So there’s this joke in the militia about how you determine who’s leadership material, but for it to make sense I need to explain a few things first.

This might take a moment, but I am going somewhere with this.

Identifying potential NCO leadership is a tricky situation in the militia, and a major part of this has to do with the way we conduct exercises.  On the first parade night following summer training, a Regiment draws up its Orbat (Order of Battle).  Essentially this is a kind of organizational chart where the newly trained recruits are integrated into the unit as a whole, and the newly trained NCOs and officers get placed in charge of these troops based on their newly obtained qualifications from the summer.

This is typically the first and last time that a militia unit can be said to have a clearly defined structure.

Most of the time, when we go on exercise, the unit that rolls out the door bears little to no resemblance to that September Orbat.  On exercise, we roll with an ad hoc formation based on who showed up on that particular occasion, what equipment is available, and so on.  We adapt from there.

On one hand, this means we’re good at knitting formations together in the last minute and adapting quickly to changing situations.[1]  However, when it comes to identifying leadership potential, it’s can be a serious problem.  Ideally, in the military, promotion is not simply a matter of seniority but talent as well.  The problem is that a meritocracy depends on being able to recognize merit.  The merry-go-round of personnel in your typical reserve unit exercise means that a Master Corporal or Sergeant doesn’t always roll out with the troops that are under their command on the unit Orbat.  This means that the person in charge of identifying and developing their subordinates doesn’t always get the chance to consistently work with them.

It can get pretty tricky to identify who would be a good candidate for promotion, or, perhaps more importantly, who is a bad candidate.

Every Sergeant I know has had the experience of having to write a PDR (Progress & Development Report) on a troop that they’ve never actually commanded in the field.  This results in an awkward discussion with other Sgts where we’re like “Hey, you had Pte Bloggins under your command for those two exercises, right?  How was he?”

This leads to a lot uncertainty that can become very urgent when the higher CoC starts asking for PLQ nominations, and it seems to happen every year.

So here’s the joke:

Q: How do you identify your candidate for PLQ?

A: You put all your potential people in the back of a truck without instructions.  Then you drive somewhere isolated.  It doesn’t matter where.  The main thing is that it takes a while to get there.  When you arrive, you switch off the truck, then get out and walk away…

…and watch.

The first guy to stick his head out the back of the truck to find out what’s happening?  That’s your man.  

[Cue the laughter.]

Okay, so the joke tends to appeal to Sergeants who already appreciate a good mind-fuck, but there’s a fair bit of truth to this one as well.

Here’s how it works: In the army, every now and then you’ll find yourself in a place where nothing is expected of you.  Sometimes it’s on purpose (like the oddly-named forced rest), other times it’s not.  Basically, you’ll get forgotten.  Maybe the job you’re supposed to do needs something else in place before you can be put to work, but that something’s been delayed.  Maybe the person in charge got hauled off to somewhere else to take care of another problem.  Maybe somebody fucked up.  Thing is, you’ve been forgotten, and if you play your cards right, you’ll be left alone for several hours if not a day or more (on longer exercises).  You can relax, sleep, or do whatever and nobody’s going to bother you.

Now, under normal circumstances a good soldier learns to take advantage of situations like this.  There will always be more work to do and not enough time to do it in, so it’s a safe and healthy instinct to rest and recuperate any chance you get.[2]

The thing is, sometimes there’s often stuff that needs to be done, but the boss forgot to tell you.  As important as it is to take care of yourself, the mission still comes first.

It’s one of those opposing forces things.  It’s not going to totally make sense.  You just gotta roll with it.

This is where the joke finds its truth.  What if there’s something important that you need to do but nobody told you?  Are you the person who’s going to go find out what happened?  Or are you happy to sit back and let the blame fall upon the person who forgot to supervise you closely enough?

So that’s the point: As much as it might be hilarious to leave a bunch of (potentially) switched on troops in a truck in some random location just to see what they do…on a certain level it would actually be a useful experiment to conduct.  Who’s the first person to notice that this is fucked up?  Who’s the first person to clue in that something needs to get sorted out?

More importantly: Who’s willing to risk their chance at a period of rest to find out?

So I said earlier that the first hint of leadership is to look for the troop that’s taking other troops under their wing and giving them advice?  This is the next level.  What happens when it’s not just a random troop who’s junior to you, but a situation that all of you are stuck in?  Are you the kind of person who will go and try to figure out what’s happening?

Are you showing…initiative?

Now initiative is a tricky thing when it comes to a low-level leader.  You need to select your leaders for their sense of initiative…but they’re not going to be able to exercise much of it for a quite a while after they become leaders.

On PLQ (Primary Leadership Qualification), candidates are assessed on their ability to lead their fellow course-mates on a series of tasks (small party tasks, leading a patrol, leading a Section Attack, etc…), but it’s not really an accurate reflection of where they’re going to be immediately following their course.

