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Military Personnel


DND photo KA2005-R105-0274d by Corporal Dan Shouinard Task Force Kabul Roto 3

Chief Warrant Officer Lee Topp, Regimental Sergeant-Major of Task Force Kabul, greets General Rick Hiller, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, at Kabul International Airport, 30 April 2005.

Reform and the Non-Commissioned Officer

by Master Warrant Officer Stephan R. Smith

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One of the most profound challenges facing today’s army is re-defining what the role of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be in The Army of the Future. NCOs have earned an excellent reputation within the army, a reputation based on the execution of difficult tasks and missions assigned to them, but today’s NCO lives in a paradoxical world. The army, through its training and culture, prepares the NCO to function in a very limited role as part of its ‘backbone.’ However, technological changes, operational commitments and decentralized control frequently entail more from the NCO, such as being the sole decision maker at an observation point or the lone voice of reason at a checkpoint.


Discussions about the future of NCOs come at a critical time, since action needs to be taken to revitalize the leadership function and restore command confidence in the unique contributions the NCO plays within Canada’s army, both today and in the future. The goal of reform should not be ‘to re-invent the wheel,’ but to examine the grounds upon which NCOs are required, the functions they fulfill and what voids are filled by their presence.


DND photo IS2004-0715a by Corporal Robert Bottrill, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Canadian NCOs are respected teachers. Sergeant John Hawtin of the Embedded Training Team (ETT), teaches Afghani soldiers the principles of Observation Posts during a training session.

The requirement for NCOs must be based upon function and not on a perceived administrative end state. This function has to be realistic, based on the needs of the army. It should not be predicated only upon our traditional usage of NCOs, but should also reflect the realities of today’s world. However, we must be careful not to ignore the legacy that NCOs of the past have left and their highly significant contributions to the Canadian Army. That said, it is also essential in any vision of the future to recognize the obligation we have to incorporate the current generation of NCOs into the process. Simply put, there is a requirement to link the past to the present in order to plan for the future.

Barriers against Change

In order to arrive at an understanding of any new role for NCOs, the barriers against reform and change must be clearly identified. It is important to know what limitations exist and where improvements must be sought. Often, barriers are seen as a reason for perpetuating the status quo and not used as a means to understand the dynamics that will allow change to take place.

As a group within a professional body,1 the NCO corps is not a self-governing group. As NCOs, we do not regulate our own actions. The officer corps acts as the regulatory body through the application of authority, policy, procedures and law. And the officer corps must maintain a vested interest in the development of and training provided to NCOs. It is unfortunate that, in my view, the end of functional officer/NCO teamwork quite often appears to come at the conclusion of phase training.

Training is very rarely developed, reviewed or promulgated by a non-commissioned officer. In fact, most of the training an NCO now receives has not changed drastically in format since the 1950s. Arguably, although the elements of the lessons have been updated and instructional styles are changing, the scope of this training has not kept pace with operational requirements, or even with those of the officer corps. It falls upon the officer corps to include knowledgeable and capable NCOs in the process of developing and implementing training programs and policy. Those non-commissioned members who have an intimate understanding of relevant issues, policies and training, as well as demonstrated experience, must be included in the process to produce modern and realistic training programs for the production of NCOs in the future.

Another barrier to change is the historical myth that NCOs are limited in their capacity to perform higher functions within the army. Officers have been portrayed as the planners and thinkers, whereas NCOs are the ones who implement, becoming, in essence, merely the executive arm of a Queen’s Commission. I would suggest that Canadian NCOs, particularly in this post Cold War period, have proven to be adept and flexible thinkers who, grounded in real experiences, have risen to the occasion time and time again in dynamic and unpredictable circumstances. Furthermore, they have not always been given proper credit for their flexibility and adaptability.

NCOs of all trades have shown great initiative – with initiative being defined as doing the right thing, at the right time, without being told to do so. Peacekeeping NCOs have displayed this trait with very little preparation. The NCO corps has survived and has carved out an important place within the army in spite of drastic social and organizational changes that have lain beyond its control. The time has arrived for acceptance that NCOs have the ability to perform higher functions, and that the experience they bring to the defence team is a commodity that is unique and useful.

