Value in Teaching Followership to Infantry Soldiers?
It was the summer of 1994 and I was a young buck sergeant newly assigned to my first squad leader position in a National Guard Infantry company going through a rotation of the Jungle Warfare Course at Fort Sherman, Panama. I was from a small town National Guard unit and I struggled with my new leadership assignment because I was promoted over soldiers I had been previously serving with as a peer. To make matters worse, two of the soldiers assigned to my squad were active duty staff sergeants; they had missed a previous rotation through the Jungle Warfare Course and were assigned to my company to help round out our numbers.
The soldiers I was leading still considered me their friend, and they were overly familiar to the point of disrespect. Although it normally took the form of good-natured ribbing; they would mock and make jokes, the fact was that they would jump on every weakness. I spent most of my time feeling either angry or discouraged, and I felt like a failure as a leader. So I sought counsel from my mentor, a senior NCO whose leadership style was greatly admired, and he told me something I will never forget, he said, “You’re going to be a great leader. You want to know why? Because you are a great follower.” I didn’t understand his advice then, but now, almost 25 years later as I work to design Infantry training scenarios the concept of followership has become a subject of special significance.
What happens in the next big war?
The US Infantry conducts operations worldwide, and school houses like mine are a vital link between realistic training and the effectiveness of noncommissioned officers in the contemporary operating environment (COE). In the winter 2017, the Chief of the Infantry, BG Christopher Donahue, stated that the goal of the Infantry School at Ft. Benning is to “produce Infantry leaders that are prepared to fight and win against a near peer.”
Training Infantry soldiers to fight against a near peer adversary means preparing them for large-scale combat against enemies with technology and capabilities similar to American forces. Such conflict would be more like WWII than Operation Iraqi Freedom, and after decades of relatively small-scale conflicts, neither the senior leaders nor the new recruits have experienced anything like it.
Imagine a scenario where everyone from every branch of the military was mobilized for active duty to plunge into a desperate fight with almost no time to prepare. While such a scenario seems almost inconceivable to most Americans; military planners consider possibilities such as an invasion of the American homeland. What if US forces do not have air superiority? What if US forces do not have cyber superiority? What if US forces are outnumbered? This last is a distinct possibility considering the size of today’s forces. Would we have to re-institute the draft? Now that women are authorized to serve in every combat role, including the Infantry, would we draft women into the Infantry? My schoolhouse in Oregon was the first to train female NCOs for the Infantry, and many of our recommendations have been incorporated into standardized Infantry training. Therefore we do try to imagine novel training issues and integrate them into our scenarios.
If such a scenario were to manifest, military leaders at all levels would find themselves faced with problems they never before conceived of. Schoolhouse operators attempt to plan for the inconceivable and then try to prepare students for to fight in the next COE. Such a conflict has the potential to turn just about everything we know about military operations upside down, including our concepts of leadership and followership.