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Jim Dubik on how to be an officer nowadays

I beat up on Army generals enough that I think I am obliged to take notice when one produces something very good. This wise column appears in this month’s Army magazine, which owns the copyright. I am carrying it here with General Dubik’s permission. Preparing for Your Future and That of the U.S. Army By ...

WATHIQ KHUZAIE/AFP/Getty Images
WATHIQ KHUZAIE/AFP/Getty Images
WATHIQ KHUZAIE/AFP/Getty Images

I beat up on Army generals enough that I think I am obliged to take notice when one produces something very good. This wise column appears in this month's Army magazine, which owns the copyright. I am carrying it here with General Dubik's permission.

Preparing for Your Future and That of the U.S. Army By LTG James M. Dubik, U.S. Army retired

In 1990, I finished commanding the 5th Battalion, 14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, and set out to the Advanced Operational Studies Fellowship, School of Advanced Military Studies, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Four years later, I was promoted to colonel, and, three years after that, to brigadier general.

I beat up on Army generals enough that I think I am obliged to take notice when one produces something very good. This wise column appears in this month’s Army magazine, which owns the copyright. I am carrying it here with General Dubik’s permission.

Preparing for Your Future and That of the U.S. Army By LTG James M. Dubik, U.S. Army retired

In 1990, I finished commanding the 5th Battalion, 14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, and set out to the Advanced Operational Studies Fellowship, School of Advanced Military Studies, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Four years later, I was promoted to colonel, and, three years after that, to brigadier general.

My battalion command sergeant major, Ron Semon, left our battalion and served both as a regimental command sergeant major and as the command sergeant major for the commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.

Colonels and their sergeants major run large parts of our Army. Generals and their sergeants major provide strategic guidance. Like CSM Semon and me, many of you now serving at battalion level (whether as battalion commanders, battalion command sergeants major, or in equivalent positions) will serve at the more senior ranks. What yet-to-be-envisioned future will you face in 2017? Simply put, no one knows.

For example, the Berlin Wall fell in the second year of my battalion command-a surprise to many. (At the time, many focused only upon reaping the supposed “peace dividend,” which reduced the approximately 780,000-person volunteer Army to about 485,000.) Uncertain then, and still unfolding, are the strategic consequences of the Cold War’s end.

Even with this uncertainty, however, there are approaches you can take now to prepare for your future, and accordingly, the future of our Army.

Keep learning. For you, school is never out. Much of what you have learned up to this point in your career will be surpassed by the new events, discoveries, technologies, political arrangements and strategic developments of the next decade. During my war college fellowship, for example, neither the Internet as we now know it nor any of the associated collaborative tools, search services or miniature devices existed. In the early part of the 1990s, many still thought that experimenting with how digital technologies might be incorporated into Army formations was a waste of time and money.

If any of you stops reading, thinking, learning and adapting, your utility — and, I would add, desirability — as a senior leader will diminish immediately. Imagine a 1989 lieutenant colonel or sergeant major trying to guide the Army through the realities of the 21st century, armed only with what he or she had learned during the Cold War.

Retain your best subordinates. Too often leaders treat their subordinates as if there is an endless supply of talent. There is not.

The future of our Army is in the hands of the leaders we retain. The sergeants we reenlist today are our future first sergeants and command sergeants major; the captains and majors we retain are our future commanders and general officers. There is no guarantee that the great Army we have now will continue to be great, except in the talent we retain. Talent retention, as it is called in the civilian sector, is doubly important in our profession, for we promote only from within.

Create a positive climate. Even the best people will be constrained — perhaps even driven out — by poor organizational structures and cultures. We all live and operate within an organizational context. An organization’s climate affects the contributions of individuals and the achievement of the common mission. How soldiers and subordinate leaders are treated by their leaders — and whether they feel that their seniors value their contributions and nurture their potential — helps create the organization’s climate, as do the structures and processes within which soldiers and subordinate leaders have to operate.

Colonels, generals and their sergeants major play a huge role throughout the Army in setting the right climate. We will not retain the right people if we create the wrong climate, and we will not be able to retain the right leaders if our command climate does not also include caring for families.

Value adaptability. Make the portion of the Army for which you are responsible an organization that learns and adapts as quickly as the situation demands. Few things—other than Army Values, the fundamentals of leadership and the essential nature of war—are static.
Some of our existing processes, procedures and organizational models may retain their utility into the future; others may not. The trick is to know the difference, adapting that which must change and conserving that which remains useful. As future colonels, generals and senior sergeants major, you will be responsible not only for figuring out what should be reformed and what conserved, but also for directing and supervising necessary changes.

You will have to learn how large organizations change, how to use the wealth of experience of your subordinate leaders in the process (and it is a process, not an event) and how to balance continuous change with continuous operations (the world does not stop and wait for us to change). In addition, you will have to develop the courage that taking initiative requires. This type of courage results from succeeding in positions outside of your comfort zone. Seek such positions. For the next 10 or 15 years of your career—at the colonel, general officer and senior sergeant major levels—you will face problems and situations that you’ve never faced before, requiring courage drawn from multiple sources.

Courage will come partly from the judgment and intuition that you have developed over time. To a large degree, however, it will come from being able to use your subordinates’ experiences and perspectives; they will be seasoned professionals in their own right. Finally, courage will come from your confidence in being able to lead these seasoned professionals through a process of discourse, continual learning and co-leadership in adapting your organization to an ever-changing environment.

Attend to your personal life. Be with your spouse and family whenever you can. Stay fit, physically and emotionally. Your effectiveness as a senior leader is in direct proportion to your physical and emotional health.

This aspect of senior leadership has always been difficult. The demands on colonels, generals and senior sergeants major have always been great, but a near-decade of war has added to an already heavy burden. In this aspect of senior leadership, quite frankly, I cannot offer much advice. I did not face what you are now facing, and my experience in Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq pales in comparison with yours.

I do know this: Ultimately you will retire from the Army, but you will never retire from being a spouse, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle or aunt. Your subordinates watch their senior leaders and make career decisions based on what they see. Perhaps you will have to learn from one another what works in preserving these most essential relationships during the kind of war you are fighting today so that you will be able to lead our Army into the uncertain future, inspiring the best of your subordinates to come along with you.

What I’ve written may seem obvious; I assure you that it is not. Every generation of senior leaders learns these lessons sooner or later. Given what I have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, current battalion commanders and command sergeants major (and those in equivalent positions) form an incredible group. Saying that your tactical proficiency and leadership surpass that of my generation is an understatement.

What you will face in the next two decades of your career will be substantially different, however. My challenge to you is to acknowledge that difference and start preparing for it now.

 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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