It had come to this. Soldiers exasperated beyond endurance could not stand it any longer, so they fixed bayonets and pressed them to the breasts of their officers. Starvation and near nakedness had driven them to take such desperate measures. And sure enough, the stir did them some good, and "provisions directly after" were provided.1 This account of defiance in the Continental Army of 1780 by Private Joseph Martin speaks to the unique circumstances that had arisen between officer and enlisted during that time. To inspire Soldiers to risk their lives and win wars can invoke exceptional circumstances driven by the deprivations of war. Though Private Martin’s example is extreme, the ability of an officer to sense, foresee and then correct a Soldier’s unique circumstance, whether in war or peace, is an essential component of good leadership.
The Army of today is lacking in its ability to sense the unique circumstances of its Soldiers. The murder of Fort Hood’s Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen is a regrettable example of leaders not maintaining awareness of the environment in which their subordinates operate and live. And this lack of awareness extends far beyond Fort Hood. From the Inability of a General Officer to understand her environment at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq to Platoon Leaders incapable of recognizing “hunter killer” teams in Maywand, Afghanistan, or contracting officers accepting bribes in Kuwait; the result of not sensing a Soldier’s unique circumstance has profoundly affected innocent people and impacted Army readiness for many years. The question that arises from all of this is how is it possible for a leader to be unaware of harassment, rape, robbery, and murder plots?
An Engagement Problem
The Report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee attributes the actual prevention of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault to a lack of leadership engagement and accountability.2 Was this lack of engagement due to apathy, too much work, or just plain ignorance? Perhaps the lack of engagement is partly due to a digital culture that counts a "text" as leader engagement. Whatever the reason, a leader's place is in the breach, and apparently, that was not the case. The Fort Hood Report goes on to suggest that leaders should practice walking around, focus groups, and practice intrusive leadership through persistent engagement.3 With such basic engagement recommendations emanating from an exhaustive report, one is to conclude that very little engagement was occurring at all.
A current explanation for the lack of leader engagement is an erosion of trust between officer and enlisted. However, trust is a virtue and not an act. It’s the first step of building a better relationship founded upon decent actions. Trust is absolutely necessary, but it’s only a starting point. The Army’s current ethic emphasizes a “culture of trust” built upon moral principles, values, beliefs, and laws.4 But to get to a level of trust espoused in the Army's ethic, a leader must first engage. And that’s what leaders aren’t doing well. Within the current climate of understanding a Soldier’s circumstance, trust isn’t enough.
The Intimacy Ethic
Do you love your Soldiers? If that seems like a cringe worthy leadership question, then commanding troops is not for you. We tend to use clichés such as "America's treasure" or "entrusted with the lives of our nation's sons and daughters" when describing the weight of responsibility in leading troops. These have become standard slogans in assumption of command speeches and tend to get repeated quite a bit. If these statements are true, why are leaders tolerating installations such as Fort Hood that average 129 violent felonies a year to include homicides, violent sex crimes, kidnapping, robbery, and aggravated assault?5 When Non-violent felonies are taken into consideration, such as drug and sex crimes, that number jumps to over 1,000. While Fort Hood is the worst, other Army installations share comparable data. If these Army installations were universities or suburban regions, no parent would send their “national treasure” to such a location.
These criminal circumstances are unacceptable. To understand the unique circumstance of our nation’s treasure, leaders must restore a level of moral intimacy with Soldiers to sense and then correct their personal conditions where needed. Intimacy between leader and subordinate in this sense is a measure of engagement beyond trust. Trust establishes a starting point for engagement, while emotional and intellectual intimacy fulfills deep communication. Engagement strategies to move to this type of intimacy will require more persistent and constant interaction. Instead of implementing the predictable "more sexual response training," perhaps we should move Platoon Leaders back into the open bay billets with their Platoons; or better yet, reinstitute Army Correctional Training Facilities across the Army. Changes in this manner would be real and would re-establish engagement where it has become an artifact. Whatever the fix, current compliance based ethics of codes, creeds, and rules that prescribe how Soldiers should behave doesn’t seem to be working. An intimacy ethic that stresses a more genuine interface between leaders and subordinates that can pierce through bureaucratic mandated programs to understand the conditions of their lives is required. Once this occurs, a more principled ethic will arise that does not rely upon mandates.
