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Leading by Example; The Officers’ Mess

‘Serve to Lead’

In Part One I wrote about the threat facing the British Army from within, namely the 5% of the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess who are managing to carve out a career whilst performing to a standard that undermines unit cohesion. This time I am switching fire to some depth targets, in particular some heavily fortified positions located in the various Officers’ Messes across the British Army.

I’ll start with another anecdote that may go some way to setting the scene and establishing an element of context to my views on the matter.  The year is 2014; having just had my promotion to Major confirmed, I was invited to the Army Personnel Centre for a ‘Formal Career Review’ (FCR) by my desk officer. I travelled to Glasgow, along with the rest of my peers who had successfully promoted, to have a number of career briefs followed by an interview.  After the mandatory briefs, the desk officer had arranged for the assembled senior Captains to rotate through her office for the personal interviews.

“I’ve gone in alphabetical order for the running list for interviews.  If there are any individuals who, for whatever reason, need to get away early, please let me know now,” said the desk officer.  What followed was not too dissimilar to the England scrum last weekend in the 6 Nations, as 20 or so captains from across the Royal Regiment proceeded to dive on the desk officer in order to communicate the vital reason why they had to be away early.

“I’ve booked my flight for 1500”, said one Captain. “Me too, I need to be back for a dinner night”, said another, the fear in his eyes palpable as he contemplated extras from the Adjutant for not making it back in time.  After about 10 minutes, the revised interview list was finalised.  I had gone from second to be interviewed, to last.

“You don’t mind do you Steve? Only, you’ve got the shortest journey back to your Regiment?”  Indeed I did have the shortest journey, only I had driven up from the North East of England, a distance of 170 miles.  As I spent the rest of the day enjoying the delights of Glasgow city centre, whilst my peers filed through the APC for their interviews, I was struck by the earlier episode with the desk officer, and how it reflected on the individuals present.  I didn’t see much respect for others on display that day, with the future sub-unit commanders of my Regiment, fighting like school children as they sought to justify how their early departure was more deserving than that of anyone else.  The bitter taste left by the experience at least served to keep me awake, as I drove away from the APC at just after 2200 that night, arriving home in the early hours.

This is one small incident – not illustrative of officers in the British Army, merely one occasion (away from soldiers) where some officers have acted primarily to serve their own personal agendas before considering the needs of their colleagues.  And you’d be right; this is only one isolated example from nearly 4 years ago.  It does, however, cut to the heart of the problem, namely that some officers serve only themselves and their own interests to the detriment of the team. If some officers are willing to act like this with their peers, what chance do we have of ensuring that our soldiers are led by only the very best officers who live by the motto that adorns their cap badge for 44 weeks at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst?

Along with the Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs, our officers set the conditions for the Army’s culture.  Our soldiers look to officers for example, for inspiration and direction when the friction of daily Regimental life and operational deployments makes the path to success uncertain.  Increasingly, this example and inspirational leadership is absent, with some officers choosing to cherry pick aspects of their obligations that were given to them as they marched up the steps of Old College at the end of their Commissioning Parade.  

In the same way that there are a minority of Warrant Officers and Sergeants undermining the Army’s operational effectiveness, there is a hard-core element of officers who are content to operate outside of the highest of standards, standards that should be second nature to all who hold the Queen’s commission and are charged with leading our fine soldiers. But necessity is the mother of invention and what follows are some practical, if contentious steps, that could be taken in order to address the issue.

The first depth target for consideration is the Officers’ Mess.  The British Army has taken great strides in recent years to rid it of the (historically well earned) reputation for being an organisation that condones heavy drinking.  Not only is there a clear link between alcohol and disciplinary issues, but the health implications and the effect on the Army’s operational effectiveness are now well known and understood across all ranks.  In a recent focus group, held by a certain Brigade, the overriding view amongst soldiers was that the Officers’ Mess condoned and indeed encouraged drinking to excess.  So the junior element of a Brigade believed that the leaders encourage heavily drinking through their actions.  This is not to say that officers should not be able to enjoy an alcoholic drink, or that the majority cannot be trusted to drink responsibly.  But this minority of individuals have a disproportionate effect – through their behaviour – on the fighting power of a unit.  And yet we wonder why some soldiers get into trouble, under the influence of alcohol.  There seems to be an institutional reluctance to accept what is staring us all directly in the face, namely, that the culture we set as officers has the most severe of second and third order effects on the standards lived by our own soldiers.

