and care for all Soldiers, regardless of unit, duty status, or location. The phrases “that’s not our Soldier,” or “sounds like their issue” need to be a thing of the past. The only way to make this happen is for the commanders at the lowest level to preach teamwork and servant leadership. Be the example, be the influence, and be the solution.
Knock down walls and build your team.
The bridge to influencing the larger organization is to create a team within your organization. The military is full of sub-cultures and traditions; these elements can be very valuable to the morale and pride of a company-size element. The danger of longstanding traditions is that they can create unwanted exclusion and changing this mentality is the way of the future. The world is changing more rapidly than ever before and so are the young service members under your command. The mentality that inclusion is “soft” or “weak” can most easily be debunked by the company commander at the lowest levels. Simply saying that you support inclusion will not get the job done. You will need to introduce it and inject it into your company over months. Once your team sees the difference it makes, once they are shown the evidence, they will be advocates themselves. So, pull that medic in and get him or her involved in infantry traditions, celebrate when your people buy in, and reinforce the actions that you are looking for.
As a company commander, I had a similar problem as most Army Advanced Individual Training (AIT) companies: the MOS “committee” vs. the “Company.” The dynamic is challenging and I have witnessed the friction between these elements across our installation. I put this issue in the crosshairs early and took small steps to improve the relationship. I pulled in leaders from both elements on multiple occasions and eventually axed the use of “company” and “committee” when discussing responsibilities. I made it clear that the 35T Committee was part of Comanche Company and the drill sergeants and instructors were both considered Cadre. The key was a continuous emphasis on the importance of the relationship between these two vastly different worlds, and constantly reiterating that the relationship between the drill sergeants and the Instructors is vital to the success of our mission, and no one person was more important than the mission. Therefore, the relationship would be placed above all minor disagreements or tiffs. The relationship outranked everyone in the company, and we were to respect it as such.
The Team: Our Company’s Leadership Philosophy shown via Venn diagram. This particular product gave our Leaders a visual representation of the concepts discussed throughout my time in Command. If our Command Team, Instructors (Committee Cadre), and Drill Sergeants made all decisions with this diagram in mind, they could not go wrong.
The little things matter.
Platoon logos, company flags, unit shirts, Cavalry Stetsons, Infantry blue cords, Aviation patches, and the list goes on. It would seem silly to most that these kinds of things can help build a team and foster an identity. There are few things that have remained consistent throughout my time as a Leader in the United States Army, but one of them is: the little things matter. So many company commanders miss an excellent opportunity to bring a stronger identity to their team and build unit cohesion. Not only are the little things effective, but they are also usually inexpensive and require little energy in your spare time.
As a platoon leader, my platoon sergeant and I were able to transform the culture and identity of our platoon by starting with the little things. As the troop executive officer, I worked with my troop commander to create a new logo, further branded by clothing, flags, pins, and patches. As a company commander, I took a similar path in an attempt to unite over 400 people through reestablishing the company identity and name, “Comanche.” We established a social media footprint that consistently refers to all cadre, trainees, and civilians as members of the “Comanche Family.” These small adjustments may seem insignificant alone, but collectively build pride and send the message that we are one team, from the contractor to the Soldier and the private to the captain. While this particular strategy is not the key to a successful command, it is a contributor and one that is often overlooked and underutilized.
This is not meant to serve as a road map to a successful command, but instead, it is meant to provide context to the more abstract aspects of your time in command. Consider this the framework on which you can hang your command and leadership philosophies. Most importantly, never forget that your duty as a company commander is to know, understand, and take care of all of your people. It is nearly impossible to genuinely take care of your people if you do not understand what underpins success. Never get caught up in the X’s and O’s and forget that you are in the business of people, and it will require your deep and undivided commitment every single day.
Captain Michael Everett is currently serving as the company commander for C Company, 309th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He has served as a Platoon Forward Observer and Fire Support NCO at the 101st Airborne Division, and Assistant S3, Mounted Scout Platoon Leader, and Mounted Scout Troop Executive Officer at 10th Mountain Division. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Intelligence Studies.
Department of the Army. (2019). ADP 6-0: Mission command: Command and control of Army forces. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN19189_ADP_6-0_FINAL_WEB_v2.pdf