Noncommissioned officers operating in a complex world

By Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. DaileyOctober 5, 2015

For more than 240 years the American Soldier has answered the call to action and in every era of conflict and war, the professional Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) has played a significant role as a leader of Soldiers. The roles and responsibilities of the NCO have always been to lead, mentor, and train Soldiers while enforcing standards. The NCO Creed galvanizes the idea that NCOs are professional Soldiers who are also members of a time-honored corps known as "The Backbone of the Army." Though the values associated with the NCO Corps will never change, the future operating environment will most certainly be more complex and uncertain than we've ever known. NCOs today must be prepared to operate and lead in this ever-changing and multifaceted environment with character, competence and commitment.

The Army Operating Concept (AOC) as outlined in Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-1 describes the multitude of challenges our Army will face in future conflict where the environment, the enemy, the location, and our allies are unknown and begs the question, how do we win in such an ambiguous and complex world? While the answer will require that "Army forces must provide the joint force with multiple options, integrate the efforts of multiple partners, operate across multiple domains, and present our enemies and adversaries with multiple dilemmas," it is assured that the role of the NCO will be as critical as ever in our Army's ability to operate and win the wars of tomorrow.

Despite these constraints, war fundamentally remains a human tournament of willpower (i.e., a contest of wills). As the prospect of human conflict across groups increases, the action in this tournament will only build up. I cannot affirm our Army future challenges, but I can only emphasize that it will appear swiftly in an unanticipated way. As our uncertainty grows, the Army must concentrate its investment on its most agile and flexible asset - its NCO Corps. We must leverage our experiences to prepare our Soldiers and develop the future NCO Corps to meet those challenges and succeed.


Many of our senior leaders grew up with a known adversary whose equipment, ideologies, and tactics were studied and understood. Nations have fought wars for many reasons. However, the Greek historian Thucydides identified that fear, honor, and interest as prevailing reasons. Moreover, the adversaries of the future are less interested in winning than prolonging the war. They understand that our Nation is driven by a trinity that was described in the book, On War, by Carl von Clausewitz (1832). Clausewitz explains that for a nation to be successful in war, the people, Army, and government must encompass the same goals and objectives.

During the last decade, NCOs have led Soldiers under a variety of operating conditions, from the oil fields of Iraq to the provinces of Afghanistan. They have learned many of the principles of mission command under fire rather than in the classroom. NCOs have learned to adapt and innovate their thinking as a result of experiences soldiering in austere and challenging environmental conditions. NCOs have developed tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that are now being incorporated into new programs of instruction within our NCO academies and throughout structured self-development to better train and educate Soldiers.


The ability to think and predict where the Army will enter and engage future missions is harder to determine today than ever before. The AOC suggests that for the future we will find ourselves developing scenarios for addressing national security requirements in support of defeating elusive and unknown adversaries. TRADOC Commander, General Perkins (2015), in the article "Win in a complex world- But how?" , offers that the AOC doesn't attempt to predict the future--nor, necessarily, to answer that question directly. It does assess the current threat climate and extrapolates from there to help the Army plan for an unknown future. Accordingly, this concept offers a dose of realism to the extent that NCOs need to break free of the constraints that often narrow our vision (budget, bureaucratic inertia and the "that's the way we've always done it" mentality) and think hard about where the Army is and where it needs to go.

To achieve cognitive dominance and intellectual overmatch, we must re-design our Professional Military Education (PME) system striking the right balance between technical and tactical mastery of skills with learning and development of the art of leadership. It is imperative that we leverage the latest learning sciences and technological advances in education to reinvigorate NCO PME. The uncertainty of tomorrow requires NCOs who are innovative, critical thinkers able to operate in ambiguity and thrive in chaos.


Since the days of General George Washington's Continental Army, and further codified after the Revolutionary War when Frederick William Baron von Steuben published instructions to the NCO in his Revolutionary War Drill Manual, training Soldiers has been a core mission of the NCO Corps. As we prepare our forces for an uncertain enemy we must recognize the need for realistic, relevant, and rigorous training at the individual, team, and collective levels. NCOs must adjust conditions during training events to create ambiguous situations and inject chaos when feasible to challenge our Soldiers to their fullest. We also cannot be afraid to fail during training. Not meeting the mission at the National Training Center can teach you and your Soldiers much more about maneuver, squad and platoon tactics, logistics and communication, than getting first time "go's" ever will. Structuring training events where learning from failure is the objective, is one of the greatest weapons an NCO can give his or her Soldiers. We must also look upon all of our training events as opportunities to development our future NCOs. Senior NCOs must give junior leaders time and practice to grow and learn as leaders. As NCOs, we have an obligation to provide the most realistic and valuable training events for our Soldiers whether it be during a Combined Training Center exercise or Sergeant's Time Training at home station.


