Warrior Leader Course and NCO Professional Development

Some folks seem to be natural leaders. Others, not so much. While being born with the qualities of a natural leader is nice, the Army believes very strongly that leaders can be grown, and in fact, with the size of the Army, must be. While the Army has long had professional development for officers, beginning with the US Military Academy, and placed great trust in its institutional school system to train soldiers in warfare,  professional development and schools for Non Commissioned Officers is a relatively new development.

From the days of Washington up until the eve of World War II, a sergeant’s stripes belonged, almost literally, to the company commander. The CO would choose his own First Sergeant from among his soldiers. Very minor infractions could find even the most senior NCOs reduced to Private, with little or no due process. On the other hand, those stripes could often be returned with as much process. When  a new CO came in, he’d very often choose to install his own choice as First Sergeant.  Professional development for such NCOs consisted completely of on-the-job training.

But with the vast expansion of the Army in World War II, the Army struggled mightily to find within its ranks those soldiers that could serve as sergeants, that key bridge between the officer ranks and the mass of private soldiers.  While centralized Department of the Army (DA) controlled promotions were not instituted, some divisions in the field began to provide ad hoc schools to junior NCOs, usually focused on administrative and tactical matters, but with a little leadership thrown in. As time went on, more and more, leadership became a larger part of these courses.

By the time of the Vietnam war, promotions to the junior NCO grades were semi-centralized, and those of the senior NCO grades were DA controlled. And more and more often, divisions ran their own schools to prepare junior NCOs as leaders, both tactically and as leaders. In fact, so critical was the shortage of Sergeants, eventually, the Army set up “shake and bake” NCO courses, where the best and brightest of a Basic Training cycle would be sent immediately to further schooling, and upon completion, be promoted to Sergeant and sent overseas to combat. While this was a far less satisfactory way of finding NCO material than an orderly progression through the ranks, the idea of formal schooling prior to serving as an NCO was found to be sound.

Indeed, providing ever greater levels of professional development training to NCOs throughout their careers was soon implemented. Over the years, some of the names of courses have changed, but the basic structure of NCO schools has remained constant for about 30 years now.

Once known as Primary NCO Course (“PNOC”- pronounced ‘pee-knock’), then in my day Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC), and now the Warrior Leader Course (WLC), the first rung on the ladder of schools actually takes place before a soldier becomes an NCO. As a prerequisite to promotion to Sergeant, all soldiers must attend the course. WLC is branch immaterial, meaning that the course is the same, no matter what military occupational specialty you hold.  My squad at PLDC had a grunt, a tanker, an admin clerk, and a guy who ground eyeglasses. Most large installations run their own NCO Academy offering this course. While you’re often attending class on the same base that you normally live on, it’s a “resident” course, and you stay in the barracks set aside for the NCO academy. Having to live in austere barracks and undergo room inspections and in ranks personnel inspections has some shades of a return to basic training. The goal isn’t just to make the students miserable, but rather to reinforce the ideal of high standards. Further, students are rotated through leadership roles in their class groups, such as squad leader or platoon sergeant. In these roles, they’re expected to actually conduct such inspections, learning from the other side just what leaders are looking for. Indeed, while there is a great deal of classroom instruction, the goal is that all instruction is followed by a practical exercise where students learn by doing.

The goal of the WLC is to give the prospective Sergeant a grounding in the principles of leadership and interpersonal skills sufficient to prepare them to serve as a first line leader, such as a fire team leader in an infantry squad, or a work center supervisor in an office.  The presumption is that these soldiers already have gained, or soon will,  the the technical proficiency of their future grade.

