You have to dare to cross-examine yourself - both as a human being and as a leader

As a soldier's immediate superior the role of the platoon commander is one of the Armed Forces most important in passing on cultural values. If recruitment to the the new mission oriented Armed Forces is to be successful, it will begin on the parade ground. It's all about the platoon commanders leadership skills and ability to convey the core values of the Armed Forces – and this was the message of this year's seminar for platoon commanders.

Bengt Axelsson opened 2008's platoon commander conference. Photo: Swedish Armed Forces

"You play the same role for National Service soldiers that I play for my children It doesn't matter what you say, it's what you do that counts."
With these words Bengt Axelsson, the Armed Forces' deputy director of personnel, opened 2008's platoon commander conference at the Home Guard Combat School in Vellinge. He also urged the nearly 50 platoon commanders present to ask themselves the question: "what is my responsibility as bearer of the ethos of the Armed Forces?".

“It is extremely encouraging that we have been able to assemble so many platoon commanders, who, in turn, meet so many National Service soldiers, and get them to understand how important it is to spread the message of the Armed Forces' core values in their daily work”, Bengt Axelsson remarks.

The platoon commander conference is conducted anally by the Armed Forces unit for Leadership and learning(FM LOPE), , and forms part of the Armed Forces work with its core values. The annual get-together constitutes a forum in which platoon commanders can meet, learn from each other's experiences and develop the skills involved in their occupational role Results gained from development work in their units, over the course of the year, together with those of the annual survey of attitudes among National Service personnel, form the starting point for group work during the conference.

The attitudes survey is a valuable basis for undertaking local development work. For the most part the Armed Forces have a healthy ethos, but in a few places a harmful culture has been allowed to grow. "The question is whether this is done consciously or not," says Bengt Axelsson.

He wishes, however, to avoid focussing on the negative. There is just as good reason to highlight the good examples. But Brigadier General Axelsson also says that it can be difficult to get a grip on the entire spectrum, making something of both the good and the bad.

To start with one should not recoil from the figures presented in the attitudes survey, shoving them over to one side, thinking "... it must have happened while I was away" or "... if their parents and schools haven't done their bit then we can't be expected to solve everything". Instead, it's about staying objective and finding the ability to reflect over, and think about, what has happened in the coffee break room, on the parade ground and even at home. You have to dare to cross-examine yourself - both as a human being and as a leader.

“The less experience one has, the harder it can be to deal with these issues. Some have so powerful feelings of insecurity that they are perhaps afraid of being seen as a softy. But the fact is that these issues are among the toughest you can have to deal with”, says Bengt Axelsson.

Apart from drawing on your own day-to-day leadership, and how you perform the role of an example to others, there are a range of practical tools and tangible opportunities for working with core values at a deeper level. Work place meetings, local platoon commander seminars, regular open "Platoon Hour" discussions and the Association of Military Officers card game "What do you think?" are just a few examples.

Bengt Axelsson regards it as regrettable that some platoon commanders consider work on core values as just another work task in an already arduous working situation. It's really a matter of a way of being and of fostering a respectful working environment, in which people can speak freely. But just as it takes time to change culture and values, so it also takes time for work with core values to reach all personnel at all levels. And of course those at the top of the hierarchy have to be on side as well.

The importance of gaining support from unit commanders, in working with core values, cannot be stressed enough. This is reflected in the fact that representatives from those in charge of training are absent for nine out of 22 units represented here at the platoon commander conference, despite receiving notice to attend. Other signals that were picked up showed that some of the commanders had an indolent attitude to working with core values.

“I'm furious about this state of affairs.. Unit commanders have to discuss core values in their forum and systematic training in core values must be put in place”, says Bengt Axelsson.

Even the Armed Forces, just like any other employer, must understand the importance of building an attractive brand image, which is capable of attracting those seeking employment. And that weapons are exciting, or that you get to travel abroad, just isn't enough. You just need to take a look at the business world. Those companies that are best able to attract potential employees are those that are good at conveying their core values to others, argues Bengt Axelsson.

Of major concern is the fact that only one out of four working in the Armed Forces have a positive attitude towards the transition from a policy of territorial defence against invasion to the new policy of international engagement and a mission oriented defence force. The question is: how long can continue carrying the three out of four of our personnel that are unwilling to participate in the transition? That's also a part of working with core values.

One theory, which has been strengthened by the results of the attitudes survey performed during the transition to this new focus on operational defence, holds that the platoon commander - together with the way in which National Service training is carried out - plays the most important role in increasing the number of applications from National Service soldiers for overseas service.

The Armed Forces' ability to recruit soldiers willing to participate in operations is undermined if core values are not taken seriously.