Many Singaporean men would have served National Service (NS) as Specialists (Non-Commissioned Officers). They are adept at force preparation, training and discipline. In their unique position having close rapport among the men and higher command, they would have picked up things only seen from their perspectives that can be applied outside the NS context. So here are some life lessons from a Sergeant.
1. Take Pride In Everything You Do
“With Pride, We Lead.” - Specialist Cadet School (SCS) motto
Typically enlistees would have two mindsets - to chao keng and be a trooper, or chiong and be an Officer. Nobody starts off wanting to be sandwiched between the two as a Sergeant. So when I first received my SCS cadets as an instructor, I saw the same faces wallowing in disappointment as I had when I was a cadet.
So what changed this depressed cadet into a proud Platoon Sergeant? Early on, I was blessed with commanders who were impressionable role models. Among the many cynical lessons passed on was that life is full of obligations. School, family, responsibilities, and of course, NS. The difference between being victims and leaders is pride.
If you have to do it, might as well do it well. My commanders lived up to their name as Specialists; taking painstaking detail in fieldcraft, technical handling, regimentation, and everything that their role entails. It is about having the right attitude towards things that we cannot change.
Being a role model is contagious. This is why one of my proudest moments in NS was to see my cadets graduate, and later on tell me that what I taught them was what they passed on to their men.
2. Fitness is the Key to Success
“More sweat today, less blood tomorrow."
Warfighter-Trainer-Leader. The core role of a specialist is to prepare his troops. The fundamental of which is fitness; be it physical or combat. During NS, the indicators for that are the IPPT (individual physical proficiency test) and SOC (standard obstacle course). To get the troops up standard, the Specialists usually conduct the training, sometimes even on weekends or after hours.
During a HR summit that I attended, there was this particular HR director who was very keen on hiring sports captains or those who excel in sports. Her reason? These are the people with discipline, determination and dedication. Along with it comes leadership, and like most athletes, the ability to juggle commitments and responsibilities. They might seem unrelated, but there are qualities that are transferable.
Likewise, IPPT and SOC might seem mundane or even unfair indicators of fitness. After having struggled through it myself, I realised that it is not just about getting that gold award. It is about having that discipline to get up early to train, to set an example for your men and to prove to yourself that you can do better. It certainly is a reflection of how you tackle on challenges in life.
“Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence." - George F. Will
3. Your Team IS Your Strength
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
In the first training exercise as a section commander, my section of seven men was given a scenario - an enemy sniper has wounded two of my men. The section was new; the men were untrained and we were barely familiar with our equipment. In that moment of desperation, we somehow found a solution.
After popping some smoke grenades for cover, we deployed the cover litter (a makeshift stretcher made of canvas) on the first victim. My 2IC took out his parang to chop two thin trunks to make a proper stretcher. And with a burst of adrenaline, i fireman carried the second victim myself to run the few hundred meters to safety with smoke in our wake.
While that probably will not end up in a 'Band of Brothers' episode, it goes to illustrate the lengths that Sergeants will go to for their men. Most of the time, we do not get to choose them. But as Specialists, we get to train them to how they should be. To do that, we must do it first.
It is also where we draw our strength from. We run faster, march longer and fare better because we want them to follow in our footsteps. There is no better case of leading by example than in NS.
"You have to lead the team you have, not the team you want."
When I reflect back on my NS experience, I ask myself what was it that made me a better leader, a better person. It was not the training, the rank nor the appointment. It was the people who trained, fought and lived alongside me that made me into who I am today.
"Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend." - Albert Camus