Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Our article this time around comes from a former Army Battalion Commander. LTC Bernard House was commissioned as a Field Artillery Officer from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff where he graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting. He also holds a Master of Arts in Management and Leadership from Webster University. LTC House commanded the 3rd Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Drum, NY. Throughout his career, he has held various positions to include Paladin Platoon Leader, Fire Direction Officer, Battery Commander, Fire Battalion Operations Officer and Executive Officer. He is currently serving as the United States Forces Korea Chief of Dynamic Training. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any of its agencies.
Each year the Army commissions thousands of Second Lieutenants (2LTs) into the Active Duty Army, Army Reserves and Army National Guard. Immediately these officers are bombarded with all types of information and advice. From Army values and regulations to unwritten rules, the expectations placed on an Army Second Lieutenant are extremely high and, at times, overwhelming. It is a major transition from a college or Officer Candidate School student to a full-fledged Army officer. Over the course of my two years as a Field Artillery Battalion Commander I welcomed approximately 30 new 2LTs to our unit. On average, it took approximately 90 days for them to get acclimated to the Battalion. During this time I began identifying who would be a high-, average- or low-performing officer.
In my opinion and based on my observations as a Battalion Commander, there are four major skill-sets within which an officer can succeed or fail: Communication, Competence, Fitness, and Teamwork. The focus of this article is to stress the importance of mastering these four skill-sets and share techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) on how to continually improve throughout your military career or help someone else do so as well.
Communication is the foundation of everything we do and consists of three very important subsections – listening, oral and written. As senior leaders we focus on the obvious oral and written subsections. However, equally important is the often-overlooked listening component of communication. Poor communication skills can end an officer’s career before it starts – you have to practice and consistently seek ways to improve. As we explore all three subsections, I will offer some TTPs that have assisted myself and other officers improve in our respective communication skills. I will start with what I believe is the most important – listening.
Listening: First things first – do less talking and more listening. Listen to senior officers and non-commissioned officers. The ability to listen has become a lost art and can negatively affect an officer’s ability to grow and develop because he/she is either talking or preparing to talk and not actively listening. As such, officers are missing critical information provided to them in tactical scenarios or during training, counseling or mentoring sessions. Counseling sessions have transformed into an excuse-based conversation versus listening and accepting constructive criticism presented by a senior officer. You will never get better if you continuously make excuses. Seek mentorship. Mentorship is important to an officer’s success and bridges the gap between enjoying your career and hating it. Be open to receiving constructive criticism and wisdom. Based on their observations, experience and knowledge senior leaders will give you the best advice available. Listen first, do a thorough self-assessment, identify a way forward, and communicate your way forward back to your mentor, rater, senior rater, or the senior officer providing the advice/counseling. Listen to Learn, Learn to Lead!!!
Oral: The lack of preparation, rehearsals, and knowledge of briefing material are factors that result in a poor presentation. For many Lieutenants, speaking in front of a large audience does not come natural. Add a senior officer to the audience and it can quickly become a frightening and nerve-racking experience. First – relax. Arrive early, get adjusted to your surroundings, take deep breaths and find your focus. Once the presentation starts, the officer’s comfortability level usually improves. Second – know your audience. This includes gauging how the presentation is going and adjusting to them. Third – present your bottom-line upfront and explain it as necessary. This is most likely your “attention grabber”. Fourth – know your material. Having a thorough understanding is tantamount only to preparedness. Last – control your brief, stay on topic and stay on time. Do not allow the audience to become sidetracked and engaged in side-bar conversations that derail your brief.
A major cause of failure is the lack of preparation. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse!!! Do not let your ego or arrogance stop you from preparing. Rehearse with subordinates and peers and allow them to identify errors with your presentation and additional information requirements, critique your delivery technique, and gauge the time required to adequately cover the topic of the presentation. Allow time to make necessary changes/adjustments. Scripts are okay, however, if you are presenting a brief in-person reading from a script can be perceived as a lack of preparation. You can write a script for your presentation, but rehearse so you do not have to read directly from it. Your interaction with your audience is important. Use your script as a guide and be comfortable enough so you do not have to read it verbatim and be knowledgeable enough that if someone asks a question it does not derail your presentation.
Bottom-line – as an Army officer, your ability to effectively stand in front of a group with confidence while speaking clearly and concisely is critical to your success. This is not an easy task; it takes a continuous effort to improve your skills, build your confidence and comfort level. As you advance in rank your ability to speak effectively will define you as a leader.
