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Civil-Military Support Element: Leadership Lessons

Updated: May 21, 2020

By Adam Steinwachs

TRIBHUVAN, Nepal (Apr. 29, 2015) - The U.S. Civil Military Support Element (CMSE) Nepal coordinates with Nepalese Army soldiers at Tribhuvan International Airport to use Nepalese Army trucks to move search and rescue equipment that arrived in Nepal. Photo by U.S. Army.

Deployment with a Civil Affairs Team presents unique challenges as well as a plethora of opportunities. I will focus on the latter. During a recent 6-month CMSE rotation as part of the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion, it was evident that everything we did depended on our team’s ability to “connect” with the people and organizations we worked with. Seems obvious, I know, but civilian and military education, IQ score, or any other metric used to measure potential is meaningless if unable to build rapport and trust. A team engages with several partners throughout a rotation – U.S. and host nation, alike. CMSE success or failure is based on multiple factors and characteristics too complex to address in this article. For the sake of simplicity, a team lacking maturity is a team doomed to underachieve or altogether fail.

Working within an Embassy is exciting and offers plenty of interaction with high ranking personnel, usually including the Ambassador. There are degrees as to how much interaction a team will have with the Chief of Mission. Developing a positive working relationship and finding opportunities for collaboration with the Ambassador or personnel from each Embassy section is needed and expected. Doing this is more an art than science and requires a high degree of maturity. For this article, we’ll define maturity as “the ability to respond to the environment being aware of the correct time and location to behave and knowing when to act, according to the circumstances and the culture of the society one lives in” (Wechsler).

Responding appropriately to verbal and non-verbal messaging or any other cue presents opportunities to forge productive working relationships and open doors for collaboration. The Ambassador or any other Foreign Service Officer is a person with a family, hobbies, and interests. Be professional, but if the opportunity presents itself, be transparent and open about yourself as you feel comfortable or are able. If appropriate, talk about family or shared interests and then integrate your innovative ideas to mesh DOD and DOS resources and objectives into the conversation. Again, it sounds obvious but this is what separates a good team from a great team. Mature teams understand the art of rapport and capitalize on the opportunities.

Aside from establishing useful connections and building confidence with Embassy personnel, a team must develop a strong working relationship with the host nation partners, cultural advisors, drivers, and interlocutors who also hold more than a few of those “keys” to success. These relationships can be a bit trickier to navigate due to cultural differences and language barriers but finding common ground with another human being is the same no matter what part of the world a team might find themselves in. It goes without saying that research and regular communication with the outgoing team are all useful preparation tools to set a team up for success. Diligently complete these tasks. However, research does not build trust or rapport once a team deploys. Therefore, it is imperative to be humble, genuine, and empathetic throughout every interaction to avoid falling short of expectations. Awareness of body language and use of appropriate dialogue will prevent host-nation partners from temporarily shutting a CA Team down or worse yet, completely out.

Build trust and respect by adapting to the society and culture you are working within. This requires humility, self-awareness, and above all else, maturity. Be careful to unwittingly convey disrespect through body language, observed actions, or worse yet your words with or around host nation partners. Do not be that person, or team. Just because the people we find ourselves working with are not American, does not mean they are not astute, perceptive, and motivated. Any type of condescension, real or perceived, will quickly destroy a partnership and make the remainder of your time in country frustrating, to say the least. The degree to which a person and team is mature is subjective and unique to each. Showing reverence and learning about a culture different from our own or selflessly making time to patiently engage a partner that tries your patience when you are busy and stressed is all part of the art of maturity. An important aspect to this is leadership maturity and according to Maxwell, “while personal maturity may mean being able to see beyond yourself, leadership maturity means considering others before yourself.” Application puts humility and empathy into action enabling goodwill, trust, and ultimately success across the spectrum of engagements and activities a team will encounter.

Employing leadership or any other characteristic of maturity throughout a deployment is an art and when applied correctly, sets conditions for success. Although we all know this to be true through life experience and training, we also know not everyone successfully maintains or even applies these skills. A CA Team that consistently acts maturely creates opportunities with stakeholders because of well-developed trust and rapport while avoiding pitfalls. Straightforward but definitely not always easy to apply. Accepting its value enables awareness, leading to daily practice and application. If a team does this, they will quickly earn the confidence and respect of all stakeholders needed to achieve mission success.

End Notes

1. Wechsler, David. "Intellectual Development and Psychological Maturity.” Child Development Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1950), pp. 45-50.

(Accessed May 11, 2020)

2. Maxwell, John C. “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.” (Accessed May 4, 2020)

About the Author

Adam Steinwachs is an Active Duty Civil Affairs Officer in the United States Army. He currently is the Civil-Military Operations Chief for A Company, 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion.

The views expressed are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



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