Sergeants facing promotion to Staff Sergeant again have to attend a resident course prior to promotion. This Basic Non Commissioned Officers Course (BNCOC- ‘Be-Nock’) is, unlike WLC, branch specific. That is, each course shares a common core of leadership topics, but large parts of the course are also technical and specific to the student’s MOS.  Some large installations run their own BNCOC courses for certain MOS’s, such as Infantry and Armor/Cavalry. Other, less dense MOS’s such as dental technician, have to attend a  centralized course at their branch’s center. For instance, all MOS’s in the Quartermaster branch, such as cooks and unit supply specialists attend BNCOC at the NCO Academy at the Quartermaster Center and School at Ft. Lee, VA. By this time, the Sergeants have practical experience in direct supervision and leadership. To be sure, great emphasis is placed on reinforcing this training, but in addition, more advanced technical and tactical skills are taught. Training management begins to be taught here. Sergeants are responsible for training their soldiers. At the lowest levels, it’s as simple as teaching how to disassemble and reassemble the M16 or M4, or how the team should perform room clearing. But BNCOC begins to teach NCO’s how to manage and prepare quality training. How does a leader decide what tasks need to be taught? What resources are needed to conduct meaningful training for a given task? Where can the leader find those resources and how can he schedule or budget them? How can a leader ensure that the training he’s conducting supports and synchronizes with the unit training his commander has planned? Good (and well trained!) NCOs always have a plan for training, both scheduled events in the future, and hip-pocket plans for when opportunities pop up. BNCOC lays the foundation for NCOs to build these plans.

And it’s not just planning to train. NCOs are expected to teach. For instance, large parts of the course are peer-taught. You’re graded on courses your fellow students have taught you, and more importantly, you’re graded on how well you taught your fellow soldiers. For instance, during my BNCOC course, I had to develop a lesson plan for, and teach a course on calling for fire support. A poor class would have the Sergeant standing there reading the instructions right out of the manual. A better class might involve VuGraphs* displaying the steps. An even better class might include that as well as Graphic Training Aids (GTA) such as the pre-printed cards with the steps, maps, protractors, and notional targets, with the students showing their proficiency by presenting them with a scenario and having them actually generate calls for fire. Having grasped the fundamentals of calling for fire, further training, such as leaving a classroom and actually working with a unit’s mortars or supporting field artillery will be a more  productive use of scarce time and ammunition. Other students might give classes on topics such as writing operations orders, or medical evacuation of casualties.

BNCOC also gives Sergeants practical experience in planning operations at the squad and platoon level. Having been taught how to write an operations order, each student will be given a mission to plan and lead, using his classmates as his platoon. The student is graded on both planning and execution, as well as leadership skills displayed. Further, to accustom Sergeants to providing feedback and criticism, each evolution is peer evaluated on the same grounds. Nobody likes to ding their classmates, but sooner or later, you’ll be called upon to rank your peers in order. Who is the best? Who is the worst? Why? If you can’t nuke a classmate for being a screw-up, how are you going to chastise the soldiers you work with day in and day out?

The next level of schooling is the Advanced Non Commissioned Officers  Course (ANCOC- ‘Ay-Nock’). All ANCOC courses are held at the branch center and school.  ANCOC builds both practical leadership skills, administrative skills**, as well as tactical and technical skills for the Non Commissioned Officer. It’s primary function is to prepare a Staff Sergeant for promotion to Sergeant First Class and duty as a platoon sergeant, responsible for 20-40 soldiers and junior NCOs.

The final two rungs of the NCO Educational System are both run by the Sergeants Major Academy at Ft. Bliss, TX.  Both are resident courses, and both are branch immaterial.

The First Sergeants Course is a short course delving into the specific duties of a First Sergeant, that is, the senior NCO of a company or battery sized unit, roughly 100 men.

The capstone of the NCOES is the Sergeants Major Academy itself. A graduate level course in leadership and leadership development,*** the Academy trains Sergeants Major for duty as the senior NCO of a battalion sized unit. Sergeants Major are no longer directly supervising junior soldiers. Instead, they are the principal advisor to the unit commander on matters pertaining to enlisted personnel. As a practical matter, they are charged with maintaining high standards throughout the unit, and training and mentoring the NCOs of that unit. They operate through the “chain of support” rather than being directly in the chain of command. The Sergeants Major Academy helps train future Sergeants Majors how to navigate the complex relationship a Sergeant Major has with his commander, the battalions company commanders, First Sergeants, and junior NCOs.

