The Leader’s Role in Preventing Off-Duty Risk

Ah yes, the age-old question: How involved should leaders be in the personal lives of Soldiers to prevent risk?

Last month, I posed a question on Twitter that led to a discussion about mitigating off-duty risk. How can leaders protect Soldiers while still providing them autonomy? Why do Soldiers need protecting at all? They’re adults, right?

This photo was featured in a post on The Rebel Chick Blog.

Every time I’ve witnessed a discussion on this topic, passionate people express valid points stemming from very personal beliefs about leadership. What I’ll do today is examine the Twitter exchange and in the next post, I’ll provide methods leaders can use to creatively mitigate off-duty risk.

Do you know where your Soldiers were last night? What more could you have done to be more engaged and prevent risk?
— The Military Leader (@mil_LEADER) January 4, 2015

“How Much is Too Much?”

How would you respond to those questions? “Yes, I’m a Squad Leader. It’s my job to know.“…or “No, I don’t know where they were but I probably should.“…or “I don’t need to know where they are. I’m not their parent.” Your answer is a quick indicator about your leadership style.

Your answer also depends on your situation. Is your unit prone to serious incidents? Are your subordinates mature, capable service members or are they new and inexperienced? Does your chain of command require detailed information and hold leaders directly accountable for every infraction?

Regardless of the situation, two facts surround the discussion:

  • Too much involvement can create a poor command climate through micromanagement and mistrust
  • Too little involvement can lead to serious incidents, indiscipline, and leader scrutiny (or relief)

So what’s the right answer? …It seems clear that we have reached the “art” of leadership where, much like strategy, every situation is unique and every response carries both positive and negative effects.

The Commander’s Role with Risk

Casey Dean had this comment on Twitter, which illuminates a point worth discussing:

@mil_LEADER At what level do we not need to know all the details? A PL should have a very good idea where his guys hang out, but a CO CDR? — Casey Dean (@CDean120) January 4, 2015

As you look higher up the chain of command, the level of detail concerning Soldier off-duty activity naturally diminishes. The first line supervisor should know the most; the commanding general will know nothing of specific Soldier activities. It is the combined leadership styles of supervisors up and down the chain that will shape the information environment regarding off-duty activity.

Yet, all commanders are responsible for the safety and well-being of their Soldiers and (I promise you) will become acutely aware of specific Soldier activities in the aftermath of a death. In fact, it is the pain of the post-death investigation process that often drives leaders to demand more information than subordinates feel is necessary.

In drawing the line of “too much vs. not enough” information, commanders must consider who has access to the information that matters.

“I have the information, but you have the access.”

In 2012, while conducting research to rewrite the 3d Cavalry Regiment’s approach to off-duty risk and counseling, we discovered that commanders are authorized access to information that platoon leaders and squad leaders aren’t. Blotter history/reports, warrants for arrest, hospitalization reports, and many others are only available to leaders with command authority. The front-line supervisors who knew details about off-duty Soldier activity had no way to see these reports without commander access.

The below slide, which we created for what would become The Mounted Rifleman Counseling Guide, shows the reports and information that the various echelons of leadership have access to (left side). The right side shows the programs and methods that leaders can use to mitigate the existing risk. The idea is that front-line supervisors assess the inherent risk in Soldier activity, then the platoon leadership verifies the assessment and makes a recommendation to the commander and First Sergeant, who take the lead in directing mitigating action.

The commander and First Sergeant are the ones best positioned to connect the administrative reporting from these documents with the actual off-duty behavior of Soldiers in the unit. They are the first point in the chain of command that has adequate visibility and authority to make informed decisions about unit risk.

So, to circle back to Casey’s comment (“Does a CO CDR need to know the details?”)…I think the answer is an emphatic yes.

