Building Decisionmakers

by Capt Arthur L. Glasgow

The Marine Corps has made great strides in implementing the doctrine of maneuver warfare. It has become accepted that the core of maneuver warfare rests in a mindset characterized by rapid decisionmaking, acceptance of risk, and bold initiative at the lowest level.

While maneuver warfare has been touted at the highest levels of our Corps, it clearly has not received the attention it deserves at the level that matters most-the Marine noncommissioned officer (NCO). Ask any infantry corporal or sergeant what the combat “bible” is and the answer you will most likely receive is FMFM 6-5 The Marine Rifle Squad. While this is a useful document based on sound tactical experience, it should be taken for what it is-a reference tool of techniques.

It does not address combat decisionmaking. If this is the source document by which we are training our small-unit leaders, then we are missing the boat. Rather than limit ourselves to a cribsheet of techniques, we must develop small unit leaders who are capable of thinking “outside the box,” leaders who understand that the decision is what is most important, not the technique. The goal is to train leaders capable of employing these time-tested techniques in innovative ways and at unexpected times.

The need for our Corps to be led by such men is critical considering the modern battlefield. Technological advances as well as the current world situation have dissolved the nature of war as we know it. The modern battlefield proves to be a nonlinear, high-tempo arena with combat and support areas intermixed. Actions will be dominated by small units operating in relative isolation, led by junior leaders taking advantage of fleeting moments of opportunity. It is paramount that we prepare our NCOs to win on this modern battlefield.

In order to produce this type of decisionmaker the Marine Corps must adopt a new attitude towards the way it trains NCOs. Capt Michael F. McNamara addressed the first step in his article, “The Price of Remaining Amateurs in the Field of Education.” (MCG, Feb94) Combat decisionmaking must be instituted at every formal school in our Corps.

This is necessary to ingrain the mechanisms of decisionmaking and standardize the language by which we define it at every stage of a Marine’s education. While these initiatives will take time and effort to implement, this article will address what can be done now, at the company and platoon levels, in order to better train our small-unit leaders as combat decisionmakers. The topics discussed are not meant to be an all inclusive formula, but rather an attempt to create an atmosphere and effect a change of attitude.

Creating the Image

It is vital that the newly promoted corporal be viewed in a different light by both himself and those around him. Every leader must maintain an image or position that lends credibility to his actions and decisions. This is especially important to the individual who finds himself suddenly transformed from being a Marine into a Marine leader. This, the hardest of all adjustments, must he aided bv the command, allowing the CO time to attune to his new anthority and responsibility. From moving him into an all-NCO room to a personal talk with the commander welcoming him into the ranks of Marine leaders, every effort must be made to instill within the new corporal an understanding of the gravity of his new position. The authority and responsibility he now holds must be as tangible to him as the rewards for attaining his new position of leadership.

All Marine leaders should be active in the study of our Corps’ history and all things military. The Marine NCO is no exception. The Marine Corps has defined professional military education (PME) requirements by grade to include the corporal. Outside of formal schooling, it is our duty as SNCOs and officers to ensure that the new NCO catches the “bug” of self`education; that he becomes fascinated with his profession. He must understand that every printed word he assimilates will better prepare him for the day he must lead men into combat. This means that a strong, relevant, and workable NCO PME program must be instituted at the company and battery level throughout the Marine Corps.

Throughout the first few months after pinning on his second chevron, the new NCO will be struggling to find his own niche in the unit’s leadership and develop his own personal style and priorities. This effort must be aided bv command attention through open displays of support and accountability. The NCO must be comfortable with the fact that when he speaks, he does so with a certain level of command authority and will be backed up. He must tinderstand completely that his realm of responsibility has expanded to more than just himself and that he will be held accountable for his Marines.

Establishing an “image” for the new NCO is crucial in lending credibility to his decisions. Before we can expect him to make sound decisions, we must first create the atmosphere that will allow him to do so. Once this is accomplished, we can begin to train the NCO, and help him train himself, to become a combat decisionmaker.