Even in 2018, there is still a ‘badge of honour’ for the young subaltern who can drink themselves into a state of unconsciousness and nonetheless manage to parade for work the next day, stinking of alcohol as they brief their Troops or Platoons.  More worryingly is that a minority of more senior Regimental officers seem almost proud of their young charges and their capacity to endure the most vicious of hangovers.  Aside from the health and safety implications associated with such behaviour, don’t our soldiers deserve better than this?  Leadership, first and foremost, is surely about personal example – living the values and standards that sit at the very core of who we are as professional service personnel in the 21st century.

Yet the issue of alcohol consumption is just one problem with the Mess.  The other more pressing threat to unit cohesion, and operational effectiveness, goes to the heart of the officer – soldier relationship.  On every operational deployment, I have always eaten with the soldiers that I have had the privilege to lead at that particular time.  I would always allow my soldiers to file through the hot plate first – why? Because as we all know, leaders eat last.  As a leader of soldiers my duty to their well-being means that this unwritten rule, practiced widely across the Army for many years, is as commonplace today as it was a hundred years ago.  Yet in barracks, not only do officers not eat last, but they also do so in a completely different environment, with a different menu to the soldiers.  The argument most commonly regurgitated in support of this segregation is that soldiers need their own space.  Having officers (and Senior NCOs) sat in the same cookhouse would prevent the soldiers from being able to relax and enjoy their lunch, free from the prying eyes of the chain of command, apparently eager to pick them up for eating with their mouths open or using incorrect cutlery. I don’t believe this to be the case.  It screams to the soldiers that the officers have higher standards and so need a different dining experience, one that occurs in an isolated environment away for the rabble in the cookhouse.  You need only to look across the world, to other Armies, to see that the all ranks cookhouse is the norm, and that we are woefully out of touch in this respect. As contentious as it is, I would close the Officers’ Messes tomorrow and allow the Army to reap the benefits that this would have on unit ethos and culture.

So having gone to Fire for Effect on the Mess, my focus now shifts to appraisals.  Officers, routinely, are over reported on.  Whilst this is an issue across the rank ranges, the culture of grade, performance and potential inflation on officer annual appraisals is particularly damaging to the Army, as these individuals have the capacity, by virtue of the leadership and command positions that they invariable hold, to do such severe damage to a unit. This has created an environment for mediocrity to prosper.  Below average officers, devoid of professional competence, rarely deviate from a B grade.  Delivering a B- or C grade is virtually unheard of, and strays into the realms of service complaint territory.  This has resulted in a minority of officers who are lacking in work ethic, values and standards and professional competency realising that other than a major disciplinary incident, their employment remains secure for the foreseeable future.

The solution lies in an institutional ‘reset’, which must start with an acknowledgement that as an Army we have over graded our officers for too long.  This has made it difficult to weed out the incompetent, and equally to reward the brightest and best.  In concert with the requirement to accurately report on our officers, there must be a fresh look at the various commissions.  A young officer entering service now has guaranteed employment for 12 years.  It is unclear, notwithstanding officer recruitment and retention issues, as to why the Army should hamstring itself and prevent it from drawing an officer’s career to an appropriate close should they turn out to be less than efficient during the 2Lt to Captain progression. Furthermore, the allocation of Intermediate (20 years guaranteed employment) and Regular (35 years or until 55 years of age) commissions is such that the Army has a growing cohort of officers with long term security of employment, with little to no incentive to strive for excellence in their work.

Finally, let’s stop the officers with no interest in their soldiers, with an inability to execute their immediate duties and wider life, in accordance with the values and standards from hiding behind their rank slides.  This means challenging unacceptable behaviour.  This means officers, in the words of the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, inspiring those under their command:

Leaders…must live and model the behaviour we want our subordinates to emulate.”


