Home Inspections: A Cornerstone of Company Leadership

CCLKOW is a weekly conversation on military affairs jointly hosted by the Center for Company-Level Leaders (CCL) at the US Military Academy at West Point and the Kings of War (KOW), a blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army or the Department of Defense. Read the post and join the discussion on Twitter #CCLKOW

This week’s #CCLKOW is written by CPT Micah Klein, a Logistics Officer and the voice of team CCL.

“Inspect what you expect.” A catchy line made by a visitor on one of team CCL’s podcasts represents one of the most integral duties of us as leaders. In this week’s #CCLKOW, we’ll discuss home visits by company grade officers and ask for your advice about the 5 Ws of home inspections.

It was November of 2007 and I just reported to my unit for the first time. My unit was already in Iraq and I had roughly 10 days of required training before it was my turn to get on a flight to the desert. Training didn’t start until Monday and that left four days of work for me and a fellow second lieutenant friend of mine to earn our pay around the battalion. One of the first things we were asked to do in our off duty time was to help a Soldier’s wife to move their family from an off-post residence to on-post housing. Young, energetic, and eager to help, I jumped on the opportunity of helping one of my new platoon’s families. Released for the day at about 1700HRS, I quickly changed and we met the Soldier’s spouse at their home. What we saw when we arrived was a scene from every BOLC horror story that you always thought could never be true, but was. The house was a complete disaster. Dirty diapers were scattered throughout the house with human waste littering parts of the floor, pots and pans that looked as though they had never been cleaned were everywhere in the kitchen, and dirty clothes lined the floors of the house. It looked as though a tornado struck the house and we were there as part of a cleanup crew to help take care of the mess. We looked at each other and wondered how anyone could live in this mess. Although we were told that the Soldier’s family was moving on post because the current neighborhood they were living in was experiencing a rash of thefts, assaults, and generally unsafe conditions, it was clear to us that this move would mean more to the Soldier than his family’s physical safety.

The move took us upwards of six hours and we spent the following day unpacking and helping the family get situated in their new quarters. My friend and I grabbed lunch together the next day and spent the meal discussing the “was that for real?” moments during the move. We did what we thought was right at the time and reported what we saw to the rear detachment company commander so he was at least aware of the situation. We deployed before the situation would pan out, but we left the family in a much better place than they were off-post.

A number of years later, approximately five to be exact, I would take the guidon of my own organization. One of the priorities at the brigade level was “leaders checks.” This was great because it aligned with my own personal values of engaged leadership, and it gave me the opportunity to emphasize my commitment to my company’s families. At least once per quarter, my first sergeant and I randomly visited the houses of our unit’s sergeants and staff sergeants (E5/E6) and visited the homes of all of our junior enlisted Soldiers. My training company’s permanent part cadre was approximately 20, but the company itself was 375 Soldiers strong when you included our trainees. The trainees were inspected weekly as a point of emphasis that we made at the squad/Soldier level. Inspecting homes off post is a legal concern and I would suggest that you consult with your brigade’s staff judge advocate (SJA) before knocking on doors to get an idea of what your post/unit policy is on inspecting homes. Off post, we weren’t allowed to enter homes unless we were invited by the Soldier. Creating a command climate of trust and caring leadership ensured that, with few exceptions, all of the members of our company invited us into their homes. Most Soldiers were excited to showcase their residence, family photos, and a few invited us for extended stays. We respected private parts of the home and weren’t looking to barge into the Soldier/spouse’s bedrooms. You can tell a lot about how the family is living by just being present in the common areas of the home, and respecting the personal nature of the household. In on post residences, we were legally allowed to go into any quarters we wanted to, but we kept the same philosophy of trust and respect as we did with the Soldiers off-post. There was one case during our inspections where we were able to help a Soldier correct a poor living situation and a few others where we returned to inspect more frequently than the once/quarter until the situations improved. On the back end of the inspections, Soldiers expressed their gratitude for taking an interest in their families and spending time with them.

From this, I’d like to offer my own advice for home inspections and solicit any best practices you have in this weeks discussion.

  1. As a Commander, seek to inspect the homes of your lieutenants and platoon sergeants. These sort of inspections should be done as a command team (Commander, 1SG, and XO, assuming your XO is seasoned). Outline your expectation to your lieutenants that he/she does the same with his/her platoon.
  2. Consult with your brigade’s SJA before you inspect off-post housing (and it doesn’t hurt to do so before you inspect on-post quarters).
  3. Don’t outwear your welcome. We stayed for around 15 minutes per house. This is plenty of time to get an understanding of how your Soldiers are living without being intrusive. Houses that were a concern caused us to stay a few minutes over the normal 15.
  4. Remember that you’re not a detective and home inspections aren’t a witch hunt. You’re trying to make sure that the home is a safe and healthy place to live. If you’re going there with a fine-tooth comb and looking under mattresses, you’re probably missing the message. As a commander, providing a clear commander’s intent (mission command) will avoid some of these issues.
  5. Try an inspect on the weekends, if possible. Relating back to number 4, I know that a lot of our organizing, cleaning, and household “PMCS” is done on the weekends. That isn’t to say that your Soldiers won’t be living well during the week, but the weekend provides a break from some of the chaos that consumes the week.

This leads us to this week’s discussion questions:

  1. Did you do home inspections during your time as a Platoon Leader? Company Commander? Why/Why not?
  2. Assuming you did inspections, what was your biggest takeaway from the event?
  3. Throughout your own career, were your quarters ever inspected by your first line supervisor? How did you feel about that event?