All leaders have presence. Initially, it is physical. As leaders progress through the ranks, the sheer number of Soldiers compounds the leader’s ability to be physically present for each of them. The challenge then becomes how leaders can make their presence felt and build trust in the organization when they can’t be everywhere, all the time.
A Rhythm of Presence
One method is to establish a rhythm where your presence is expected. Morning PT is a good starting place. Sharing the pain from a demanding, tough PT program builds unit cohesion. Senior leaders, through only their presence in the gym, can motivate individuals to push a little more. A peer of mine saw his command team (MG & CSM) working out and it motivated him to go a little further.
Other battle rhythms include: walking the line during motor stables, stopping by platoon/section offices, and walking through the barracks during off-duty hours. If your Soldiers are tasked out, go out and check on where they are, such as a guard point or a detail.
Integrity is often defined as: doing what is right when nobody is looking. Of course, Soldiers expect at some point for leaders to check on them. If they know nobody is ever going to care, then they are much more likely to do wrong. But if they expect that someone will observe their performance, then they are much more likely to do right instead.
As a leader, where you spend your time shows what you value. If you stay in your office, no matter what work you do for your Soldiers, their perception of you will be negative. Being where they are, you may recognize problems you can fix. Junior Soldiers may merely accept those problems as part of the military experience.
Presence in Action
As a platoon sergeant, my Soldiers revealed things during my weekend barracks checks I would not have known from normal motor pool interactions. I discovered a Soldier had several suicide attempts before enlisting. I identified him as high-risk and kept a closer eye on him. He had not disclosed these attempts during the mandatory risk counseling. A sheet of paper is only as good as the trust that Soldier has in his leader. My Soldiers expected to see me and as a result we had zero incidents in the barracks. (NCO barracks checks at the time were not mandatory. Once barracks checks became mandatory, this cheapened the genuineness of my presence.)
In the winter of 2011, it was my basic training company’s turn for post detail. Once a cycle, our trainees would be given to garrison, who would send them all over for tasks that needed manpower. Anticipating the temperature would be around freezing, we requested hot chocolate and soup from the dining facility. Cold weather gear and warming areas provide only so much comfort from a Missouri winter. Nothing lifted up the trainees’ mood like a cup of warm liquid.
More astonishing was the young Range NCOs reaction. Why would a drill sergeant do that for the trainees, and then even share with permanent party? I could have enjoyed a day without trainees, catching up on paperwork, pursued a longer gym workout, or even attempted to meet my wife for lunch. Garrison personnel had responsibility for my Soldiers. Nonetheless, I had an obligation to check on them. My presence, deliberately planned, demonstrated genuine care for all Soldiers, not just mine.
Guard duty is a way of life while deployed to Afghanistan. It wasn’t long until my Soldiers had their turn on perimeter guard. Although there was a Sergeant of the Guard and Commander of the Relief, I took time to check on my Soldiers. Again, I could have easily gone about my business, as other NCOs were responsible for my Soldiers. Much to my surprise, I found no range cards, no established fields of fire, and more shocking, no posted standing rules of engagement. I immediately brought this up to my chain of command for correction.
Throughout the deployment, I continued making my rounds. I enjoyed the informal chats with my Soldiers. They began to expect to see me and would have questions or ideas to share with me in the informal setting. An added benefit to me was that my Soldiers were rarely discovered by inspectors (sergeant of the guard or chain of command) as having uniform deficiencies. They expected somebody to stop by, so we’re not going to downgrade their uniform due to heat or show for duty without proper hydration.
Build a battle rhythm where your Soldiers expect to see you where they work and live. Your presence, physical or expected, will nudge their integrity in the right direction. You could avoid some embarrassment and, more importantly, earn their trust, which is the bedrock of our profession.