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to hi@wavellroom.com

Steve A

British Army

Contributor: Steve has been a tank commander of both Challenger 2 and CVR(T) with 5 years experience

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James January 1, 1970 at 01:00

People don’t drink too much and drive or assault people because their boss got drunk one night and then passed a PFA with a hangover next morning. They do so because they make the wrong choices.

Soldiers and Officers are not graded in relation to each other. Officers are graded against officers and soldiers are graded against soldiers. In fact personnel are graded in RANK not even in type of employment. Therefore even if most officers recieve Bs it does them no favours as it confers no advantage if many other officers have the same grade. Even so I have not seen many soldiers with less than a B- and I have seen only one officer with an A-. I have seen many many Cpls with an A to ‘help them over the line’.
I am yet to meet a soldier who would want to live in the officers mess, nor would want an officer living in the same building as him. In the same way he doesn’t want his Pl Sgt to live nearby, even if they are from the same background they have a professional relationship. Most officers and soldiers relish the chance to eat and live together in the field or on Ops but are also happy to spend time apart in more restful times.

In the infantry battalion I served in the officer and SNCOs ALWAYS are after the men when in the field. I have never see this unwritten rule fail.

Dave W January 1, 1970 at 01:00

There is, sometimes, benefit to be had in being out of touch. I cannot speak for any foreign Army other than the US, but the consensus here appears to be that something rather valuable and important was lost when they closed their officers’ clubs (a far less all encompassing institution than our Messes); I fear that rather than basking in the inevitable benefits that closing Messes would have on institutional ethos and culture, we may find that we had, unintentionally, lost something rather important; and that once it was gone, we could never get it back. But, that’s all by the by… I wanted to talk more about officer grading and commissions.

While agreeing that insufficient use may tend to be made of the range of grades—you have to do something rather impressively terrible to get a B-, while the officer with a straight A is as rare as hen’s teeth—I’m not sure the impact has been to prevent identification of the best and brightest. A 2 RO’s potential narrative (and 3RO’s narrative when applicable) should be sufficient to sort sheep from goats. And certainly when you look at a star chart, the presence of the odd outlier seems to suggest that boards are able to identify the genuinely outstanding (if they’re identifying the right ones is a different matter). What is much harder to do is order / sort the vast mass of people in the middle of the Bell curve. Distinguishing your upper-middle third from your middle-middle or lower-middle is, I imagine, pretty difficult in the current system. Oddly, I think the problem may be the exact opposite of the one that the author diagnoses: identifying the brilliant and the dangerously incompetent is easy; it’s the others that are the problem.

On commissions, I found this an odd sentence:

“Furthermore, the allocation of Intermediate (20 years guaranteed employment) and Regular (35 years or until 55 years of age) commissions is such that the Army has a growing cohort of officers with long term security of employment, with little to no incentive to strive for excellence in their work.”

Primarily, because if insecurity of employment is the only thing that can incentivize most officers to work, then the situation is far raver than I thought! And anyway, there are these things called promotions…. Gaining a Reg C doesn’t mark the end of ambition.

ABritAbroad January 1, 1970 at 01:00

‘Be careful what you wish for’.

The old adage is never more true than when you look at the US Army. The closure of their Officer’s Clubs, admittedly due to their alcohol consumption, and subsequently their SNCOs clubs (due to the Officers being forced to drink with the ORs, which alienated the SNCOs) is often bemoaned by the officers I live and work with.

They miss the opportunity to socialise in a safe environment, to discuss business, or just plain gossip, without having to be watchful of their subordinates. They are envious of our Mess structure, and most would welcome having such a structure in their army.

Yes, we are prone, on occasion to over-indulge. So is the rest of society! Blaming a ‘Mess culture’ for over exuberance with alcohol is very short-sighted. As a Warrant Officer myself, I can wholeheartedly say that officers showing their human side in front of their subordinates is welcomed. We certainly don’t want to live side-by-side, but seeing an officer with a hangover once in a while is good for morale.

Aspiring to reach a Mess, whether it be the WOs’ & Sgts’ Mess, or the Officers Mess, is one of the drivers in one’s career. The removal of such ‘perks’ could be severely detrimental to the moral component of fighting power.

