The Foundation of the Professional Officer
Note: This was written when I was taking command. It has since been refined by a handful of officers, with valuable additions from Mike Opbroek and Alexandra Kilgore.
The Lieutenant Paradox: The expectations of new lieutenants in the Army vary wildly. At one end of the spectrum, a lieutenant is responsible for everything his platoon does or fails to do. At the other end of the spectrum, a lieutenant can be viewed with suspicion and treated like a child — a man or a woman that retains lingering habits from his/her college years and has not yet realized the responsibilities of leading men and women into combat.
A new lieutenant, through his actions, can choose to meet one of those expectations, but not both. He or she can rise to meet positive expectations and become a leader that men and women can rely on, or be a burden on subordinate NCO leadership and the chain of command.
As a Company/Battery level Commander, I’ve spent a significant amount of time counseling lieutenants (inside and outside of my organization) on what is expected of a professional officer. Many young officers are shocked to discover the negative impacts of actions they believed to be insignificant. The vast majority of these behavior points will appear to be common sense. Sadly, many lieutenants still retain habits from their years as college students, or they may have developed bad habits through their time in the Army. I will explain the “So What?” in bold for each section to emphasize the significance of simple actions and behaviors.
This discussion isn’t meant to be all inclusive. These are just topics that I’ve discussed with many officers in the past year. I apologize for the length, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Professional Appearance and Bearing
First impressions are important. People will assess you the moment you they see you. People will evaluate the badges on your uniform, your combat patch (if you have one), how you carry yourself, and how you wear your uniform. You will only get one chance to make a good first impression on both your superiors as well as your subordinates.
Many young officers neglect the appearance of their uniforms. They let their hair grow long, they will wear faded uniforms and unserviceable or unauthorized footwear. They will stand with their hands in their pockets and walk and talk on their phones. They don’t realize that many people are unwilling to correct them because of their rank.
Do become desensitized to your Battalion and Battery Commanders. Stand up when they enter your office. Always salute, and walk on the left side of a senior officer.
So What? If you look or act like a dirtbag, people will think you are one. If you wear a clean uniform and have a neat appearance, people will recognize that you respect the profession. If you show utter disdain for the Army’s rules and regulations, you undermine the professionalism of your organization by being an officer that seemingly takes advantage of his rank. You also undermine the authority of your subordinate leadership, for how can an NCO correct his Soldiers when you make the same uniform violations? Your Soldiers will assume your attitude: they will talk like you, behave like you, and care about what you care about. If you want a well-disciplined unit, you must show, and I emphasize show, professionalism at all times. If you don’t, be prepared to explain your indiscipline to your superiors.
Being physically fit is the minimum expectation for all officers in the Army. By nature, the Army is a violent profession and the expectation is that all service members are capable fighting and moving in combat.
You’re expected to lead by example. This means that you CANNOT fall out of formation runs or foot marches. Your rater and senior rater will expect you score a 270 on the Army Physical Fitness Test. Every time you fall out of a movement, your Soldiers will think less of you, and rightfully so. How can you be expected to lead in combat if you can’t keep up with the formation?
So What? Physical Fitness is a combat multiplier in the conduct of our operations. As Field Artillery Officers you will be required to perform duties across the spectrum of operations. Whether you are a platoon leader in a firing battery or a fire support officer with the infantry, physical fitness underwrites your ability to perform capably, survive and to lead Soldiers in combat. No one wants to carry a fat platoon leader to the MEDEVAC.
*If you are injured or have a profile — discuss a plan of action with your Commander. It’s always better to rehabilitate a short term injury before it cripples you.
The Army is competitive. When you receive your OER (Officer Evaluation Report), you will be weighed and measured against your peers based on your performance as well as your potential for positions of greater responsibility.
That being said, you must remember that you are part of a team. The sections, the platoon and the battery are an organizational unit and depend on the interaction and integration of its leaders. Teamwork is a component of a good officer and will most likely be reflected in your review and assessment. Do not spotlight (putting forth effort only when someone in your chain of command is watching), do not stab your peers in the back. Avoid throwing your peers and subordinates under the bus.
