That time of year is rapidly approaching when the service academies, universities, and colleges will release newly-minted ensigns and second lieutenants into the wild. Some of the new junior officers will have seen life in the ranks, but most haven’t. Even those who have often struggle with expectations in the field. They know they are supposed to lead, they have a general idea of how to lead, but what will be expected of them when they actually lead others? How are they supposed to lead more experienced formations? Combat veterans? Non-commissioned officers?
When I drove away from my first duty station, fresh out of that first initial blast of professional military education, I had no idea what would be expected of me when I reported to my company commander, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the reception that followed:
“Who are you? Why are you here?”
“Sir, I’ve been assigned here by division. Here are my orders from G-1,” I said as I handed him the stamped copy of my assignment orders.
“I don’t care what your orders say. I don’t need any more damn lieutenants. Get out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
So, I slouched my way back to the battalion headquarters, where I proceeded to stumble into the battalion commander, who grumbled something about “goddamn second lieutenants” under his breath on his way out the door. Forget everything my father told me growing up about being “seen and not heard,” lesson number one that day was to be neither seen nor heard.
Eventually, the Battalion S-1 sorted out the “confusion” and I duly reported back to my assigned company, beginning an odyssey of learning that would continue to this day. I quickly realized that while my time in ROTC had prepared me well tactically, I really didn’t have much of a clue what it meant to lead troops. I knew how to lead a formation, how to call cadence, how to conduct physical training, and even how to operate a firing range. I knew how to organize a foot locker, fold socks and t-shirts, and make a bed so tight you could bounce a quarter two feet in the air over the sheets. I had practically memorized platoon-level doctrine and could recite entire passages from the leadership manual. I even kept a laminated copy of the survival manual in my rucksack.
But I had no earthly idea how to actually lead a platoon of troops.
The phrase “based on my experience” is almost cliché, but I’ve actually heard junior officers say those words, even as senior NCOs rolled their eyes and young soldiers chuckled in the ranks. Fortunately for me, I heard those words on the same day I was slouching back to my battalion headquarters, and they stuck with me. Although I brought unique experiences to the table that none of my troops had, it was all about context: I had no experience leading them, no troop time as an officer, and I had yet to earn their trust, respect, or loyalty.
Years later, I can look back on those early days with a clarity that I didn’t possess as a second lieutenant. Over time, I could clearly articulate my expectations to a young leader in a way that no one had for me when I first stood before a platoon of soldiers. While every situation is a little bit different, some things never change. Some expectations are universal.
Take the time to listen.
The old adage, “you can’t hear when you’re talking” applies from Day 1. Listen to what’s being said. Take notes. This is how learning begins. And when you do decide to speak…
Choose your words carefully.
My father used to tell me, “Think before you speak.” Nothing could be truer. Take the time to think through what you want to say before you actually say it. Few things can set a career on the wrong path early on than saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Whenever in doubt, remember the words of Mark Twain: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
The same battalion commander I stumbled into that first day once said to me, “You’re the most caustic son of a bitch I’ve ever known. And that’s why I like you. You’re not afraid to be who you are.” While essentially a backhanded compliment, I took it to heart. In everything you do, be yourself. Troops will sniff out a poser in a New York minute. This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s about leading, and you won’t be comfortable leading if you’re not being yourself.
That said, personalities matter, and not everyone who pins on a gold bar is suited to lead. The only things troops will sniff out quicker than a poser is a doofus. And we’ll just stop there.
Take care of your troops.
This is really Job One for a new junior officer, and one that applies in any position you may one day hold. Take care of your people, and they will take care of you. Get to know your troops, learn about them, their families. Learn their stories. Help them to be successful. Protect and guide them like you would your own family. Because they are your family.
The other half of this equation is what they expect from you. They need a leader who can make decisions, who leads by example, and who isn’t afraid to roll up his or her sleeves and get dirty when the time comes. They need a leader who is tough, but fair. They need a leader who is calm in the face of the storm. They need a leader who is worthy of their trust, their respect, their loyalty. Earn it.