Organizational Values

Part of the difficulty in re-defining the roles for a NCO is determining the value placed upon this group by the army as a whole. This difficulty is further exacerbated by a lack of clarity or a clearly defined overall role with respect to NCOs on the part of the Canadian Forces (CF) as an organization. Simply telling NCOs that they exist to lead soldiers in fighting a conventional war is outdated thinking. What value does the army, as an organization, place upon its NCOs? Traditionally, all levels of commanders have maintained that ‘the mission’ is the highest objective value within the organization. The difficulty with this single value is getting people to agree upon what ‘the mission’ actually constitutes. As an NCO may be tasked to an administrative duty, a technical support duty or an operational patrol duty, how does the organization account for that human factor which interprets all these duties as ‘the mission’?

During the last 100 years in particular, advances in military technology have long been acknowledged as having great value. Some people have even maintained that technological advances represent the greatest value to armed forces. For example, the introduction of the machine gun and the tank met resistance by many in uniform, but the change that these technologies imposed upon the battlefield could not be ignored for long. There have been many recent developments in vehicles, equipment, communications and personal gear. As a result of these technological changes, there exists the idea that one ‘super soldier’ kitted with cutting edge technology is considered greater in value than an entire platoon whose members are equipped in a more conventional manner.2 If this emphasis on high technology materiel is truly mission essential, then technology drives the decision making process, which, in turn, should logically determine the role of the NCO.

Coupled with the impact of technology is the growing value of formal education. The actual value of education for the military is an extremely sensitive point with many soldiers in many of today’s units. In this brief article, it would be difficult to split hairs between formal civilian education and the military education, but within the army, the issue of education has caused dissension, division and a rift at all rank levels. As a military organization, we adhere to the concept that ‘leaders must teach leaders,’ but when civilian experts with specialized training are melded into the chain-of-command, both the process and those individuals may be viewed as a threat to ‘the army’ or ‘the unit.’ In my view, our army will continue to experience problems when traditional uniformed army leaders do not teach related courses, policies or doctrines in house. It should be recognized that pre-enrolment educational opportunities and experiences are not equal across the country, and that the army has, in the past, addressed this by providing all job-related training ‘in house’ with its own instructors. This problem will intensify and divide soldiers and units, when the army accepts the practice of civilian training in lieu of military experience with respect to more and more trades.

Two sailors

DND Photo IS2005-0048 by Master Corporal Robert Bottrill, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Off the west coast of British Columbia, Petty Officer 1st class (PO1) Ken Wiebe briefs PO2 Dan Poirier (right) during a bomb threat exercise.

No discussion of values would be complete without examining the value of experience, specifically, the ‘school of hard knocks.’ Traditionally, NCOs in operational theatres and even in static units have maintained that experience is their most prized asset. As instructors are nominated, leaders identified and promotions considered, NCOs have viewed and will continue to view experience as the most essential criterion for success. Experience for the NCO tends to be viewed as one of the few safe bases from which NCO leaders can make command/managerial decisions. A decision based on empirical data – something real and recorded — is often difficult to argue against or to grieve.


DND photo IS2004-2100a by Sergeant Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

MWO Sonny Rose (left), WO Steve Dornan (center), and a techni- cian from CAE Inc., watch a bank of flight monitors during an exercise involving a simulated Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flight. Today’s NCO must be able to interface comfortably with high technology.

During the past few years, a considerable amount of time and effort have been devoted to discussions about the Canadian military ethos and values. At some point, there has to be a specific identification of the value the CF, and, more specifically, the army, holds for its NCOs. That value should be found in the very nature of the job – those essential functions that the NCO performs. The functions must reflect those experiences, both operational and non-operational, that are required to successfully execute the mission and that only the NCO, through time, can acquire. Success for the NCO is closely tied to a leadership ability to succinctly define and clearly articulate the objectives to those who, with unique and essential qualifications, have the ability to execute the mission in the manner desired by that leader.

