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Perhaps the Finest Leader Professional Development Institution–the Battalion

Perhaps the Finest Leader Professional Development Institution–the Battalion

By: Thomas Rozman

Thomas Rozman

With now an extended career that comprises approaching three decades in the Army and an almost same period in civil sector some observations regarding professional development of leaders of organizations come to mind. One is the institution of the Army battalion as a leader development experience.

I do realize that other perspectives may be current in the forum. But I have noted few organizations that will take the developing or practicing leader through an experience that integrates so many functions and responsibilities with real time consequences of performance than the battalion.

As well, it is a training ground and practice field for the developing and practicing leader that will expose that leader to every function of a complex dynamic organization. And the leader will get regular feedback on performing effectively or not–not infrequently with real consequences. In its best application a superb mentoring system buttresses the entire leader development process at every level. Those who do not rise to the occasion and measure up will be moved to other career opportunities.

Some context for those who have not experienced the battalion follows. This context for those with civil sector backgrounds only, who may view the battalion as an alien organizational world, not relevant to their experience or for consideration, is important to establish relevancy. The latter is necessary to enlist an open mind toward what the experience may offer in a positive way to the civilian experience in developing high quality leaders/managers.

The operational battalion is typically a 500 hundred to 800 employee organization. Battalions are designed to perform types of collective tasks for example, a maneuver battalion is designed to perform a range of attack and defend missions against opposing force of comparable size. Fires battalions (artillery) deliver destructive ordnance against targets in support of the maneuver battalions. An engineer battalion may be designed to perform construction tasks. A support battalion may be organized to supply bulk petroleum supplies or maintain and repair equipment or provide long haul trucking support. A signal battalion may be designed to provide tailored communications capabilities to some grouping of forces. A medical battalion provides critical medical support to deployed forces. Generally, all supporting battalions are designed to provide support to groupings of maneuver battalions organized into brigades, brigades in larger formations possibly divisions or even larger groupings of forces.

The interesting thing about the battalion from a civilian perspective is that not only does the battalion have the mission to perform a mind bendingly complex array of collective tasks in what most traditionally think of for combat or combat support organizations, but every single function that operates in the civilian organization as well. The HR function, medical, accounting, vehicle fleet maintenance, food service, accommodation, real property management, administration, budget, supply management, bulk supply management and distribution, occupational safety and health, law enforcement, training planning and management, and the list goes on. All operate in the battalion. It’s as if one took a 500-800 person civilian organization and repurposed it to perform a military mission–all of the adjunct administrative, logistic, procurement functions would continue with the addition of others like medical, accommodation and food service that may not have been previously a part of the civilian organization. Because of the unique connection and responsibilities a military organization has to employee families, certain social service and family support functions are part of the professional development experience as well.

Additionally, the developing leader in assigned role will have the experience of performing this and other roles in the battalion against planned and actual deployment of the entire organization every several months across distances that may be fifty or so miles to as much as 8,000 miles or more–operating for weeks and months at the new location. This aspect of the organization’s learning and work environment is almost a leader/manager’s “outward bound” work experience in the sense that if your function is to work the planning and execution of the entire organization’s rail or air movement, along with other responsibilities, the results of success or failure are very straightforward. There will be training and mentoring and like all complex tasks or functions, success is a team function. But, one leader/manager will shoulder primary responsibility, to research, analyze, plan, communicate and execute as well as evaluate lessons learned and incorporate these into following like operations.

As well and with some parallels in certain civilian organizations, the primary position of the leader manager is typically not the only responsibility that will be assigned. For example, the executive officer of a company, a sub organization of the battalion of usually 150 employees, is the leader/manager who typically oversees the support and administrative functions as well as being the deputy commander who may be assigned critical mission tasks by the commander operationally with major elements of the company or even serve as the acting commander when the commander is away on leave. In various configurations over the years this position has had responsibility for all safety, nuclear, biological and chemical, medical, vehicle maintenance and recovery, food service and other functions. Again, in most cases in previous courses and training the leader/manager has had exposure to what is required in these areas. As well, when later assuming responsibility months or years after initial training, substantial professional development resources are available within the larger organization and through various e-learning programs to refresh and become more current.

It is important to note that all newly commissioned officers have completed a “pre-commission education and training program” through the Military Academy, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at a college or University, Officer Candidate School or other pre-commissioning program that have educated and trained the prospective officer on organization, functions, tactics, military law, and many of the various support functions, successful completion of the pre-commission program certifying the candidate to function at this basic level. After commissioning, the new officer will complete a 12 week resident basic branch course that educates and trains the new officer in all aspects of the tactical missions and functions of platoon, company and battalion organizations of that branch, i.e., infantry, armor, field or air defense artillery, aviation, intelligence, signals, engineers, combat support. This may be supplemented by other more specialized training such as Parachute School, Ranger School, Flight School, Maintenance Officer Course, etc.