Unlike PLQ, a newly promoted Master Corporal doesn’t usually get given a mission that takes them far away from their Chain of Command (CoC) for six to eight hours at a time while they fulfill a complex but highly specific mission.  Most often, they get attached to a Section or Detachment as a Second in Command (2IC) and (at best) get the job of sorting out the troops while their boss (the IC) sorts out mission or task details.

So where does the initiative come in?

It comes from the details, and it comes from the person-to-person interactions of getting someone else’s job done.  In the CAF, the command structure works with an IC & 2IC commanding each command role.  The IC answers to higher, the 2IC answers to lower.  The IC (say, a Sergeant or senior MCpl) is the one who meets with higher, gets the mission, breaks things down into steps and tasks, and back-briefs the officers on how they plan to make the mission work.  The 2IC stays close to the troops, makes sure they’re ready for the mission, and alerts the IC to potential problems as the mission takes shape.

“We need X [transport, special equipment, an expert] to get it done on time…”

“It’s not going to work with the number of people we got…”

“Any chance we can get the troops fed first?”

And so on.  Ideally, the young 2IC examines the mission given to them by their IC, applies their (albeit limited) knowledge and experience, and takes into account the state of the troops under their combined command.  They then ask questions, raise concerns, and suggest modifications to the mission within the parameters they’re given.

This is where many modern First Person Shooter video games often miss a key point in terms of realism.  Instead of setting parameters and letting the characters act as they prefer, FPSs often use the trope of “the voice in your ear” in the form of some kind of commander or other guide talking you step by step through the mission.  To the point of even having HUD icons showing up to direct you to your objectives.  The reality is that no-one can ever plan out a mission down to every detail, and the guy shouting at you through the radio probably doesn’t have a clue.  Who ever creates the mission is going to have to take a back seat to the subordinate on the ground once that mission begins, because the subordinate is the one who can actually see what’s happening.[3]

One of the most basic jobs a 2IC will get is the kit check.  Where they inspect the troops, talk with the QM, and go over kit checklists to make sure they have the equipment they’re going to need.

***There’s a popular expression that goes: “No combat-ready unit ever passed inspection, no inspection-ready unit ever survived combat.”  It’s not entirely true, though.  There are inspections before combat.  You go through your troops’ gear and make sure they have all the ammo and equipment they’re going to need.  Make sure the batteries in the radio are fresh, make sure the water’s topped up and everyone’s managed to choke down a meal.

You might think it’s disrespectful for a junior NCO to inspect a you, a professional soldier to make sure they’re ready for a job they’ve already trained to do.  In fact it’s the other way around.  The junior NCO inspecting the you is providing a double check to catch any mistake you might have made before that mistake becomes fatal.  Since nobody’s perfect, that person is doing you a huge favour by catching your mistakes.  Besides which they’re the one who owns it if you screwed up.  So show some respect and don’t argue.[4]***

This gets complicated since the 2IC (especially the one fresh off of PLQ) isn’t going to be that far ahead of the troops they’re inspecting.  A lot of times there’s troops under the 2IC’s command who were on Basic (BMQ) with them.

So your buddy who saw you babble and cry on BMQ when the Sergeant found that pair of dirty underwear under your bed on inspection…that guy is now eyeballing you when you discover they didn’t top up their water before the patrol…and he’s daring you to say something.  But you’re the one who’s going to tell them (in front of troops who are junior to both of you) that he fucked up.  That’s gross.  Nobody wants to be that guy.  But a soldier without water is a liability that’s waiting to happen.  That needs to be fixed.

It’s the 2IC’s job to seek out what’s wrong and make sure it gets fixed.  Even if this means getting on their buddy’s case.  Even if it means being the bad guy for all the cools kids.  Everyone in the back of the truck wants to kick back and rest.  If someone goes and sticks their head outside, they might discover some work for them to do and ruin their chance to sleep.  The troop who can lead is the one who goes to look anyway.

To a certain extent, the leader has to be the jerk who ruins things for everyone.  Nobody wants to do it, but the situation demands it.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, being a 2IC sucks.

***Today’s Featured Image…well I’m not too sure about the origins but it was posted by a guy I know and it does a pretty good job summarizing the disorienting effect of a newly promoted Master-Jack.  Even if he used the wrong shorthand for Pte.***


[1] Don’t underestimate the value of this.  One of the few areas where I honestly believe the militia has an advantage over the regs comes from our ability to improvise on the fly and restructure ourselves to compensate for manpower or equipment shortages.

[2] This is something that takes a lot of effort to explain to recruits: You have an obligation to look after yourself.  If nobody needs you right now, get some sleep!  Do your ablutions!  Wash your clothes!  Or something!  Don’t just stand there is a state of readiness waiting to act!

[3] Add to that the fact that many of these “voices” are those of sexy female characters…and some interesting vistas open up psychology-wise.

[4] And that’s not taking into account the fact that some people are just basically lazy assholes.  I got two people I know who basically had to tear another’s soldier’s heads off in Kandahar when they discovered that person was not carrying a full ammo/grenade load because they didn’t feel like hauling the extra weight.

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