Vision for the Future

It is important, in any vision for the future of the army to have a common goal. This common goal must be shared, not only by the policy makers, but also with those who are going to be subjected to that transition to the future. When visions are polarized or concentrated on a singular function, it is easy to alienate or even disenfranchise groups of NCOs and potential NCOs, who, in turn, will impede the momentum for practical reform. This vision, the role of the NCO, is not easily defined if identified by the product and not the function. Role and function must be clearly defined before an end state is considered.

There has been much discussion about the impending transition from an NCO who has traditionally been part of an exclusive sub-group of the army, to that of a technological ‘Underofficer,’ if you will.3 This concept is based upon and rooted within a technological environment where command and control are exercised at the lowest level. There is another vision that sees the NCO as a ‘Subject Matter Expert’ in a specific, trade- related area, as opposed to viewing the NCO as a technically competent leader and a field manager of soldiers. In order to reconcile these differences, an examination has to be made of where to place the emphasis or what constitutes the priorities. Is the essence of being an NCO to become an expert in the ‘business’ of soldiering, or is it to become an expert in ‘influencing human behaviour’ in accomplishing a task? We can also see a difference in that vision depending on whether this role is perceived to be in competition with the civilian world or as a separate sub-society.4 Is the goal to cultivate a unique military career and offer certain singular experiences that are attractive to both army soldiers and prospective recruits, or are we a corporation directly competing with specific civilian occupations, trades and professions?

The future vision for the NCO must be based upon the needs of the army. One such need is to retain experienced soldiers in leadership roles. These leaders must possess a complete understanding of the operational requirements of the army and a thorough understanding of the soldiers who are going to perform those tasks. A unique aspect of the army is the requirement for NCOs to have experience and the ability to make command decisions at lower levels based upon that personal experience. Rather than trying to capitalize on trade skills or those traits that are unique, it is necessary to identify the common characteristics or functions that should be hallmarks for all NCOs. A basic requirement for the army is to have a cadre of trade specialists who, through practical experience, are able to translate policy and direction into direct action. This cadre must be well versed in the legislation and regulations that govern it. This requires a sound background in military and applicable civil law, various types of leadership and their application, expertise in the application of technology, and the ability to lead soldiers in adverse circumstances to the legal and ethical accomplishment of the mission. NCOs need to be educated beyond the traditional requirements, to be able to take part in the development of policy, and to respond when called upon to impart this knowledge to other leaders in both formal and informal settings.

Historical Legacy

In many ways, the army and the Canadian Forces are suffering from a ‘borrowed concept’ syndrome. Until the 1970s, army training, language and publications were written in relatively plain English. Currently, we take concepts from the civilian world and apply them directly and extensively to the manner in which we conduct all our military affairs. In the 1970s, as a method of self-improvement, we applied contemporary educational concepts to military training, including the establishment of a Training Development Branch. As an organization, we moved from instructor to teacher, if you will. More recently, there has been extensive application of business terminology and practices. We now appear to be moving from being leaders to being administrators. This is not to argue against progress in providing the best instruction or improving financial practices, but it illustrates the blurred lines that now exist between the military and civilian communities.

One of these borrowed concepts is in the function of the NCO as the middle manager within a unit. For many years within the army, we saw the function of the NCO as a leader of men within a very narrow application. This application reflected the traditions and values that were part of our colonial experience. It was during the 1960s that certain social and military changes had a great impact upon the army. Such changes as the Canadian Forces Bilingual and Bicultural Plan,5 unification of the Armed Forces and anti-Vietnam War sentiments all had a profound impact that drove significant changes over a relatively small period of time. The impact of these changes directly altered the traditional manner within which NCOs functioned. There developed, albeit with great resistance, the beginning of a more diverse military culture that began to more accurately reflect Canada’s social composition. It was during this cultural transition that the NCO underwent considerable changes from being a ‘military leader of men’ to a ‘civilian manager of human resources.’

The borrowed concept of a middle manager can be seen as a product of a distinctly Canadian organizational change, that being the unification of the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force during the 1960s. Service traditions were changed almost overnight. Corps disappeared and branches were established in their stead. Where regimental or unit ties remained strong, these changes were not as severe. Within the combat arms, there were significant but less drastic changes for the non-commissioned officers. However, as the predominance of the combat arms within the army has waned, the concept of the middle manager has expanded. And it is perhaps now at its peak. We are now at that point in time when the question arises, what model for the development of NCOs will next be established?