Each level of the Non Commissioned Officers Education System prepares a soldier for the next level of responsibility, and ideally lays the foundation for the level beyond that. The heart and soul of our Army is the Non Commissioned Officer corps. Without a stable of technically and tactically competent sergeants, the Army would lose the “tribal knowledge” of over 237 years of experience, two centuries of tradition and heritage. The trainer of soldiers, the keeper of standards, the leader of the close fight, the Sergeant has always been the backbone of the Army.  It only took the Army 200 years to figure out that spending the time and money to give those Sergeants the tools to lead and train their soldiers was a wise investment.

I’ve managed to lose the original news article I’d seen, but this post was inspired by a bit of news about the Warrior Leader Course. Yes, the Army does recognize that schools and education for its Sergeants are critical. But the school system doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  I was stunned to learn that for the past  few years, the WLC has been only 17 days long. In my day (1990) PLDC was a full 30 days. So why would the Army cut such an important course so severely?

Time.

Time is the one resource that can never be replaced. **** Units of the Army today are under an incredible operational tempo. Under the Army Force Generation Plan (ARFORGEN), brigades rotate from deployment to recovery to deployment at paces never before seen in our Army’s history. The short dwell time between deployments is devoted almost exclusively to reconstituting the units, and cycling through the unit level training to prepare them for their next deployment. But that dwell time is the only time soldiers are available for schools. But the paradox is that while the soldier needs the school experience to be a qualified leader, he also needs to be with his unit through the training cycle, both to receive the unit training, and to lead his soldiers through that training. And there are some training events that commanders are just not willing to let soldiers miss. Friend of the blog Esli will be leading his battalion at the National Training Center next month. This training is so valuable that few if any of his prospective soldiers will be at school, rather than with the troops.  NTC isn’t designed to train a soldier. It’s designed to stress an entire unit as whole.  So in order to at least provide a bare minimum level of schooling, the Army has trimmed WLC to the bone. But in the event, the Army has learned, it was a cut too far. It has recently extended the course to a 22 day length.

And a brief personal anecdote. I attended BNCOC at Ft. Carson, CO. The schoolhouse was a whopping half mile from my regular barracks (though I was living off post at the time).  I kind of dreaded having to go to a resident course, with the room inspections, hospital corners on beds and all the chickenshit the Army was famous for.  I was looking forward to the course, just not the hassles.

As it turned out, the Army had a major program underway to rehabilitate many of the barracks buildings worldwide. And lo and behold, somehow, the barracks of the NCO Academy at Ft. Carson were high on the list. Over half the barracks were unavailable, as they were under rehab. The school only had enough room for those troops that were from other posts, such as Ft. Bliss or Ft. Irwin. The staff at the school were quite apologetic when they told us that we’d have to sleep at home in our own, warm, comfy (non-hospital cornered) beds.

Your Humble Scribe, 1st Armored Division NCO Academy,

Primary Leadership Development Course,

1990.

 

If you’d like to know more of the history of the NCO in the United States Army, I’d recommend Guardians of the Republic.

*like powerpoint in the pre-computer era

**there’s a LOT of paperwork involved as a platoon sergeant. He’s still a fighting soldier, but he’s also the guy in charge of a platoon’s paperwork, relieving as much of that burden from the Lieutenant platoon leader as possible. It only gets worse for First Sergeants and Sergeants Major.

***No longer directly supervising soldiers, Sergeants Major instead are tasked with developing the leadership skills of the NCOs of their units. While the Command Sergeant Major is responsible for upholding the standards of all soldiers in their unit, the smart CSM does so through his First Sergeants and other NCOs. As a practical matter, as a junior NCO, any meeting I had with the CSM was almost certainly going to be a one-way dialog about some failing of mine or one of my soldiers (which was obviously a result of some failure of mine).

****Yes, sadly, dead soldiers can be replaced. Above a certain level, war become the management of  resources.  And the fact is, men are a resource.