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The Battalion as “the superior practical leadership development school”

Left to right the arms of the 6th, 7th, 38th, 46th, and 58th Infantry Regiments, the 12th Cavalry Regiment, the 13th Armored Regiment and the 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.

The Leader’s School of the Battalion—A Retrospective

Article by Tom Rozman

Having had the privilege to serve in and or under the operational control of nine combat maneuver battalions and one combat support battalion for seven years of the ten years of assignment to combat formations of the U.S. Army, some retrospective observations regarding the leadership development value of this battalion experience occur.  The experiences played out in geographically widely separated locations and very different climates…Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, Texas, Republic of South Korea, Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, Georgia, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and then West Germany.  Perhaps the most significant take away observation is that the battalion, when optimized by hands on and effective battalion leadership, functions as the finest practical leadership school in the army for the officer.

Though a seemingly obvious and oft stated, in many forms, observation, its full truth does seem to escape too many leaders and other practitioners. This is enough the case so that this statement is warranted in my view because of missed opportunities to optimize the battalion format’s potential to develop leaders to their maximum potential.

In addition to the above extended environment for insight on this point, the Army’s combat and operational battalions, augmenting the above personal combat battalion experience was an additional three and a half years served with one of what were then designated as university Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Instructor Groups. These were essentially at the time training battalion cadres located at civilian colleges and universities that administered the ROTC pre-commission education and training program for students aspiring to U. S. Army commissions.  This latter experience was gained at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Overall, some ten and a half years were experienced as a commissioned infantry officer in the battalion organizational format as a company grade and field grade officer.  On reflection, the battalion proved a remarkable organizational vehicle and laboratory for a developing leader to learn, apply and mature personal leader skills and abilities.  Most essentially this occurred in an environment that emphasized team…success at developing and leading effective teams was in many cases a life and death achievement.

The potential and actual mentoring opportunities from subordinates, colleagues and superior officers in the battalion school of practical leadership were exceptional when realized.  Feedback mechanisms alone on effectiveness of leadership style, both formal and informal, were multi-layered, timely and most often effective toward improving leadership capabilities in developing leaders.  And there was usually room to fail and learn as well as succeed.

One powerful benefit of the mentoring capabilities was that almost all potential mentors had personal experience with what the developing leader at their level of experience was confronting.  They had been at that point one or more times in their own leader development trajectory and provided that leavening of perspective that the world would not come to an end as the leader confronted the more difficult issues of problem solving, developing a team and working to mission completion to high standards.

In a larger personal professional experience spanning 50 years with the Army and the civil service of the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as approaching a year of hourly employment with different public and private sector employers, one personal finding is clear. The 10 ½ years engaged in applied leadership in almost all of its forms, paralleled by continuous development and refinement of leader skills, both for ones self and other developing leaders on ones team, was as I reflect, optimized in the battalion format.  This was not the case in the civilian organizations.  Some discussion and analysis regarding this reflection follow.

Note, for perspective…the battalions served with that provide the backdrop for the comments being made were as follows.

  • 5th Battalion, 6th Mechanized Infantry Regiment and 1st and 2nd Battalions, 12th Cavalry Regiment, mechanized infantry battalions, and six months as a platoon leader under the operational control of Company A, 13th Armored Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas
  • 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment and one month under the operational control of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Republic of South Korea
  • 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment and 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 58th Infantry Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia
  • 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 46th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 6th Mechanized Infantry Regiment, West Germany

It is worth noting that three types of maneuver battalions comprised the mix, foot infantry, mechanized infantry and armor (tanks).  The latter two introduced the extensive component of the armored vehicle systems with the essential logistics and the tactical skill necessary to employ the armored vehicles and their enhanced lethality capabilities.  One battalion was a combat support unit performing a static air defense mission which introduced other factors of challenge to the leader not least being ground security of extremely sensitive installations, equipment and ordnance.

This array of different but similar organizational windows on to the combat and operational battalion validated its practical leader school value.  This in depth exposure to a large number of battalions underscored the diversity of learning and development roles that the maturing officer leader was presented with in the battalion format.  This was one of the battalion’s greatest benefits as a school of the leader officer in my view. Position wise, from a junior officer perspective, the combat and operational battalion offered a wide range of leader development options to the second and first lieutenant and captain who enter this school house’s inventory of experiences that are unavailable in other types of organizations.