Jager January 1, 1970 at 01:00 Reply
Rick January 1, 1970 at 01:00

Interesting read.

On the weaknesses of our reporting I would offer that the military should adopt 360 degree reporting to highlight the experiences of the soldiers under command. The NHS manages it and I think it may contribute to the identification of those worthy of below a B that are over graded because they sound or act right to their 1RO.

Jim December 3, 2018 at 15:37

I wholeheartedly agree with this point and would have liked to have seen this brought in when I was serving. If everybody had to worry about the people below them when reporting time came around they would probably treat those subordinates better, which would probably help with retention too. This is something that is conducted in the wider Civil Service and not just the NHS, it is an anonymous report delivered to the individual’s 1RO on how that person is as a boss. Obviously it has the possibility of being used inappropriately but that’s no different to the current process. I.E if you’re boss doesn’t like you it can lead to a negative report and also how you are represented to the rest of the CoC. It would be possible to see though that if 99 people said this person is a great boss, communicates well and everything is planned etc and 1 person returned a negative report then that is just a personality clash etc but if it was the other way round then you would know who isn’t capable of command.

Paul January 1, 1970 at 01:00

The author does a dis-service to the officers’ mess, I believe, and in the process of the whole article betrays some small degree of naïveté. While the mess does indeed separate ORs from officers (let’s not forget that such separation also extends to sgts/WOs), this is largely done by design, in the same way that the captain of a ship usually lives separately from his officers; to ensure a degree of separation and the ability for familiarity to not begin to breed disrespect. The mess is above all the officers’ home, and – seeing as they have largely paid for the character and style of their surroundings over time (in a way that soldiers do not) – their surroundings are an expression of their choice (as well as usually providing an impressive centerpiece to the barracks). The fact that officers eat different (better?) food to the soldiers is also similar, in that the inliers have also paid for this privilege through extra messing charges.

On the matter of appraisals, yes, everyone wishes that the situation was more honest. No one set out to over-grade, but human nature and – ultimately – some lack of moral fibre at the command level, usually ensures that this will happen over time. The idea of a one-off ‘reset’ though, is unfortunately never going to happen, and it is rather naive to believe that it ever could. Someone would be the loser in that scenario, and – virtually by default – would likely have grounds for complaint. The system works now (to the fashion it does) because absolutely everyone over-grades, and roughly over-grades to the same degree (assuming that at bde-level there is actually a measure of equalization applied). Because everyone is under the same unfairness the system is as fair as it can get. Disappointing, yes, but ultimately true, and just a fact of life that we probably all have to live with.

Panter-Downes January 1, 1970 at 01:00

The absence of Officers’ Messes is felt acutely in the US Army. Messes provide a way to socialise laterally a value not to be understated in large complex and hierarchical organisations that tend to operate in silos. There have been numerous occasions at RD and on the staff when the solution to my problem has come through a conversation at the bar. Messes also build cohesion and provide a useful ability to cut through the chain of command. Senior officers can get cocooned by their staff, but a mess night provides opportunity to take the pulse and for 2LTs to engage LTGs (he says slipping into the American vernacular).

As for over-grading, boards are very good at recognising over-grading (as are career managers). The more insidious effect of over-grading is on the performance and expectations of the individual officer concerned who will develop unrealistic expectations of how well (s)he is doing, is unlikely to improve his/her performance and will inevitably become dissatisfied with both promotion and assignments.

Joe January 1, 1970 at 01:00

I would agree that the reporting system is broken, however this is as true for soldiers as it is for offficers. Most reporting officers cannot seem to fathom the notion that it should be the best soldiers being promoted, not those whom it is agreed is “their turn” or because they’re a good bloke. This is endemic and as this article alludes to, the system needs to change.

On the idea of closing messes, I fundamentally disagree. The author seems to neglect the notion that officers need support from fellow officers just as much as they’re expected to support soldiers; just because you’re an officer, doesn’t mean you have all the answers. The mess is a sanctuary for ideas, honesty and unprofessionalism. Regarding the author’s veiws on professionalism within the officer cohort, this unprofessionalism should be encouraged (to a degree…not firing flares from kayaks or anything) in order for it to allow absolute professionalism when with soldiers. This is about those impromptu meetings between colleagues which result in the exchanging of ideas which simply wouldn’t happen in other, less relaxed environments. The loss of messes would also surely hit retention of officers too…it is this sort of uniqueness that we should be promoting to drive recruitment.

