“What the graduates of Leavenworth provided … was a shared language and attitude toward problem solving.” – Peter J. Schifferle, America’s School for War
As a young company grade officer on a battalion staff, I was often fascinated by the majors with whom I served. Although only in their early 30s, they seemed wise beyond their years and typically a little worn around the edges. The Operations Officer was always short on time (and words) and the Executive Officer worked such long hours that it was common for him to nod off in mid-sentence. They were the epitome of Iron Majors, long before I had heard the term used in regular conversation. Assuming that I could pin one of them down long enough (or in an alert state of mind), they were invaluable sources of knowledge and wisdom. They were the glue that held the battalion together, the fuel that kept the organization running on all cylinders and gave the command team the freedom and flexibility to lead effectively.
Both were recent staff college graduates, and both were immediately thrust into highly competitive, high-demand positions. Even as a relatively junior leader, I could differentiate among the majors with whom I interacted on a near-daily basis. The expectations of them were the same everywhere, but some were clearly more capable than their peers. As I would later learn myself, bearing the weight of the Iron Major years is no small task, and some were simply better prepared for their roles than others.
In his 2010 book, America’s School for War, author and historian Peter Schifferle recounts the early influence of staff college graduates—specifically focusing on Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff Officer Course—on the Allied Expeditionary Force under General Pershing during World War I. After the war, General George C. Marshall noted that Pershing leaned so heavily on those officers that “a standing order required that every Leavenworth graduate disembarking in France would be detached from his unit and sent directly to Chaumont.” Over a century later, that appreciation for staff college graduates remains steadfast.
Selection to attend a staff college in residence matters, probably more than the education itself (somewhere, someone is screaming, “Heresy!”). Selection represents the first hard cut line of a military career; it’s a professional indicator of whether your career trajectory is on or off azimuth. In other words, it’s a measure of your competitiveness at the mid-career point. Wherever your career calls you next, there’s no looking back. Expectations for you are set; it’s up to you whether you can rise to the occasion.
Time-Honored Clichés for the Graduates
There’s a common cliché at Fort Leavenworth (and probably every other staff college around the world): “This is the best year of your life.” While said tongue-in-cheek (and it doesn’t get much more tongue in cheek than that), the phrase itself is less a reflection on the education you’ll receive than a harbinger of what’s to come. How do you prepare for the road ahead? Well, since we’re on the subject of clichés, a few time-honored ones seem only appropriate.
1. Hit the Ground Running.
You hear this for just about every assignment. However, in the hyper-competitive world of the Iron Major, the stakes are higher and the margin of error almost nonexistent. More so than at any other time in your career, success means hitting the ground running and accelerating. That translates to showing up physically fit and mentally prepared to work at the field grade level. Read your division and brigade standard operating procedures before you arrive, learn who the key leaders are at every level, and–if you haven’t already done so–take the time to reach out to your future boss and engage in a professional dialog on duties, responsibilities, and expectations. Once you sign into your gaining unit, make a point to circulate often and familiarize yourself with your operating environment. Build the network that will support you–and vice versa–in the coming years.
2. Keep Your Head on a Swivel.
It’s not enough to simply maintain situational awareness at all times. As a field grade leader, you must evolve that awareness into understanding, and that means putting in the effort required to build and sustain the necessary level of understanding. As a company grade leader, you had to grasp the what; as an Iron Major, you need to know the why. That equates to having a firm understanding of the context of what’s going on around you–why the readiness rate is falling, why a deployment date is shifting, why training resources are not available–as well your available options and the risk associated with them.
If you’ve done the legwork mentioned above, your personal network will be the sensors that help you to maintain your situational understanding.
3. Complacency Kills.
Making the cut to attend resident staff college is only the first of many similar cuts over the ensuing years as your year group cohort is whittled down to meet Army requirements for promotion, command, and professional education. Complacency is the career killer that waits in the shadows. Never rest on your laurels, never play the odds on promotion, and never give anything less than your very best. When the time comes to throw your boots over the wire you want to make that choice on your terms. Doing so means never becoming complacent.
4. Break it Down, Barney-Style.
As a field grade leader in a battalion or brigade, you will occupy the space between the proverbial rock (the commander) and a hard place (the company grade leadership). You have the unenviable job of simultaneously leading up (helping the commander succeed) and leading down (helping the company leaders succeed). You do this by providing sound advice and recommendations to the command team while ensuring guidance and intent from above is understood and followed below. Keep things simple, keep everyone on the same page. Success follows.
5. This Ain’t Your First Rodeo.
There are two immutable truths to being a field grade leader. One, when others see an oak leaf, assumptions naturally follow concerning your experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Two, it’s the closest approximation to cat herding you will ever find. Success in this rodeo comes down to keeping the boss focused on and on task: if someone or something isn’t going to help the commander to make a decision, let someone else rope those cats.
6. Maintain an even Strain.
As a field grade leader, much of your times will be spent negotiating the tenuous peace between the staff (who often think subordinate commander work for them) and the subordinate commanders (who often think the staff work for them). That means preventing the staff from levying less-than-useful requirements on subordinate units and helping the commanders to understand why the staff tasks them. When caught in this tug of war, always remember: never lose your cool, never let them see you sweat. If you are yelling, you are not in control. If you are not in control, someone else is, and you are failing the commander.
Embarking on the Journey Ahead
As you embark on your post-staff college journey, take the time to read Influence without Authority by Allan Cohen and David Bradford. This is your go-to source as a staff officer; this is your life. If you have not read it, do so. If you have, read it again. Mastering the skills discussed in that book will go a long way toward making your Iron Major time less burdened.