The Function of the NCO

There are two common functions that the NCO has always served, and whether we speak in business terms or in military terms, those functions are fundamentally the same. In business terms, we identify the two functions of the middle manager as having to ‘manage the business’ and to ‘manage the people.’ As NCOs, we recognize ‘the business’ as ‘the mission’ and ‘management’ as ‘leadership,’ but the mission is not a product, nor is leadership just about human resources. It is in how these terms are defined that others view us as NCOs. If the mission is the only priority, the leader is seen in a traditional light. There are leaders, such as General Sir Arthur Currie or General Guy Symonds, who fall into this category, and who, in the broad sense, are identified as organizational role models. It is far more difficult to identify those who are known for their personal battlefield leadership, such as Audie Murphy, who still serves as a shining example for leading soldiers in combat to current American soldiers. What circumstances exist that make it difficult to identify our common heroes or role models?

At the national level, NCOs need to have positive role models whose influence is seen and felt. Most NCOs view the Regimental Sergeant Major’s position, not the Chief Warrant Officer’s rank, as the pinnacle of their career. This may explain why senior appointments, such as Area, Command, and the Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officers are seen as political figures, and not necessarily as leadership figures. It should be noted that these appointments are necessary and are an integral part of our system, but they lack the perceived status among many NCOs of being personal goals. As part of a greater organization, there needs to be a close look taken at the impact of personal leadership within the NCO corps. Who are the role models and how are they rewarded by the organization for living up to this obligation?

If leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour to accomplish the mission in the manner desired by the leader, we must see managing the business and managing people as having equal or almost-equal priorities. If these are seen as equal priorities or are viewed as integral parts of each other, then reward for NCOs should be based upon performance measured by these two criteria. Being a good or even a great leader must have its place within the army, and those who are in this position of responsibility and trust must function as national role models for subordinates to emulate.

The Role of the NCO

As we consider the mission and a mission’s relationship to the leader, it is important that the NCO corps retain that original emphasis upon conduct. No matter what the technology, terminology and political influence, the NCO will be judged heavily upon his or her conduct. This particular concept of conduct may be sliced in many different ways. The three essential elements of conduct that will be examined here are deportment, discipline and leadership by example.

In practice, we have, in the past, viewed deportment as something that changes somewhat with geographical situation. Deportment can at least be partially seen as that unwritten Code of Conduct by which soldiers abide. During war and in peacekeeping, the Code of Conduct followed within our home garrisons has not necessarily been the same as that followed on foreign soil. Even at home, we also informally divided this code into different forms of deportment, namely, one code of conduct for the garrison and another one for the field. It has been seen to be acceptable to vary the Code of Conduct depending upon where the soldier is situated. However, as a result of certain negative media reports generated during recent years, both public pressure and the military requirements have demanded that a more universal code of conduct be adopted.

It needs to be accepted by the chain of command that, during the selection and development of an NCO, posting, tasking and training should be given with a common purpose. The purpose of training should be the development of the NCO as the monitor and the enforcer of those standards by which professional soldierly deportment is measured. This should be universally applicable when in garrison, or instructing on a course, or serving on an operational deployment. As the principal monitor of soldier’s conduct within a disciplined environment, the NCO has a unique function within the army. The NCO must not only be concerned with achieving the mission, but also with enforcing the same high standards relating to respect for others, and to issues of security, health, welfare and morale of one’s charges in all environments within which a unit or group may find itself situated. It is fully understood that, in the application of these standards, variations will be found depending on the situation, but all soldiers, and especially NCOs, must be aware that the integrity of this Code of Conduct must always be maintained in a consistent manner.

The second essential element is discipline. Traditionally, armies are organized in a hierarchical nature. Therefore discipline, historically within the military context, is seen as the ability to follow and to give orders. Whenever there is a discussion about discipline, reference is often made to the ability of the soldier to follow direct orders. But there is more to discipline that just the ability to follow a direct order. Much of a soldier’s experience in training lies in receiving and giving operational orders, including being able to give direct orders for the accomplishment of a task. NCOs need to have the opportunity to develop both the informal delivery of orders and direction, as well as the formal order process. There needs to be a re-examination of the concept of formal and informal orders, since orders do not have the same meaning in today’s army as they did fifty years ago. One thing that is different about today’s army is that NCOs and officers are now trained in smaller groups, and in many circumstances, they deploy in re-organized sub-units, frequently with very little ‘in theatre’ support. These deployments are now regularly occurring in a relatively unstable or less controlled environment than ever before.

