What Are Your NCOs Talking About?

By Captain Roberta L. Shea, U.S. Marine Corps

An NCO's ability to analyze an ethical dilemma critically and articulate clearly his or her position on controversial issues is crucial to the Corps. Building a corps of NCOs with a firm foundation of values is a reason to invest time in your values program. Too often, we dismiss Values training as too "touchy-feely" for real warriors, and consider it just a phase the Corps is going through—much like the Total Quality Leadership movement of the early 1990s. So why should we devote even a half hour per week to such discussions, when we could be drilling in tactics, techniques, and procedures, or turning a wrench to increase our readiness? The fact that values cannot be measured on a readiness report is a heavy impetus toward devoting training time to other things. Warfighting Doctrine MCDP-1 admits that "moral forces are difficult to grasp and impossible to quantify. We cannot easily gauge forces like national and military resolve, national or individual conscience, emotion, fear, courage, morale, leadership, or esprit."

But values are about warfighting. The Greek warrior Xenophon stated more than 2,000 years ago that "whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them." Values develop your unit esprit de corps and overall fighting effectiveness. Our warfighting doctrine adopts this timeless truth and explains that "moral forces exert a greater influence on the physical" and that "leaders should develop unit cohesion and esprit and the self-confidence of individuals within the unit. In this environment, a Marine's unwillingness to violate the respect and trust of his peers will overcome personal fear"

An NCO who recently has discussed the meaning of being in a "profession of arms" with his peers will be less likely to tolerate a lance corporal's ambivalence about shooting well on the rifle range, a private first class' haphazard performance on an assigned corrosion control task, or a private's newly learned lexicon of "it's good enough for government work."

Values Come from Discipline

Values are not about being soft-they are about discipline. In recruit training, we hold guided discussions to introduce recruits to our values and the strength of character necessary to uphold our values. We challenge recruits with a scenario about a Marine who has gone home on leave and is confronted by friends smoking marijuana. In the sterile environment of recruit training, it is fairly easy for the recruits to "just say no." But the same scenario discussed by NCOs who have experienced that scenario as Marines will have a much more profound effect. They will appreciate more fully the complexities of peer pressure and the difficulty of doing the right thing despite overwhelming self-induced and peer-induced pressure to do otherwise. More important, your NCOs should make the connection between their own experiences and the dilemmas faced by their Marines. This connection will lead them to action to assist their Marines in combating those types of pressures. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear your NCOs come up with a plan of action because one of them realized, "Hey, we have a '96' coming up in a couple weeks; what can we do to make sure our Marines aren't abusing drugs?" Your NCOs realize that platitudes and threats issued during a "96" safety brief will not be nearly as effective as their own continued leadership in the coming weeks.

Build an NCO corps within your unit. We all have debated what we can do to make NCOs act like NCOs and give them more responsibilities. Most of these solutions involve NCO-specific training. Discussion in a formal "NCO corps" setting solidifies the feeling of a true NCO corps within a command. When a group of NCOs discusses "hate crimes" for a half hour—not as an abstract problem facing the Corps or our society, but as a possible threat to their unit—the problem becomes their own. When a group of NCOs accepts that it is their job to ensure their unit does not fall prey to these influences, the NCOs take on that challenge as their responsibility. They understand that they are a force, one that may not fix the entire Corps, but one that can ensure their unit is meeting the challenge. Their sense of commitment to their unit will only grow stronger.

Promote frank communication among NCOs. Often, an NCO corps within a unit is dysfunctional because of a lack of communication. The guided discussion forum can allow NCOs to get to know each other better. Their varied backgrounds will help them understand the multidimensional aspects of subjects they previously may have seen only from a rigid personal perspective. At an NCO training section at my unit, the symbolism of the Confederate flag came up, and a heated but controlled debate followed. I will not say the NCOs left the training with a common belief in the symbolism of the flag, but each came away understanding that one symbol can have different meanings to different people. The discussion continued for days. It was a serious debate and resulted in increased understanding among the individuals. But shouldn't they be talking about readiness, not flags? I do not think so. They were communicating—instead of harboring silent resentment toward each other or blaming every misunderstanding or miscommunication on their differing beliefs. Honest dialogue breeds better communication among peers and Marines from diverse backgrounds.

Speak Like a Counselor

Learn the language skills of a counselor and pass them on. Every Marine occupational specialty (MOS) has its own "language." Communications specialists' ability to speak in terms of "retrans, MUX, bandwidth, and frequency spectrum" is no less a part of their language than are grunts' "FEBA, FPF, RPOL, and range fans." So too, adept counselors have their own language. The ability to ask pertinent questions to find the heart of a problem, the ability to separate the trivial and unrelated from pertinent facts that cause the underlying problem, and the ability to help a young Marine articulate the solution to the problem will all develop in the guided discussion. In these training sessions, NCOs will develop their own counseling language and skills. NCOs who have debated the pros and cons of allowing married Marines time off to take care of family matters will be that much more prepared and confident the next time a married lance corporal comes to discuss problems at home.

