Lieutenant Lessons…Continued – The Military Leader

In his 2014 article, Army First Lieutenant Scott Ginther related 20 lessons from his path from West Point Cadet to Platoon Leader in Afghanistan. (Find it here.)

Much credit goes to 1LT Ginther for clearly learning the right lessons as a young leader, and for taking the time to capture and share them with the force. I offer the following thoughts as an addendum to his insights, and intend them to show how the leadership environment changes in the transition from Lieutenant to Commander and Field Grade officer.


You’re still not a trigger-puller

As a Company Commander and Field Grade officer, you begin to transition away from direct leadership and more towards system management. You emplace a profile PT plan in your company; you create a Welcome/In-processing procedure for the battalion; you oversee the staff during mission planning. These responsibilities aren’t glamorous, but they keep the unit and Soldiers moving forward safely and effectively. But don’t forget, you will still have to excel individually when Soldiers look to you personally for an example (physical fitness events, unit history, etc).

“Being” a leader is no longer enough

When you become a Captain, then certainly as a Major, the Army expects that you have learned and grown enough to start building leaders instead of just leading followers. This means you’ll have to solidify the type of leader you want to be and establish a plan for how you’ll develop your Soldiers and officers. You should capture thoughts and lessons, then share them with your expanding network. You will be investing in the future of the Army, so make the effort to build the type of leader you want to work for.

Your performance starts to impact families

Becoming a commander and a field grade means that your decisions and the quality of your leadership starts to impact families. How you treat your Soldiers will have ripple effects in their personal lives. The care you put into the FRG will have a tangible effect on unit morale and individual commitment to the team. If you neglect the family component of command, not only will you suffer as a leader, but more importantly you’ll likely prevent good Soldiers from reenlisting.

The consequences of your actions increase exponentially

It’s not that you can’t do a lot of damage by being a bad Platoon Leader…you can. But the further you progress in your career, your “cog in the wheel” will become bigger and bigger. And the consequences of your failure become catastrophic to mission and Soldiers. It’s the effect of the systems environment you’ll be in. Example:  a young Soldier arrives to your company from another installation. You’ve haven’t emplaced a system for the leaders under your command to properly execute reception and integration. And with the fast-paced environment the Soldier goes right to work; so, no one knows he has a history of misconduct. He spends his first weekend night exploring the new bars and kills himself while driving back. It may not be your fault he was under the influence of alcohol and crashed, but a thorough integration and counseling plan would have flagged your leaders to mitigate areas of risk and might have saved him.

Rehearsals can save an operation

A well-rehearsed operation can make up for poor planning…but even a great plan will likely fail without rehearsals. You’ve got to recognize the critical and vulnerable points of an operation and rehearse them to perfection. Tactically, those points will likely be:  moving out of the assembly area; when forces join, move to support each other, or deploy to the objective; and at the point of employment for numerous weapon systems. Rehearsals will teach the organization synchronization, tactical patience, and adjacent coordination. In garrison, critical points will include: any event that involves families, begins after a 4-day weekend, or will include your senior rater.

Maximize adjacent power

As a company commander you won’t have a staff, your platoon leaders will be doing what they do, and often times “you’re it” when it comes to creative genius. Engage your fellow commanders often and share your ideas. This not only increases your collective knowledge and improves the unit as a whole, but it gives you a sanity check on your ideas and your interpretation of your boss’s intent.

Be a team player

Heads-up…your boss will judge you based on whether or not you are a team player. Nothing in the Army is about the individual and when the chips are down, your commander will want subordinate leaders who will support each other, not try to outshine one another. Share your products, ideas, tools, and lessons from failure.

Lose the attitude

There’s nothing more frustrating than a talented subordinate who has the attitude that the unit owes him something. It’s almost a rite of passage for Lieutenants and junior Captains to go through the cynical phase. My advice:  go through it fast. You’ll have to prove yourself in your new unit following the Career Course and you don’t want people to think you’re entitled or holier-than-thou. As the saying goes, “It ain’t what ya done, it’s what ya done lately.”

