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On V on Management: Give Nicknames

(On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

In Ranger School, the students being evaluated during the day dread the time after the platoon tucked in for the night. While everyone else started sleeping/pretending to pull security, they desperately wondered, “Did I pass or fail?”

The Ranger Instructors (RI) couldn’t tell you that so they used code words. (I realize I just launched into a “when I was in Ranger School” story. So our readers know, while most people went to Ranger School when it was “still hard”, I went to the first “easy” class.)

The next day, the RI and the student would wander into the woods and he would preceed to evaluate your performance. (It’s not as sexual as it sounds.) If he complemented your leadership, like “you clearly controlled the situation”, you probably passed. Same if he praised your briefing skills and said your plan was “tactically sound”.

If, on the other hand, he praised your ability to “instill morale”, watch out. You probably failed. Pack your bags. I mean, no one wants bad morale, but if morale was the best you did, well buddy, I feel sorry for you. No one can judge morale. Leaders--and this applied to ROTC evaluations too--only have so much control over morale. Especially when they take over for a period of a few hours.

Like in sports. Teams with “great locker rooms” always win a bunch of games. But teams that win a bunch of games “have great locker rooms”. It feels like a “chicken or egg” conundrum: what came first, the locker room or the winning? Same with morale. Did your patrol go well because of great morale, or do you have great morale because the patrol went well?

As a result, most management advice avoids morale-type issues. Sure, books and articles will say, “improve morale”, but they don’t tell you how. Turns out, being a good leader who values inter-personal communication with their team, will improve your morale. (This kind of reminds me of Michael Scott buying his office ice cream to boost morale. Michael Scott buying his office ice cream is a palliative for the larger sickness that is his terrible management.)

That said, I have one piece of advice to improve morale. (Besides improving your management and inter-personal communication.) If you are on a team or leading it, give your team a nickname. Yep, I just said,

“Give your team a nickname.”

At every school I attended, I tried to give my squad a nickname. ROTC was DEFL. (The meaning of which is secret.) At IBOLC, we were “the fire team of excellence.” (At Ranger School, we were too beaten down to care.) At the MICCC, we were “Awesome Squad.”

Does this sound silly? Sure, but espirit de corps goes a long way. I mean, brigades, battalions, companies and some platoons have nick-names, slogans, flags, logos and mottos for a reason. The Army already does this really well. That’s why I can list team names right next to my unit names. Fourth Platoon. Destined Company. Battle Company. Blacksheep Company. The ROCK (there are no others). Sky Soldiers. The Legion.

Except that too many leaders stop at that level. Take this concept, and bring it to your platoon, squad, staff section or group of people. Try these steps:

1. If you go to a school of any type (Army or academic) and you break down into teams, bring up giving your team a nickname. I am serious, this will improve morale, or at least be the source of a bunch of jokes, which means happy people, which means better morale.

2. If your platoon doesn’t have a nickname, get it one. Don’t do this by yourself. (I am really talking to that eager, young lieutenant here) Take nominations and vote on it. Get your platoon sergeant’s input. I inherited a nickname--The Helldivers, diving into Hell to rescue lost souls--but that was straight from the platoon daddy. And it worked.

3. Get the platoon to buy in. Put it on a t-shirt. Put it on top of emails. Refer to it in conversation. It will catch on. Let everyone know that “BLANK Platoon” is the best platoon. Like in political dialogue, repeat something enough times and it will catch on.

4. Don’t forget your staff sections. The “S1 shop” sounds boring. And when I ran the S1, I hadn’t yet realized the strength of nicknames. I wish I had given us one. A section that believes in itself, will perform like it believes in itself.

5. Use a name you can tell your mother. In the Starbucks on Fort Campbell, I saw a shirt for a Battalion Personal Security Detachment that used the f-word on it. There were kids behind the soldier wearing it, reading the f-word. That will bring discredit on your unit. (This battalion was in the Rakkasans...so yeah.)

Everywhere I employed the nickname technique worked. Even the haters would eventually start emails to the group titled, “Awesome Squad” or “Fire Team of Excellence.” Instructors often called our unit by its nickname. Other squads or team would make rival nicknames.

Positive morale spreading like a virus.

four comments

Question: is that the first DEFL reference in 2.5 years of this blog? First I can remember at least, but better late than never.


DEFL is top secret, so this reference was probably a mistake.

But it was the first.


To be clear, there is a lot of mis-information swirling around an organization that may or may not be called DEFL. Also, to imply it is Top Secret is insulting; they don’t have classification levels high enough to account for DEFL, if it exists.


Yes, there is a classification for it… “cleared for weird”