Good leaders of public and private sector companies manage beyond trust. They recognize that human capital exists within a pluralistic workforce that transcends ethnic, religious, and cultural differences. And within this workforce, they manage the balance between individuals, the institution, and social concerns by adopting risk-mitigating and opportunity generating strategies.6 Though the risk differs between profit earning companies and the military, these companies understand that they must pursue proactive engagement with their employees to understand the talent they possess. Workforce segmentation is one such human resource practice commonly used by business strategists in corporate America. Through this process, human resource programs are designed and matched to the unique needs of various groups of employees. The segments may emphasize talent skills, business critical contributions, demographic trends, aspirational goals, or even personalities. The point is that senior managers actively engage their workforce and then go find ways to help them become more productive.
The Army is currently obsessed with “Agile” management practices that arose from the software wars of the 1990s. But there are other worthy corporate sector managerial practices that deserve attention now, in light of the Army's current engagement challenges. Workforce segmentation is one method of forcing engagement. By recognizing workforce segments, maximum time and precise human resource efforts can be applied to the unique circumstances that are discovered. Soldiers do not exist as human agents within a monolithic workforce. And this is where we as leaders tend to misinterpret what engagement really means. Engagement is not the pursuit of a strategy to "increase the likelihood that subordinates perceive leaders are concerned about the group's welfare," as is suggested in current Army leader doctrine.7 Rather, engagement is the recognition of the distinct groups of Soldiers in a formation, a visit with those Soldiers in their own environment to realize their unique circumstances, and then the act to design a human resources practice for those circumstances.
Army formations transcend the warrior class that leaders sometimes believe drives their membership. That's not to disparage "mission first." But no singular concept drives membership in the U.S. Army, nor do the Army workforce's various components adhere to the same belief systems of its careerist leaders. The types of workforce segments across a formation will not be the same when compared to other formations. But they will transcend officer or enlisted, leader or follower, and extend beyond rank. The following examples are some of the workforce segments present in formations that deserve precise engagement strategies:
1. Solo Contents. Their identity is often gathered from their Branch, and they possess aspirational goals not yet acted upon. These are usually the younger Soldiers in a formation and tend to be the most vulnerable as they have not reached a point of intellectual maturity.
2. The Up Skillers. Soldiers who are fully qualified in their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and are seeking Additional Skill Identifiers, enrolled in college, and in many cases are preparing for a post Army life.
3. Transactional Patriots. Soldiers who have joined purely to relinquish the benefits offered. This can include Active Duty for Operational Support (ADOS) augmentees who bring in an outsider mindset with an array of qualifications.
4. Career Segregationist. Usually, the senior leaders in the formation. Their concerns tend to be focused on salary and pension, and they can often harbor corrosive attitudes as they tend to yield to systems of bureaucratization.
Whether two or ten workforce segments are identified, the objective is to engage each group to discover the unique circumstances present. What arises will be issues common amongst many within those groups that can then be addressed. But with focus and intention on all groups, even the outlier egregious activities can become known.
Dotting the landscape of East Houston are memorials to Specialist Vanessa Guillen. Each of these memorials is a testament to the failure of leaders to engage Soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.
Houston is a patriotic city, but that trust is resoundingly broken on its east side, and there will be young men and women who do not enter the Army because of our failures as leaders. The high operational tempo (OPTEMPO) required to train for war, bureaucratic necessities to mobilize for war, and heroic tragedies committed while conducting war creates inevitable tension between officer and enlisted. It is the leader’s responsibility to stay physically engaged with their Soldiers in order to identify their unique circumstances and then apply a means of management to correct those deficiencies. As Alexis de Tocqueville stated in Democracy in America, “ When the military spirit of a nation is lost, the profession of arms immediately ceases to be held in honor, and the military falls to the lowest rank of the public servants."8 The respect of our nation is at stake right now. Leaders better start engaging less we lose the spirit of the nation.
Colonel Clarence J. Henderson has commanded at all levels through an IBCT and is a veteran of multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and the U.S./Mexico Border. He holds a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College and is currently assigned to the 75th Innovation Command, U.S. Army Reserve.
As a civilian, he serves as the Deputy Director and Chief of Staff for the Chief Information Officer (CIO) in Harris County, TX., and is responsible for technology procurement and software application development for the nation’s third largest County.
1A Peoples History of the American Revolution, Ray Raphael, The New Press, 2002, 125.
2Report Of The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, Department of the Army, November 6, 2020, 114.
4ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession, Dept. of the Army, Washington DC, July 2019, 1-6.
5David A. Bryant and Jacob Brooks, Fort Hood shows higher crime rates than similar Army installations, Killeen Daily Herald, August 23, 2020.
6Corporate Social Responsibility and Global Workforce Dynamics, Engaging and Integrating a Global Workforce, SHRM Foundation, 2015, 37.
7ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession, Dept. of the Army, Washington DC, July 2019, 6-5.
8Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Ney York, D. Appleton and Co., 1899, Book II, Chapter XXII.