The Four B's of NCO Leadership

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- As a young NCO, I formed a lot of my leadership beliefs and values based on a combination of troop-leading procedures I picked up reading Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle and Platoon, the Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks and from Air Force leadership theories and practices I learned in Professional Military Education. I worked closely with people I considered to be very good leaders in the Air Force, Royal Air Force Regiment and our sister services. I found some differences in their approaches but more importantly, I found some consistencies.

I learned about hierarchies of leadership and that NCO leaders at flight level and below took charge and led the unit to fulfill the commander's mission and intent. I learned that whenever assigned with an officer at flight level, he or she served as an advisor to the officer leader who may have been much less experienced than he and not quite as close to the troops and their capabilities. NCOs took care of the "details" for the leader. Often, the details were the most important and enabled the leader to execute the plan according to the mission statement and their commander's intent.

In the five-paragraph orders format (situation, mission, execution, logistics and support, command and signal) used for mission planning on the ground and in the defense, paragraph four, entitled "Logistics and Support" belongs to the NCO. The paragraph covers, in a nutshell, "Beds, Beans, Bullets," and I have added, "Books" to round out what I shorten to the four B's. I have also come to use the four B's to describe our NCO duties or what may more aptly be referred to as a calling.

The four B's could almost be used in place of the specific NCO responsibilities because they are easy to remember and assign meaning to. But, I think you should supplement them with specific B's you identify from your own work centers. I have used this philosophy when deployed and at home station with equal success. Best of all, it is portable and lends itself to use in the Expeditionary Air Force. I offer it to you for your toolbox. I always preface it by saying if you remember nothing else I say, or you focus on nothing else in your career, remember this:

To be a successful leader as an NCO, you have to learn to focus your efforts on the four B's and I use an analogy referring to the "Beds, Beans, Bullets and Books" of troop leading. The first term, beds, refers to the NCO's responsibility to make sure their troops have a shelter or a decent place to live and sleep like the dormitory or housing. It has to be as safe, hygienic and secure as possible.

It is not just the first sergeant's or a SNCO's job to ensure this either. Leaders at all levels should frequently visit to see how their people live, ensure they are caring for government property and that their needs are being met. Any time you deploy or go downrange, you should make it your business to ensure your troops have a relatively comfortable, safe place to be billeted and can take care of their hygiene, physical and psychological needs.

Beans refers to ensuring your troops have adequate physical, mental, spiritual and professional nourishment. It's not just food and water. It means we frequent the places our troops eat and socialize to make sure they are getting appropriate treatment by base facilities and services. It means we mentor them, develop them and prepare them to replace us. It means we help them become balanced, focused and effective Airmen. It means we remove obstacles to their effectiveness. It means we pay attention to indicators that our Airmen may be at risk for destructive behaviors. Think of beans as feeding the body and spirit. Beans can heavily affect morale and the will to fight. Ensure your troops get the best possible support.

In my analogy, bullets refer to everything needed to get the job done. It could be the right tools to remove and replace the canopy assembly on an F-15E for the maintenance trooper. Bullets could be the right technical orders to identify a fuse assembly for an explosive ordnance disposal team. Or, it could be ensuring an M-240B team has a traversing and elevating mechanism so the gunner can engage targets at night that the squad leader is giving a fire control order on. In the last example, you can see that bullets may include direction too - don't forget that. Train your people - without training, they may use the wrong tool for the job. NCOs should be familiar with resource management, budget execution and fiscal year defense planning so they can request and advocate for tools, equipment and facilities. Without the right tools or bullets, the mission suffers, people lose their lives and battles are lost. Give the people what they need to get the job done, including training and direction.

Taking care of the books means taking care of and getting to know your people on and off duty. Walk around, go to where they work, find out about their family, why they entered the Air Force and what their goals are. This information will come in handy and will help you understand your people, and recognize and help fulfill Air Force mission objectives by aligning their goals and needs with those of the Air Force.

Books also refers to everything from praise and recognition of your folks, documentation of their training, awards and decorations submittals, and completion of performance feedback and performance reports. Troops may also come to you for career advice or with a problem and ask for your help with a career job reservation or a retraining opportunity. While the Air Force doesn't expect you to have every answer to every problem on the tip of your tongue, you should be the information and assistance broker for your troops. You should know the correct place to look, such as the 36-series Air Force Instructions or the appropriate referral agency. You should be able to get information on education and career opportunities available to them. Get to know your base career assistance advisor and encourage your troops to visit them.

The books also includes the darker but necessary side of the discipline equation and requires us to correct substandard behavior appropriately. Sometimes this may be by preferring charges, recommending action to the commander or taking administrative action yourself. However, as you practice getting to know your people and the four B's in general, your reliance on such measures will usually be greatly reduced. Remember, there is a great source for all the instructions on how to do the books right in the squadron and it isn't on a computer. It's your first sergeant - utilize them.

I guess in summary, this seems like a tall order and may seem as though the NCO is always in the giving mode here. However, I challenge you not to look at this as a one-way street. While you are taking care of your troops - someone a little older will be practicing the four B's and taking care of you.