Additionally, the leader/manager will initially enter the operational battalion organization for a period that will typically span 18 months to possibly 48 months. Assuming, based on situations confronting the larger Army organization, a 36 month period, a leader/manager in the capacity of a commissioned officer or typically at this stage 2nd and 1st lieutenant, will usually be assigned over that time as the leader of a 30-40 employee organization called a platoon. In addition to all the operational and support planning, execution and maintenance work associated with large amounts of specialized equipment especially in the case of vehicle mounted organizations with from four to five, sometimes more, armored or other vehicles, aircraft or water craft, other critical assignments to the larger company organization may be assigned such as nuclear, biological and chemical officer. As well, in this capacity, the leader manager is expected to learn significantly about each employee, their education, life experience, and family, in such way that over time the leader is able to optimize that employee’s contribution to the organization’s ability to perform to the highest level achievable and have the most productive personal professional experience possible. In the battalion’s case, the junior employee is always viewed as a potential future leader.

This platoon experience will usually be followed in 9-18 months by assignment as leader to a more specialized supporting platoon such as the scout, mortar, support or other supporting platoons that may develop in the adapting battalion organization. The leader will function similarly but in this capacity be more exposed to the higher organizational function of the entire battalion and the complexities of integrating many functions toward larger collective results. The leader may also be assigned from the platoon to the company executive officer or after an assignment of a specialized platoon to this role. As well, the lieutenant may also be assigned as a staff assistant to one of the primary staff divisions at the battalion headquarters. The battalion staff is typically organized into an S-1 (personnel–the HR function to include oversight of medical operations), the S-2 (intelligence function), the S-3 (plans, operations and training function) and the S-4 (all logistical functions such as transport, supply, food service). Depending on other factors, there may be special staff such as medical, maintenance, communications, nuclear, biological and chemical, even a chaplain that may be assigned. These will usually align with one of the “S” staff divisions, i.e., medical with S-1. To be noted in deployments, there may even be an S-5 to work the civil affairs area.

From the above, a leader/manager in the officer group at this level in a 36 or more month experience in the battalion will typically experience and function in 2-4 of the above scenarios. Clearly one who does experience the basic platoon, a specialized platoon, a company executive officer and battalion level assistant staff section officer position, if deemed successful in those experiences, has a remarkable sense of the larger organization, what it does, why and how it does it and through what processes.

At this point, the emerging leader/manager, now seasoned by 36 or more months of hands on experience, has the option of returning to civil life with an array of relevant and to whatever organization hires, highly beneficial skills and capabilities to lead an organization of 30-150 employees. Or, the developing leader manager may opt to continue in service if competitive to do so in which case they will be assigned to attend a 6 month officer branch advanced course to learn and study command tasks and functions at company and staff functions at battalion and brigade. After this course, the leader/manager will return to usually another similar battalion though it could be a very different battalion somewhere in the Army in the United States or overseas. This return to the battalion will again typically involve a 36 month period. During this time, the successful leader/manager, now an Army captain will serve as an assistant and primary battalion and brigade staff officer in the S-1 through S-4 divisions or as special staff, i.e., battalion maintenance officer and a company commander of one to two companies–a basic company in the arm or a specialized company.

After usually 36 months, the officer has the option of leaving service to return to civil life with the organizational skill and experience that has been acquired or continue in service. Those who continue, and the pattern may vary depending on situation, will typically spend the next three to four years, sometimes five, completing a related master’s degree, attending a service staff college and in an assignment in other parts of the Army like the combat, material and training development areas, higher formation headquarters, recruiting or new leader training at the military academies, a college or university or officer candidate school or elsewhere in the training establishment training employees. All these assignments will further refine skills the leader/manager was exposed to in the battalion, typically allowing further application of those skills but in an environment very similar to civilian counterpart organizations. As well, these assignments expose the leader/manager to other aspects of the larger organization beyond the battalion, greatly enhancing a sense of context and relevancy across the larger organization. If competitive at this stage in career, and the leader/manager opts to continue in service, the service staff college, usually the Army’s for an Army officer, will cap this phase of career, education and professional development.

At this point, the successful officer, usually an Army major at this stage, returns to the operational battalion as the plans operations and training officer or the battalion executive officer. In the latter capacity, the leader/manager usually functions as the oversight supervisor of all of the logistics and support functions of a 500-800 employee organization as previously described. The executive officer also typically functions as the deputy commander and may be assigned as the acting commander in the extended absence of the commander. This return to battalion experience is typically an 18-24 month assignment. It is usually followed by assignment as a brigade or division staff officer in the similar staff division structure to the battalion that applies at brigade or division. The brigade staff will continue to be in the S-1 through S-4 configuration unless a brigadier general is commanding in which case it is a G-staff (G-1 through G-4) with generally the same function responsibility adapted to the larger organization’s needs–the brigade being an organization that may range from 1,500-6,000 or more employees. The division staff is a G-staff, but again, structuring the functions to the level of organization needs–a division may range from 9,000 to 20,000 employees. At higher formation levels, the staff organization may include significant numbers of civilian staff elements in the post and station areas. Often the expanded responsibility at the larger formation level entails further civilian functional requirement such as procurement, relationships with neighboring civilian communities, planning authorities, jurisdictions, public information work, basically all functions that large communities must engage in. This is even more the case if the headquarters operates overseas.

