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“A small unit leader should be doing one of two things: leading Soldiers and small units during battle, or preparing Soldiers and small units to fight the battle.” —COL (Ret.) Dandridge Malone, from his book, Small Unit Leadership: A Common Sense Approach.

 “All unit leaders are responsible for quality training. Primary roles involve training subordinate leaders and developing teams” (para 1-21) –U.S. Army’s FM 7-0.

Training can take many forms, from SHARP and resiliency training, to equipment maintenance and accountability, to a unit field training exercise (FTX). No matter the form, military training is conducted to achieve one end: to win in a complex world (FM 7-0, para 1-1).

My experience has led me to categorize training into three main types, which I outline below. I believe it is important to discuss this because I did not properly manage these three types of training well as a company commander. Driven by high self-initiative and a passion to make my company the best outfit I could, I unconsciously emphasized one type of training (opportunity) and did not pay my honest due diligence to the others. I had firm ideas of what I thought was important for my company to train on to the point of being perceived as aloof by my higher headquarters and their staffs sometimes. Ultimately, I hope other current and future military tactical leaders and small unit commanders can learn from my mistake.

This is not a discussion on how to select what mission essential tasks to train during a particular training event, nor is this a post about designing your unit training management (UTM) program. Beyond FM 7-0 as a resource for those topics, I also discuss UTM in my company command blog series here, here, and here. What this is: a mental framework that every commander should view all training through; one that I wish I did during my company command. When faced with any task or responsibility related to “training” your unit, categorize it into one of these types of training and act accordingly.

Three Types of Unit Training

These types of training are listed in order of precedence. Take care of the first one (priority) and ensure it is scheduled on your unit training calendar before anything else. Then lay on the second type of training (required). Finally, as calendar “white space” affords, schedule your final type of training (opportunity).

Priority Training. This is commander-specified training assigned to you by your higher headquarters through training guidance. Essentially, it is your boss telling you that “you must train these tasks.” As a company commander, there are generally six commanders above you that have a say in how you run and train your company; you cannot think that you have a better idea of how to do that than them. Train the tasks that your commanders tell you to first, no matter your thoughts on such training. The beauty of this type of training, in-line with the philosophy of Mission Command, is that those commanders will often prescribe what tasks you must train and rarely prescribe how you must train them. This allows you to creatively engage your organization.

Required Training. This is all regulation-specified training such as AR 350-1 training, unit policy mandated training, and universal training (i.e. driver’s training). It’s not the fun or “sexy” training, but it is important to ensure your Soldiers are compliant with regulation and are “fit to fight.” It also ensures you keep yourself out of trouble as a commander; you can be fired by not completing this training.

Opportunity Training. Finally, opportunity training is any task you and your unit want to train on outside of what is assigned by your commander(s) and/or mandated by regulation. This training can be selected based on a variety of motives to include possible organizational proficiency gaps, an organizational interest, or training implied tasks to support priority training. This is the “nice to have” training that you select as a unit commander to schedule AFTER priority and required training is planned. For example, several opportunity training events my company executed during my command included patrol base “man hunt” between platoons, call for fire training (not required for my subordinate engineer formations), and cross-training between my three platoons (I had a Sapper platoon, equipment support platoon, and a route clearance platoon, all with different assigned missions and collective tasks; all in order to expand our Soldiers’ proficiency across the engineer skillset).

From my experience, I know commanders often have a large appetite for opportunity training and tends to be larger than their own or their unit’s stomach. It is critical to ensure that good ideas do not become the enemy of best intentions with respect to other training types (priority and required). Your formation cannot be over-trained/tasked and under-rested; rest and refit are critical to the success of quality training, which I discuss in my company command series post. Remember, refit does not necessarily equate to rest. Equipment refit time can often be the longest days on the training calendar. Ensure there is “personnel refit” time as well.

How to Incorporate the Three Types of Training

A way to ensure you are sufficiently incorporating all three types of training is to conduct a unit planning conference, which I discuss how to do here. During the planning conference, I recommend unit commanders and subordinate leaders do the following:

  • Bring all relevant training doctrine, regulation, and guidance to the event. This includes annual and quarterly training guidance from one- and two-levels up, AR 350-1, installation training regulation, etc.
  • Write the headings of “priority,” “required,” and “opportunity” on a white board or butcher paper in the room. Split your planning group into two teams and have them review all of the mentioned documents and list out everything necessary to train under “priority” and “required.”
  • Place all of those priority and required training events on your unit training calendar.
  • Brainstorm with your planning group to create a prioritized list of opportunity training you all want to execute in the next quarter, six months, and/or year. Based on available calendar “white space” schedule those events in the order of your established precedence.

Certification Versus Training

Finally, in addition to defining the major types of training, it is just as important to differentiate training from certification, and ensuring your Soldiers know the difference. I’ve found many military small unit leaders don’t understand the difference, or the importance of certification.

Training means “I’m telling you;” I teach you a new topic to gain proficiency in it. Certification, on the other hand, is “you telling me,” where you prove qualification of an assigned task. Certification is the evaluation that verifies a Soldier or certain formation level can perform a specified task(s) under specified conditions and standards. You train, then certify. My previous brigade commander asserted that our brigade executes Mission Command by training, certifying, empowering, and trusting our Soldiers – in that order.

Certification occurs at every level, starting at the individual. Ensure you, as a commander, are properly certifying your subordinates at every level, and you are certifying two levels down. Company commanders should work with platoon leaders to allow platoon leaders to certify team leaders (TL), not take that responsibility away from them; commanders removing platoon leaders from TL certification violates the essence of Mission Command. However, it is critical to certify your platoon leadership so they can in-turn certify TLs, and so on.

Ultimately, certification shifts the onus of preparation from the commander and trainers, onto the participants (or trainees). Questions to consider regarding certification:

  • How do you shift responsibility for performance from the commander and trainers to the participants?
  • How does certification affect the responsibility model within your organization? Do you need to rethink and restructure responsibility in your organization?
  • How much preparation do your people conduct prior to a training event or operation? What about a certification event? How can you bridge that gap of time between the two types of events?
  • How can you tie certification events to your organizational vision and goals, and have your subordinates better understand the “bigger picture” and context?

You can read more about certifying in Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, by David Marquet, which is my favorite leader development book I have read to-date.


Finally, US Army leaders can also reference FM 7-0 and the Army Training Network (ATN) for more on certification and quality training. On ATN, I encourage US Army readers to click on the following buttons to get familiar with the resources; all of these buttons can easily be found on the ATN homepage:

  • Objective-T: to better understand the new training standard and participation regulation. I also wrote about a tool to help in your OBJ-T reporting here.
  • METL: The US Army has standardized the Mission Essential Task Lists for all units at the company-level and above. Find yours using this ATN button.
  • CATS: A comprehensive resource for all collective tasks to support your unit’s METs to include type of training event (STX vs. LFX, etc.), task evaluation lists, standards, and so on. US Army leaders should be referencing this resource when planning every training and certification event.
  • AR 350-1 Appendix F: a complete resource for you to identify, plan, prepare, and execute all required training.

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