Watch and learn. Learn from others, both the good and the bad. Watch your peers to see what they’re doing, what works and doesn’t work. Look up the definition of “vicarious learning” and remember it. Watch your leadership to see how they lead, how they conduct themselves. See how things are done and don’t be afraid to ask why something is done the way it is. And remember to take copious notes along the way.
Know the details.
The operative phrase is “gnat’s-ass detail.” For a new junior officer, no detail is too mundane, too minute. As a second lieutenant, I made it my duty to know not just the readiness status of the equipment assigned to me, but when something was “down” for maintenance, the status of every part — right down to where it was shipping from, when it would arrive, and when it would be installed. I took the same approach with the vast hand receipt I held, which came complete with seemingly endless shortage annexes of missing components. The “little things” matter. Which brings me to my next expectation…
Learn to count.
As a new ensign or lieutenant, you’ll be expected to sign for everything from individual clothing and equipment to major end items such as tanks, trucks, and even helicopters. Nothing will ruin your day faster than being charged for lost or missing property. Before you put your signature on the bottom of a spreadsheet, make sure you know what you’re signing for, and make sure you count it — not once, but twice. Keep copies of every one of those spreadsheets and pour over them in detail. Your paycheck is on the line.
I learned this lesson through observation. One day early in my career, I stopped by the supply warehouse with one of those spreadsheets to update requisition statuses. The platoon leader there wanted me to meet one of his warehouse managers, who was responsible for larger items: tires, engines, transmissions, transfers, etc. He pointed out a stack of ten tires to the sergeant and asked him to count them, then said quietly, “Watch this. He can’t count his balls and get the same number twice.” Three times, three different numbers. It all seemed funny at the time. Months later, the lieutenant forfeited a month’s base pay because the warehouse manager who couldn’t count was also responsible for a lot of the platoon leader’s equipment, but not signed for any of it.
Counsel your subordinates.
This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how rare we actually counsel our subordinates. And I’m not talking about obligatory written counseling, I’m talking about the routine, day-to-day dialog that is so important to maintaining good performance. I was recently counseling a subordinate officer who raised the point that I hadn’t counseled him during the rating period. I responded with “What did you think we were doing every day when you sat in my office for an hour?”
“But we didn’t write any of it down.”
“Maybe you didn’t, but I did.”
Counseling doesn’t have to be on a form to be effective, but it needs to be done. It’s the feedback loop that keeps the ship moving in the right direction, making minor course corrections along the route. And if you’re not giving feedback to your subordinates, you’re not leading them.
Learn your job.
Not just your job, your role. You’re not a squad leader, and you’re not one of the NCOs. If you try to their jobs, two things happen: one, your job doesn’t get done, and two, they’ll probably let you try. If you’re out calling cadence every day on platoon runs, then someone who needs to learn isn’t getting the experience. If you’re under a truck performing PMCS during motor stables, then no one is supervising. You pin on the gold bar to be a leader, so lead.
Capture what you learn and write about it. That’s how we learn and grow as a profession. I wrote my first article as a first lieutenant while serving as a Battalion S-4 and it came at the expense of several company commanders who suffered through major, six-figure property losses following change of command inventories. The article was a “how to” guide for incoming and outgoing commanders that, if followed, would save them a lot of money and a lot of pain. Years later I learned that the article, which was published in a lowly (and I mean lowly) branch journal, became part of the curriculum in a Command and General Staff College elective course for field grade executive officers. So, if you think what you write doesn’t make a difference, you might want to think again. You never know how much impact you can have on our profession unless you try.
If this is you, if you’re getting ready to be commissioned in a few weeks, then take this advice to heart. Or you can ignore it and take your chances. The choice is up to you. The leaders who will inherit you would probably be a lot happier if you chose to follow my advice.