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The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used so much to describe the last 18 months that it has almost started to lose all meaning. But there really is no better way to describe the leadership environment in which the present cohort of junior officers found themselves, and the unique circumstances that they have faced. The direct effects of the pandemic and associated leadership challenges have been clear. Whether that be leading soldiers deployed on Op RESCRIPT in the early days of the first national lockdown or managing those who have since developed long COVID. There were countless second and third order effects which proved just as challenging. Among these are the challenges of cancelled overseas training and operations, maintaining readiness during long periods of remote working, and the mental health impact of COVID. There is a delicate and symbiotic relationship between each of these challenges.
This article will reflect on these challenges through my experience as a cavalry troop leader. There are lessons to be learned that are as applicable to Combat as they are to the Pandemic.
In February 2020 I arrived as a newly qualified troop leader at the Royal Dragoon Guards (RDG). It was the perfect time to get stuck in to troop leading. The Regiment was preparing to deploy to Germany for a gunnery camp in April and to deploy to Canada in the summer. This was before a unit move in December and then deploying on Op CABRIT Estonia in spring 2021. The news of a virus emerging in China and Italy was only just starting to enter the media and little did anybody know the impact it was about to have on these carefully laid plans. One month after I joined, the Regiment had dispersed on ‘remote working’. Over the following weeks Germany, BATUS, the unit move, and eventually even CABRIT were all cancelled as the country was plunged into the first lockdown.
In early April 2020 my troop was the first from the RDG to deploy on Op RESCRIPT, the British Army’s domestic support to the COVID response. I initially did not deploy. Instead a small team from my troop led by a junior non commissioned officer deployed to Leeds to conduct COVID testing. They faced all the usual challenges of military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) tasks; unfamiliar working practices, a convoluted chain of command, and challenging communication. However, unlike on a normal MACA task, they had frequent and close contact with symptomatic COVID positive individuals. Additionally, as reported across national media there was concern about the quality of personal protective equipment being issued.
This led to one of the most important lessons I learned early on: the balance to be struck when listening to and dealing with soldiers’ concerns.
While the threat these soldiers faced doing COVID testing was a world apart from the threat that some of the same soldiers faced in Afghanistan, there are parallels to be drawn with other military operations. Motivating soldiers to do unpleasant and potentially dangerous tasks with sub-optimal protective equipment is a familiar challenge to junior military leaders. This led to one of the most important lessons I learned early on: the balance to strike when listening to and dealing with soldiers’ concerns. It is important to be compassionate and understanding. Leaders must raise concerns up the chain of command. Leaders must be careful to maintain soldiers’ confidence. This was a balance that I initially got wrong. By being overly sympathetic and asking each of them about their concerns I exacerbated them, with some saying they felt unsafe continuing the job. This could effect the mission. In the task-team-individual framework, I became too focussed on the individual at the expense of the task.
I reported this up my chain of command and I was then deployed and remained with my soldiers at the test centre. From here I was better able to maintain morale, keep the task on track, provide situational awareness, and foresee issues before they developed. This was a second key lesson: there is no substitute for a troop leader being with their troops and seeing the ground in-person. This applies equally to a MACA tasking as it would on any other operation. It was also an early demonstration of the power of leadership by example. Once I was on the ground swabbing throats and noses with my soldiers their concerns largely vanished.
After the deployment on Op RESCRIPT things slowed down significantly. There followed a period of several months of ‘remote working’ in the summer of 2020. Remote working presented 2 types of challenge. First, the issue of maintaining currency and competency in our roles as combat soldiers whilst unable to conduct training. Second, keeping soldiers motivated and identifying welfare issues at distance.
Different approaches were taken. Some units first paraded their soldiers by Skype, shaved and in uniform each morning. Others sent their workforce away on leave. There was a clear need to balance between maintaining professionalism while not messing people around. This was a junior leadership problem, with responsibility for designing and delivering remote training resting with troop leaders. Maintaining enthusiasm and morale while remote working has perhaps been the most significant leadership challenge of the pandemic. The repetitiveness of remote lessons by Zoom, death by PowerPoint, and troop conference calls was enough to wear anyone down.
The repetitiveness of remote lessons by Zoom, death by PowerPoint, and troop conference calls was enough to wear anyone down.
