Today's platoon leader must be psychologist, diplomat
March 23, 2009
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (Army News Service, March 23, 2009) -- What new leaders can expect in the Army today is very different from what I experienced as a second lieutenant before 9/11.
My capstone experiences then revolved around month-long deployments to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Doctrine and tactics were still more aligned with the Cold War mindset. I remember very distinctly when this changed forever.
Newly assigned to my first staff job as an assistant brigade engineer, I boarded a British Airways flight bound for an exercise in Kuwait, Sept. 10, 2001. When we landed, the pilot casually gave his condolences to any Americans on board who may have family involved in the terrorist attack that had struck New York City. None of us on the brigade staff at the moment had any idea what he was talking about, but for the next month in Kuwait, it was a whirlwind of new responsibilities and situations.
Since then, I have seen huge changes in what is expected of lieutenants. What has not changed is that the first and foremost job will be to lead a platoon. This seems straight forward, but is often much more complicated.
Leading a platoon of U.S. Army Soldiers, on any given day, will require you to be a planner, supervisor, mentor, motivational speaker, social worker, and psychologist, among other things. All while also being the best overall Soldier in the platoon.
Your ability to motivate Soldiers verbally will be the difference between the mission being carried out half-heartedly or with some gusto.
I would like to tell you that all Soldiers have supportive families and that they and their spouses make wise choices, but sometimes you will receive a 3 a.m. phone call that will require involvement of medical and/or legal services.
You will need to get inside your Soldiers' head as a psychologist to help them make good off-duty and family decisions. You also may need to convince a Soldier on how purchasing a new sports car with his re-enlistment bonus money is not a good idea with a new child on the way. A good knowledge of psychology will greatly help you in such tasks.
Since 2001, a second lieutenant must also be a diplomat, foreign forces trainer, and negotiator.
Overseas, your diplomatic skills will be put to the test in influencing the people in your area of responsibility to work with you. This may mean convincing locals in your area they can trust you to be discreet when they provide you with information on local bad guys. It could mean sitting through hours of rapport building with a local leader to finally get him to trust you enough to be of some help.
In order to be a good diplomat, you need to understand what is normal for the culture you are working in, and often times this means putting aside your own biases and unhelpful feelings about that culture to get the job done.
Being responsible for the training readiness of your platoon is one thing, being able to train a unit in the military or police forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, or Southeast Asia is something that requires a very different skill set.
In all parts of the world, units are deploying with the sole purpose of partnering with local militaries to train them and raise their capabilities. Training our foreign allies is the only way we will be able to relieve the burdens on the U.S. Army over the long term.
At very grass roots levels, the use of negotiation was what led to much of the turn-around in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. It was platoon leaders going out into local communities and often through a neutral sheik or community leader, negotiating the terms that former insurgents, low-level members of Al Qaida, would transition to community security guards.
This was not an easy task. The ones who could not be trusted, the ones who had too much blood on their hands, had to be separated from those we were willing to deal with, and then find the correct amount of pay, amnesty, or other incentives they would need to be willing to switch sides.
It is also difficult to shake hands with someone who may have tried to kill you or even actually killed your Soldiers. But one of the key elements of counterinsurgency doctrine is that we cannot kill our way to victory.
Being a skilled negotiator is key to defeating an insurgency in such a way that it cannot reconstitute itself.
(Maj. Eric Gilge is currently an Intermediate Level Education course student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This article is adapted from his address to the Wentworth Military Academy Corps of Cadets in Lexington, Mo., on Jan. 28, 2009.)