The entire class after the field exercise day poses for the mission accomplished group photo: a successful day of putting classroom theory into action.
I recently had the honour and privilege of serving as an instructor at the NCO Intermediate Leadership Course in Lucerne, Switzerland. This class is open to OR6s and OR7s in NATO and Partnership for Peace (PfP) nations to strengthen their leadership skills, develop professionally and learn a great deal more about what it really means to serve in the world's most successful alliance. An Advanced version of the course is also available at the OR8 and OR9 level.
So why is this course in Switzerland? Easy – Switzerland is a Partnership for Peace (PfP) member nation, and the Swiss Armed Forces College hosts this course, making it a very important contribution to NCOs all thru the alliance. It's also something very tangible that our NCOs can benefit from in both their national and international roles as leaders – equipping students with the tools they need to be better leaders and communicators.
(Note: The NATO school at Oberammergau also offers this course, although focus areas are slightly different).
Having been a student in this course in January of this year and then invited back as an instructor for July, I've had the privilege to not only develop myself as a better international SNCO, but to have a hand in helping others develop professionally as well. I had 15 nations from NATO and PfP nations in my class (France, the Netherlands, Canada, The U.S., Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Kosovo, Spain, Armenia, Norway, Estonia, Germany and Slovenia) – all of us strangers on day one and now friends at the end of our two weeks together, working through problems, exploring theory and perhaps best of all – sharing our collective experiences.
When I started my USAF career in 1992, some of the nations represented in the class last month a) did not exist in their current form or b) were just leaving the WARSAW PACT. Today we work together as allies for a common goal – and the only way we will do that is not going to be realized just at the diplomatic top level councils and meetings – it's going to be the interconnections and interoperability of the Alliance's NCO corps to be able to work as a unified team, and work like a well oiled and smoothly functioning unit. That's what this course helps facilitate.
Viewpoints are usually dictated by one's upbringing and culture – and we had no shortage of differences on topics such as gays in the military, a current major topic for the US, but a non-news item for several of our Allies. Conversely, the role of Women in the military is a non-issue for the US, but a major topic for others. Rules of Engagement, the Law of War, counseling and stress management – we all recognize a need to educate our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines on these important topics, but how do we do that effectively in a multi-national environment? Again, this course gives students a way forward, by giving them a chance to do this in practice. Some of our students are already in important leadership roles, giving advice and influencing those around them, many are leading younger enlisted Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines – and know they are better equipped to do so in a multi-national environment.
For many of my students, this was also their first introduction into the Persolg "DISC”® personality profiles – one of our longest lessons (taught over the first 2 days), but perhaps the most important. Communicating with others across language and cultural barriers is a little easier when you know the type of person you are communicating with. More importantly, as leaders, you become more effective when you understand what motivates and how to communicate with your team.
Simply put: This course does a fantastic job in preparing today's enlisted leaders to lead and succeed in a multi-national environment. This course is a must have for all NCOs from all nations to be truly successful and effective in the NATO/PfP environment.
When I was a student in January, I learned more in depth about NATO and the Partners for Peace in the very first block of training on Day 1 - even after being in NATO for a year. I thought I knew a lot, and right away I could see that there was still a lot I needed to learn.
The materials, staff and facilities at the Swiss Armed Forces College General Staff School, which physically hosts the course are world class - truly excellent in every way – I have found that the course has not only well complemented the professional military education (PME) I have received throughout my career in the USAF at all levels of our own leadership training, it has augmented my own skills as an enlisted leader, both in my national and multi-national roles at SHAPE. Going back as an instructor has further cemented what I learned by translating theory into real world examples.
Working through problems and difficult situations - both in class and in the field, side by side with my NATO peer group, allowed me to experience firsthand the many different cultural viewpoints, language usage, and ways of thinking among the allies and partners in the alliance. I now have a closer working relationship with several fellow SHAPE colleagues, as well as new contacts throughout NATO and PfP. Either on the side of a mountain organizing a search & rescue party, leading a group of students safely off a 45 meter high cliff to put stress management into action, devising a plan in the field to move team members past an IED trap, or just collaborating in and after class deep into the evening on a counseling or ethical dilemma presented during the course work, the hours spent with my team were truly beneficial to the improvement of not just my own skill set as a leader, but to the entire class as well. All of us left as better international NCOs.
Having studied at almost every level in the USAF PME system, I have already had awareness/training on many of the topics here: Herzberg, Maslow, counseling, situational leadership, DISC, stress management ... but what none of those schools do is rely on class interaction and group/syndicate work to produce solutions - lecture time here was kept to a minimum, allowing students to spend a great deal of time dealing with problems together with classmates, looking through a multi-national lens.
Moreover, supporting others in the class who didn't understand these concepts only helped me understand them better. International units are very unique and bring a special set of circumstances and issues that don't occur at the national level - this course has opened my eyes and given me the tools, the contacts, the background and the knowledge to really tackle issues in this environment head on with a higher probability of success - this is not something we teach at the national level, as most of my USAF counterparts will not serve in this capacity.
In the US military system, we receive a lot of timely leadership education in all of our services starting from a junior enlisted level, but this is not the case across the entire alliance. Some SNCOs were receiving this kind of leadership education for the first time, which for me only underscores the need for further integration if we are to be successful as an international NCO corps.
In October of 2010, the SACEUR and SAC-T released the NATO NCO Strategy and recommended guidelines – this document serves as the Alliance's enlisted roadmap to interoperability – or in Soldiers language: "How do we become an even better team?” If you want to see a small facet of the professional development aspect of this in action, then I would invite you to take a look at this course for yourself and your leading NCOs – the Alliance will be stronger for it.
Our goal as instructors was to ensure our students left the course as better International NCOs – and I believe we did just that.
I'd like to offer special thanks to our host: The Chief of NCO development for the Swiss Armed Forces College, CSM (OR9) Richard Blanc for making the course run as perfectly as you would expect Swiss timing to be, down to the second – everything was in place from day one for both the staff and students, allowing us to quickly get to work…perfect!
MSGT (OR7) Chris Almeria, USAF
First Sergeant, SHAPE, Belgium