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Step aside, gunny: Corps takes steps to shift leadership power

Jun. 2, 2014 - 08:44PM   |  
Day of the NCO: Sergeants, corporals take the helm
Sgt. Anthony Christy, right,acting commanding officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 2, and Sgt. Jason Kiernan the acting executive officer of CLB-2, plan out their day during the battalion's NCO day aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., on May 6. (Cpl. Shawn Valosin/Marine Corps)
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Months after noncommissioned officers were called on to 'reawaken the soul of the Corps,' unit leaders are looking for ways to best empower and develop their junior Marines — and some are even stepping out of their jobs to allow a corporal or sergeant to

Months after noncommissioned officers were called on to 'reawaken the soul of the Corps,' unit leaders are looking for ways to best empower and develop their junior Marines — and some are even stepping out of their jobs to allow a corporal or sergeant to

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Months after noncommissioned officers were called on to “reawaken the soul of the Corps,” unit leaders are looking for ways to best empower and develop their junior Marines — and some are even stepping out of their jobs to allow a corporal or sergeant to step in.

About every six weeks, sergeants and corporals fill the billets of roughly 165 staff NCOs and officers within 2nd Maintenance Battalion, out of Camp Lejuene, North Carolina. Their leaders step off deck for the day, allowing the NCOs to run the unit on their own. And they’re filling the positions from the platoon staff NCO in charge all the way up to battalion company officer and sergeant major.

Coined “NCO day,” it was developed by Lt. Col. Craig Clemans, 2nd Maintenance Battalion’s CO. But the idea is taking hold with other units within 2nd Marine Logistics Group. Combat Logistics Battalion 2 held an NCO day in May, and leaders there say they hope to make it a regular thing.

During NCO day, the Marines sport their own regular rank insignia on one collar and a red felt insignia of the leader they’re stepping in for that day. The program aims to build the NCOs’ confidence, but perhaps more importantly leaders’ confidence in their junior Marines, said Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Mancio, with CLB-2. It can be a challenge to step out and let someone else take over your responsibilities, he said, but it’s imperative in developing his Marines’ leadership capabilities.

That idea ties into several efforts moving through the Corps to peg more leadership responsibility on NCOs. And it falls against the backdrop of the “reawakening” — a call by Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett to the more than 140,000 Marines who serve as sergeants and below to cast out bad behavior they say is plaguing the service.

The existing Marine Corps mentoring order is due for replacement with one (currently in testing phases) called Leadership Development, which is designed to equip unit leaders with time and resources to help them get more engaged in their Marines’ every day lives. Amos is also pushing officials to find ways to get every corporal and sergeant a resident professional military education experience.

Following the trend from up top, unit leaders continue branding their own grassroots efforts to foster better leadership in the ranks, like NCO day, giving corporals and sergeants the opportunity to lead from the top. Members of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, based in California, continue to push the boundaries on their Committed and Engaged Leadership Initiative, led by their commanding general, Maj. Gen. Steven Busby. Gunnery and master sergeants there recently participated in a three-day seminar, motivating them to reinvest themselves into the leadership of their Marines.

These efforts can go a long way with NCOs, many of whom expressed feeling blamed after the “reawakening” due to the actions of a few bad Marines who have given the Corps a bad rep. Today’s generation of NCOs are young but experienced, having held a great deal of responsibility over the years in combat zones, and leaders have to ensure they’re just as motivated when they return home.

For the roughly 400 NCOs with the 2nd Maintenance Battalion, it comes in the form of competing for the leadership billets that open up during NCO day. But aside from the novelty of wearing a new rank for a day, the program has taken on new meaning for NCOs since the reawakening, because it serves as evidence that their unit leaders have confidence in their abilities.

NCOs: 'Stop punishing us'

The leaders running NCO days at Camp Lejeune used a common word to describe the endgame: empowerment. Putting NCOs into positions of higher leadership and letting them sort out challenges helps to highlight their individual capabilities, said Sgt. Maj. Charmalyn Pile, the top enlisted Marine with CLB-2, which held an NCO day May 6.

“We want to give them a little more confidence in their leadership abilities,” Pile said. “We have a lot of strong NCOs in the battalion, and I feel like they’re capable of great things.”

This recent explosion of leadership initiatives is imperative in creating strong NCOs in a garrison environment, said a California-based sergeant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Shortly after the reawakening, he said he felt like NCOs were being blamed for all of the Marine Corps’ problems. The solution shouldn’t be more punishments, he said, but more challenges.

“The idea that every Marine needs to be babysat and micromanaged is just insulting,” he said. “A few Marines made stupid decisions and ... the only way they know how to [deal with it] is with a million safety standdowns and taking every other Marine’s privileges away.”

Instead, they need to give the Marine Corps back to the NCOs, he said. Corporals and sergeants need to be shown that they’re trusted to do the job they earned the right to do when they pinned on their ranks, he added.

Rather than encouragement, a popular reaction to the reawakening letter within the NCO community was that they had been scapegoated for what would otherwise be a minor uptick in bad behavior. Another sergeant, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he felt targeted by the Corps’ most senior leaders.

