Soldiers may not often consider what a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) does because it can be a position that appears mysterious, steeped in customs and tradition, surrounded by stories based on myth and fact or simply a career goal too far in the future. Whatever the case, everyone knows there is only one RSM in a unit who closely supports the commanding officer or commander of the formation or command. For some soldiers, becoming an RSM is a career goal and for others the appeal is not desirable. Regardless, the Manual of Army Employment provides the narrative of the RSM’s role and, when loyally executed with judgement learnt over many years, can have an effect that permeates through all aspects of an organisation. The RSM can achieve this using wisdom and an informed understanding of the organisation and by taking an advisory and mentoring approach. This paper will offer reflections of the influence an RSM can have by providing context for these thoughts. Following that foundation, a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) format will uncover the utility of the RSM’s role. These observations arise from personal experience and from three years working at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy (USASMA) that annually educates up to 700 RSM (equivalent) candidates and can include international Sergeants Majors from up to 45 countries.
Context of influence
The following context does not focus on doctrinal roles and tasks that seemingly pivot on training, ceremonial, discipline and personnel management portfolios but on the attributes and influence the RSM can deliver. The tangible metrics of experience and knowledge provide an upfront level of credibility but the intangible qualities such as energy, ethical values, curiosity, passion, emotional intelligence and being a confidante, transfer into the tangibles of trust and respect. This was evident amongst USASMA candidates and the key for an international instructor to build mutually respectful relationships. Likewise, a unit needs the RSM to be a listener and communicator who uses influence as a unifying tool. This can pervade to all corners of an organisation where:
- a significant point of friction may arise
- a message needs personal reinforcement
- organisational reputation is vulnerable
- effort/change needs invigorating
- the climate/pulse of the organisation needs checking
- recognition and reward is required to reinforce team performance
Notably, the RSM is not the only person who can perform these functions, and the chain of command must be trusted with this, but the additional perspective can provide weight to subsequent command decisions. Having said this, the RSM is also human and has cognitive bias like everyone else.
During early appointments, the RSM may take time to find clarity of the role. Initially, focus will be on the things the RSM is good at, and this is natural human behaviour, but quickly the aperture will widen to unknown areas as vulnerability within the unit/formation/command emerges. The above list will require the RSM to move towards those areas and engage with stakeholders to determine the scope of the circumstances then inform and unite appropriate actors to become aware of the matter. This paper deliberately uses language that does not generate a notion that the RSM is a decision maker, commander or staff officer. Instead, the artful application of leadership should be discharged with wisdom, confidence and understanding to inform appropriate levels of authority. These factors make the RSM a unique person within any organisation. The RSM should deliberately seek out organisational weakness with a view to align and unite people in accordance with the commander’s intent and organisational values. Attentiveness to soldiers’ needs will ensure the focus does not stray to areas that wastes effort and remains within the context of the unit’s role and mission.
The best method to learn about an organisation is through face to face engagement. Often called battlefield circulation, the RSM must explore all echelons of a unit to allow those functions to describe their progress or struggles. Hearing the soldiers’ stories alone will not provide a comprehensive picture of the unit, so visits and interaction with officers and soldiers who plan, execute and support missions must be within the RSM’s range. There is not an expectation that RSMs will bring expertise from their previous life as a junior soldier but the RSM’s attentive skills of listening, communicating and team building have meaningful impact.
The ability to have an impact is underpinned by the elements that commanders use to structure their operations process as explained in US Army’s ADP 5-0 The Operations Process. Similarly, the RSM must understand the current situation and problem, then visualise the endstate and how to achieve it. The RSM needs to describe this using language understood by subordinate elements to check they comprehend what is required, all the while leading by example and assessing performance against standards and intent. Finally, the RSM’s personal involvement in the unit’s training can provide useful feedback that will influence training progression. With this context established, the paper will move into a SWOT analysis of an RSM’s influence.
The RSM has and brings the following strengths:
- Similar to a sports team, when a player is skillful enough to position himself/herself as an overlap or “a loose person on the field” a multiplying effect can be achieved. This leaves the remainder of the team on the primary purpose while capacity resides in another person. The RSM is not strictly tied to a rigid chain of command and is able to flex where and when required.
- Broad and validated experience and judgement
- Able to anticipate and remediate training, welfare and soldier issues
- Knowledge and experience to reinforce a fault correction and reward culture
- Has access to networks that are internal and external to the unit
- Not tied to a stove-piped hierarchical structure and is comfortable operating within a matrix structure
- Seasoned interpersonal relations and team building skills
- Knows and understands the pulse of the unit
- Access to the commander
The RSM may have the following weaknesses:
- Limited operations planning experience
- Knowledge and skill to perform staff work
- Shallow exposure to operational and strategic levels within the Defence Force
- Subject to own experience-based biases
- “Time off the tools” may have been prolonged, so currency of tactical or soldier skills may be limited
- Potential inaccessibility to lower ranks due to a perceived ‘RSM aura‘ or actual rank/ time/experience disparity between the RSM and various demographics within the unit
The RSM can create the following opportunities:
- Promote mission command
- Monitor and determine if the commander’s intent is being followed
- Informally socialise ideas with the commander that planning teams and subordinate commanders may be considering
- Detect gaps and surfaces during circulation that may not be seen by those close to the activity
- Unite staff sections to better synchronise personnel, logistics and operations functions
- Alert staff sections to personnel, training and operational needs within the unit
- Contribute to areas of expertise at levels beyond the scope if the unit
- Generate a community, public relations and reputational effect for the unit due to networks, experience, judgement and flair
- The current generation expects leaders to be more accessible than ever. The RSM can use the bond of being a soldier to discover elements of complex situations
- Lead by example to demonstrates what right looks like. An RSM doesn’t need to be first, but participating and doing ones best, whatever the endeavor, can inspire others
The following threats can be counter-productive towards the RSM’s reputation and/or effectiveness:
- An RSM’s networks and wide consultation outside the chain of command can be detrimental if issues/plans/ideas are communicated before they are ready for authorised dissemination
- An RSM may be misinformed if only capturing snapshots of information
- The commander may be provided with information that may create a bias
- Knowledge can be outdated if an approach is complacent
- An RSM may be generationally out of touch. They may also be a victim to their own internal biases based on prior service history, corps, service and experiences.
- The RSM’s circulation may distract staff sections or individuals with ill-timed engagement
The aim of this paper was not to justify or preach about the necessity of an RSM; rather, to provide an analysis of the influence that RSMs offer to Army. Commander 16th Aviation Brigade recently expressed that he values an RSM who knows what is important to a unit and is energetic within his scope of influence to have a meaningful effect and make a difference. This is learnt by capitalising on posting opportunities and being an enthusiastic leader. International assignments, such as USASMA, can be eye opening experiences that reveal how RSM (equivalents) around the world broadly achieve similar effects. Although there are variations in levels of authority amongst countries, the undeniable aspect remains that RSMs are an important interface who measure performance and effectiveness then communicate reliable findings to the staff and commanders. Their perspective is based on the art of leadership and delivered as intrinsic, honest feedback that comes from “within the family.”
About the author: Darren Murch has served in a variety of Infantry Battalions, from Private soldier through to RSM. He has served as RSM for 8/7 RVR, 1 RAR, MRTF-2 and at the School of Infantry. He has been posted to the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy and is currently the RSM 16th Aviation Brigade. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012 and the US Army Meritorious Service Medal in 2017. Currently, he is completing a Bachelor of Organisational Leadership.