The Army Lawyer | Issue 4 2021View PDF
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Leaders who have heart will also have the hearts of those they lead.1

You and your spouse anxiously await word from the Personnel, Plans, & Training Office (PPTO) on your next assignment. Your spouse is hoping to obtain a highly sought-after staff judge advocate (SJA) or other leadership position. Will all the hard work, dedication, and time apart be worth it? Will it be rewarded with a coveted leadership position?

Great news: you get word from PPTO that your spouse will become an SJA next summer. Through the excitement and celebration, our instincts as military spouses kick in. We think of all the things we need to do before our upcoming permanent change of station. Except this time, it’s different. This time, there is one other area we start contemplating. What is our role as an experienced military spouse? What, if anything, is expected of us?

This article addresses the contemporary role of spouses who choose to assume leadership roles while their spouses are in leadership positions. It will focus on leadership and influence, critical thinking and how you can use it to your advantage, effective communication, and team building.

Misperceptions Debunked

To begin, let’s clear up a common misperception. As a military spouse, whether you assume a leadership role is entirely up to you. There is no outside pressure and your spouse will not be penalized if you choose not to participate. Long gone are the days where the efforts of the spouses were mentioned in their partner’s evaluations/fitness reports (“great command team” or, spouse was “instrumental in creating a solid command team”).2 Our role is vastly different than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

Today, over 50 percent of military spouses work, while others are pursuing educational opportunities and exploring their own interests.3 Military leaders actively advocate for military spouses’ employment rights and the easy transfer of professional licenses between states so that spouses may continue their careers without interruption or costly fees.4 For example, in 2018, the Secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Navy sent letters to all state governors asking them to give reciprocity from state to state for military spouses for their licensing—this would ensure their ability to continue their careers uninterrupted.5 It is a crucial retention issue; therefore, it benefits the military to assist with spouses’ employment rights and opportunities.6

The bottom line is, the role of the military spouse in today’s military service is whatever you make it. If you decide to actively participate, it must be for the right reasons. Don’t do it out of a sense of obligation. Don’t do it because you believe it is expected. Don’t do it because you believe it will further your spouse’s career. If you choose to actively participate, do it because it is something you desire to do and you can handle the time commitment. If you choose to participate, take time to think about your leadership style, how you can positively influence others, how you can use critical thinking skills to benefit the spouse groups, and the importance of communication and team building in developing an effective and cohesive group.

Leadership and Influence

When I teach leadership to experienced military spouses, I start by asking, “who in this room considers themselves a leader?”7 A few raise their hands, but most do not. I tell them the following: By virtue of your experience as military spouses, you are all leaders. Younger spouses will look to you for advice and mentorship. The day you show up at a new installation, you will be looked at as having all the answers and experiences, even though you have no idea where anything is on post. Once I explain this, their heads nod, and a few military spouses will provide examples of their experiences to further emphasize the point.

If you choose to take on the role of an experienced leader spouse, think about leadership and the type of leader you want to be. What is leadership? Leadership is a catchword. There are thousands of books on leadership and just as many definitions. For our context, leadership is motivating others to achieve a common purpose. Competent, experienced spouse leaders take care of people, are flexible (i.e., not afraid to think outside of the box), maintain a positive attitude, and never compromise their credibility.

As an experienced spouse leader, ask yourself, how will I encourage participation and influence others in a nonthreatening manner? How will I lead without being overbearing? We must be cognizant of the fact that we are married to a Service member leader; so, if we are threatening and overbearing, spouses will be intimidated and feel they have no choice but to participate.8 Be clear from day one that participation is strictly voluntary and that you understand the challenges and competing interests spouses face today. Let spouses know that it is entirely okay not to participate at all or to participate on a limited basis. Also, let spouses know that if you call them for help, it is okay to say no.

There is a changing dynamic in the role of spousal groups today, including what people need and what they want from the group. You will face a diverse membership that includes active male spouses and spouses of same-sex marriages in larger numbers than ever before. What will you do to ensure all spouses feel welcome? What will you do to encourage participation from those spouses who are interested in participating but may be reluctant? These are all issues that you will face as a senior spouse leader that did not exist in the past.

You also need to ask yourself the following: How will you lead a group of spouses in the twenty-first century? To do so, you must understand the changing dynamic of today’s spouses. In the past, spouses relied on coffees, meetings during the day, and wives’ clubs consisting of stay-at-home moms, with the primary form of information sharing being face-to-face communication. Today, it is much different. Now, spouses rely heavily on social media as the main source of connections and information gathering. Spouses also work in much greater numbers than in the past, decreasing the time available for participation in yet another outside activity. Also, the changing face of military leaders has an accompanying increase in the diversity of spouse groups. As both female Service members and Service members with same-sex spouses continue to increase in number, male spouses are increasingly present. Today, there are also more single parent Service members that may need assistance on short notice.