To illustrate, for the lieutenant there are platoon leader positions for the basic platoon of the arm of the type battalion.  As an example, an infantry lieutenant will be assigned to lead an infantry platoon in an infantry company of an infantry battalion.  These platoons perform the basic tactical maneuver functions of their type arm.   In garrison the platoon leader is fully engaged in all of the platoon’s training, administration, maintenance and personnel management.  Additionally, the platoon leader is assigned additional duties in support of company operations such as motor officer; safety officer; nuclear, biological, and chemical officer; and other necessary assignments.

As well, there are types of specialized platoons such as the mortars, anti-tank, scout or supply platoons all of which may be reorganized or supplemented by following battalion reorganizations as the Army adjusts, adapts and modernizes to changing situations and conditions.  Lieutenants serving in rifle platoons who demonstrate proficiency and ability as basic type of arm platoon leaders will be selected to assume leadership of these more specialized platoons, many of which respond to the direction of the most senior leaders in the battalion.

Additionally, senior experienced lieutenants may be assigned as they gain more ability as the executive officer of one or more of the battalion’s four to six companies, to include the battalion headquarters company, where they will orchestrate the company’s support and administrative functions and serve as the company’s second in command.

There are also a number of battalion staff level positions that may be available to the lieutenant.  When captains are not sufficiently available to fill certain battalion staff positions such as the assistant battalion plans, operations, and training officer or motor officer, a senior lieutenant of demonstrated ability may be assigned to these positions. In some situations senior experienced lieutenants may be assigned as company commanders.

Captains will command the companies, 150-200 soldier elements of the principle type of company the battalion oversees such as an infantry officer commanding a mechanized infantry company in a mechanized infantry battalion.  As well, they will command specialized companies organized into the battalion such as a combat support company incorporating reconnaissance and fires platoons or different types of other combat related platoons.  The battalion might have a company organized around all of its anti-tank assets that a captain will command. And a captain will command the battalion’s headquarters and headquarters company that includes the battalion’s staff, its nerve center, and its service support units, such as the battalion maintenance section, food service section, support platoon with its fuel tankers and ammunition resupply fleet, the medical platoon, communications elements and other supporting units deemed necessary for battalion mission capability and accomplishment.

Captains will also serve on battalion primary and assistant staff officers in several critical staff and leader roles.  For example, in the type battalion an officer of the primary branch of the battalion such as an infantry captain in an infantry battalion will serve as the battalion adjutant/personnel officer or S-1, the battalion’s human resources manager/director.  This officer orchestrates and directs the battalion’s dynamic human resources system of out processing departing personnel, in-taking and assigning replacements, personnel records management, internal battalion duty assignments, pay records management, supporting the command in its legal process and disciplinary system, medical support and the awards system are primary functions.  Other functions may develop or be assigned such as quartering the battalion when in deployed mode.

Another captain will be assigned as the battalion Intelligence officer or S-2. This officer is typically a military intelligence branch officer.  The functions of the officer rest primarily on developing all necessary information regarding all aspects about potential enemy, terrain, environment, civilian population, weather and other information necessary to support the commander’s decision process to mission, for plans the battalion is subject to, and active operations the battalion is engaged in.  The S-2 has a lieutenant assistant as well as other non-commissioned and enlisted soldiers in the staff unit which has a sizeable equipment base to master, employ and maintain in the mechanized and armored units.  The S-2 may be assigned other roles as mission indicates.

A captain of the primary branch of the battalion will serve as the Battalion Supply and Logistics Officer or S-4.  This officer oversees all of the battalion’s bulk supply such as fuel and ammunition, equipment maintenance turn-in and replacement, individual soldier equipment, food service operations and battalion truck fleet (fuel tankers  ammunition resupply and bulk resupply trucks) management and operations.  Other functions may develop.  In some units, a function that traditionally was an adjutant function, quartering when the battalion is in a deployed mode, may be assigned to the S-4.

