When you are confronted by a soldier determined to butt heads with you and resist your efforts to get him or her to do their job and meet the standards, it is extremely frustrating. While you might have enough to process them for an administrative discharge, you will still be stuck with them until the separation is completed, a process which invariably takes longer than you expect. And there is no guarantee that the replacement you get, if you get one, will be a better soldier. In addition, recommending too many soldiers for separation can subject you to criticism by your supervisors, who may question your leadership ability or be unwilling to support your action.
You can stay in the soldier’s face, demanding that they meet the standards. Unfortunately with problem soldiers, this ramp it up style of leadership just feeds their fire. The more you order them to obey, the harder they resist, enjoying the game of jerking you around. The fact that they shouldn’t be doing this is beyond the point. They are unhappy with the military, pissed at the Army, ready to get out, and you happen to be the face of the problem. To work with a soldier like this, you have to understand where they are coming from and then out maneuver them. They may never become soldier of the month material, but you can keep them from sucking you into their trap.
The soldier may have royally pissed you off, but you have to let go of your anger if you are to succeed as a first class leader. Don’t let the behavior or nasty comments of the disgruntled soldier drag you down to his or her level. You are more mature and more experienced than that. And let’s face it – you’ve probably seen this kind of behavior before, although you may not have been the leader at the time.
Focus on your objective. Is your goal only to make them to do exactly what you say right now? Or is it to reintegrate them into the team as a contributing player, a soldier who will do the right thing without having to be told? When the tactics you have been using aren’t working, take a moment to step back and analyze the situation. Look at it not just from your perspective, but also from the perspective of the soldier in question. Where are they coming from? What is their goal, beyond aggravating the hell out of you? In many cases, their focus is simply on slogging through the time required to get out of the military. They are not happy where they are. The military did not turn out to be what they expected when they joined up. Whether the recruiter misled them or not, the realities of deployments and combat operations take a toll on everyone. Even if their primary motivation to enlist was simply to get a job, in the beginning they had aspirations and they had pride. In even the worst soldiers, there is still a spark of pride. The challenge is how to reach that pride in a positive manner and rekindle it into a flame that will motivate the soldier.
Start by looking for the positive. What skills or talents does this soldier have that, if developed, could make the team better? Don’t get bogged down with what they can’t or won’t do. Take an objective look at their personnel file and do a little intel work. If their record shows that they have been a problem soldier for most of their service, for example, repeated disciplinary actions or failure to complete training, then you have the background to support an administrative discharge. But perhaps this is not the case. What is their civilian education level? High school graduate? GED? Some tech school or college? What are their strengths according to their ASVAB scores? What does their promotion history look like? Would they be eligible for promotion if they could get their act together? Exactly when is their ETS or DEROS? Do they have other skills beyond their primary MOS? Once you have done this investigative work, give yourself some time to think about how their positive traits could be used to better your team. Jot down a list of the skills the soldier has, or has the potential to develop. Everybody has something they can do better than most other people. The trick is to figure out what that talent is.
Then find time to sit down and talk with the soldier one-on-one in an even, unemotional manner. Tell them up front that you know they are not happy and ask them what their long-range goals are. Depending on the individual, you may get ablast of anger and frustration along the lines of “No shit!! I hate this f__king job… All I want to do is get the hell out of here.” Resist the urge to defend yourself or the military and just listen to what they have to say. Strange as it may sound, there is value from the soldier’s point of view in being able to vent their anger to their boss. Pay attention and let them do the talking. Just let them rant until they run out of steam.
When they finally stop, acknowledge that you hear what they are saying. Then take a few minutes to talk about their strengths as in “ Jones, let’s put the current situation aside for minute. You have a lot of strengths to include…” Then go on to list the good things you have found from their record, such as high test scores, specific qualifications, physical fitness, awards, or whatever they may be. Focus on the positive and appeal to their pride. No matter how pissed they may be, they still have pride and in the long run, their pride can be your best ally.
Once SPC Garcia had been a good soldier. He had been the trainee leader in his basic training platoon and AIT and he had been promoted to PFC ahead of his peers. Then he had two deployments to Afghanistan, coupled with a lazy squad leader, who never stood up for the soldiers in his squad, but was invariably quick to blame them whenever anything went wrong. This coupled with a platoon sergeant, who was a brown-noser and a coward, had burned out any ambition SPC Garcia might have had to remain in the military. To say that he had a bad attitude would be putting it mildly. Upon returning from his most recent deployment, he was reassigned to his current unit and to SSG Werner’s squad. He was surprised when SSG Werner not only listened to his frustrations, but also talked to him about his strengths. Slowly SPC Garcia began to recall what it had been like when he first joined the Army, when he had cared about being a good soldier and when his leaders had actually cared about him.
The simple change in tactics of taking time to listen to the soldier can have significant results. You are communicating to them that, as in this example, you
care about them as an individual. The response you get as a result of this approach may differ depending on where the soldier is coming from. Focus on the positive, rather than on how they have screwed up.
It’s worth asking them directly, “Even if you aren’t staying in service, you have a future. What are you planning to do when you get out?” At this point there is a good chance that they may answer with the classic, “I don’t know. I just want out.” Give them time to think a bit and then ask the question again, “You have a life ahead of you beyond the military. Where do you want to go? What do want to do?” How they reply to this question will give you insight into ways in which you can motivate them by appealing to their better side. Few of us ever get enough recognition for what we can do well. Help them to look at their situation from the longer view, rather than just what they are doing today in your organization.
To use what you learn from this conversation effectively, you have to be willing to modify your approach to better engage the target. Start by looking at the individual, mentally flushing away the crap they have given you for the moment, and focusing on the positive side. Try to see them as a new soldier and figure out what skills they bring to your team. Be willing to adjust your work assignments to capitalize on their skills. As difficult as it may be at the moment, look beyond their annoying behavior to their roots. Fan the spark of personal pride. Help them to become not just a soldier who obediently follows orders, but one who is an integral and valued member of the team, a person with pride and a positive future. As the leader, you hold the key to this transition in attitude.
Every soldier is an individual and every team is unique. The challenges of leadership during a draw down are never easy. Even under the most difficult circumstances, you have the opportunity to mold your team into a winner. But to do that you have to be willing to concentrate on the positive qualities and potential of your soldiers, encourage them to excel, and praise them regularly for their accomplishments. A pat on the back and a brief “Nice job!” are simple things that soldiers remember, and they go a long way to keeping people motivated. Being a military leader is not easy, especially during hard times, however the potential rewards to you and your soldiers reach far beyond today’s situation.
Military leader training tends to focus on mission planning and operations, as if you’re always going to be dealt a winning hand of bright, sharp cards for your team. From the perspective of military schools this is more objective, not to mention much easier. The reality of leadership, both in and out of the military, is that you have to play the game with the cards you are dealt, some of which may not even remotely resemble those in a standard poker deck. There are a few tricks to figuring out how to play these cards. Just as with poker, the longer you play the game and focus on the strengths of your soldiers, the more skilled you will become as a military leader. The mark of a great leader is not what you can do with a hand picked team, but what you can do with soldiers that other people have labeled duds.