Written: Written communication includes emails, OPORDs, awards, evaluations, social media posts, white papers, and articles. It is important that you are concise, calculated and cautious regardless of what you are composing. Grammar and spelling mistakes distract the reader from the main idea you are attempting to relay. Ensure your points are clearly understood. The major mistakes I witnessed were grammar and spelling errors due to lack of reviewing and editing. In this regard, Ms. Michele Roseman, a writing instructor and founder of BreakTheBlock, created an acronym, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., to help writers organize, review and edit papers: Say it aloud, Understand your audience and Utilize your editing tools, Check your facts, Choose your review/editing team, Express less, Stay away from the work for a while (give it some space), Stay awake (work when alert).
Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Basic Leader Officer Course (BOLC) is designed to give officers the basic branch knowledge required prior to arrival at their duty station. Over the years, we have veered away from doctrine and migrated to TTPs/lessons learned. A widely held opinion is that this has resulted in a declination of doctrinal warfighting knowledge amongst our more junior officers. As we transition back to preparing to fight a full-scale war against a near-peer adversary, it is vital everyone understand doctrine and their role in major combat operations.
Regarding competence, officers must be SMEs (subject matter experts) in their branch/functional areas, understand the roles/duties of staff sections and understand the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) – both inputs and outputs. For staff officers, the ability to contribute to the development of an Operations Order (OPORD) is critical. For Platoon Leaders, the keys to success are the ability to analyze an OPORD, develop a timeline, and execute Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and rehearsals. BOLC prepares Lieutenants for some of this. However, upon arrival at your unit, 2LTs have to continue their professional development through learning Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and engaging in conversations with their peers and Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) to build on the baseline knowledge gained from BOLC. Also, do not forget to continually hone the basics such as map reading, proper radio procedures, weapons qualification, first aid, and other MOS-related technical proficiencies. Additionally, reading professional military journals, publications and historical books are vital to improving knowledge. Do not wait to be handfed information. Seek knowledge and utilize creative-thinking skills to plan, resource and execute multi-echelon missions in training or combat and conduct After-Action Reviews (AARs) to capture improvements. Find some helpful resources here: https://armypubs.army.mil/default.aspx.
Fitness is comprised of two components – physical and mental.
Physical: We have all heard about the physical – passing the APFT, making the height/weight standard, never falling out of a formation run, or demonstrating an inability to utilize equipment in a field environment. The bottom-line here is to arrive at your unit physically fit and within Army standards for height/weight.
Mental: Mental fitness refers to a state of psychosocial well-being and having a positive sense of how we feel, think, and act in order to improve our ability to enjoy life. The transition from student to officer is stressful. There is a list of things to do and not to do. How do you prepare yourself mentally for the challenges that lay ahead? It involves getting an adequate amount of sleep and time management; maintaining and strengthening personal interactions with friends, peers, mentors, and family; continuing to mentally challenge yourself by seeking the hard jobs and “hunt the good stuff” daily.
Additionally, how do we train ourselves and our organization for the potential high number of causalities associated with combat? How do you maintain your posture and continue to lead your soldiers through such stressful events? How do you recharge your mind so that you can get through it and continue to be an effective leader? You have to know yourself, identify your triggers and coping mechanisms, find creative ways to exercise them, and build muscle memory so when casualties occur you will continue to be an effective leader on the battlefield.
Critical to an organization’s success is the collaboration and communication between members of the organization. Although highly encouraged by leaders at all levels, many officers are reluctant to ask a peer for assistance. Similarly, some officers do not reach out and help new officers. I have heard officers say they do not want to appear as the “weak link” because they asked for help. Some feel asking for assistance will impact their OER. Others fear they will be perceived as incompetent if they ask questions. Do not sit and suffer. Swallow your pride, put aside your ego and work together as a team to accomplish the mission. Teamwork is one of the attributes I looked for in my officers. Are you willing to help peers or do you allow them to fail?
With the emergence of the internet and social media sites focused on sharing information or products, some officers are reluctant to talk to others within their respective organizational space but will reach out to others via social media to ask for assistance, for products, or for other information that most likely resides within the organization. In my opinion, young officers are more comfortable with the relative “safety” of computers/internet versus face-to-face interactions. Social media is all well and good but remember that your Facebook friend will not be around to help you when you are on a training or combat mission. Force yourself to communicate with, ask questions of, and share information with other leaders within your organization or unit. Collaborate and Communicate!!!
Over my time in the Army I’ve seen more officers succeed than fail. They succeeded because they arrived prepared and with an open mind. They communicated and interacted with others and continued to grow and develop daily. Although things may seem overwhelming, just calm down, listen, learn, and enjoy every moment.
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Co-contributors: Michele Roseman, Founder – #BreakTheBlock; Ms. Andrea House, Family Advocacy Program Specialist; CPT Kelvin Riddle, Commander – 339th Quartermaster Company; LTC Chunka A. Smith, Department Chair and Professor of Military Science – University of North Carolina at Charlotte; LTC Fredrick Baskin, USA, Retired; MAJ Brett H. Lewis, USA, Retired