Perspectives Regarding Battalion Leadership Effectiveness—and Applicability to a Civilian Context

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

The observations made in this discussion are focused on non-combat field and garrison operations of battalions both stationed in the Continental United States and forward deployed in Western Germany and the Republic of South Korea.  They are taken from experiences with nine maneuver battalions and a combat support and a Reserve Officer Training Corps Battalion. Altogether 10 ½ years of battalion level environment experience, not including three additional years on maneuver brigade and divisional staffs.

The observations address that environment’s leadership aspects that may be relevant to leaders confronting current situations.  This, the battalion organization, of all military environments, has many civilian organizational parallels.

Some parallels will be made to civilian organizational experiences to demonstrate similarities and contrasts.   The objective is to develop visibility of some of the more noteworthy leadership practices that were applied and that appeared to be effective and some that were not.

Composition of the Battalions. The battalions in the experience sample ranged from organizations of 500-1,000 soldiers.  The soldiers were in all enlisted grades from basic private to command sergeant major and all officer grades from 2nd lieutenant to lieutenant colonel.

The single lieutenant colonel in each battalion mix was the only battalion member of that rank at any time and always the commander of the organization.  The only possible occurrence of two officers in that rank being assigned simultaneously would have been on a deployment having a lieutenant colonel assigned from the medical corps as a battalion surgeon.  This situation did not occur in my experience.  When not deployed the battalion surgeons were consolidated in the medical operation of the garrison, typically an Army hospital. If a surgeon was assigned to the battalion on deployment, the medical doctor would typically be a captain or major.   As the commander the lieutenant colonel was the battalion’s ostensible senior “leader.”

The exception to this manning and rank structure was the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) battalion.  It was an organization of a 13 active Army officer and non-commissioned officer cadre augmented by two Department of the Army administrative staff and some 210-220 Military Science I, II, III and IV cadets, some 235 personnel.  The Professor of Military Science (battalion commander) was a lieutenant colonel fulfilling the same functions of the commander in the line battalions with a supporting major and four to five captains organized pretty much along the lines of a battalion staff.

The ROTC battalion might at times be further augmented by 1-4 “early commission” 2nd lieutenants, cadets who had been commissioned on successful completion of their pre-commissioning requirements but continued on campus to complete their degrees.

Approximately a quarter of one of the maneuver battalion’s strength consisted of Republic of Korea Army national service soldiers assigned to the battalion as KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) soldiers.   This form of battalion manning created unique leadership situations different from a fully U.S. manned unit.

The battalions of the type experienced typically included one warrant officer, a rank straddling the enlisted grades and the officer grades.  Warrant officers in the U.S. Army are typically specialists in supply, vehicle maintenance, personnel administration or aircraft piloting who will serve only in that specialist capacity.  Though they enjoy officer privileges they are not oriented on commissioned officer generalist development designed to ultimately command and staff units and formations to senior levels.  The latter tracking is specifically that followed by the commissioned officers.

The above distinctions are important to note as they affect the style of leadership engaged in by the categories. Most of the battalions experienced were “maneuver” combat battalions that only had assigned a single warrant officer who specialized in vehicle maintenance and was assigned to the battalion’s maintenance section serving under the battalion’s motor officer, typically a junior captain of the branch arm of the battalion, i. e., infantry.   However, in the Air Defense Artillery battalion experience, a Nike-Hercules missile unit, there were three warrant officers assigned to each missile battery of the battalion.  They were the technical depth over the specialized functions of key battery mission elements like target acquisition and fire control.

Observations of Positive Leadership.  Positive leadership examples that made a difference in the battalion.