Never forget that you’re on a team of teams. Don’t let personal relationships negatively impact the outcome of a mission. Remember that the team you’re on is bigger than the team you lead. For example, positive relationships with the Distribution Platoon Leader are essential when you are the Battery’s Support Platoon Leader. That Distribution Platoon will provide critical support to your Battery’s training exercises. Work with other leaders within the Battalion — do not isolate yourself within the Battery/Company.
So What? You will develop a reputation as an officer. If you habitually throw your peers under the bus, your reputation in terms of trust and loyalty will be questioned. You may even discover that your peers will avoid working with you. The absence of teamwork is degrading and destructive — peers will not communicate with you, and they will let you fail. As professional officers and brothers/sisters in arms the defining character of an effective organization is the “one team, one fight” mentality that is shared by all.
Exercising initiative is the hallmark of an effective officer. Please reference the “Message to Garcia.” Your commander will give you guidance and intent — it is up to you to meet it. When plans come in contact with reality, they tend to fall apart. Initiative consists of the actions you take to achieve that intent within the parameters of your commander’s guidance.
Use refueling vehicles as an example. Your commander directs you to top off your vehicles. However, there is no 92G (fueler) present. A lieutenant with no initiative would just report that no fuelers were present. A lieutenant with some initiative would call the forward support company and request for fueler support. This is not a difficult concept to grasp.
Also important is keeping your chain of command informed. If you fail to complete a task despite your best efforts, provide your commander a SITREP. Your commander should not have to pull information from you.
So What? Initiative, or the lack thereof, will demonstrate whether or not you can be relied upon. Do not be the officer that gives up at the first opportunity. Your commander needs you to be a leader that understands his intent and desired outcome. He/she knows that you will encounter obstacles along the way — but you must, when allowed, provide a SITREP to your commander and develop the situation.
The Army is a professional organization and has a professional language. Familiarize yourself with ADRP 1–02 (Operational Terms and Graphics). Whether you’re briefing a superior or giving an OPORD brief to your Soldiers, the use of a professional language demonstrates that you’re taking the profession seriously.
Be precise and confident with what you say. “I think they’re walking through the part today,” is VERY different from “PLL is walking the part through today at 1300 and the vehicle will be FMC by the 1800.”
So What? Using professional and precise language demonstrates two things: One — you speak the language that the Army speaks. This is important because you will receive OPORDs in that language. It’s essential that you understand that language so that you can execute your tasks. Two, you know what’s going on. When you are ambiguous (I think, I hope, they’re supposed to, kind of), you are not providing any real information. You’re demonstrating a lack of knowledge and very poor attention to detail.
Competence builds credibility. The root of all success is individual proficiency in your job. Similarly, collective proficiency across the team leads to efficiency and effectiveness. In that respect, your peers and subordinates shouldn’t have to carry you unless you are wounded.
Be a master of tactics. This means that you must understand the scope of your responsibilities in the tactical employment of your platoon and the assets at your disposal. Understand the capabilities of your equipment, whether it be M985A4 HEMTTs or M270A1 launchers. Know the ranges of your munitions. Demonstrate an understanding of communications frameworks and know the basics. Do not be the lieutenant that needs somebody to fill his radio. You are an Artilleryman and a platoon leader — your radio will be your primary weapon system.
So What? You MUST know your trade. You are expected to be a platoon leader with a significant amount of equipment. If you demonstrate a lack of knowledge and apathy, it shows to your formation, your peers, and your superiors that you DO NOT CARE about your job, your responsibilities, and your mission.
Always remember to show up ten minutes early to any event. This includes synchs, huddles, training meetings, and briefings. Many lieutenants are habitually late to meetings or events, or sometimes even PT. Even more show up at the exact time an event is scheduled. While technically, they’re not late, they still are garnering a reputation for tardiness.
Arriving early to scheduled events provide many benefits. You may discover that you’re required to brief something, or that there is a new requirement that was recently published. More importantly — it lets you build relationships with other personnel present. It lets you coordinate for support and discover successful TTPs from other organizations.
Timeliness also applies to submissions on various products. Officers spend a significant amount of time on PowerPoint and Excel — turning these products in on time to the staff brings your organization a positive reputation.
So What? Being late, or “just in time” communicates that you don’t care about other people’s time. It disrespects your leaders, peers, and subordinates and alienates you. Finally, it paints a big target on your chest when the door slams open and you stumble into the conference room.