NCOs develop as leaders over time through deliberate progressive and sequential processes incorporating training, education, and experience across the three learning domains throughout the Soldier Lifecycle. Experiential learning is arguably the most valuable component of an NCOs developmental process and should be managed appropriately. TRADOC is working to expand opportunities for educational fellowships as well as interagency, joint broadening assignments for our most talented NCOs. To support this future vision of the NCO Corps, a talent management approach will be used, including a review of NCO evaluation reports (NCOERs), and PME class ranking and assignment history of Soldiers. The most talented and experienced NCOs will be selected to come back to the institutional schools to serve as instructors at some point in their careers. Beginning this fall, the United States Sergeants Major Academy (USASMA) will be implementing a fellowship program providing NCOs the opportunity to complete a master's degree in adult education, along with several instructor certifications. Our most senior NCOs must have the ability to coach, teach, and mentor the future generation of NCOs based on academic credentials and rigorous learning.


One of our responsibilities as NCOs is to prepare our Soldiers to fight in progressively complex and challenging conflict. The effectiveness of every Soldier relies heavily on their physical, mental and emotional conditioning. "Deployability" is the standard for every Soldier. As a result, we together must be prepared to adapt new methods that are scientifically proven like the surgeon general's Army Performance Triad. We can start demonstrating our commitment to this responsibility as early as tomorrow morning. NCOs must take back the sacred hours and keep them sacred. Wars are won by getting the sacred hours right every day. At 6 or 6:30 am you should be standing tall somewhere on an Army post, camp or station saluting the flag with your Soldiers, ready to dive into a challenging and realistic physical training (PT) session the moment the last bar of Reveille sounds and your right hand snaps back to your side. Building physically strong soldiers helps build emotionally and mentally strong Soldiers. That's' why I say PT may not be the most important thing you'll do today, but it is the most important thing you do every day as a Soldier. Leading PT is the most important thing you do every day as a leader of Soldiers.


The NCO Corps is looked upon as stewards of our profession of arms, therefore we must recognize the bedrock of our profession is trust. Our Nation trusts Army leaders with their sons and daughters and we must honor this privilege bestowed upon us by living up to their faith. Arguably the highest performing squads in our formations are those that are built upon trust; trust in their leaders and trust in one another. This is the essential element of "Not in My Squad." This anthem accentuates the ethical obligation of our NCOs. From the squad level through every level of leadership, leaders must embrace and guarantee each and every Soldier, Civilian - and our family members - are treated with grace, decency, and most important respect.

As NCOs, we must focus our efforts on building cohesive teams bonded by trust that are not only capable of fighting and winning in a complex environment, but also able to protect and inspire each other in all aspects of their lives. Close knit teams with sound leadership don't allow teammates to be assaulted, or to drive under the influence, or to behave unprofessionally online. By their actions they say, "Not in my squad." Close knit teams are built on a foundation of trust that is singularly focused and optimized for performance regardless of the complexity or chaotic conditions they are operating in. As NCOs we have a duty to not only earn, but nurture and sustain that trust within our teams and create a climate where teammates proudly state, "Not in my squad" to those behaviors that venture outside our values or our ethic. Such a climate epitomizes what America expects of trusted Army professionals.


NCOs are professionals who motivate and inspire Soldiers through the ethical conduct of the mission with discipline and training to standard. We are stewards of the Army Profession who unceasingly care for and grow subordinates, peers, and leaders in Character, Competence, and Commitment. The world we operate in is indeed complex and certain to be even more so in the future. Just as our NCO Corps has done for the last 240 years, we will continue to develop the next generation of competent and committed NCOs of character as trusted Army professionals who thrive in chaos, adapt, and win in a complex world. This We'll Defend!


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Perkins (2015). AOC that underpinned Army doctrine during the Cold War, air land battle, assumed a known enemy and a known terrain. The new concept assumes neither.

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