On Administration and Leadership: Wisdom from 1942

Once upon a time while working on a history project about US Army casualty operations since World War II, I collected a bunch of old Adjutant General Corps-related documents. One of my favorite eBay scores was Technical Manual (TM) 12-250, the War Department Technical Manual for Administration, dated October 10, 1942.

Captain Phillipps failed miserably at making sure this thing wasn’t removed from Headquarters.

To put this TM into context, when it was published the US involvement in WWII was still relatively young. Pearl Harbor was less than a year old, but American forces were already  decisively engaging the Japanese in the Pacific. Japan took the Philippines earlier in the year, and in April 1942, the infamous Bataan Death March occurred. That same month, the US launched the Doolittle Raid while, separately, the CONUS internment of Japanese Americans built steam.

That summer, the pivotal US victory at the Battle of Midway tilted the scales against the Japanese for the remainder of the war. But when TM 12-250 rolled off the press, the US had yet to meaningfully engage in the European or Mediterranean Theaters of Operation.

TM 12-250 was a guide for company commanders and regimental adjutants on how to manage property, the mess, finances, personnel management, records, vaccinations, reports, and other matters. It provides step-by-step guidance on how to stand up an organization and a daily account of how to in-process troops. The TM gives examples for every mundane procedure (“Now assume that the company has purchased six baseball bats for the company ball team, which cost $8.00…”), and it leaves little room for guesswork.

Yet despite its painstaking detail, there are brilliant nuggets of insight and wisdom that ring true over 70 years later. Here are some:

The importance of good administration

Inside Cover

“…When administration is inefficient and the orderly processes are cluttered with misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, the training program suffers. When administration is efficient and there is teamwork, training proceeds unhampered and the chances of success in combat are improved.”

A soldier preoccupied with pay issues or some other annoying administrivia is a combat ineffective soldier. This point is as true now as it was in 1942. A well-oiled administrative capacity enabled by a competent commander and battalion-level staff keeps the paperwork rolling without interrupting training or combat operations. Like much of the sustainment community, when done well, most don’t know administration is being done at all (until you need a pay inquiry, records work before a board, or some such business).

Reduce paperwork to a minimum


“Planned and intelligent management will reduce routine paper work to a minimum.”

When I was a commander, I inherited a monstrous packet that my soldiers had to fill out to request leave. It included a cover sheet, DA-31, vehicle inspection, safety pledge, counseling document, TRIPS risk assessment, separate installation-specific risk assessment, and others I can’t recall. I waited far too long to trim that requirement list, and I still never cut it as much as other commanders in my battalion.

The paperwork was simply too much. It was CYA documentation that I don’t believe would suffice to cover anyone’s ass in the actual event of a fatal or near-fatal accident due to neglect or true leadership failure. A simple common sense, intelligent eye could see there was little sense in superfluous, pencil-whipped paperwork. As a leader, use your brain to cut wasted time and wasted paper where you can.

Commander’s responsibility & property accountability


“…but the company commander himself retains full responsibility for the safekeeping of property.”

I love this subsection because it’s two lessons in one. From one angle, we have a publication instructing commanders to delegate securing the supply room to the supply sergeant only when he can trust him. But when that delegation happens, it’s still ultimately the commander’s responsibility. Good, bad, or indifferent, everything that happens in a leader’s organization is ultimately on them.

The secondary lesson is an emphasis on the importance of property accountability. Commanders must enforce strict command supply discipline and always insist on a hands-on/eyes-on approach to property inventories. Failure to do so will result in that leader taking responsibility for the “bad” mentioned above.

The uniform


“No man feels that he really is in the Army until he puts on a uniform.”

Uniforms inspire. Uniforms empower. Uniforms foster cohesion and esprit de corps. The Army is full of rivalries about what patch you where on your left or right sleeves, what kind of wings you wear (or whether you have any wings at all), and whether your hat indicates if “you ain’t shit.”