Basic training, common army courses and professional development sessions must all be aimed at ensuring NCOs are thoroughly familiar with more than just issues of technical and tactical competency. NCOs must not be taught just ‘how to read,’ but must also be taught ‘how to read between the lines.’ Through this training, all NCOs are prepared in their trade and the application of that trade, but the goal of collective training must not end at that juncture. There is a requirement for NCOs to be formally prepared to interpret the vast amount of military and civil laws, rules and restrictions. Courses such as current Military Law, applicable International Laws, Rules of Engagement for specific operations and the Laws of Armed Conflict6 are all examples of courses that support a holistic approach to development of a leader. NCOs must have the ability to apply those rules of conduct in various circumstances, and NCOs must be intimately familiar with them in order to impose discipline. The NCO must be enabled to develop the ability to make the appropriate decisions necessary to accomplish the task or mission successfully. Each aspect of career development must enable a NCO to apply this guidance and these forms of restrictions and limitations in an appropriate manner, day-to-day, from year-to-year and from operation-to-operation. In this context, we must now view the word ‘discipline,’ not within its current, known context, but through the prism of its original intent, and that is, ‘to create a follower.’ The intent of this discussion is not to argue semantics, but to change a mind set from discipline as punishment to that of discipline as a product of positive leadership.

Within the domain of discipline is the application of knowledge, which is an essential tool of leadership. Here again is an example of a borrowed concept. Much of our present training was modelled upon the civilian educational system. Increasingly, the army provides training in an adult educational style. Courses dealing with the military environment, military law and harassment, just to name a few, are taught as if they were part of a program of electives. Most of the ‘core’ trades training is still being presented through formal lectures in the traditional fashion, such as recruit course material, small arms lectures or leadership lessons. Some of the courses offered to NCOs are considered to be peripheral or speciality knowledge that not all NCOs have the opportunity or even the desire to acquire. But some of the skills that are operationally required of a NCO are not taught in any forum, either formally on course, or as part of pre-deployment training. In some cases, these mission essential skills are not even encouraged for development within the army as a whole. Two good examples of what I perceive to be this type of required skills are ‘negotiation’ and ‘mediation,’ although it should be acknowledged that these are taught to a limited extent as part of unit pre-deployment training. However, a wider spectrum of courses offered to NCOs as part of regular career progression needs to be developed. There are many NCOs serving at home and in many operational theatres that have earned great respect, due to their individual ability to incorporate skills learned outside the military environment.

When we use phrases such as ‘Leadership by Example’ or ‘Never Pass a Fault,’ much of their true meaning is lost because these are used so frequently and routinely. The language and terms used are often equated to punitive measures and not to corrective actions. Frequently, these phrases are used in jest and their impact or importance has now been diminished to the point of being viewed as trite. What should be conveyed is a positive message, messages that emphasize the need for all leaders to assist in the development of their subordinates by being the best role model possible.

Tradition, in both the formal and the informal sense, can be used in order to provide yardsticks for individual conduct as standards for emulation. Proper, relevant traditions may be used beneficially as a real or artificial mechanism to enhance identity, promote unity and to foster self-worth.

Soldiers do not lead by example just to lead by example. There is a requirement for tangible rewards. If one looks critically at the army, it could be argued that reward, in its simplest form, is reduced to that of promotion or appointment. This reward tends to be based upon the member’s ‘ticket,’ and having that ‘ticket punched’ by the appropriate people and at the appropriate time and place for advancement. This attitude can be counterproductive to developing effective leadership. Leadership has to be demonstrated in all environments, circumstances and in all types of employment. We have to ask, what are the rewards for being not only a good leader but also a positive role model, and how does the army, as an organization, recognize role models?


