Many learn to be an NCO and SNCO simply by doing. First, as a SNCO, I learned that I wasn’t just a supervisor of a handful of SSgts, SrA or A1Cs anymore; I had to learn that I was responsible for those within my entire duty section. It can be emotionally and mentally challenging, something that can be difficult to handle. You aren’t just looking after 3 or 4 people, a shift, or maybe a small shop; you’re looking after several sections with 60+ people. Scale of responsibility isn’t the only thing I learned about; it looks good on an EPR, but it comes with its stressors. You don’t just supervise; you are often shaping people’s careers.
As a SNCO, you become responsible for the actions, successes and failures of many. You learn that it’s not about you anymore—it’s about pushing your subordinates into the spotlight and teaching them that it’s not so bad to soak up that spotlight. Your success hinges on your team’s success. You become the magician behind the scenes orchestrating and creating that environment for success—but you might not be seen or recognized for doing it. You are recognized when your team shines. It can be gritty; you may be working after hours if only to make sure one subordinate is taken care of or finishing that award package so that they get the nomination they deserve. You have to stretch outside your comfort zone and be a disciplinarian at times while also being someone who is approachable. You have to be worthy of trust but also be at arm’s length and distant enough to stay objective when looking at all under your charge. Many of these things apply to NCOs as well; it simply depends on your scope and span of control.
Here are a few keys to success I’ve managed to learn over the years—this is by no means all-inclusive and it applies to SNCOs as well as NCOs:
- Don’t think you need to solve all your subordinate’s personal problems. Believe it or not, that can be tough because you might feel obligated to…at least I felt that way. Often times you are there as a sounding board. The best you can often do is refer, give them the lessons you’ve learned when you face a similar challenge, sanity check them, or just listen.
- You are not the smartest person in the room just because you outrank everyone, and rank is never an indicator of someone’s knowledge or ability. Just because TSgts should be the technical experts doesn’t mean that others do not have knowledge that the TSgt lacks.
- Just because a subordinate asks a question about a decision doesn’t mean you can’t share some perspective. It goes a long way to share the ‘big picture’ view with your subordinates—situation dependent. If I am under time constraints or dealing with an emergency situation, I probably wouldn’t have time to share that information—sometimes I really just need something to happen without a question. Supervisors sometimes get this wrong by mistaking a question about decisions as a question of authority and overreact to that.
- Know who you are working for. People often get this wrong in the way they approach their jobs; doing things to appease the boss as opposed to balancing the needs of people with the mission. You should have the confidence and awareness to know when something affects your people and point out limitations in the face of constraints.
- Don’t jump to conclusions—examine the problem from as many sides as you can. It can be easy to be drawn into one side of a situation; withhold judgement until you get different perspectives to the situation. People see things one way, others see it another way, and somewhere in the middle is the truth. Don’t stomp on symptoms, find root causes.
- Never say, “Do as I say, not as I do”. If you are telling your subordinates that, you’ve already lost effectiveness as a leader. General Colin Powell once said that the most important lesson he learned was that soldiers watch what their leaders do; “You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow”.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned; you will never be a perfect SNCO or NCO. Even after having been a SNCO for 3 years, I still learn things about my leadership style and learn from mistakes I make. The end goal ultimately is to have a positive, lasting impact on those you lead and make them better than you are. Self-study is key; learn from others’ experiences and mistakes!