John January 1, 1970 at 01:00

When you can’t even share a mess with officers from a different cap badge there really is a problem.

Charlie January 1, 1970 at 01:00

The author is wrong about guaranteed 2Lt – Capt progression. The SSC is rescinded if they do not receive recommendations for promotion, decided by the CoC. We helped an officer to retire – the right decision for everyone – using this mechanism.

Marc January 1, 1970 at 01:00

I disagree with so much of this article, however, I do believe we suffer for having no real means to carry out 360 degree reporting. An Officer may look great to their OC or CO but if he or she has walked all over or broken their troops to get there then what type of leader are they?

The Bull January 1, 1970 at 01:00

So far Steve has shone a, useful, light on members of members of both the WOs’ and Sgts’ Mess and Officers’ Mess who have fallen short of the expected standards, either – in the case of his excellent first article – in terms of their unacceptable behaviour, and in this one, that his peers as captains selected for promotion were un-collegiate at best and self-centred bordering on selfish at worst. Intriguingly, his conclusion when it came to how to remedy the behaviour of the 5 percent of WOs and Sgts who don’t meet the standard was to invest more in JNCO development (absolutely we should). But, in this case his target was officer’s reporting (and – by implication – career management) as well as the Officers’ Mess, as an outdated institution. Firstly, I am curious as to why both articles do not lead to a similar conclusion – should we not be investing more in junior officer development (yes, also we should) and should we not close WOs’ and Sgts’ Messes as well, no I don’t believe that we should nor Officer’s Messes, nor even Corporals’ Messes where they exist – and where they don’t they should be properly institutionalised. Unacceptable and self-centred behaviour should absolutely be driven out, and career management (including the better development at every level) should be professionalised.; but to automatically assume that this is best achieved by getting rid of institutions which create aspiration, a sense of collective enterprise and an informal atmosphere where the junior members can learn (how to and how not to behave) from their seniors and (in a good mess) the other way round as well. In my experience the best units have some separation between the ranks in terms of how they socialise – listen to what our Australian and US colleagues, who regret the loss of messes, have to say – but also have messes which work very closely together, and where members of the Officers’ Mess aspire to be invited to the WOs’ and Sgts’ Mess and members of the latter, as well as the Corporals’ Mess aspire to become members of the former, is this segregation, no I don’t think so, perhaps it is traditionalism; if that is even a word; or perhaps we should trust our forebears a little bit more. They often knew how to fight battles as well as how to create unit cohesion and ‘fighting spirit’, and let’s not forget they often knew how to have fun, which is also important for our young officers and soldiers for without it – as well as the professional challenge – most of them, these days have plenty of other opportunities . Will behaviour sometimes be slightly less than professional within Messes, or indeed outside them, yes, unequivocally. But it would be without messes as well, for that unfortunately is human nature., can Messes encourage this behaviour – yes, sometimes, but generally at least Messes do offer a degree of protection for the young officer – or more experienced WO or Sgt – or even, field officer to let their hair down without it being immediately in front of their junior soldiers or NCOs. There are places, such as Army HQ, where Officers’ Messes are perhaps outdated, but they certainly should not be removed at unit level. The root of much of the evil that Steve has pointed out – in terms of selfish behaviour and over-reporting – is, in my opinion, more down to the intense pressure officers find themselves under to be ‘competitive’ as the career pyramid has narrowed exponentially as the Army has reduced in numbers. In his seminal ‘inside the British Army’ published right at the end of the Cold War, Anthony Beevor pointed out the complaints of senior officers from that period had about the Thatcher’s children who were then joining the Army and who actually cared about their careers. That generation is now at the very top of the Army and it should not be surprising that those that follow are also career minded, but somehow that needs to be better-balanced with the collegiate approach and leadership which is drilled into all of us at Sandhurst, epitomised by the Serve to Lead motto, and I look forward to Steve’s insights into how this could be achieved, maybe over a drink in the Mess?


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