The AAR: 5 Things the 1LT(P) Can Teach US

Full disclosure: once upon a time, I was a promotable lieutenant and part of the First Team at Ft. Hood. Someday I’ll go into my own career as part of Uncle Sam’s Big Green Intervention Machine, but today it’s about Lt. Max Lujan, who’s going to have some explaining to do after the weekend. Much of what we can learn is “why pseudonyms are good ideas,” but LT Highspeed doesn’t seem to be chock full of good decisions.

A promotable first lieutenant in the US Army, presumably a functioning adult who doesn’t require a caretaker, wrote a guest column in Foreign Policy. Beyond the fact that lieutenants, even promotable ones, know little and should talk less, this one gets comical early and often. I don’t normally recommend this, but do read the comments. Lujan’s digging himself deeper with each engagement there, and it’s a little sad to see.

But like all good trainwrecks, there are lessons to be learned: things to sustain, and things to improve. In the interest of all things Army, then, here’s a few lessons learned, a hot wash of five things to learn, or at least understand, about Lujan’s masterpiece.

1. Junior hubris, senior nightmare

Lujan refers to himself as a “promotable and thus far successful lieutenant.”

No lieutenant in their right mind refers to themselves as being “promotable.” It’s true that promotions in a downsizing force are bigger deals than they used to be, but so long as you manage to not set fire to yourself during weekly maintenance, you’re going to pin on O-3. That being said, like any lower level management position, what you do as a lieutenant is a strong indicator of what kind of leader you’ll be once you start getting rank that’s a little more rarefied.

Based on this post, Lujan’s going to be the kind of leader who’s going to find the fastest way to blame someone else for his team’s failure. From the platoon level up through his eventual company command and beyond, anytime Lujan’s soldiers get called out, he’s going to find a way around it being his fault. Unless he makes this adjustment now, he’s going to be a nightmare of a toxic leader in the future.

He’s far more concerned about his own bona fides than in any kind of introspection as to how the units he’s served with all suck, but Lujan’s a rockstar. That’s a mark of a leader who tracks petty slights and who will always make sure that coin from the division commander is the first thing you see when you hit his office. That assessment’s further borne out by his responding to every single comment on the post. Until his skin thickens up, this guy’s going to be a problem for his unit.

2. Learn to love the spreadsheets

Leadership is learned while interacting with soldiers, not interfacing on Microsoft PowerPoint or Excel.

He gets this half right: leaders lead, and that means being present with your team. But tools like PowerPoint and Excel are part of that leadership. Former OIC once asked me, “Do you know what those little circles mean?” In my head, I said, “That a part of my soul is dying a little more each day I’m in this TOC.” Out loud, I said, “No, what?” He said, “We’re helping the commander see the battlefield.”

The fog of war is about more than losing comms with troops on the objective. It’s about cutting through the massive pile of info that comes in to a commander, and knowing how to paint that picture as fast as you can. As a lieutenant, you learn how to use those tools to brief higher better, so that one day when you’re the field grade screaming for that slide deck, you’ll know what questions to ask.

So being out front all the time every time is just part of that leadership equation. And whether your career lasts for four years or 24, at some point those onerous office tools are going to be a lot more useful than those fire commands you learned to say in your sleep.

3. Junior leaders imitate, then innovate

Too many lieutenants are afraid to adventure taking a risk whenever it comes to innovative training plans.

There’s a reason for that: it’s a training plan, and likely needs very little in the way of innovation. There are those who would argue (rightly so) that things like Army physical training need to be revamped so we really do “train as we fight.” But we need to innovate in ways that make sense not just for the platoon, but for the unit as a whole. Round wheels are round for a reason.

As a lieutenant, unless your platoon sergeant’s a complete waste of skin, the most terrifying thing you can hear is, “That’s a bold plan, sir.” We’re not talking about maneuvering in support of the main effort: we’re talking about training plans. If you want to do something really innovative, make sure your counseling packets are all up to date. Or next time you’re on SDO, spend a stupid amount of time getting to know what your soldiers are like on the weekend in the barracks.

Innovation comes about when you understand intimately the complexities of your job. Find a mentor that set the standard you want to set, then follow their lead. As a junior officer, if your team’s in a rut, then don’t follow those same worn tracks. But if your team’s achieving what you expect and then some, it’s probably not broken, so fixing it’s a bad idea.

4. Call out your peers, but privately

Lujan advocates for “courage to call our your fellow officers.” He’s right, he’s just going about it all wrong. The airing of grievances is hilarious when there’s a Costanza involved, but damaging to unit cohesion when you’re posting to Foreign Policy. And then engaging your critics publicly is probably not your best course of action.

I’ll be the first to admit that confronting my peers has been something I’ve had to work on over the years. But I was lucky enough to have a mentor at one point who walked me through why it was important for me to do. By confronting a peer on a performance issue, I’m going to a) make the team better if that performance is adjusted, and b) likely bring something to their attention that they’re unaware of.

But that needs to happen out of the limelight for it to be truly effective. Otherwise you run the risk of escalating what you were trying to fix in the first place, and you’ll soond find yourself heading in the opposite direction. Like the LT, once his battalion leadership gets wind of this.

5. Poor judgment trumps good initative

Lujan’s not wrong: there are some endemic issues with leadership at all levels of the military. But that’s true of any corporate entity that relies policies and procedures that need to be reviewed more often than they are. And what he’s talking about are more individual failings than institutional faults.

Like a lot of junior leaders, he has all the answers, if someone would just listen to him long enough. If he manages to repackage his message, maybe things will go well for him. I’d agree with him 100% on this:

There are numerous ways to get your platoon or company on board with your message through various techniques.

Of all the ways to get that message across in Lujan’s toolkit, a finger pointing self absorbed guest column? That’s one approach. Not recommended, but if he was concerned that he wasn’t getting the attention he needed for his concerns, he can rest easy.

1LT(P) Lujan, I wish you all the best. But the next time you feel the need to launch your unit’s dirty laundry out the barracks window into the public space, stop.

Take a knee.

Drink some water.

Take a look at that course of action just one more time. Be clear in your objectives, decisive in your action. And maybe next time go with a pseudonym.