  • Where company and battalion commanders established a focused commitment to a mission, preferably a “go to war” contingency mission against which all training was oriented, battalion elan, professionalism and troop discipline and morale tended to be strongest. This was perhaps the most positive feature of a successful leader’s style and approach.
  • In my experience the best and most effective leaders were good listeners and could absorb what they were listening to. They showed a skill and talent with use of the information they absorbed in applying it to their role as leaders.
  • Aggressive, realistic but reasonable, training programs that engaged all members of the unit and focused on the go to war mission, or its equivalent, avoiding excessive make do non-mission training, produced soldier identification with the unit and evolved into positive forms of elan.
  • All leaders lead by example, to the most senior leader.  The leaders did what they asked their soldiers to do, no matter how difficult.  If soldiers had to crawl through the mud….the battalion commander led the way crawling through the mud.
  • The leader who applies a fair and honest treatment to every soldier under command will produce a very strong unit. Soldiers identify with fair application of awards, discipline…all the way to quartering.  If leaders favor anyone and the favoring is perceived as unfair, such conduct by leaders will erode soldier confidence in their leaders.
  • The best leaders demand the highest standards of physical fitness from the soldiers under command. Fit units always preformed tough missions better. But fitness strategies must be realistic to unit mission.
  • Leaders ensure the soldiers under command are fed and quartered before they take care of themselves…this does have to be balanced with key leaders being able to accomplish key actions when necessary and not fail to maintain their own physical ability to function.
  • Discipline is fair, the best leaders applied discipline when needed and fairly. Any perception of unfairness was avoided.
  • Strong leaders were also strong on equipment maintenance. If a mounted unit, the best leaders were deeply into the maintenance of the fleet in garrison and when deployed.
  • Know your soldiers…strong leaders knew their soldiers, their duty performance, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, aspirations, families and from all of this knowledge, the soldiers potential, especially as a leader.
  • Leaders who are not consumed by self-promoting egoism are usually the better leaders. Leaders known to have a genuine interest in developing their soldiers and being strong advocates for promotion and reward for soldiers who serve under them will gain strong reputations that soldiers identify with.  The soldiers will support such leaders under almost impossible conditions.
  • Leaders who are visible in the unit and accessible to the soldier become known as the leader. Such leaders tend to be more effective.
  • Leaders who know what’s going on, the mission, the condition of the barracks, the status of the vehicle fleet, the society of the unit, the condition of the troops, in other words every facet of the organization, are typically more effective. The soldiers sense the leader that knows what is going on and has the ability to use that knowledge to good effect for the unit.  Such leaders obtain the full confidence of their soldiers.
  • Leaders, after effective information gathering and competent analysis of that information are able to make decisions that lead to successful accomplishment of task and mission. Soldiers quickly lose confidence in indecisive leaders unable to make decisions.
  • The most effective leaders use all tools available within security or privacy constraints to ensure maximum knowledge of mission and tasks to be preformed of every subordinate leader and soldier. A unit that knows what it is doing and why will always perform exceptionally.
  • The best leaders always pursued a quiet self improvement…they seemed to understand that they could always do better. But they did not allow this pursuit to make them indecisive or indicate that they lacked confidence.

Observations of Unproductive Leadership.  Of course the inverse to all previous observations applies as leadership activity that is unproductive.  Some behavior in this category is important to emphasize.