How will you make all spouses feel welcome? How will you ensure your group is inclusive to all? Begin by looking at the invitation’s message. Does it suggest that all are welcome? An event entitled “Ladies Night Out–Bunco!” or “Wives Meet and Greet” is obviously not inclusive and welcoming to all. Also, look at your theme. Gown shopping for the upcoming post ball will probably not attract male spouses. As a leader, don’t be afraid to speak with individual military spouses and ask them what they would like to see.

Given the heavy reliance of online platforms, senior military spouses must adapt to the greater use of social media and phone applications for group text messaging. For example, use online invitations. They are free and easy to use. If you find this intimidating, ask the younger spouses for help. Many are knowledgeable about social media and will be happy to assist. Also, consider developing a Facebook page to share non-sensitive information and post pictures of events.9 Using these online resources will reach a larger audience and make more people feel included and likely to participate.

By starting to think about these issues now, you will feel much more comfortable when confronted with them. The key is establishing open communication with all spouses to develop an understanding of the needs and concerns of the new and diverse group of spouses present today.

Critical Thinking

From time to time, military spouse groups will face issues and disagreement, and military spouse leaders should be available to assist in resolving these conflicts. Conflicts left unresolved may cause dissention and can threaten the cohesiveness of the group. For example, consider the following: your military spouse group has fundraised money for local charities but now can’t decide which charitable organizations should receive the money. There are several proposals on the table, but there is no consensus. As the senior military spouse, how can you help resolve this?

A key component of leadership is the ability to problem solve through critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? The Oxford Dictionary defines critical thinking as “[t]he objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”10 Critical thinking helps to analyze and evaluate information, and it provides the best opportunity to reach the correct decision. As senior spouses, we need critical-thinking skills to effectively lead because it will produce more effective results. A key to critical thinking is ensuring we don’t jump to conclusions. Take your time and gather the facts, analyze them in a logical manner, and always keep an open mind during the process.

In terms of the fundraising for local charities scenario, it would behoove you to ask the spouses questions about each of the proposals to gather the facts. Have someone write down the answers. How will each charitable organization use the money? Who will benefit from the money? Does the organization have ties to the military and local installations?

Next, take the answers and organize them so you can evaluate the facts in a logical manner. To help evaluate the facts, look back at the original intent of the fundraising. What are the fundraising goals? Do any of the missions of the charitable organizations better meet the original fundraising goals? Ensure that the group is not unnecessarily restricting solutions to only a couple of choices. Are there other solutions not yet proposed which may be a better fit?

Finally, encourage all involved to keep an open mind throughout the process. Be open to alternative solutions and consider other possibilities, and don’t be afraid to consider newly-presented information. Now that you have completed the steps above, discuss the findings with the group and see if there is better consensus on what to do with the money. If all seem like viable options, consider splitting the money among charitable organizations.

As the scenario illustrates, critical thinking helps to resolve issues. When you are faced with a group who cannot reach a consensus, talk through the issues with the group using critical thinking and the ideas discussed in this article. The discussion itself is often the most important part of reaching a decision. If everyone feels as though their position was heard, it will be easier for them to get behind an ultimate decision with which they do not necessarily fully agree. This will help to resolve issues that otherwise may cause disagreement and threaten the unity of the group.

Communication and Team Building

Imagine the manager of the New York Yankees telling his baseball team that they cannot communicate during a game. That includes talking, hand signals, or other gestures. How effective will the team be without communication and team work? Not very. Communication is key in sports, and it is also key in delivering your message as senior military spouses. Likewise, team building is another key component of effective military spouses’ groups.

Senior military spouse leaders must be able to effectively communicate. Ensure your message is clear and geared toward your audience. For example, if you are speaking with local residents with no affiliation with the military, be careful not to use military jargon and acronyms. The same jargon and acronyms, however, will be more easily understood when speaking with a group of military spouses—unless, of course, they are newer spouses.11 The key is to always know your audience.

While communication can be verbal, it can also be non-verbal. Remember that body language can detract from your message, so be cognizant of your non-verbal gestures. We all have listened to people speak while they are fidgeting with their hands or holding a pen and clicking it, so be careful to avoid these distractors while speaking.

Effective internal communication is also important for groups of military spouses. One method of ensuring effective communication is through team building to establish connections and trust within the team. Working together as a team and effectively communicating will build a strong, motivated team with a solid bond. Team building gives spouses the opportunity to learn from each other.