Microsoft was never a “Leadership Tool” but you’d better know how to use it

True, jumping right to PowerPoint is rarely a good way to start solving a problem…but name a system the military uses more than Microsoft. If it’s not our most powerful weapon system, it’s certainly our most prolific. Knowing your digital way-around is important because it increases your efficiency (which frees you to do other tasks) and it increases your ability to communicate your message. Believe me, staff captain, if you don’t show yourself adept at Microsoft Office, your Type-A Operations Officer will take over the keyboard and do it himself (and you don’t want that).

What made you successful as a cadet can make you successful as a field grade…IF you keep up the habits

Too many officers slack on PT and professional development because they think they’ve “arrived” and have “been there.” The fact is…the good leaders never “get there.” Your successful peers will be the ones who take the positive traits learned as cadets (discipline, pursuit of excellence, and reading, among others) and continue to apply them to Army life.

The homework shouldn’t stop

The Army divides its model of leader development into three domains:  Individual, Organizational (unit experience), and Institutional (professional schooling). Many officers think that they only need to study while attending the Career Course or the Command and General Staff College, and that their “experience” trumps any academic development the Army could give them. Such an attitude is foolish. There is no reason you can’t assign your platoon leaders and NCOs periodic doctrinal or history reading, which will provide enlightened perspectives from which to view real-world experiences. We all think we are working as hard as we can, but truth is that there’s probably more we could be doing to improve.

You may not be the best Captain/Major ever…but you can certainly separate yourself from the pack

As a Lieutenant, it’s true that you probably feel like part of the herd, just marching along trying not to get fired. Transitioning through company command, however, is your first opportunity to distinguish yourself with your performance. Your peers will find civilian jobs and your year group will shrink. Your first big gate will be your company command evaluation, which will formally stamp you as Above Center Mass or Average, and hopefully start the trend of documented excellence. You’ll start to be senior-rated by Colonels with big reputations and you will pick up mentors who will campaign for your career and pull you into jobs in later years. All this is important because if you want to command a battalion one day, you’ll need to have the following: a long trend of above-average performance; the right jobs to prepare you; and a circle of mentors to guide you. None of this happens by accident, so be intentional about your performance and your career.

BZ doesn’t matter

If you hang your hat on making Major below-the-zone, your ego is in for an ugly awakening. BZ doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, and it’s not an accurate discriminator of talent. If anything, it’s a hindrance because you lose time to develop yourself with broadening jobs.

Get a master’s degree

A significant majority of those selected to command battalions hold masters degrees. Higher education shows the Army that you are committed to learning and aren’t afraid to keep working hard. Make sure you get it before or during ILE or you aren’t likely to do it.

The Parent as Leader

Finally, 1LT Ginther did a great job in pointing out that his parents taught him to be a better leader. One fascinating aspect of leaving your Lieutenant years is that you will likely also become a parent, which will in turn impact you as a leader. Many leaders under-appreciate or don’t anticipate the effect that parenthood will have on them (not the least of which is sleep deprivation worse than Ranger School). Personally, I gained a newfound sense of empathy for military families as a group, and specifically for the families of those I was leading. (I now know how sickening it is to not see my children for days because of late office nights. So, I’ve changed the way I lead so that subordinates don’t have to experience that, if possible.) Building a family of my own has also taught me that “family resilience” is relative, so I don’t assume that a Soldier’s difficulty at home is something he should automatically be able to handle. Being an Army parent is hard, so give them benefit of the doubt and help them through it.

These lessons are just a sampling of the countless insights that junior officers will discover if they care about developing as leaders and professionals. If you’ve learned a lesson along the way, there’s a good chance that one of your subordinates could benefit from hearing about it, so don’t forget to teach what you know.

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