The Army is facing an unprecedented recruiting crisis. The service missed its recruiting target by about 15,000 new soldiers for fiscal 2022, coming up 25% short of its goal.
When I reflect on my 20 years of military service, I ask myself how this can be possible. Then I remember the wide range of officers I worked for and how their leadership styles affected my choices concerning my military career.
I recall having a couple of toxic leaders who made me seriously question if I wanted to remain in the Army. These officers showed little to no interest in my aspirations, needs or concerns as an individual, and they cared even less about how their decisions would affect my family.
Luckily, after each one of these undesirable bosses, I had a superior officer who mentored me, invested in me and genuinely cared about my family. One officer, who I will always hold in high esteem, went so far as to fly out to a predeployment training site to see me off and wish me well before I headed to Iraq. He observed that my wife and newborn son had also come to visit, and he gave me a direct order to let him watch my son for the night while I took my wife on a date. In addition, during my deployment, he called my wife several times to check on her welfare and my son’s.
Because of his kindness, I became convinced that the Army does have compassionate leaders, and I decided to make the Army a career, rather than separating from the service after my deployment as I had intended.
Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army, also understands the importance of treating soldiers well. In August 2019, in his first message to the force, McConville wrote: “People are always my No. 1 priority.” I had recently retired and felt relieved that the Army I loved so much was headed in the right direction.
However, this ideal may be easier said than done. A survey dated November 2021 of nearly 38,000 soldiers exiting the Army showed that the top reasons for leaving were related to their families, the impacts of Army life on their significant other’s career plans and goals, and the degree of stability of Army life.
It will take some work, but I believe leaders at all levels have the ability and responsibility to turn this around.
When the Army had recruiting problems in the past, leadership often tried to fix the problem by offering more financial incentives for recruiting and retention, or by lowering standards to make it easier to join and stay.
However, a better solution exists, one that will not require a bigger budget or plummeting standards. The Army does a great job of teaching its soldiers and leaders proper tactics, techniques and procedures, and there are dozens of regulations and field manuals to provide guidance on how to fight and win the nation’s wars. But during my service, I never received a block of instruction about how to serve my subordinates, peers or superiors with compassion and love.
You might ask yourself, “Love? What do love and compassion have to do with wearing the cloth of our Army and defending our nation?”
Going back to McConville’s words, I believe putting people first is the key to reaching recruiting goals. More important, this is not just some lofty concept that I think might work; I know it will work, because I’ve seen the results of it in action in a unit I led.
In May 2017, a year before I would hit my 20-year mark and retire from the Army, I received orders to deploy to Kuwait and command the Defense Logistics Agency’s support team in the region. The day I assumed command, three of my team members came to me with curtailment papers in hand, requesting my signature so they could cut their tours short.
They explained that they missed their families, did not feel valued at their jobs, hated the hot weather, and the previous boss had created a command climate in which nobody felt like part of the team.
Listening intently and taking notes about their concerns, I asked each one to hold off on their request for two weeks to give me an opportunity to prove that I was a different kind of leader.
After 24 hours of reflection and prayer, I decided to institute a culture in my team based upon the principles of the five love languages, introduced by author Gary Chapman in his series of books, The 5 Love Languages. These languages are: words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, acts of service and quality time.
Since the love languages resonate differently with each person, I wanted to develop a comprehensive program that addressed all the love languages.
‘Shining Eagle Award’
I first went to the post exchange and bought the biggest, gaudiest trophy I could find, dubbing it the Shining Eagle Award. I decided that during my weekly team meeting, I would open by publicly recognizing the team member I observed going above and beyond the call of duty for a customer during the past week.
After singing this person’s praises, I would announce them as the winner and bring the person up to give them a high-five and receive the Shining Eagle Award. The recipient would display this trophy on their desk until the next week’s staff meeting, giving them recognition among the team members and the customers who visited them.
Along with the trophy, I presented the winner with one of my commander’s coins, as well as a 24-hour pass to be used at their discretion.
Through this simple gesture, I checked off gifts, words of affirmation and physical touch. For acts of service, I had each week’s winner swap vehicles with me, as most of our team had government vehicles in order to meet with customers throughout the various bases in Kuwait. On my one day off per week, I would take the winner’s vehicle to the wash rack and personally power-wash it, vacuum it out, then gas it up before giving it back to them on Monday. My team found this particularly helpful and thoughtful, since the sandy conditions of Kuwait quickly created a dirty vehicle, inside and out.
Finally, for quality time, I used my personal money to take each team member out for coffee once a month for an hour at the local coffee shop. They set the day and time, and their only task was to come to the meeting ready to share what was in their heart.
The coffee hour was the most valuable practice because it helped me keep my finger on the pulse of my unit, get to know each team member personally, develop a sense of family within my unit and learn what I could do to best meet the needs of each team member, personally and professionally.
Because of the new command climate I instilled, the three people who had wanted to leave flipped the script and decided to extend their stay for the duration of my tour.
Leadership is hard, at any level, and servant leadership is even harder because it takes time, commitment and personal sacrifice on the part of the leader.
But what I know to be true is that when people feel loved and cared for, they can look past the sacrifices they’re asked to make to accomplish the mission. The Army can and will make its recruiting mission when we’re not just the greatest fighting force the world has ever known, but also the most compassionate organization a person can belong to.
Lt. Col. (Rev.) Paul McCullough, U.S. Army retired, is president of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Penn & Franklin-Greater Philadelphia Chapter and an Army Reserve Ambassador from Pennsylvania. He served 20 years in the Army, retiring in 2018 as deputy director for supplier operations, Defense Logistics Agency. He deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, and in 2017 as commander of the DLA Support Team-Kuwait. He holds a doctorate in business administration from Walden University.