Understanding What’s Important (Relationships with your Rater and Senior Rater)
Your Commander is your rater (unless you’re a staff lieutenant.) Your Senior Rater is the Battalion Commander. Your senior rater is your boss’ boss. That means your Senior Rater is a very important person in your life.
Take, for example, the Battalion Commander’s Officer Certification Program. Some lieutenants choose to blow it off, with predictable adverse reactions from the Battalion Commander. As a new LT, a Commander’s Program should be your highest priority. Here’s how it should work: Your Battalion Commander tells you to do something. You should immediately inform your Company/Battery Commander and work together to execute the Battalion Commander’s orders. It becomes one of your priorities.
So What? The bottom line is that your Senior Rater (Battalion Commander), and your relationship with him is extremely important to you. Under no circumstances do you blow off what he tells you to do, or you ignore one of his programs and mandates. If you disagree with something the Battalion Commander tells you, have a discussion with your Battery Commander. Do not attempt to rebel against the Battalion Commander. It will end very poorly for you.
Counseling is critical for Company Grade Officers, and it will only grow in importance as your career progresses. At a minimum — conduct an initial counseling and quarterly counselings. Despite your inexperience, you are a Leader responsible for protecting the profession of arms. Your involvement is important to ensure that the right people progress in the Army, and that the wrong ones are identified and separated.
Counselings are critical for underperforming subordinates. Often times Leaders discuss counseling relationships with strong platoon sergeants that will mentor you. Invariably, some lieutenants have awful platoon sergeants and subordinate NCOs. Strike while the iron is hot — the chain of command will be supportive if you identify misconduct or a failure to obey an order.
So What? Lieutenants have a tremendous burden of responsibility on their shoulders. To ensure that good NCOs are promoted and underperforming NCOs are identified and corrected, counselings are a necessity. It’s the same for a Commander and his lieutenants.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice
Familiarize yourself with the Commander’s Legal Handbook and the Manual for Courts-Martial. Your commander will likely have copies of each. While you do not have the authority to administer UCMJ, you will be expected to have an understanding of the Army’s legal system.
Example: One of your NCOs has broken curfew. In some cases, when the Field Grade Article 15 is read, you will be present in the Battalion Commander’s office, and you will be asked a recommendation on the verdict of guilt/innocence and the punishment imposed.
So What? This is extremely important for when one of your Soldiers has been drinking underage, violated curfew, or has disrespected an officer or a non-commissioned officer. Familiarity with the punitive articles in the Manual for Courts-Martial is vital for two reasons: You, as a future Commander, are expected to understand what each of the articles your Soldiers may have violated. And also — as a lieutenant, some of your subordinates may disrespect you and take advantage of your ignorance. Despite your inexperience, you are still a commissioned officer in the United States Army. Subordinates disrespect you at their own risk.
Standards and Discipline vs. Running for Mayor
This is a broad topic — but it’s a challenge for new officers to understand. Ideally, officers should not have to correct Soldiers because an NCO will always correct them before you do. Reality is much different. Even the Battalion Commander corrects Soldiers and NCOs on almost a daily basis.
Some Lieutenants tend to be timid since they’re inexperienced. Their NCOs have a decade or more of experience than they do, and because of that, the lieutenants don’t want to make mistakes.
What makes matters worse is that Lieutenants are often the same age as specialists and junior sergeants. Because of this — lieutenants are sometimes reluctant to make on the spot corrections. More importantly — make sure you have a conversation with that Soldier’s NCO or supervisor. Every Soldier has an NCO or a leader that he works for — and that leader needs to be held accountable as well.
So What? Inability to enforce the standard demonstrates a lack of will. Realize that you are a commissioned officer and that you are supported by your Commander and First Sergeant, at the very least. If a Soldier is doing something wrong, make sure you correct it. If you don’t, you have established your “Standard”. If you don’t, your Soldiers will perceive you as weak-willed and “cool.” In that sense of the word, being cool is a bad thing. It’s actually code for “soft.”
Fraternization and Inappropriate Relationships
Lieutenants are sometimes compelled to pursue relationships with subordinates that undermine the chain of command. This is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Do not do it. Don’t make a habit of going out drinking with your guys. Hanging out with your platoon sergeant isn’t fraternization (as long as it doesn’t undermine the chain of command), but going out drinking with your Soldiers is. Avoid it at all costs.