There’s no explicit lesson here other than that the sentiment concerning uniforms in the Army survives almost 74 years later. Most soldiers remain supremely proud of the uniform we wear, and its importance “for morale and for other reasons” persists today.

On the role of the First Sergeant


“…he is the company commander’s right-hand man. He should be the best soldier in the company; he should have more than average intelligence, should be forceful, should possess initiative and skill in handling men, and should be firm and impartial in his dealings with the men of the company. … Above all, he must have emotional balance and good judgment.”

While I think the modern perception of the first sergeant is more respectful of his/her capabilities and partnership with the commander (versus utter subordination), this section still speaks volumes and doesn’t need much elaboration.

I have the utmost respect for first sergeants. I had the honor of serving with two extremely capable first sergeants while in command and countless first sergeants while serving as an adjutant. Always, always, always work with your first sergeant and stay on his or her good side.

A phone call with Bill; AKA Diplomacy



*Rather than transcribe the whole thing out this time, just reference the images above.*

This cheery little phone exchange between Tom and Bill is exactly the kind of networking that I referred to in a post last month. Adjutants earn their keep by making things happen through interpersonal diplomacy, negotiations, and favors. Moreover, the personal touch of phone calls or physical visits versus impersonal emails is something often missed in our digitally connected age.

Before getting into a virtual pissing contest over Outlook or jumping the gun with a rash and overbearing solution (like the guards mentioned in the first graphic), try and resolve problems face-to-face or over the phone. I’m beating a dead horse with this line, but the fact remains that something is lost over emotionless email messages. Don’t let emails and PowerPoint take away the interpersonal nature of the Army.

I’d do business with Tom and the ‘hundredth any day.

Pay and financial sacrifice


“No man enlists in the Army solely to accumulate a fortune. On the contrary, many men… make a real financial sacrifice in order to serve their country in the armed forces. Pay and allowances are therefore of major importance to every man in the Army.”

While the Army may now be an all-volunteer force that attracts (at least some) recruits with cash bonuses, pay still isn’t the best. Soldiers often live paycheck-to-paycheck and rely on the regularity of pay, allowances, and entitlements to make ends meet. As I wrote above, screwing up a troop’s pay is a surefire way to have one less head in the game.

Make sure your followers’ finances are squared away as best you can. If there’s a problem, aid them in solving that problem as completely and expediently as possible. Often families are involved, multiplying the importance of fixing pay issues to ensure that mouths are fed and bills are paid. It’s up to leaders to make sure that the “financial sacrifice” our troops endure is minimized.

Always be courteous


“Always be courteous. Never, under any circumstances, resort to sarcasm; be considerate of the feelings of the person to whom the letter is addressed.”

And now for my adjutant-prescribed dose of correspondence advice: always be courteous in your writing. Honestly though, shouldn’t this be the default for interactions in general?

My more thorough advice: don’t be a dick. At least initially, anyway. More flies with honey and all that.

It’s heartening to know that the Army of 70 years ago resonates in 2016. Commanders who stormed the beaches of Normandy did so with equipment accounted for in accordance with TM 12-250 and whatever other regulations applied. Leaders from the Pacific to Africa and from France to Germany took care of troops’ pay, food, medical concerns, and more just as we do now.

Times change, technology advances, and the fight evolves, but a leader’s responsibility with regard to administration never changes: take care of your people.

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3 thoughts on “On Administration and Leadership: Wisdom from 1942”

  1. Some of the reasons behind the advice about first sergeants and supply sergeants include the fact that 1942 company commanders could bust their NCOs any time and replace them with other NCOs in the same company–remember when LT Ross takes over the company from CPT Holmes in From Here to Eternity–he busts Ike Galovich and a couple other NCOs. Not saying this is a good or bad idea, but it was a fact in the WWII Army. Of course company commanders might have spent 15 years as lieutenants in those days, so they had much more company administration time upon taking command. By 1943/44, of course, all bets were off and commanders might have had just months in the Army. I even knew 2LT company commanders when I joined the Army in 1973–the days of RIFs sometimes took out all the experienced captains in a battalion overnight.


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