Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, right, speaks with sergeants

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, right, speaks with sergeants during a visit to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in January. The SMA said in a recent interview that junior noncommissioned officers need to lead an Army culture change to improve the lethality of their teams and squads.

FORT MEADE, Md. – Junior noncommissioned officers know the pulse of their squads. They’re at the ground level. They interact daily with their Soldiers and set the tone.

Upon making those observations recently, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston discussed how to empower the Army’s up-and-coming leaders. They need to be allowed to make and learn from their mistakes – as long as they’re not illegal, immoral or unethical – when deciding what’s best for their Soldiers.

“If they make a decision you don't like, just let it be and see how they run with it,” Grinston proposed. “Don’t be quick to solve it for them.”

While some may struggle at first with this hands-off approach, he said he believes the young NCOs will be able to grow from their mistakes. Supervisors can then follow up with coaching to inspire better decisions from the budding leaders, and they’ll be freed up to tackle larger issues in the unit.

Since he began his current role in August, Grinston has pushed to create more cohesive, fit and lethal squads across the Army. He’s challenged young NCOs to lead the culture change. “If it’s where we want to go, the junior NCOs are going to have to own that,” he said in a late-February interview.

Referencing his “This is My Squad” initiative, Grinston said he believes the new strategy can reinforce unit bonds by having young NCOs be stronger leaders. They should have meals with their Soldiers, lead them during physical training and have the courage to correct any faults they encounter.

He also advised sergeants to regularly check in on the personal lives of their Soldiers, including their living quarters. Routine checks should be face-to-face since emotion can sometimes be hidden through text messages, he said.

While on the topic of housing, he acknowledged the need to improve barracks in the Army. He noted $300 million had been allocated in recent years to renovate them, but more still needs to be done.

“We’re going to fix it; we’re going to make housing better,” he said. “But this all starts with leaders going to check on their Soldiers in the barracks. It’s not something that is optional. This is just about how to care for your people.”

In the dayrooms of barracks, he said the Army is looking to install meal-card operated kiosks that will provide healthier food items to Soldiers to help them maintain their fitness. “That’s one of the initiatives we have, (and we’ll get more of those) ideas if we have leaders going to the barracks and seeing how their Soldiers live.”

Expounding on the healthier food topic, Grinston said there’s an effort to rebalance the Army’s performance triad of sleep, activity and nutrition. Most of the time, the Army’s focus is on activity, so he’s paying more attention to nutrition and lifestyle.

Through a new initiative called ACTION, or Army Commitment to Improving Overall Nutrition, Grinston hopes to improve the diets of Soldiers. That means increasing options for healthier food not only in the barracks but also better displaying them in the dining facilities, shoppettes and commissaries.

“(If we) put the healthy choices right up front,” he observed, “most people will go and pick those if it’s designed the right way.”

Grinston said the triad’s activity pillar will get a boost with the strenuous Army Combat Fitness Test, which is set to be the standard assessment for all Soldiers by October. To eliminate any fear of the looming test, the sergeant major offered a simple suggestion: “just take it.”

“Like anything you do, the unknown is always scary,” he said. “Most people when they take it, (they realize) it’s not that bad.”

The earlier a Soldier completes it, the more time they can work on their weaknesses. After Grinston took the test, for instance, he noticed he had to work on the standing power throw event. So he referred to Field Manual 7-22, the guidebook for Army physical readiness training, and online videos where he found exercises, such as the standing power jump, to help him in that event.

Additionally, there is now a free ACFT mobile application that Soldiers can download on their smartphones that offers a collection of exercises and helps them calculate test scores.

Grinston said the Army is developing a Soldier Performance Model to optimize squads of the future. One idea is a wearable patch that tracks one’s health through their heartrate, chemicals in their sweat and their sleep patterns. Through it, a squad leader could see if one of his or her Soldiers is struggling in a training event or in combat, and quickly rectify the issue by providing that person rest or hydrating them.

“They’re monitoring all that to make our warriors more lethal,” he said. “It’s almost like something you’d see in the movies. I’m pretty excited about it.”

For now, one of the most important things a young NCO can do for Soldiers is simply train them, the SMA reiterated. It’s easy to get the big things right, which is building highly disciplined and fit teams grounded in warrior tasks and battle drills.

Grinston is asking junior enlisted leaders to obtain the new NCO guide published in January, if they have not already done so. It will help them fully understand the responsibilities of their new leadership role.