Inappropriate Relationships are when your NCOs have relationships with Soldiers that undermine the chain of command. Be extremely wary for this. It is up to you set the standard and to enforce it.
So What? The effects of fraternization and inappropriate relationships are subtle, but extremely destructive. In combat, you or an NCO may be expected to order someone to do something extremely dangerous. Do not let personal relationships impact your decision making.
As a Lieutenant, you will likely sign for your platoon’s equipment. You need to understand and read the regulations for the Command Supply Discipline Program. AR 710–2–1, AR and DA PAMs 735–5.
You will sub-hand receipt your equipment to your section chiefs and subordinate Soldiers. You will sign your hand-receipt monthly, and you will inventory your equipment regularly. You will conduct sensitive items inventories and facilitate cyclic inventories for your commander. You must understand what these words mean.
So What? If you value having money, understanding property accountability is essential. Do not be the lieutenant that is flagged because there is a financial liability investigation of property loss (FLIPL), unable to PCS to his next duty station.
Maintenance is critical to the success of combat operations. Your equipment must be fully mission capable (FMC) at all times. For heavy and MLRS units, this is even more important. As a platoon leader, you must be able to intelligently discuss the status of all of your vehicles. When something is non-mission capable (NMC), understand the deadlining fault.
Understand the Preventive Maintenance Checks & Services (PMCS) process, and your role in it. (Supervise your Soldiers’ PMCS and proofread the 5988-Es). Your job is essential to ensure that the unit’s equipment is ready to go into combat.
Oftentimes, your Soldiers’ will hand-wave a PMCS if they think that none of their leadership will check. All you have to do as a leader is reference the Technical Manual of the vehicle in question and check it against the 5988-E. If you do find something wrong — make sure you include the NCOs — a 5988-E should have been checked at least once before it reaches you.
So What? In combat, your life and the lives of your Soldiers will depend on your equipment. Ignorance of your equipment and maintenance procedures demonstrate that you don’t care about your profession, your Soldiers, or your mission.
As an officer, people will always be looking for you. If you are absent at Command Maintenance or a critical training event, your superiors, peers, and subordinates will assume the worst. Oftentimes you will have a good reason to be absent — but be manage your time wisely. Your presence has a positive impact.
So What? Many officers will be absent at the wrong times, and it breeds discontent among subordinates. They will begin to assume that the platoon leader is at Starbucks while the platoon is conducting command maintenance. Be present and share “the suck” with your Soldiers.
Many energetic lieutenants will work themselves into failure. You must realize that you aren’t capable of being everywhere at once, and that you can’t work all night. You need a certain amount of sleep to make sound decisions.
There are consequences for working too late and working too hard. The quality of your work will degrade, and you will be more irritable. This is a dangerous path to tread on, and you do not want to alienate your subordinates simply because you didn’t get enough sleep. Do not be the lieutenant that misses PT because he stayed up too late working.
So What? This may be a difficult concept to accept, but you will realize the necessity and effectiveness of delegation. Staying up all night for weeks at a time is bad for you and your Soldiers. While you may think you’re making sound decisions and behaving regularly, the loss of sleep will make you more accident prone, irritable, and incapacitate your decision making ability.
When you assign tasks to your subordinates, follow up. Ineffective delegation only sets you up for failure. Since you can’t do everything yourself, you will inevitably have to delegate.
A common example is cleaning the motor pool. Typically every Friday is “motor pool closeout,” which means vehicle interiors are cleaned and that the vehicles are secured. All one has to do is walk through the motor pool at the end of the day and check the vehicles. You would be surprised at how often you can find garbage, unsecured vehicles, and more importantly, unsecured sensitive items.
So What? This communicates to your subordinates that it will be more difficult to lie to you, or to blow off one of your tasks. It also helps you identify your underperforming NCOs. Note: Some of your subordinates may be “All Glitter, No Gold,” which means that they may talk about being proactive and demonstrating initiative, but they never actually do anything of worth. Following up helps you identify and correct those individuals.
Thanks for reading. If you’re a new lieutenant, please don’t suck. It makes everyone’s life harder.