Another usually branch specific to the battalion captain will be assigned to the Battalion Motor Officer position.  This officer oversees, with the help of a supporting warrant officer, a large element of mechanics, perhaps 60 or more, along with the battalion’s vehicle and engineer equipment (generators) and inventory that incudes managing a several hundred track and wheeled vehicle fleet’s scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and repair.  These operations include in garrison shop programs and when tactically deployed, the main maintenance units and the teams that will support the companies.  The Section also is responsible for the battalion’s substantial vehicle recovery capability.

A primary battalion branch captain will be assigned to the S-3, Plans Operations and Training Officer, a major’s field grade officer’s position, as the assistant.  In certain organizations this position has been referred to as the S-3 for Air Operations in which case one specific area this officer concentrates on is necessary tactical air support of battalion operations. Typically, this officer coordinates the integration of necessary rotor wing air assault, attack helicopter fires and artillery target acquisition support for the battalion’s operations. Other tactical air support in form of Air Force ground attack ordnance will be coordinated by an Air Force forward support team that joins the battalion on deployment, a team usually led by an Air Force captain.

Other staff captain roles for branch specific captains or supporting arm captains will be on the battalion’s establishment from time to time.  Their assignment depends on a particular modified table of organization or mission such as a surgeon, chaplain or public affairs officer.  Almost all of these captains will lead teams of non-commissioned and enlisted personnel operating in that staff area of responsibility.

At the field grade level the battalion typically will have two majors assigned, almost always of the primary arm of the battalion such as infantry if an infantry battalion.  In support battalions the majors may be from any of several service support arm specialties.  One major will be assigned as the battalion executive officer and the other as the S-3.  The executive officer (XO) is the battalion’s second senior officer and second in command.  The XO typically oversees the battalion’s entire support operation and staff to include the S-1, S-4, motor officer and special staff assigned.  In some units the XO may also act as a full chief of staff overseeing the S-3 and S-2 functions though more typically in maneuver battalions these officers as will the company commanders report to the battalion commander.

The battalion commander will usually be a lieutenant colonel who has overall command authority and responsibility for a typically 500-1,000 soldier unit.  In type battalions like infantry, the commander, as with the XO and S-3, will normally be an officer who is again of the primary branch of the battalion, i.e., in an infantry battalion an infantry officer.  The colonel by this point will tend be a 16-17 year commissioned veteran of the branch. The colonel will have developed to this point having had one or more platoon commands, usually two different platoons, served as a company XO one or more times, served as a battalion assistant and primary staff officer, and the commander will have previously very likely served as an S-3 and a battalion XO.

All captains and majors have similar records of experience to the colonel up to their point of service.  The experiential leavening assures a strong internal leader/mentor core in the battalion of seasoned experience, leader/mentors who have previously demonstrated success in their preceding experiences in battalions.

An aspect of the battalion school is that performers are validated and retained and nonperformers, for the most part, are phased out of the establishment and usually in a timely fashion. For example, the captains are the most successful of their class of lieutenants and the majors the most successful of their class of captains. The same is true for the colonel.  Generally, in any battalion the captains, majors and colonels represent the most talented cadre of leaders that have come through the battalion school and laboratory of leadership in their commissioning class wave.  As such, they tend to be skilled mentors and developers of leaders in the battalion format.

From personal experience in over 10 ½ years in the school and laboratory of the battalion, specifically having experienced four different types of platoon as a platoon leader, three different types of company as the executive officer, three different assistant battalion staff roles, a two platoon size detachment leadership role, company commander of an over strength mechanized infantry company, a primary battalion staff role, battalion executive officer and command roles, I have drawn several observations from the experiences.  Two of the most significant of these follow.

The most significant observation and comparison of the personal experience of the battalion leadership development school/laboratory to any civilian organization also experienced is that the battalion was the superior leader development environment.  It provided a broad spectrum of leader exposure to situations with real feedback and in a fairly compact timeframe and in a team oriented environment. It exposed the developing leader to progressive growth in the breadth and capability of the leader’s skill set necessary to be an effective leader, most notably an effective leader of smooth working teams that got the job done.

A second observation concerned the alumni.  The observation was underscored by the strength of the school’s graduating classes over the years.  A very large number of the school’s graduates as time has progressed have been highly successful as higher level leaders up to national levels of leadership responsibility in the Army and in civilian organizations where they functioned to great effect and achieved significant positive results.  Just on this measure alone, the battalion schools of practical leadership development were clearly exceptionally effective in the production of large numbers of high quality leader alumni.