It required initiative to generate useful and varied training. The key was good communication and trust. It was important to ask for honest feedback from soldiers on what they thought of the training, while simultaneously trusting them to get on with it and use their time productively without constant check ins. A good example of this was physical training. While some troops set programs and insisted on submission of proof of completion, I gave my soldiers the freedom to conduct their own PT. The intent was clear: they knew they could expect to have to pass a fitness test upon return to work. This is mission command and it proved as useful during remote working under COVID as it does when on exercise. None of them let me down.
This is directly relatable to modern operations. Particularly in the strike context where working at distance will become increasingly common and reliance on trust and mission command will be indispensable; with robust radio silence measures in place, demanding constant reports, or issuing direction will be impossible. Junior leaders must be comfortable with issuing clear intent and then leaving their subordinates to carry it out.
Coping with Uncertainty and Disappointment
My arrival at the Regiment was characterised by a steady flow of cancelled activity because of COVID uncertainties. While missing out on the opportunity to go to the Canadian training area of BATUS (a rite of passage for a cavalry officer) was very disappointing, the pain of not deploying on Op CABRIT was felt strongly by all. The weeks after the decision was announced were filled with frustration, rumours, and speculation, and it was clear that it was the junior leaders’ job to keep this in check and ensure passage of information. While I have learned that rumours are an inevitable part of Army life, I learned how destructive they can be and how important they are to keep under control.
The idea of ‘march to the last order’ was critical during the pandemic. With so much uncertainty, it was often tempting to not fully commit to tasks or to ignore upcoming events in the expectation that they wouldn’t happen. It was important not to give in to this temptation and impress upon soldiers the importance of ‘marching to the last order’, keeping them motivated when plans were changed or cancelled. Junior leaders had to remain outwardly positive and not show their own frustration, and quickly refocus on the next task.
This uncertain and rapidly changing environment is directly mirrored by the environment in which we will conduct future combat operations, with a constantly evolving battlespace and enemy threat. In this context it is just as important to march to the last order, while remaining adaptable to changes in the plan. The tenacity, resilience, and ability to cope with uncertainty that our soldiers have developed during COVID will prove vital.
Perhaps the greatest impact of COVID and – very concerningly – one that may be long lasting, is the impact on our soldiers’ welfare. In normal times a troop leader has significant face time with their soldiers and the first stage in identifying welfare issues would likely be the troop leader or sergeant noticing someone is a little ‘off’ and sitting down for cup of tea. With remote working for large parts of last year this was simply not possible. Interviews were often conducted by Skype, and I did not physically meet many of my soldiers for several months.
Initial interviews were often conducted by Skype, and I did not physically meet many of my soldiers for several months.
The mental health impact of this is clear and concerning. It has emphasised the necessity to look out for each other, and for leaders at every level to look after their subordinates and understand the early signs of problems. A key lesson has been the need for open conversation with the chain of command; flexibility and understanding from commanders has been crucial to sustaining the force during the pandemic.
While born under completely different circumstances, parallels can be drawn between the mental health impact of the pandemic and the PTSD crisis among veterans of the TELIC and HERRICK eras. We have begun, and must continue, to place the same importance on mental health as we do physical health. We must also be aware that the mental health impact of the pandemic will continue to play out long after the disease has gone.
COVID has been challenging for everyone in many ways and there are many lessons to be learned by junior leaders. These lessons will be as applicable to future combat operations as they have been during COVID.
The importance of being on the ground and of leadership by example cannot be overstated. Junior commanders must understand the tangible impact they can have by being with their soldiers. It is also vital to understand what motivates soldiers and how to manage their concerns while still achieving the mission, balancing the task, team, and individual.
The employment of mission command is fundamental to success when working at reach. It is increasingly important in the modern battlespace. Furthermore, working in the contemporary operating environment it is important to maintain positivity, remain adaptable, and not let frustration show. In the information age, leaders must keep rumours in check and instil a culture of marching to the last order, focussing on the task at hand rather than second guessing it.
Finally, all leaders must remember the critical importance of welfare and of looking after their soldiers. If only one conclusion from this article is taken forward, it must be the importance of good mental health support to our people.
Callum Chivers commissioned into the Royal Dragoon Guards in August 2019. He spent 18 months as a Troop Leader during which time he deployed on Op RESCRIPT and on exercises on both CVR(T) and Jackal. He has also been employed in an RHQ role and is currently XO at 1X HQ.