FORT MEADE, Maryland –
Junior non-commissioned officers know the pulse of their squads. They're at the ground level, they interact daily with their Soldiers and set the tone, the Army's top enlisted leader said.
To empower them, they need to be allowed to make and learn from their mistakes -- as long as they're not illegal, immoral or unethical -- when deciding what's best for their Soldiers.
"If they make a decision you don't like, just let it be and see how they run with it," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston. "Don't be quick to solve it for them."
While some leaders at first may struggle with this hands-off approach, he believes the young NCOs will be able to grow from their mistakes. Supervisors can then follow up with coaching to inspire better decisions from the budding leaders, later freeing up the supervisors to tackle larger issues in the unit.
Since he began his current role in August, Grinston has pushed to create more cohesive, fit and lethal squads across the Army. He's tasked these young NCOs to lead the culture change.
"If that is the culture we want to go, the junior NCOs are going to have to own that," he said in an interview last week.
In his "This is My Squad" initiative, Grinston hopes the new strategy can reinforce unit bonds by having young NCOs be stronger leaders.
Grinston said these team and squad leaders should have meals with their Soldiers, lead them during physical training and have the courage to correct the faults of any Soldier they encounter.
A new NCO Guide, which was published in January, is a helpful tool to fully understand the responsibilities of NCOs, he said.
He also advises sergeants to regularly check in on the personal lives of their Soldiers, including their living quarters.
Routine checks should be face-to-face since emotion can sometimes be hidden through text messages, he said.
As for housing, he acknowledged the need to improve barracks in the Army. He noted $300 million being funded in recent years to renovate them, but more still needs to be done.
"We're going to fix it; we're going to make housing better," he said. "But this all starts with leaders going to check on their Soldiers in the barracks. It's not something that is optional. This is just about how you care about your people."
In the dayrooms of barracks, he said the Army is also looking to install kiosks that will provide healthier food items to Soldiers to help maintain their fitness.
"You could use your meal card to get a healthy food option right there in the barracks," he said. "We have a long way to go, but that's one of the initiatives we have. But we're not going to get those ideas if we don't have leaders going to the barracks and seeing how our Soldiers live."
By offering healthier food, Grinston seeks to rebalance the Army's performance triad of sleep, activity and nutrition.
"Most of the time we focus in on the activity," he said. "Nutrition is one of those areas I really focused in on."
Through a new initiative called ACTION, or Army Commitment to Improving Overall Nutrition, Grinston hopes to improve the diets of Soldiers.
That means increasing options for healthier food not only in the barracks but also better displaying them in the dining facilities, shoppettes and commissaries.
"If we put the really healthy choices right up front," he said, "most people will go and pick those healthy choices if it's designed the right way."
The triad's activity portion will still get a boost with the strenuous Army Combat Fitness Test, which is set to be the standard fitness test for all Soldiers by October.
To eliminate any fear of the looming test, the sergeant major suggests Soldiers to just take it.
"Like anything you do, the unknown is always scary," he said. "Most people when they take it, [they realize] it's not that bad."
The earlier a Soldier completes it, the more time they can work on their weaknesses. After Grinston took the test, for instance, he noticed he had to work on the standing power throw event. So he referred to Field Manual 7-22 on Army physical readiness training as well as online videos, where he found exercises, such as the standing power jump, to help him in that event.
There is also now a free ACFT mobile application that Soldiers can download on their smartphones that offers a collection of exercises and helps them calculate test scores.
To optimize the squad of the future, Grinston said the Army is developing a Soldier Performance Model, which may include a wearable patch that tracks one's health through their heartrate, chemicals in their sweat and their sleep patterns.
Through it, a squad leader could see if one of their Soldiers is struggling in a training event or in combat, and quickly rectify the issue by providing that person rest or hydrating them.
"They're monitoring all that to make them more lethal," he said. "It's almost like something you'd see in the movies. I'm pretty excited about it."
But for now, one of the most important things a young sergeant can do for their Soldiers is simply train them.
Sergeant's Time Training, he said, is a great opportunity for them to build confidence as a leader and also develop their squad at the same time.
"At the end, we're going to be better trained," he said. "If we're experts, we're highly disciplined and fit teams grounded in our warrior tasks and battle drills, it's really easy to get the bigger things right."