Truly, the “battalion school of leader development” was then, and remains now, perhaps the superior practical leadership development school in the nation.  From direct experience with the battalions of allied countries, the same may be said for these battalions as well, especially those of the Canadian Army.  In this sense it is incumbent on leaders active in the battalions today to take stock of this powerful national leader corps leveraging resource to make every effort possible to maximize the school’s performance and results as a practical leader development school.

Note1: below are the division and separate brigade formation headquarters to which battalions the author served in were assigned or under the operational control of.  Additionally, the author served in assignments with the headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division and 197th Separate Mechanized Infantry Brigade and at 1st Brigade Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division.

Left to right: 1st Armored Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 197th Separate Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 1st Armored Division

Note 2: corps headquarters the author interfaced with during three years assigned to brigade and division headquarters and three years on Department of the Army Staff some headquarters such as the XVIIIth Airborne Corps multiple times.

Left to right: I Corps, III Corps, V Corps, VII Corps, XVIII Airborne Corps and II Marine Expeditionary Force

 

 

4 Comments

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    June 11, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    I was blessed (or cursed?) to serve in three different Battalion sized organizations (two Infantry and one Combat Service Support) for the first six years of my commissioned service. There certainly was a lot of professional knowledge to be gleaned there, which unfortunately included being witness to the kind of officer and human I did not aspire to be, repeatedly. Thus, when it came time to return to the fold after a highly successful three year go in an Airborne training establishment, I said no thanks, declining to attend CLFCSC as a senior Captain at least, having known others that took it as senior Majors as a pre req for Staff College in Toronto, if you wore a green uniform. There fortunately were other avenues open to meaningful specialty training and employment in my classification that did not involve Battalion cliques and clannishness, which I applied for. The system ultimately disagreed, and I made plans to get out after 20, and have been collecting a pension for the last 23 years. I ran into my Company Commander from 1983-1984 and his wife while we all were on the jet bridge in Calgary boarding a plane to Ottawa three weeks ago; who could forget the voice, which clued me into to his presence, and the memories(he was one of the good ones, for the most part); I had not seen him in more than 20 years! That time 30 plus years ago truly was a learning experience, not all of it positive, or perhaps it was, after all what does not kill you makes you stronger. It has defined me to this day.

  • Tom Rozman

    June 12, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Your comment provides insight….not all battalion experiences were “positive” and not all exemplars people worthy of emulation. I submit that in the experiential environement of the battalion, we learn valuable lessons from both the effective people and those less so. On the one hand, from the more effective and able people we learn what we might do ourselves in certain circumstances and from the more compromised types, even to the toxic, what not to do. One aspect of the battalion format done multiple times is that in a relatively similar yet comprehensive organizational structure, we may experience effective or not leadership in different geographic and mission environments with an entirely different caste of characters. And we are able to do so through cycles of cause and effect regarding results achieved. For most, battalion duty ends as a major or even as a captain. And then the experience tends to be higher formation and command staff or other duty. But, along with the positives, experiencing a battalion with some toxicity is a real possibility…one battalion some two years after I left it sustained seven suicides in a year. One asks why?

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    June 12, 2019 at 10:56 am

    I made sure it ended as a Captain. But you are right, after the Airborne training establishment, I did go on to serve on the J4LogOps staff, as a G4Sup for nine months for a no longer existing existing command(it had been stood down the year before) and on both the G1 and G4 Staffs at a Reserve Bde HQ, plus as the Material Control Officer in a large scale Army Base Supply organization. All were viable jobs. The last two Battalion level jobs I had were as toxic as they come, and it boils right down to the leadership at both the officer and senior SrNCO levels. I was not the only one of my peers that felt and reacted the same way. As far as suicides go that is largely a failure of command in my books…know your troops and support them in both good and bad times. And in the bad, don’t shuffle them aside or try to get them reassigned away from your sphere…seen that done too. Best unit I ever belonged to we all worked hard and played hard together…the afromentioned Airborne training establishment where I served as a demonstration parachutist for a year flowed by 2i/c of a training company for three.

  • Tom Rozman

    June 12, 2019 at 2:14 pm

    Excellent observations about knowing your troops and working and playing together as a team…in many ways these were bedrocks to successful leadership or its restoration when wanting.