Big Boy Rules

@CarlForsling had this to say on Twitter:

@mil_LEADER I don’t want to know where they are, unless we’re deployed or out training.
— Carl Forsling (@CarlForsling) January 4, 2015

His comment, referencing passes and liberty, has also been echoed in environments where the team is so mature that leader needn’t be concerned about off-duty risk or personal problems. The reasoning is valid enough:

@mil_LEADER Treat them like adults&they’ll act like adults. The ones who can’t handle that can then face consequences. — Carl Forsling (@CarlForsling) January 4, 2015

Steve Foster’s comment is in a similar vein:

@CDean120 @mil_LEADER it’s not unreasonable for an expectation to be treated like an adult when you volunteer to serve. 2/
— Steve Foster (@slfoster22) January 4, 2015

But if we really care about our service members, can a “hands-off” environment even exist? And how can we assume that none of them will ever put themselves into a position where they need our help? Distress creeps into every person’s life, even the most mature, senior, seemingly put-together team members. To ignore that fact, in itself, creates organizational risk.

Leadership is about solving problems, and I believe that includes off-duty problems and personal development. The most meaningful growth can only be achieved by breaking through the barrier of professional engagement to connect on a personal level. What kind of connection do you think happens on a postage stamp outpost perched on an Afghan mountainside? It gets personal real quick.

Conversational Counseling

In The Mounted Rifleman Counseling Guide, we made a concerted effort to provide first-line supervisors with tools that would facilitate personal engagement. The commander chose to use the Army’s Soldier and Leader Risk Reduction Tool as a baseline to determine risk. But anyone examining the SLRRT will quickly conclude that the questions are impersonal, rigid, and unrealistic to use in a conversational setting.

No Soldier is going to open up about his financial troubles when asked, “Do you have financial or employment concerns, such as inability to cover basic monthly expenses, home foreclosure, difficulty meeting child support payments, or inability to repay loans?

So, we spent days gathering input to create conversational, realistic questions that the squad leaders can use when counseling Soldiers in each SLRRT category. Were we telling them specifically how to engage their people? Certainly not. Rather, we provided tools, examples, case studies, and phrases to consider when building their unique approach.

Instead of telling the leaders, “We’re having too many incidents. You need to do a better job of counseling!”…we said, “We’re having too many incidents. We need to engage and build trust up and down the chain. You squad leaders are the key to knowing what Soldiers are thinking and what problems they’re having. Here are some tools that might help.

Here’s an example from The Mounted Rifleman Counseling Guide:

These questions turned out to be conversation starters that revealed other issues in other areas of the Soldier’s life. And the format also gave first line leaders a way to approach difficult discussion topics without being terse and impersonal.

The bottom line is that leaders will miss every train wreck they don’t care to look for. It’s possible to question subordinates about risk factors without treating them like children. Leaders have the responsibility to figure out how.

The “Ready First” Approach

In 2005, I had the pleasure of serving under COL Robert Brown (now LTG and Commander of the Combined Arms Center). He was the most genuine leader I’ve ever worked for, an opinion held by many others. He cared deeply about the development of every Soldier in the command and spent time connecting with them. He made leader development the priority and used his staff to provide tools to help Soldiers navigate both their professional and personal lives. And his approach propagated throughout the command with immense positive influence.

COL Ross Coffman, commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, responded to my Twitter questions with this succinct reply, which echoes LTG Brown’s outlook:

@mil_LEADER there is but one way to do more — Honestly Care about them. Everything yes everything else is technique. — Ross Coffman (@ReadyFirst6) January 5, 2015

His comment hits on the core of the leader’s motivation in dealing with this issue. The only legitimate reason to implement controls to prevent risk is because the leader truly cares about the Soldier. As long as the concern is genuine concern, the technique is the leader’s choice.

Do you agree?

In the next post, I’ll share a host of techniques that leaders can use mitigate risk in the formation. Some are direct, some use gentle persuasion, but you can pick and chose what fits your style.

We’ll finish where we began. How would you answer these questions?

Do you know where your Soldiers were last night? What more could you have done to be more engaged and prevent risk?
— The Military Leader (@mil_LEADER) January 4, 2015

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Originally published at on February 17, 2015.

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