Making the Decision

The crux of maneuver warfare rests in the rapid decision made at the lowest level and the willingness and initiative to act on that decision. Contrary to what we may like to believe, the current atmosphere in our Corps today at the junior NCO level is not conducive to bold decisionmaking. Time dependent training schedules, the willingness of junior officers and SNCOs to do an NCO’s job, and the still present zero defects mentality are just a few of the factors that undercut the NCO initiative so necessary for maneuver warfare.

The first step in creating NCOs who are comfortable with decisionmaking is to force them to make decisions often and on demand. This can be accomplished within a semiformal structure regardless of the merit of the decision. The goal is not so much to induce sound decisions initially as it is to simply produce rapid decisions. When the process of making a decision begins to become a reflexive traiL, the ability to produce sound decisions can be taught. As an example, implementing a “tactical decision game a day” program within the platoon only takes a minimal amount of time to accomplish and sets the tone that some sort of tactical decision is expected of Marine leaders every day. Additionally, exposing our small-unit leaders to a steady diet of tactical scenarios will aid in building their ability to produce sound, recognition-primed decisions. Recognition-primed decisionmaking, vice analytical, is the fastest process by which the human mind assimilates and evaluates data. The ability to operate in this manner at the lowest level is central to successful implementation of maneuver warfare. The vast majority of decisions at the point of impact must be recognition-primed because of the time factors involved. There will seldom be time for analytical, stafftype decisions. And herein lies the dilemma, for the ability to derive a sound, recognition-primed decision rests in extensive personal experience or an educational regimen oriented towards producing such decisions. Newly promoted N(COs have neither the experience nor the luxury of this type of formal education. In the absence of either, the responsibility for building proper habits of decisionmaking rests almost entirely with the unit.

The next step is to allow the NCO more leeway in the training of his Marines, forcing him to plan and supervise properly. Look at your unit’s training schedule; chances are that every minute of every day is accounted for. This prevents initiative at the instructor (NCO) level. Adopting a mission order training schedule, whereby we set goals, objectives, and standards, allows the NCO to train to standard instead of time. He must make the decision whether remediation is needed. Hc must determine when his Marines are ready to be evaluated. As an example, instead of dictating 1.5 hours of weapons maintenance time, allow the squad leader to determine when his weapons have met standard. Rather than dictate 0530 reveille, let the NCO determine when he needs to wake his people in order to have them ready for the day’s training. This approach places the responsibility for planning and time management on the shoulders of the NCO and he must decide the appropriate method to accomplish the mission as well as validate his own instruction. It also makes it clear to the lance corporal and below that it is the Marine corporal who will have the most direct impact on their lives in garrison or combat. The cynic will say this approach will result in short work days, incompletely trained units, and general chaos. The trusting leader will see that if officers plan and set proper standards, and employ the SN(COs correctly, the result will be a more productive workday, better trained units, and a small-unit leader comfortable with responsibility and capable of making sound, timely decisions.


Finally, in order to make this work, we as officers must understand our role in the training process. There is a great moral commitment in maneuver warfare. Pushing authority and responsibility down increases the chance of failure. Senior leaders must see that although we can be, we are not the trainers. We set the standards, evaluate, and facilitate the training. Individual training standard (ITS) level training is the responsibility of the NCO with the SNCO providing guidance, direction, and reinforcement. It should be considered unacceptable for a junior officer to stand on the platform in front of his Marines and teach an individual or small-unit skills class. The challenge for us is not to teach these skills, but rather to teach the NCO how to instruct them. The reasoning behind this is clear. When the call comes to protect our country, we will go whether or not our NCOs have been prepared to succeed. If our small-unit leaders have not been educated in peace to employ our doctrine, how can we expect them to do so amidst the horror and carnage of` war? When the rounds begin to fly and the young Marine at the point is filled with fear and doubt, he will naturally turn for direction and reassurance to the individual who has guided him through training. When he turns to find that man, it will not be the lieutenant or the staff sergeant behind him. That spot is reserved for the Marine corporal.