Drill Sergeants With Heart? How The Military Is Reinventing Its Leadership For The 21st Century

Fear Inducing Drill SergeantIf I asked you to conjure up an image of an Army (or Navy, Marine Corp, etc.) Drill Sergeant, I’m almost certain what you conceived would match up pretty closely to the photograph on the right.

For generations, Drill Sergeants have been characterized by the intensity of their yelling, screaming, and fear inducing barking of orders.  Quick to both scold and harshly punish, that guy in the photo is no cliché.

With our minds in agreement on how Drill Sergeants have historically sought to train, motivate and even inspire their young recruits, I’d like to now tell you that things have greatly changed in the military.   Out go the feral tyrants; in come leaders with heart.  I’m deadly serious.

It was announced this past week that Army Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Heilman was named Drill Sergeant of the Year.  Out of 5,400 Drill Sergeants in the active duty ranks and Army Reserves, Heilman was intensely evaluated by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command before being chosen.   Here are some highlights of the process:

  • Working with new soldiers he’d never met before, Heilman calmly, patiently and confidently taught them how to respond in the event they spotted an improvised explosive device (IED).  As quoted in an Associated Press story, Heilman said, “If you encounter an IED before it explodes, make sure you don’t create a ruckus.  Don’t scream.”  As the soldiers listened intently, Heilman intimately shared his own battlefield knowledge and wisdom – all with the intention of protecting lives and helping his subordinates succeed in their missions. “Remember, someone put that thing there.  They’re trying to kill you and if you react to it, they’re going to try their best to get whatever results they can. You might be running away from it but they’re still going to blow it up and try to catch you.”
  • While Drill Instructors inherently and naturally instill fear in recruits, the reliance on yelling and screaming no longer is seen as being an effective means to developing the critical thinking, collaboration and self-confidence the Army seeks to imbue in every single soldier.  Dressing down a recruit is seen as the last resort of effective leadership.  According to Danneit R. Disla, who was a finalist for the Drill Sergeant of the Year award, “I really consider myself to be a new generation of drill instructor…. I just think if you talk to them like a person, like a man, they will act like a man, like a grown man.”
  • With respect to selecting the best candidates for leadership roles in the Army, Command Sgt. John R. Calpena stressed the importance of being able to relate more personally and individually with soldiers, “you don’t really want the most physically fit, or just the smartest.  It’s got to be a very well-rounded, intelligent, articulate individual….” “In the fight they’re [soldiers] in, they can’t be looking back at the sergeant to know what they’re going to do when they come under fire.  They have to make a decision, shoot or don’t shoot and report.”

I honestly find it stunning that it’s our military, which is leading the charge in fundamentally reinventing its approach to leadership.  It’s recognized how important it’s become for leaders to relate to soldiers as human beings noting that the ranks are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds.  It understands the world has grown far more complex.  Our lives are constantly being reshaped by technology and the military now rejects one-size-all training.  Alternatively, it now fully embraces more individualized coaching and training.

So if our military has determined that its leaders are far more effective in the 21st Century by being more human, more caring and far less fear mongering, aren’t they setting an informed example for business to follow?

Me thinks yes.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.