  • Favoring or discriminating against any element in a unit never produces good results. Right at the doorstep of opportunity to fail of a military unit of battalion size is the leader cadre of officers.  Depending on the army or component of an army, this corps may come from many commissioning sources. The author has been in battalions where officers were commissioned from direct commissions from the ranks, active army officer candidate school, state national guard officer candidate school, different university and college ROTC battalions, and the U.S. Military Academy. The most effective leaders favored no officer or commissioning source but treated all equally and engaged each based on performance of duty.  This approach when not applied produced internal divisions, dissension, back stabbing, jealousies and other results and behaviors that produced a very toxic internal climate in a unit.
  • Leaders who are stingy with awards and recognition in units generally produce sterile uninspired individual and collective performance. While it is important not to reduce the status of awards by indiscriminate use, it is better to err toward recognition of performance with awards.
  • Too little leader presence has the effect of no one knowing the leader. A leader does well to be seen and heard, especially where that presence adds to the leader relationship and the quality of that relationship with members of the organization.  This being said, the leader’s art is to beware of over familiarity.
  • Failing to assemble the organization sufficiently to support cohesion and a sense of the leader by the organization members tends toward a unit that has no soul and does not know who it is. There are multiple means of achieving the assembly of the unit and use of assembly must be balanced with the importance of mission function.
  • Every task a leader causes to be performed by individuals or organizations should be a necessary task to mission and function. Busy work, make do or personal servitude must be avoided…they will corrode the legitimacy of the leader in the organization.
  • Failure by the leader to treat organization members with dignity and respect will over time greatly diminish a leader’s effectiveness. Every soldier is treated as a professional soldier.
  • Leaders must not be afraid to apply discipline…but always fairly and not arbitrarily. A leader that is unable to maintain discipline because of being too timid to apply it or too arbitrary and heavy handed in its application will over time become ineffective as a leader.
  • Leaders who rely on fear and intimidation will fail. The organizations and units they are assigned to lead will at best be lack lustre.
  • Leaders who lack integrity and are not honorable in their dealings will quickly become known as such by members of the organization eroding their credibility and effectiveness.
  • Leaders that fail to strive for personal competence in critical organization mission skills and abilities and achieve that necessary competence will be greatly compromised in their ability to lead the organization. This failure may lead to removal of a leader.
  • Leaders who are amoral and allow their amorality to infect their leadership of an organization will typically fail.
  • Leaders who are considered by the organization to take short cuts and not perform tasks and missions as they should be performed lay the groundwork for organizational failure.

The Leadership Observation Crossovers to Civilian Organizations.   From following experience as a training officer in a state park system, state park region manager, capital outlay operations manager for a 50 employee design and construction and real property office of a major state agency responsible for several hundred million dollars worth of real property and some 100 million dollars of capital and maintenance reserve projects, and later as a region manager for a state department of labor and industry responsible for inspections/audits of private and public sector small to international corporate organizations operating in a 32 county and municipality jurisdiction that included the state’s capital district, I determined that all leadership observations noted from the battalions applied.  It was important to adapt the observations to the culture and context of these civilian organizations but the general effect of applying them was successful and produced the results necessary.  The job and mission got done and done well.

One caution that is relevant follows.  Many members of civilian organizations that do not have military experience may have negative or qualifying stereotypes of people from military backgrounds.  These stereotypes if serving a basis to their overt actions and behavior or covert behavior may undercut the person from the military background as colleague or leader in the organization.  Though not a major detractor in my experience it was present and had to be considered and sometimes dealt with.  Key was for the person with a military background to assess the culture of the organization and act and communicate within norms and standards of behavior that applied.

Concluding Perspectives regarding Observations.  Leader effectiveness in a battalion format clearly has many aspects as the observations indicate.  Leaders that adapted to a mix of application of the more positive observed behaviors, techniques and traits almost always did well and led organizations that were very satisfying to serve in or be a member of.  They were successful organizations.

Leaders who failed to apply the observations and or fell prey to the negative observations, produced, at best, mediocre performances and sometimes worse.  Fortunately in my experience such leadership and leaders proved rare.


  1. 11088 Howard Hisdal on September 24, 2021 at 3:33 pm

    These observations as also true in the academic world. At Okanagan College, the early college presidents with military experience as captains during the Second World were considered out standing leaders. They did things like get out of their offices and wander around the campus, talking and listening to their students, staff, and faculty. These are all things that a second lieutenant learns to do. Unfortunately most academic leaders usually have no leadership training at all.

  2. Tom Rozman on September 29, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    An excellent observation Howard generally validated during the four and a half years I was a graduate student and assistant professor with instructor privileges exercised on three different campuses…a state university, a state college and a private college. The faculty that were most effective as professors with genuine interest in their students and “teaching,” almost always proved to be veterans. Two further observations/thoughts follow.

    1) The more problematic faculty from an effective teaching, mentoring, and “leadership” standpoint typically were not veterans and had not professionally developed through a system that pointedly honed skills and abilities in the latter two categories. In my experience this deficiency compromised their effectiveness in delivering a quality educational product.

    2) Perhaps at colleges and universities where such a shortfall may be affecting the school’s viability and quality of product, some form of in-service faculty leadership development could be employed to the benefit of the faculty members, the students, and the school.

Leave a Comment