The Platoon Competition

“The risk the company commander was taking was that the company had acquired through hard work, dedication, initiative and creative thinking a very strong reputation as perhaps the strongest company in the brigade.”

The Platoon Competition

Article by Tom Rozman

A separate mechanized infantry brigade at a southeastern army post in the Continental United States had established a competition designed to enhance individual and collective military task skills among its eighteen combat infantry platoons.  The competition would compete the brigade’s infantry maneuver platoons in a “Military Skills Rodeo” to be conducted over a several week period.  One platoon would be offered by each of the brigade’s six mechanized infantry maneuver companies after internal competition—the initial cut from among the brigade’s 18 infantry platoons.

The six platoons entering the brigade level of the contest would engage in several levels of evaluative and scored competition assessing individual soldier physical conditioning, individual military skills levels, collective skills and abilities at crew and squad to include vehicle maintenance and tactical and weapons employment, and collective platoon mission proficiency in tactical movement, attack and defense.

Company A had experienced a series of critical and demanding deployments across the United States and locally on the installation over the last several months.  Aspects of these operations were still ongoing.  The company competed its platoons as required but due to other mission criticality determined to offer to the brigade competition its least engaged platoon at the time.  It was a strong platoon that was rebuilding after some personnel loss.  As well, the platoon was led by the company’s newest lieutenant, a “branch detail” officer.

At the time of the competition, Regular Army officers whose permanent branch was in service support arms would spend their first two years of commissioned service assigned to a combat arms branch for officer basic course training and initial troop assignments.  The platoon leader’s permanent branch was Adjutant General’s Corps—the Army’s administrative and personnel managers.  He was doing well but combined with his newness in the unit and level of infantry tactical skill, he was still developing as a mechanized infantry platoon leader.

At times the lieutenant faced assigned tasks and missions with less assurance and confidence than more seasoned lieutenants.  But the company commander detected a toughness and perseverance that, given the right encouragement, had the potential to bring in the winning platoon by the lieutenant’s effective leadership.

The risk the company commander was taking was that the company had acquired through hard work, dedication, initiative and creative thinking a very strong reputation as perhaps the strongest company in the brigade.  The company’s platoon doing poorly in the competition could have a negative impact on this hard earned collective reputation.  As well, the morale of the rebuilding platoon’s soldiers might be negatively affected by a poor performance in the competition, a result that could impact adversely on their later operational performance.

As decision time approached to select the company’s representing platoon, the company commander invited the detailed platoon leader to his office for a meeting.  The intent of the meeting had several parts.  One was to sound out the temper of the platoon leader for the task.  As expected, the junior platoon leader expressed concern about his ability to lead the platoon to success.

The company commander promptly responded with an honest statement of the officer’s capabilities at this point in career as he, the company commander, saw them.  But the assessment “frankly” stressed the officer’s demonstrated capabilities to lead and inspire his soldiers giving examples from the preceding several months that underscored the assessment.  This set the stage for the most important and constructive part of the meeting—building a strategy, a plan of attack and a leadership approach that the lieutenant would develop.

After working through the mission task and approaches to completing it successfully in open discussion—the company commander gradually transitioned the platoon leader into being in charge of the conversation in terms of what he and his platoon would do to achieve success.  As the platoon leader gelled his plan and strategy, the company commander asked the lieutenant if he was ready.  The answer came back in a strong affirmative.

Three qualities the company commander had noted in the lieutenant—first, he listened well to his NCOs, second, he could independently analyze a task and third, he led by example.  And two other critical qualities that had been noted—he could take charge and make a decision.

On the day designated, the platoon deployed to the brigade’s initial event location.  The competition began.  It was grueling, starting with every soldier taking the physical training test.  Weapons qualification followed then individual military skills evaluation.  This sequence was followed by two days of squad operational assessments.  These assessments evaluated mounted and dismounted movement, patrolling, and attack and defend missions.  This phase was followed by almost three days of platoon operations with movement, attack and defend, call for fire and patrolling missions.

At the end of the demanding program, the tired and dirty platoons were drawn up in a formation and the standings were announced.  Company A’s platoon was announced as the winner.  There were some that were surprised, to include the platoon leader.  But the company commander was not—he knew his man, and that officer came through as a leader, a quality the company commander had early recognized.  But as critically, the company commander knew the men of the platoon and had every confidence they would follow their platoon leader and make every effort to meet and exceed every task being evaluated as individuals and as a team.

Seldom will a critical task or mission be presented to a military organization where the sun, moon and planets will be in perfect alignment to perform the task or mission.  But perform we must and decisions have to be made.  If the leaders have learned their people and have confidence in them and are prepared to delegate—as professional soldiers, those junior soldiers will respond superbly.  They will take initiative, they will assume the mission and they will prevail and will succeed—often magnificently.  The effective leader will be preparing every soldier in the unit every day to take on the unexpected mission and succeed to include the mission of the soldier one and two levels senior.

This exercise underscored the value of knowing one’s soldiers, having confidence in those soldiers, trusting in subordinate leaders, effectively delegating and the importance of building a team that is capable of confronting even the most difficult tasks.  This example also illustrates the innate ability of the professional soldier to respond to a sudden redirection and excel.  It is a good story that should be playing out in every company size unit in any army as we speak.  It is how an army will effectively develop its leaders.