Speaking the language of a counselor is a perishable skill. Ask any officer who recently has returned to the field, and you will find that it took a few turns around the unit for him to regain the language of his MOS. For the NCO to develop the language of the counselor, he must exercise the skill frequently. Through dialogue, the NCOs explore their own beliefs while learning how to counsel Marines on difficult issues. These are the future first sergeants who will be counseling our senior NCOs and junior officers and advising our company commanders. Time spent on their development is time well spent.

One half hour is only the start. Increasing effectiveness and lethality; building an NCO corps; learning the language of a counselor—how can all this happen in only a half hour per week? It can't. You should seek to expose your Marines to the multifaceted quality of the topic and plant the seeds for more discussion. Every place I have seen guided discussion take place—recruit training, Drill Instructor School, Amphibious Warfare School, my own unit in the fleet—I saw that much of the development of values occurred not in a formal setting, but in the days and weeks that followed. The exploration of personal values and the virtues of peers continue through these "off-line" discussions. I often have seen Marines defend vociferously their opinions in the formal discussion, then after continued discussion and pondering in private, realize that their opinions have changed after exposure to the various complexities of the issue which they previously had not seen.

In a unit that is operating at its peak, it can be difficult to find a half hour. But the half hour can happen anywhere. Why not do it at the end of the day and give your NCOs some food for thought to chew on in the barracks that night or on the ride home? Do it at the end of a hike or a field operation; you do not need to be refreshed and at your best to share values. Some participants of the recruit training Crucible event remark how exhausted, young recruits are brutally honest in their discussions; the amount of fatigue facilitates—rather than hinders—the guided discussion.

The foundation already is laid; build the rest. Once you recognize the value of this training to your unit, you will want to implement it—but where do you start? Frederick the Great said, "The human heart is the starting point for all matters pertaining to war." So how has the Marine Corps invested itself into our young Marines' hearts? All Marine Bulletin 439/96 describes the phases of the Marines' Values program. Phase I occurs during the initial training at recruit depots, Officer Candidate School, and the Basic School. Your privates and lieutenants all have participated in guided discussions that have tasked them to challenge their own civilian values and compare them with the values of the Corps. They come to your unit expecting Marines to be talking about virtues and living them every day. Phase II is reinforcement training that occurs at every school a Marine attends—from Marine Combat Training, schools of infantry, MOS-producing schools, and career-level schools such as the Staff Noncommissioned Officers Course and Amphibious Warfare School. When you send your Marines to school, they continue developing their own values.

Phase III is the part you are doing (or not doing) in your unit. It is identified as the most critical part of the Values program. The Corps has laid the foundation for these discussions in boot camp and formal schools, and has charged units Corps-wide with sustaining them. Marine Corps Order 1500.56, Marine Corps Values Program, delineates the exact responsibilities of commanding generals, commanding officers, and officers-in-charge concerning their units' Values programs. It addresses everything from training schedules to your command environment. Phase I and II are happening. So what has the Corps done to arm you to accomplish Phase III? Plenty.

Get the Right Tools

The Marine Corps Values and Leadership Users Guide for Discussion Leaders has been distributed by the Marine Corps University to every company in the Corps. At Parris Island, I asked about 20 officers reporting in from the fleet if they had used the Guide . About half responded they had not seen it and the other half had seen it—but still in its wrapping. When I asked the same question of a group of senior NCOs, they either had not seen it or had placed it in their own personal libraries. What do the senior NCOs know that we do not? First, you always should remove the shrink wrap on a new publication—you might find something extremely valuable. Second, there probably never has been such a user friendly publication printed by the Marine Corps. It includes a wealth of "hot topics" to discuss, guides for leading discussions, and scenario-based training that you can use as a departure point for your unit's discussions. The most effective jump-off point for these scenarios is "what's happening in our unit?" But the Guide is not the limit of your training. Pick up a newspaper, and you will find a topic that is challenging society. Most likely, your junior Marines are grappling with the topic as well. Why not bring that newspaper article to your NCO training and expand your horizons?

Create command interest. The final ingredient is the actual execution. We all know that if a commander is fixated on his readiness or rifle marksmanship, that is what a unit will focus on. What is your focus? Mission-oriented training? Reduced office hours? Marksmanship? Better maintenance reports? Tactically proficient warriors? If you are honest with yourself, you will discover that a developed Values program will help you reach your goals. NCOs who can articulate the "whys" of a unit's goal and provide the continuity of leadership throughout a unit are a force multiplier. They can lead your unit well above the high standards you want to achieve. The inherent benefit of the program—a cohesive NCO corps committed to raising all standards within their unit—will go a long way in improving any commander's goal.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "A sound body is good; a sound mind is better; but a strong and clean character is better than either." The health and integrity of the character of your unit's NCO corps are related directly to the overall strength of your unit's character. Your NCOs are a force that can ensure your unit is meeting the challenge. Your NCOs' sense of commitment to their unit and sense of ownership are strengthened through honest communication and shared opinion. You may think a lot about leadership and you may talk about it quite a bit, but unless your NCOs are talking about it and translating it into a living, breathing force on the ground, your thoughts and theories will be just that--thoughts and theories.

So, what are your NCOs talking about?

Captain Shea is a recent graduate of Amphibious Warfare School, and is stationed at MCAS, Miramar. Prior to AWS, she served as Assistant Director at the Drill Instructor School, Parris Island.



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