“ ‘One team, one fight,’ doesn’t mean anything if the team is constantly paying for the lowest common denominator,” he said.

Pile said she thinks all the NCOs with CLB 2 know their leaders have faith and confidence in their ability to lead, but the sentiment was reinforced when they stepped aside for NCO day.

“I think this just strengthens that bond between senior enlisted and officer-level with the NCOs,” she said. “We trust them, and we know that they can do it, and we’re willing to give them the opportunity to try the things they might not always have the opportunity to do.”

Marines literally treat the initiative as if it were a job opening, with leaders from 2nd MLG interviewing NCOs to see who will be a good fit to fill certain billets, Clemans said. They’re looking for NCOs with proven leadership skills who plan to make a career in the Corps. They also look for technical proficiency because leading the battalion while the senior Marines are out of pocket involves a great deal of responsibility.

Clemans’ battalion gets about 75 service requests calling for equipment from across the base to be repaired each day. When it’s NCO day, production remains steady and safety standards are still enforced, he said. That means they expect a lot of the NCOs they leave behind to run the battalion.

Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Brumley, 2nd Maintenance Battalion’s general support and maintenance company gunny, said when he plans for an NCO to step in for him at the company gunny level, he makes sure he leaves them with tasks that will make them feel accomplished upon successful completion. Staff Sgt. Jesse Felts, 2nd Maintenance Battalion’s electronic maintenance company gunnery sergeant, said putting NCOs into those situations that leave them empowered and engaged clearly motivates them.

“It’s an opportunity for them, not necessarily to prove themselves, because they already prove themselves every day,” Felts said. “But to show that they don’t need that immediate supervisor there to accomplish that mission.”

The bigger picture

When the staff NCOs and officers step out during NCO day, Clemans said they typically hold their own leadership seminars and play athletic games to build camaraderie. As the battalion CO, he said he uses that time to remind the higher ranking Marines to trust the NCOs they’ve left behind.

“I tell the staff NCOs and officers ... at this point in time, everyone needs to feel very comfortable about what’s going on back at the battalion,” Clemans said. “This is a time when we enjoy the fact that we have trained these young Marines to do exactly what needs to be done and do it right.”

That’s one of the topics that came up during the recent three-day seminar for gunnery and master sergeants with 3rd MAW. Master Sgt. Byron Tavares, an avionics administrative chief with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 39, was selected to attend the seminar. He said it was a good reminder for staff NCOs to keep their focus on their Marines rather than getting wrapped into the hot issue of the day. That means investing time in Marines, knowing when to step back — even when you know they’re going to make a mistake, he said.

“You have to allow them to fall on their sword a few times,” Tavares said. “That’s how they’re going to learn.”

Holding events like NCO day not only allows higher ranking staff NCOs and officers a glimpse into what their junior Marines are capable of, but also gives the NCOs a big-picture view of running their unit. Sgt. Samantha Swords, who filled in for Pile during CLB-2’s NCO day, said seeing all the responsibilities her sergeant major deals with on a day-to-day basis gives her new appreciation what happens at the higher levels of her chain of command.

As one of CLB-2’s career planner, Swords said it’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking about her own responsibilities. But serving in Pile’s billet allowed her to experience how the sergeant major would prioritize things that come her way.

That’s knowledge that will help her in her own job, she said. But taking the reins as an NCO should be something they’re always thinking about at their ranks, she said.

“You always need to prepare for the next rank, the next billet. You never know what’s going to happen next. You never want to become stagnant in what you’re doing — you always want to progress and improve yourself.”

That’s a trait Tavares and Clemans stressed as well that they work to build junior Marines. Eventually the master sergeant and lieutenant colonel will leave their units behind and in the hands of those currently serving as NCOs.

“You’ve got to continue to inspire, because it’s not necessarily about you anymore,” Tavares said. “I’m not the one putting rounds on targets and I’m not the one getting aircraft to fly — it’s all of these much younger men and women.”

The leaders who’ve implemented NCO days aboard Camp Lejeune not only plan to carry it forward within their own units, but encourage others to try it as well. It doesn’t come without risk, Clemans said, whose battalion deals with a lot of high-voltage equipment. Safety is always a concern, but it’s up to staff NCOs and officers to make sure their Marines are trained well enough to do a good job when their leaders aren’t looking. And if NCOs know that they’re directly responsible for unit safety because they’re on the hook when their leaders leave for the day, it also gives them a sense of ownership, he said.

Clemans said he plans to continue NCO day until he checks out of the battalion, and hopes the next leader will continue the program. Pile said they hope to hold it at CLB-2 quarterly — possibly extending it from one day to several.

The program fits so well with the reawakening, Clemans said, because the Marines who’ve deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan understand that what they do at home isn’t a game — it’s in preparation for a larger mission. Giving NCOs a chance to share their knowledge as combat veterans through engaged leadership and programs like NCO day gives sergeants and corporals a chance to share that message with their junior Marines, he said.

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