Prepare for Day One, Part 2 – The NCO

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“They provide inspiration, purpose, motivation, direction, and discipline to the troops they lead”

US Army Command Sergeant Major, John Wayne Troxell – 2019

As the year ends, hundreds of leaders within Defence are preparing for their next challenge as commanders. They could be thinking about who their boss is going to be, what the make-up of their team will be, do they write a command philosophy, or even how long will it take to get to work every day? One thought is certain to be about their NCOs though and what they will they bring to the team.

If you are an NCO who is going to be in a leadership team next year, Junior, Senior, or even a Warrant Officer, you need to start thinking about your command relationship now, because your organisation depends on it.

On day one, you and your new boss will be as apprehensive as each other about forming a new team. To assist in the transition, you need to bin the narrative that the officer is the leader, and you are just the follower. We are all followers and followership is just as important as leadership, but as an NCO, if you have the mindset that you’re not a leader and your leadership time finished with your section commander time, you are horribly mistaken.

There was a time, particularly in the Australian Army, when Other Ranks (ORs) were deliberately not referred to as ‘enlisted’. In more contemporary times, the term ‘enlisted’ has returned and with it has come the term ‘leader’. The term ‘enlisted leader’ is not just a catch all term that encompasses all ORs. It is a responsibility that NCOs are charged with from the day they become an NCO and it is a responsibility that if not executed with the organisation’s values and beliefs at the forefront of mind, will result in the whole organisation suffering.

The newly commissioned officer in an organisation is expected to know what to do from day one and they will also have that expectation of you as the NCO. If you are fortunate to be the first NCO in this newly commissioned officer’s journey, then you have a fantastic opportunity to instill the shared values and beliefs of your organisation and demonstrate the culture that has seen you get to where you are and the culture that they need to be a successful leader.

This opportunity also carries a huge weight, not only for your new leadership team and organisation but also for every other NCO who is out there doing the same thing. If you fail to grasp this opportunity, your leadership team will suffer and so will your organisation. The biggest consequence is that it will become immediately apparent that your team is not functioning and there is a risk that others will feel the effect of that failure.

If you succeed and your leadership team blossoms and your organisation has success, then this will also become apparent, but there is an important difference. The benefits will not spread immediately, and the effect or outcomes may not be felt until your leadership team has moved on. This is when you know you have achieved real success, by the legacy that you leave behind.

I should caveat that to achieve the success mentioned, you must develop trust in your leadership team. Leadership, after all, is about creating conditions of trust within an organisation. There is only one way to earn that trust and it is simple, do the right thing and be the right person. Those are my words and probably too cliché, so here is a better example using Simon Sinek’s book ‘Start with Why’ where he states that it is nearly impossible to build trust in a team by using nouns. You need to use verbs – e.g. demonstrate integrity by doing the right thing, do not think it will occur by just saying it.

The other simple truth about trust is that it can be taken away in a flash. Trust is built with a teaspoon and pulled down with a wrecking ball, so it becomes the critical ingredient that is needed to have a strong leadership team and for our teams to have success.

Leadership is a responsibility to look after the people in your team. Now if this does not fall into the job description of an NCO, then I do not know what does. In part one of Prepare for Day One, I mentioned that leadership is not a solo journey and the junior officer needs to form a leadership team. Well, the NCO is the other half of the team, and for the duration of the team’s journey the NCO can be the teacher, the coach, and the role-model.

The teaching, the coaching and being the exemplar must be a constant in the relationship and for the whole team, not just sliced out to subordinates one day and to your boss the next. Teaching, coaching and being the example is best summarised as influence. Do not underestimate the influence you will have as an NCO in a leadership team. Your team will emulate you; they will ‘name-drop’ you, they will tell their families about you and most importantly you will show them how to be you. This task in itself is arguably the most important role you have as an enlisted leader, and one that the organisation needs you to get right, for the ones that you invest in will carry your legacy.

A great thing about being an NCO and influencing the leadership team is you get to influence early, more so in a new team environment but, it’s this environment that lays the foundation for the commanders and NCOs to build on as they progress. There is one thing however, that is not so great about being the NCO influencer and that is the time window to get it right. It doesn’t have to occur on day one but if you are not proactive in starting the ‘forming’ and ‘storming’ phase of Tuckman’s stages of group development with your new boss, your influence will be limited in the ‘norming’ phase and it will be almost impossible to go backwards to fix any problems once your team hits the ‘performing’ phase.

If you are not the proactive one who grabs your new boss and shows them ‘the ropes’ then they will show themselves and the leadership team will be off to a slow start and one that could be hard to catch-up.

The start of the leadership team journey is as daunting for the commissioned officer as it is the NCO but while there is only one commander, there are many leaders. The enlisted leader holds a critical position in the organisation’s endeavor for success and its effect will be felt at the tactical through to the strategic level. Do not underestimate your task. Your immediate team may find a way to get the job done without you, but the leadership teams and organisation that follow will forever carry the scars of poor leadership and poor culture. It is both the commissioned and enlisted leaders’ obligation to foster good leadership and good culture so the ones that follow reap the rewards.

Now that you have finished reading, it is time to prepare for day one.