The challenge of leadership within the garrison environment

We explain the knowledge, skills and abilities that junior noncommissioned officers need to be their most effective when stationed in close proximity to troops

By Krista Langkamer-Ratwani, PhD, and Jeffrey Fite, PhD

Research overview

Currently, ARI’s Ft. Hood Research Unit, together with Aptima, Inc., is conducting research to understand the leadership challenges that are present in today’s garrison environment. The purpose of the research is to uncover the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that junior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) need to be effective within that environment. The KSAs identified by the research, as well as information uncovered about the garrison environment, will support NCOs leading soldiers in operational units.

Problem to solve

Today there is concern that many of the Army’s leaders — particularly our junior leaders — are not equipped with the KSAs required to effectively train, lead and discipline soldiers in the garrison environment (Department of the Army, 2010; Graham-Ashley, 2010; Stairrett, 2010). Prolonged, recurring combat rotational requirements have produced leaders who are highly skilled warriors but unaccustomed to taking care of soldiers in the garrison environment. Given the post-9/11 changes that have characterized the garrison environment, value of, and appreciation for, good order and discipline practices need to be instilled into the officer and NCO corps.

Training will play a key role in efforts to restore strong leadership to units in garrison, although a simple return to pre-9/11 professional military education (PME) curricula may not be enough. Implementation of effective training of leadership skills for the garrison environment will first require research to identify leadership skills and requirements that may be unique to today’s Army. The Army has operated at a high operational tempo for more than a decade now and, as a result, junior leaders may be less experienced in garrison leadership than their counterparts of the past. Thus, research is required to identify leadership skills and requirements that are unique to today’s Army, and to determine whether or not current PME curricula needs to be adjusted to account for the experiences and training that today’s leaders have (and have not) accrued since 9/11. It is especially important that such research be conducted for the Army’s NCO corps because — as stated in FM 7.22-7, The Army Noncommissioned Officer Guide (Department of the Army, 2002) — among the many duties of NCOs, training and taking care of soldiers are their priorities.

Solution and approach

The research described here is focused on defining the garrison environment and the associated leadership challenges. After the garrison environment is properly defined, the KSAs that junior NCOs need to be effective within that environment will be analyzed. A combination of both operational input and leadership theory is being utilized to conduct this research. First, a comparison of the operating environment as described in field manuals from 1976 to the present is being conducted. The purpose of that analysis is to understand the primary training and operational foci of the Army at various time periods, and hence the related demands placed upon Army leaders. A comparison of the descriptions in the manuals will yield valuable information about how and what leaders should be trained on. In addition, input from current, active-duty soldiers is being solicited to understand how they define the garrison environment — what are the current challenges that they face? And, what tasks must they conduct within this environment? Input is being obtained not only from NCOs, but individuals up (e.g., lieutenants and captains) and down (e.g., their subordinates) their chain of command. By gathering input from all levels, a more comprehensive picture of the duties and leadership challenges faced by junior NCOs can be developed. Finally, leadership theory is being used to frame the analyses in sound, scientific theory. For example, functional leadership theory (Hackman & Walton, 1986) argues that a leader’s main job is to accomplish whatever is needed to meet the needs of his or her subordinates. By applying functional leadership theory to the current problem, the identification of KSAs will be easier. For instance, the garrison environment can be represented as a number of leadership challenges, which can then be broken down into more specific leadership tasks, from which trainable KSAs can be derived.

Finally, information gathered from military doctrine, leadership theory, and the soldiers themselves will be combined to create training recommendations. It is important to note that the recommendations put forth from this research will not only focus on what needs to be trained, but how the training should occur and when to train specific KSAs. The Army puts forth three pillars (i.e., methods) of leader development (institution, self-development, and experience). Each of those pillars can serve to augment an NCO’s leadership capability, and hence, the KSAs identified as important for effective garrison leadership will be analyzed in relation to each of the three training methods. In addition, careful consideration will be given as to when in an NCO’s career certain skills should be learned. By taking this continuous learning approach, training recommendations can be made that provide NCOs with the skills needed for success at various points in their careers.


To date, data have been collected from 29 Command Sergeants Major (CSMs) who were completing a two-week CSM course at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. The average age of the participants was 43.89 years (SD = 3.69), and the average time in service was 23.67 years (SD = 2.94). The CSMs interviewed reported that leading soldiers in garrison was generally more difficult than leading in theater. The most frequently discussed challenges associated with leading in garrison included the following: a lack of (or lack of knowledge about) resources available in garrison; less control over soldiers and more distractions compared to while in theater; and, a lack of training on how to lead soldiers in garrison.

The CSMs also spoke about the KSAs junior NCOs need to be effective leaders in the garrison environment. However, despite the fact that the participants discussed the challenges of leading in garrison, the KSAs mentioned did not differ greatly between garrison and theater environments. Across both environments, general leadership competencies such as mentoring and self-awareness were discussed. The one skill set frequently mentioned was interpersonal skills. Given that NCOs must watch over and be concerned for the well-being of their soldiers while in garrison, that skill set certainly seems relevant.

Preliminary data are currently being examined from a functional leadership perspective to gain more insight into the KSAs required of junior NCOs. For example, specific, trainable KSAs can be discerned from understanding that NCOs must attempt to minimize distractions and keep their soldiers focused on the tasks at hand. Future interviews and focus groups will seek to identify additional tasks required of junior leaders to help define what the garrison environment looks like and to also uncover the necessary skill sets.

This research will support junior NCOs leading soldiers in operational units. It may also help to enhance the training and education curriculums for junior leaders. NCOs are the backbone of the Army, and research must continue to understand how to help them maximize their effectiveness in all environments.

Additional information regarding this research may be obtained from:

Dr. Krista Ratwani
Aptima, Inc.
1726 M St NW (Suite 900)
Washington, DC 20036

Dr. Jeffrey Fite
U.S. Army Research Institute
Fort Hood Research Unit (Mail Stop 70)
Fort Hood, TX 76544 

About this spotlight

Spotlight on research showcases research from R&D laboratories within DoD, partnering organizations, as well as the academic and practitioner community within military psychology. Research will include a wide variety of studies and programs, ranging from preliminary findings on single studies to more substantive summaries of programmatic efforts on targeted research areas. Research will be inclusive of all disciplines relevant to military psychology — spanning the entire spectrum of psychology including clinical and experimental, as well as basic and applied. If you would like to showcase your research, please email Krista Ratwani or call her at (202) 552-6127.  This spotlight features research being conducted by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) on the challenges associated with leading soldiers in the garrison environment.