What could a field grade officer possibly gain from the counsel of a Lieutenant? At least, that’s what a large majority of those reading this are thinking right now. But hear me out! The Army has changed significantly over the last decade as the counter insurgency fight has faded. A young Lieutenant Colonel today spent their company grade time at war and while the Soldiers they will command spent this period as kids growing up. Why not take the time to hear the thoughts from the officer closest to the ground? What I hope to accomplish here is to convey observations, reflections, and anecdotes during my time as a Platoon Leader and Executive Officer to any would-be field grade officers who will listen.
Understand the Influence of your Presence and Words
While this may seem obvious, in my experience very few battalion commanders truly respect the power their position holds. Some may scoff at a lieutenant throwing around the word, “experience” but here’s a real life example: As a Tank Company Executive Officer (XO), there was one night when an important part to a tank in order to make it fully mission capable had come in but the defunct part could not be removed. This led to the mechanics having to use a blow torch for hours in the rain. The Squadron Commander (SCO) visited them and asked if they needed anything. After some time of saying they were good, the chief mechanic said they could use some fuel but was about to call his XO. The SCO decided he’d take care of it and call his XO. Long story short, this caused a ripple effect leading to not only me, but the Support XO, Distribution Platoon Leader, the Squadron Maintenance Technician, and the Squadron Maintenance Officer to all simultaneously descend on this lone tank in the motor pool. All this chaos ensued because of one well-mannered phone call that absolutely did not need to happen.
As a Battalion Commander, words carry weight and can cause mountains to move. Good intentioned or not, directing actions that would not normally be carried out by a Lieutenant Colonel will disturb the entire organization and can ultimately do more harm than good. My SCO could have done nothing else but simply checked in on his Soldiers that night and he would have gained good will and respect. Instead, that crew of mechanics had their entire chain of command needlessly descend on them. Position and authority carry all the weight necessary to ensure the organization is operating within the scope of the mission. There is a time to invoke that authority and it is not during routine maintenance operations. Respect the power that the position of Battalion Command holds and use it sparingly.
Candid Feedback Won’t Come from the Company Commanders
This may come as a shock, but the Company Commanders will almost never tell you what they’re really thinking. It makes sense though, a Captain with a poor command evaluation might as well leave the Army tomorrow as they’ll likely never make Lieutenant Colonel. Especially if they’re all capable Commanders, it unfortunately becomes a somewhat of a political game. This paradigm won’t change and there’s no point in really trying as it is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the problem develops when Battalion Commanders only seek out his or her Captains when trying to understand the pulse of their organization. That’s where the Lieutenants come in. I’m not saying the brand new 2LT Platoon Leader has a better grasp on things than the most senior Company Commander. What I am saying is that the smart lieutenants understand that their evaluations don’t really matter in the grand scheme of their careers. While no one wants a bad report, short of committing homicide a Lieutenant will make Captain. Understanding this means that they are more likely to be a little riskier when answering the question, “How is the Battalion doing?”
Green Blocks Are Yellow and Yellow Are Red
Unfortunately, most meetings that report trackable information (i.e. Maintenance slant, number of sandbags, etc.) aren’t accurate whether that be intentional or not. I watched two different Squadron XO’s I served with spend hours focusing on tracking so much information that by the time it was reported to the Commander, it was wrong. There’s a way to collect and report information but if it’s too much in too little time, the numbers won’t be accurate. “Trust but verify” is a phrase often heard in the Army and it carries a lot of truth. The most successful Battalion Commanders will take the time to personally visit their Companies and see them with their own eyes. A PowerPoint slide will only convey what its author wants it to. Walk down to the Maintenance Bay and ask a Soldier for an honest evaluation of that vehicle. Count the sandbags for yourself. I’m not saying this is the end all, be all, but it will help keep leaders honest if done sparingly but regularly.
The Power of “Why”
Call it a byproduct of the Millennials/Gen Z which carries either a negative or neutral connotation depending on who you talk to, but this is the Why Generation. The era of, “Do it because I told you so” is long past and field grade officers need to understand this. The explanation behind a simple task can do wonders for the morale of a young Soldier. This should not be a new concept as every OPORD (operational order) has a task and purpose. We teach the freshest lieutenants that no mission statement is complete without the “why”. So, this shouldn’t be anything new to a senior officer, right? Well unfortunately, many commanders forget this and choose to exclude the purpose behind directives when operating outside the tactical environment. The Army is hemorrhaging junior officers with 50% leaving service by their seventh year. Believe it not, this is a massive problem and will have repercussions down the road as the Army continues to try and regrow the force.
One of the best ways to give someone purpose is by allowing them to have a voice. I’m not saying the Lieutenants and Captains should by any means be running the battalion. But the opinions and ideas of junior officers are often dismissed because of a “lack of experience”. Great ideas and innovations can come from anyone, of any rank, grade, or years of service. One of the best Squadron Commanders I had understood this and would make massive changes based on a young soldier or officer’s idea if it had merit. You can give taskings all day but if a soldier doesn’t believe what they’re doing has any purpose, they’ll question why they’re serving at all.