DND photo KA2005-R105-0357d by Corporal Dan Shouinard, Task Force Kabul Roto 3

Today’s NCO must also be comfortable and efficient in coalition milieus. Sergeant Darrin Clenighan of Task Force Kabul Force Protection Company, signals to a member of the Italian Nuclear Biological and Chemical (NBC) Company that there are three simulated casualties coming in for decontamination.

Future Considerations

The intent of this article has been to highlight some of the complex factors that need to be examined in order to gain a deeper understanding of how necessary it is to impose change upon the role of the NCO. Non-commissioned officers depend upon the officer corps to develop training that is relevant to today’s world and realistic in relation to the job requirements. It is therefore requisite that select, able NCOs be involved in that developmental process. Doctrinally, there needs to be an overall ‘Think Tank’ approach adopted in order to gain a thorough comprehension of the tasks at hand for the NCO of the future. Such a diverse developmental approach would help provide the depth that would otherwise not be found in traditional working groups. However, a ‘Think Tank’ approach is merely the basis for doctrine and systemic change. There is also a requirement for specific NCO development to be linked to that of an officer. Training should be structured so that NCOs are taught alongside officers, whereby a deep trust, mutual respect and mutual awareness of responsibilities are embedded in each other as an essential element for success; success that will be generated both while on course and, subsequently, within a field unit.

The NCOs of the 1990s have proven their ability to make timely, sound decisions in environments characterized by highly decentralized command. Formal training for NCOs should encompass more than the conduct of battle. Instruction in Peacekeeping, Aid to Civil Power, and other skills should not be placed at the periphery of career development. The army as an organization must recognize that the NCO holds a unique position of value and that there needs to be an updated, relevant training system and concurrent career development plan that is supported by effective mentors, including the officer corps. The result of adopting this training methodology will have a two-fold benefit. Young NCOs will have advice, experience and real assistance, and senior NCOs will have a hand in the actual development of their subordinates, who will then, in turn, be more likely to develop their own ability to be positive role models within their unit.


Canadian NCOs have been successfully able to adapt and succeed through many social and military changes. Within the army, the NCO corps possesses valuable practical experience for the commander. The ability to translate policy and direction into direct action is essential for success, and practical experience is usually the basis for the successful accomplishment of a major mission or even of a minor task. Leadership is that essential art that addresses the manner and fashion in which the human factor is involved in executing the mission. The NCO should no longer be considered to be the vague and somewhat trite ‘backbone of the army,’ but must be properly developed as the eyes, ears, voice and hands of command and to be properly and universally acknowledged as such.

As a ‘coal face’ guardian of soldierly conduct, the NCO corps has the experience and ability to act as a guarantor of high standards of conduct and discipline within less structured environments. There must be career development paths that educate and support an NCO’s ability to ensure these high standards of conduct. Through timely, effective training that reflects the current requirements of the army, the NCO should be properly prepared for any and all future tasks. A high standard of conduct must be demanded at all times, and all NCOs, regardless of trade, appointment or location, must universally apply and demand that standard. This will, in turn, help achieve both the military mission and the desired political end state. The display of positive leadership must be the basis of real reward for the soldier, and recognition of the unique contributions and the potential that NCOs possess will help assure our army’s credibility within this country and will assist in maintaining Canada’s place upon the world stage.

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Master Warrant Officer Smith, an infantryman from the Princess Louise Fusiliers, has served in the Canadian Forces since 1980. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from McMaster University.


  1. A profession, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is a vocation or calling involving some branch of advanced learning, i.e., the military profession.
  2. As commonly phrased in various media segments and articles during the Gulf War.
  3. Sergeant Arthur Majoor, “Changing Structures for Tomorrow’s Leaders,” The Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 2000.
  4. As presented by the Chief of the Land Staff during a visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 2000.
  5. Serge Bernier and Jean Pariseau, French Canadians and Bilingualism in the Armed Forces, Vol. II 1969-1987 (Ottawa: Canada Communications Group, 1994).
  6. Army Lessons Learned Center, Dispatches, Lessons Learned for Soldiers, Vol. 7, No. 1, October 2000 (Kingston, ON: Canada Communications Group, 2000).