Does your business need a CSM?

Roland Griffiths-Marsh set my mind on fire in his autobiographical account of WW2, I Was Only Sixteen. He depicts the 2/8th Battalion lying prostrate in the icy north African desert dawn, awaiting the end of the pre-attack bombardment of Bardia. He describes the terrifying noise of the artillery shells and the fear of the young Australians about to face the horror of war for the first time. Amid the chaos and silhouetted against the dawn, a Company Sergeant Major smoking a cigarette calmly walks the lines as the enemy artillery inches ever closer to their position. He issues a smoke to a frightened young man, lights it and offers him some comforting words. “You’ll be OK son. Tighten up your kit and get ready”. This image is burned into my consciousness, the embodiment of resilience, compassion and leadership from which I believe we can all learn.

I have learned much in my transition from soldier to civilian. Far too much for a “10 things …” list, a too-simplistic concept I am growing to dislike. A few lessons stick out for me. The major issues in business appear to cluster around leadership, culture and resilience; arguably the triadic glue of any organisation. The focus of business review articles, expert consultants and MBA houses support this observation. Indeed, here on LinkedIn the infatuation with these subjects is palpable. In today’s popular culture, the military is often held up as a bastion of strong leadership and sound culture – both of which give rise to resilience. As an ex-soldier now corporate advisor, this is apparent in the most common query I receive “what lessons can business learn from the military?” A much tougher question than you might think.

I am increasingly of the mind that conventional characterisations of leadership, culture and resilience may have outlasted their usefulness. Is it time to disenthrall ourselves from these three industries that are evidently letting us down? If we are to learn from the military, I contend that what is missing in our discussion is the place of custodianship and stewardship. I believe many issues related to this triad could be addressed in one action: the appointment of a Company Sergeant Major (noun, CSM, or [regimental] RSM, he or she is the senior soldier of a military unit, e.g., infantry company). A CSM defines the shape of an organisation.

One of the most inspirational role models in my life was a CSM, Warrant Officer Gary. His formal duties were many, including preserving the morale and legacy of the unit, being THE exemplar of standards to all ranks, providing guidance and direction to the Commanding Officer (CEO), acting as the senior advisor on tactical and strategic decisions, overseeing training, wrangling administration, directing ceremony, enforcing discipline, enabling welfare (e.g., births, marriages, divorces, deaths), supporting career management, providing ethical guidance, enhancing recruitment, assisting selection, engaging in military law and driving capability development. However, it was the additional duties performed by CSM Gary that were of most relevance to the current article.

Equally revered by all, CSM Gary had seen and done it all and understood deeply the power and politics. As such he had exclusive and trusted access to every corner of the organisation and its people. He could communicate up, down and across the organisation easily ensuring the strategic and cultural message was interpreted perfectly for each audience. He was the ultimate problem solver – and did so by making sure that people had the resources they needed and did not have the pressures they didn’t need. On the rare occasion he didn’t know the answer, he knew someone who did. Gary would swiftly identify and reward talent and empower the entrepreneurs. He would hold everyone to account regardless of rank and could smell and fearlessly call bullshit a mile away. Gary was firm and fair. But perhaps most important of all was his profound impact on the senior and junior leadership, his guidance and mentorship. Such qualities exist beyond the experts and schoolhouses. 

The CSM, he or she, deeply understands that they are custodians and stewards.

A CSM is unique. An occasional financial advisor, marriage counsellor, parental figure, pastor and mental health case officer, they are the stewards of morale, standards and legacy. And if your business had someone with that as their job description and all that it might entail, I believe you would have improved leadership, culture and resilience. In a world where there appears to be an increasing need for such qualities, and beyond the dated case studies, I suggest we need more embodied and practical examples to follow. My question: could your business benefit from a CSM? Perhaps it has one already, hiding in plain sight?


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