Best Defense

One fast way to improve officers: Make company grade officers do their jobs

Guest columnist Max Lujan on the essential strategies for the growth of junior officers.


By Lt. Max Lujan, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

As a promotable and thus far successful lieutenant, the one thing that routinely frustrates me is the lack of leadership performance from company grade officers. The one takeaway I would share with others outside the Army looking in would be how lower-level officers frequently have a tendency to “phone it in” when it comes to leading soldiers by simply handing over their responsibilities to lead soldiers to their NCOs, thus relegating themselves to a point of intellectual and developmental stagnation when it comes to furthering their proficiency.

A damaging result of this is the lack of knowledge of how to apply technical knowledge to tactical situations. When an officer reaches the rank of major and is serving as a battalion S3, most in the formation assume that the person driving the training calendar actually understands what the battalion needs to be training on. However, because some of those officers have spent their Army careers simply moving from one station to the next, they don’t know what they don’t know. If that wasn’t bad enough, in some instances, those who reach the rank of O-3 are slower to defer to the knowledge of some of their subordinates who may have more expertise and experience in the given focus area.

Your time as a company grade officer is to learn how to become a leader. If one wasn’t able to demonstrate an ability to serve as a leader to 40 soldiers as a platoon leader, one probably isn’t going to miraculously learn when he or she has 100 or 500 soldiers within their formation. Leadership is learned while interacting with soldiers, not interfacing on Microsoft PowerPoint or Excel.

My mentor at West Point once told me that as an Army LT you need to have five things in your toolkit to succeed as a junior officer:

1. Integrity. You either have it or you don’t. The one thing I have learned thus far is that the majority of officers do not have it. During a deployment I witnessed a company commander defacing Army equipment, including three SIPR computers and weapons optics. The reason for the defacing was his lack of property accountability with issued items and then the subsequent theft of more to cover up that which was lost. In this instance the alleged misconduct was reported to higher headquarters, which simply addressed this transgression with a negative counseling statement — and then, the commander was forwarded to the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP).

2. Social skills. This ties into the one fundamental necessity to being a leader: selling your message and vision. There are numerous ways to get your platoon or company on board with your message through various techniques. With that being said, if you are bumbling 22-year-old 2LT who can’t confidently distribute your OPORD to your platoon, that lack of confidence will result in various hardships. The most detrimental side effect of this would be the platoon leader getting run over by a platoon sergeant and ignored by soldiers in the formation.

3. MOS skill sets. The Army does an above-average job at teaching 2LTs during the Basic Officer Leadership Course the technical portion of their given MOS. It is incumbent upon the junior officer to discern how to take those technical skill sets and apply them to the tactical side of the army. This is very hard to do if you spend the entirety of your platoon leader time as an office-dweller surfing Facebook or Twitter.

4. A desire to innovate. Too many lieutenants are afraid to adventure taking a risk whenever it comes to innovative training plans. Numerous officers spend their entire careers simply trying to avoid “blowing promotion.” The Army mindset encourages officers to continue running on the hamster wheel by telling them “don’t re-invent the wheel, LT!” The issue we are running into is a massive failure of leadership on the lower levels that actually requires an upgrade to the wheel, if not a full-on reinvention. The only requirement to attaining company command seems to be not sleeping with your soldiers, not getting a DUI, and not losing any major pieces of equipment (which we’ve seen isn’t that big of a deal because you can still attend RASP if you do).

5. Courage to call out fellow officers. If we want to grow as professionals, this is vital. In my current assignment, here are actions taken within the past few months by some of the lieutenants in organization:

-One lieutenant claimed that he “didn’t want to be a platoon leader” because of the various pressures he might face interacting with soldiers.

-Another lieutenant failed his APFT run by over two minutes yet was allowed to remain in his position as a platoon leader, and did not receive any non-judicial punishment. In fact, he was allowed to go on a week of leave the following month.

-One lieutenant missed four straight SP times and then followed that up with losing ammunition contents. Upon returning from the field, he left his soldiers in the motor pool conducting recovery for three hours while he went home to shower and relax. No adverse punishment or written counseling was conducted.

If the Army applies these five platforms to the development of their junior officers, the potential for growth amongst the officer corps using the trickle-up technique will be exponential.

1LT (P) Max Lujan is a 2011 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, he is currently serving as a field artillery officer at Fort Hood, TX. The views reflected in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Army nor the Department of Defense.

via U.S. DOD/flickr

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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