After other assignments, and on competitive selection, at 16-17 years as a commissioned officer and typically as a lieutenant colonel, the leader/manager returns to a battalion as a commander directing and orchestrating the diverse and demanding operations of this complex organization. The leader will function in this role typically for 18-24 months. Usually, this will be the leader’s last experience in the battalion organization, some six to seven years over a 17 year period. Over this time the leader will learn and perform in seven or more progressive positions in the organization that will develop capability and skill in the full range of military unique functional areas as well as almost all that operate in like size civilian organizations. The operational environment is, because of the battalion’s dynamic and demanding operational environment, a compression in many ways of the comparable civilian organization’s level of operational intensity, perhaps by a multiple factor of 3 or more. It can be an extremely intense environment that demands virtually everything a leader/manager has to give in the leadership experience. Again, it is an intense experience and for some more than they are able to address.

The color guard of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry at a Ft. Hood, TX change of command.

And it is the Army’s primary training ground for leaders at all levels of leadership as the non-commissioned officer development parallels the officer experience with smaller battalion elements of 8-12 person squads, 4-6 person sections and as the senior non-commissioned officer at platoon, company battalion staff section and battalion command levels. These leaders develop in an equally intense environment to the officers over a comparable military and civilian task skill array with a parallel professional development and education system geared to the area of responsibility. The successful and effective non-commissioned officer has a vast skill set as a leader/manager that is of exceptional potential value to many civilian organizations.

From the above, a successful leader manager at about 16 years with the Army will have seasoned as a leader/manager in the battalion as a hands on leader in a remarkable learning laboratory for at least 7 1/2 years or longer. That experience will have exposed them to 6-9 different roles in different parts of the organization, each adding to knowledge skills and abilities that, with the successful leader/manger, greatly improve those skills and abilities from the experience. The method will also weed out those unable to meet or exceed the necessary levels of ability and capability. As pointed out, the battalion incorporates not only the military unique operational/mission functions, but all functions that operate in civilian organizations–even civilian employees under various circumstances. As well, the experience typically occurs over time in three or more battalions in different geographic locations both in different parts of the United States and overseas–in my personal case 10 battalions in four geographic locations. And the battalion work force is one of the most diverse on every level that the country offers.

One additional feature of the battalion that the effective leader/manager must learn to cope with is a workforce dynamic where perhaps a third or more of the battalion’s employees, for a range of reasons, will leave the battalion each year and be replaced by experienced and less experienced people. In Korea, a percentage of the employees will be South Korean military personnel. This constant change out of personnel will occur despite the complexity of the organization’s mission and internal operation. And the leader will be accountable for performance.

Again, I have had the privilege of long experience in both the Army and public civil sector with functions in the latter that have exposed me to thousands of small to very large civilian organizations–all the way to the Army’s national policy formulation level. While some civilian organizations have aspects of similarity to the battalion as it has evolved as a functional platform toward developing effective leader/managers, there is not a generally comparable civilian organization that appears to be a much more effective system to develop seasoned and competent leader/managers at every level than the battalion. And there are very few that hold a developing leader responsible to acquire effective knowledge about all aspects of the organization from the standpoint of optimizing effectiveness in current role and against projected roles in the organization than the battalion. As well and again–the battalion exposes the developing leader to every function in the battalion that operates in civil sector organizations.

The successful leader/manager who has developed the array of skills and abilities necessary to effectively operate the battalion at its various levels is a vital resource to the Army for leading its battalions. But the same leader/manager also has key leader and managerial skills that translate very well to civilian organizations. As well, there are aspects as to how the battalion model serves as a leader/manager training ground that may have value to civilian organization and the way civilian organizations develop their leaders/managers progressively over time in the organization.

Note: the author served from 1971-1986 in the following operational battalions (Modified Table of Organization and Equipment battalions)–the 2nd and 5th Battalions, 6th Mechanized Infantry, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry, the 1st Battalion Mechanized, 46th Infantry, the 1st Battalion Mechanized, 58th Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Battalions Mechanized, 12th Cavalry. Platoons he commanded were under the operational control of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor for six months and 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery for one month. These units were garrisoned at Fort Hood, Texas, installations in the Republic of Korea, Ft. Benning, Georgia and Germany. There are other types of battalions in the Army such as training battalions which have many of the demands of the operational battalions but not all as they are, in their presently assigned mission, cadres that intake large numbers of trainees and bring these trainees through extensive basic and advanced training programs.