While teaching a class on interpersonal skills, Sgt. 1st. Class Michael A. Knowlton, first sergeant of Alpha Company, 62nd Signal Battalion, 11th Signal Brigade, had one key message: Regardless of rank or position, all leaders know their soldiers.
“I believe that senior leaders in the Army have the same problems as privates,” Knowlton said. “We’re supposed to project that image of confidence and leadership and being tough and hard.”
Knowlton experienced firsthand how easily a soldier can be overlooked.
Following his last cycle as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C., Knowlton was sent to Fort Hood where he immediately began preparing for deployment.
Knowlton lived as a geographical bachelor while his wife made preparations to move their family across the country. He shouldered the stress of the deployed environment with the added weight of relationship and financial problems at home.
Knowlton returned after eight months downrange with the hopes of repairing his marriage.
Before he could begin, Knowlton was met with a different kind of challenge.
He lost his first soldier in garrison.
One of his soldiers had been riding a motorcycle when he lost control.
“He had done something that was dumb and impulsive and ended up dying as a result of it,” Knowlton said.
The problems didn’t stop there. Thirty-four days later, a young sergeant in his company committed suicide because of relationship problems. Knowlton lost another soldier after that, again to a motorcycle crash.
Shortly after, Knowlton was assigned as a casualty assistance officer. He was responsible for making funeral arrangements for another staff sergeant who had committed suicide while visiting his family in California shortly after returning from deployment.
The staff sergeant was coping with his own stress brought on by finances, issues at work, and problems with his relationship, exactly the same situation that Knowlton faced at the time.
In an effort to address the growing number of incidents occurring within the battalion, guest speaker Capt. Rob Cook, chaplain with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, III Corps, was brought in to talk about managing stress.
Cook, a former headmaster of schools in Tennessee, had the soldiers in attendance fill out a survey as part of a program called Real Life Management.
“What Real Life Management teaches about that survey is that once somebody scores, that’s your basic attitude wiring,” Cook said.
“From that, you will end up making choices about money, health and relationships, as well as other choices such as suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault.”
At first it was just another survey to Knowlton, but it changed his life after his second meeting with Cook at a marriage retreat. Knowlton was attending the retreat in Marble Falls in a last- ditch effort to repair his relationship with his wife.
“You don’t like to admit it, but we were probably done,” he said. “It was probably a divorce retreat for us.”
Cook administered the Real Life Survey, and people were amazed by the results.
This time, Knowlton was convinced. He approached Cook after the presentation to seek help.
“I feel like I’m broken, like I’m under water,” Knowlton told Cook.
The Knowltons counseled with Cook over the next couple of weeks using the Real Life Management program.
“Here’s a complete stranger who came into my house and introduced me to my wife that I’ve had for 15 years,” Knowlton said.
“Now, that’s a little embarrassing. He gave me something that I could immediately act on to make a huge difference and a huge impact in my home life and in my marriage. It was so immediate, so effective, that in three or four weeks my wife and I were communicating.”
Later, Knowlton tracked down Cook on post. He wanted to know how he could take the tools that Cook used in his home and apply them to his platoon.
With Cook’s assistance, Knowlton surveyed the 60 soldiers in his platoon. That same day he learned things about his soldiers that he would not have learned otherwise.
Using the survey, Knowlton was able to see why certain teams didn’t work well together and which leaders worked well with other leaders.
“It improved productivity,” Knowlton said. “It had an immediate impact on our capability as a platoon. It impacted the mission, which was phenomenal.”
Knowlton emphasizes that the Real Life Survey is not a magic trick or an algorithm, it’s a tool; a way for soldiers to tell leaders who they are.
“What the survey does is allow me to get to the real person,” Knowlton said.
“And when I get to the real person, I build trust. That’s the key thing that we’re missing in the Army today.”
Today, Knowlton uses Real Life Management to teach his young leaders how to know their soldiers. The survey gives them a structure and a format to follow when sitting down with a young soldier.
This newly established trust makes it easier for soldiers to come to their first line supervisors with their issues as well.
“For the first month or two it looked terrible, because we were reporting up everything that we found and it looked bad,” Knowlton said.
Cook was excited at the prospects of Real Life Management being implemented by Knowlton at the company level.
“It’s been a great opportunity to know him and learn from him about how he’s using Real Life Management,” Cook said. “He can reach so many more people more effectively, especially soldiers. More than a chaplain ever could.”
Cook foresees Real Life Management being most effective in preventive training.
“We want our leaders, our junior leaders, to understand and know their soldiers,” Cook said. “To connect the dots and keep them from moving into a stress or distress position.”
While evidence of the Real Life Management program’s success is difficult to quantify, Knowlton attributes the program to the prevention of three suicides.
“(The Real Life Survey) is the only thing in the Army that has taught me the interpersonal skills to get ahead of the problem,” Knowlton said.
“How to not only identify the problem, but how to get ahead.”