There are many types of team building activities, including games and social gatherings. One way to start this before the team members know each other well is through the use of icebreakers. Icebreakers give spouses the chance to learn about each other and find things they have in common. There are many types of icebreakers, so check the Internet for a few that sound interesting to you.12 There are also games that build camaraderie. The focus of these games is on working together and bonding. Team scavenger hunts and escape rooms, for example, require teams to work together toward a common cause.

Social gatherings are also an effective way to build a team. For example, consider going to a place that has a karaoke machine. Encourage everyone to participate, as this will bring a closeness and bond among the group. Another type of social gathering is through physical activity. If you are stationed in Hawaii, for example, schedule a nonstrenuous hike for the group. Whatever you schedule, just remember that—as the purpose of team building is to include all members and ensure they all benefit from the activity—all members of the group need to complete it. As a leader, ensure that the same small groups do not always hang out together so there is a mix and the entire group bonds. You know the group, so ensure you choose an activity that everybody can comfortably participate in and complete.

Conclusion

To wrap up, this article reviewed the contemporary role of spouses who choose to assume leadership roles while their partners are in a leadership position; leadership and influence; critical thinking and how best to use it to your advantage; and, finally, effective communication and team building. Using the skills and strategies discussed in this article will help lead to a great team with many unforgettable experiences! TAL


Mr. Erisman has been a military spouse for the past twenty-three years. He retired from the Army after twenty-eight years of service as a judge advocate and military police officer, and is now an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia.


Notes

1. Michael G. Rogers, Leaders—Never Underestimate the Power of This One Thing, Teamwork & Leadership, https://www.teamworkandleadership.com/2014/07/leaders-never-underestimate-the-power-of-this-one-thing-video.html (last visited July 1, 2021).

2. See U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 623-3, Evaluation Reporting System para. 3-22 (14 June 2019) (“Evaluation comments, favorable or unfavorable, will not be based solely on a rated Soldier’s marital status. For example, statements such as the following will not be permitted: ‘LTC Doe and his wife make a fine command team’ . . . . Evaluation comments will not be made about the employment, education, or volunteer activities of a rated Soldier’s spouse. For example, statements such as the following will not be permitted: ‘Mr. Doe’s participation in post activities is limited by his civilian employment’ or ‘Mrs. Doe has made a significant contribution to our Soldiers’ morale through her caring participation on the hospital volunteer staff.’”).

3. Council of Econ. Advisors, Exec. Off. of the President of the U.S., Military Spouses in the Labor Market (2018), https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Military-Spouses-in-the-Labor-Market.pdf.

4. See, e.g., 315 U.S. Dep’t of Def., Instr. 1400.25, DoD Civilian Personnel Management System: Employment of Spouses of Active Duty Military para. 4a (19 Mar. 2012) (C1, 1 Mar. 2019) (“The spouse of an active duty member of the Military Services . . . who relocates via a permanent change of station . . . move as a sponsored dependent to the military sponsor’s new permanent duty station, is entitled to military spouse preference . . . for all positions in the commuting area of the new duty station being filled under competitive procedures.”).

5. Memorandum from the Sec’ys of the Army, Air Force, & Navy to the National Governors Association, subject: Consideration of Schools and Reciprocity of Professional Licensure for Military Families in Future Basing or Mission Alternatives (Feb. 23, 2018) (“Facilitating military spouses in continuing their work in a new place of residence without delays or extra expense is also important. Spouses in professionally licensed fields . . . face challenges due to delays or cost of transferring licenses to a new state or jurisdiction.”).

6. U.S. Chamber of Com. Found., Military Spouses in the Workplace: Understanding the Impacts of Spouse Unemployment on Military Recruitment, Retention, and Readiness (2017), https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Military%20Spouses%20in%20the%20Workplace.pdf.

7. The author has taught leadership issues to senior military spouses at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania; the Staff Judge Advocate Course at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia; and at the Joint Spouses Conference in Hawaii.

8. Also, as it can easily be misinterpreted and come across as improper pressure, you should not ask your military spouse to send out emails regarding upcoming spouse events.

9. Always remember operations security and the posting of sensitive information that may endanger our Soldiers. See, e.g., Do’s and Don’ts for Social Media Posts, U.S. Army, https://www.army.mil/socialmedia/soldiers/ (last visited July 1, 2021) (scroll down or click “Security” on the right hand side of the screen).

10. Critical Thinking, Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/critical_thinking (last visited July 1, 2021).

11. Remember when you were a newer spouse and every other word was an acronym? You may use acronyms, but ensure you explain them to the newer spouses. For example, use an acronym, but then explain what it stands for and what it means.

12. Many popular icebreakers may be found online. See Susan Box Mann, 23 Best Ice Breaker Games for Adults [+Group Activities], Icebreaker Ideas (Mar. 25, 2019), https://icebreakerideas.com/best-icebreaker-games-adults/.

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