5 Must-Have Conversations for Military Leaders


I learned an important lesson on the first day of my new command in a headquarters company in 2007. I had already commanded a rifle company and thought that I had pretty much honed the skills needed to succeed again. (Maybe I was giving myself too much credit?…a topic for another post.) The change of command ceremony concluded and I walked into my new office to find my First Sergeant waiting. He said, “Sir, do you have a few minutes?” “Of course,” I replied.

What followed was one of the most enabling and professionally developing exchanges I’ve had in my entire career. Yes, this First Sergeant is exceptionally talented and would teach me more about leadership than any other NCO I’ve worked with, but the conversation was powerful because he and I synchronized how we would lead the company together. We discussed everything from combat to family readiness to weight control. We spent hours together that day and set the tone for success because we got aligned from day one.

Today, I think back on that experience and realize that I would’ve been a fool NOT to have had that conversation, and that there are actually a few more areas in the military leader’s life where a frank and honest conversation is necessary to enable success.

Command Sgt. Maj. Frank A. Grippe, command senior enlisted leader for U.S. Central Command, speaks with soldiers of Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, on a foot patrol in the Panjwaâi district of southern Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2012. Grippe visited the soldiers as part of his visit to Regional Command (South). Link to photo.

Your Boss

Whether due to personality traits or proximity or busy schedules, some people don’t spend much time with their boss. You don’t want to be in that situation. You need to lock-in time with your rater and senior rater to make sure you’re aligned with his/her efforts and expectations. You need to ask what success in your job looks like and how you can better enable your higher command’s priorities. Ask about his/her leadership style, personality traits, and how much information he/she needs to feel satisfied that you’re getting the job done. Then, follow up with regular appointments (not always a formal counseling session) to ensure you’re on still on track.

Your Senior Enlisted Leader

As I mentioned above, the conversation with my First Sergeant at the outset of our command journey was necessary to set conditions for success. If you’re an officer, there is no more important team member than your senior enlisted leader. He/She has a wealth of experience and has probably already walked every road you’ll encounter during your tenure. He/She will be the action arm of your leadership, so it’s crucial that you get aligned early and challenge each other’s opinions to ensure you’re always on the same page.

Your Assignment Officer

If you didn’t infer it from “8 Myths About HRC Assignment Officers,” I’m a fan of engaging your Human Resources Command Assignment Officer. You need to map the major steps on your career path and confirm that your timeline matches your expectations. You also need to ask him/her where you stand in relation to your peers and if your file supports your long-term goals.

Your Spouse

Your spouse is the most influential person in your military career. If he/she doesn’t have a full understanding of what it means to serve in the military or how long you plan to serve, then you’re on a potentially disastrous road. Your spouse needs to be part of your regular professional engagement plan, if for no other reason than to give him/her a sense of what you’re experiencing in your career.

Husbands/Wives of service members have a unique set of sacrifices to make. They will be more prepared to face those challenges if they understand what each phase of the career will bring and are involved in making decisions about the future.

Yourself

“No man is fit to command another who cannot command himself.”
– William Penn

Finally, before you expend effort aligning with the people around you, you must solidify who you are in each of your roles as service member, leader, spouse, etc. You have to spend reflective time figuring out your beliefs on the myriad of major engagement areas that will arise in your career. How will you develop your people? How will you handle misconduct? How late are you willing to stay at work? Do you want to serve through retirement?

It’s unreasonable to ask the people around you to share your journey if you’re not sure where you’re going. It’s the most important conversation you’ll have.

Questions for Leaders

  • Are you in complete alignment with the people around you who matter most? How much more effective would you be if you were?
  • Have you had the frank conversations that are required for short and long-term success in your career/life? Why not?
  • Who else must military leaders have conversations with to enable effective influence and leadership? (leave a comment below)

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