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Helpful Thoughts for Junior Leaders

A retired lieutenant colonel shares leadership advice for new leaders based on his years of experience as an officer and a manager.

Leadership plays a central role in Army doctrine, and properly so. The difference between good units and great units is the quality of their leadership. Leadership ties the warfighting functions together to create the combat power the Army needs to accomplish its missions.

If leadership is the engine that drives us to success, then management can be thought of as the transmission that transforms the engine’s output and applies power to the wheels. Transmissions ensure that we are efficiently covering the ground on our journey to the objective. Just as every Soldier is a leader, every Soldier is a manager concerned with teamwork, the allocation and economical use of resources, and the effective accomplishment of our missions.

My views on management originated from observing the habits and practices of the great leaders under whom I have worked. Those views have been tempered by extensive military and civilian management literature and practice in the field, and they have been refined in Army Command and General Staff College classroom discussions. My experiences as an Army leader and manager have taught me to follow some management tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that can be applied by Army small-unit leaders at many levels.

Your Management Philosophy

The first set of TTP apply to staff leaders, such as battalion or company executive officers, who are facing the challenge of organizing a diverse staff for success in a resource-constrained environment. I strongly recommend that you give your staff your management philosophy in writing and discuss it with them, just as you would with the written commander’s intent. Your management philosophy helps young officers and Soldiers develop the inner dialog that shapes how they think. Managers should consider the following suggestions when forming their management philosophy.

Write well. Extraordinary power exists in well-crafted written communication, and less is usually more. Good writing is good rewriting. Well-written communication will help your staff internalize your intent so they know how to act without your presence in a manner that is consistent with what your guidance would have been.

Be positive. Take care to write affirmatively and communicate your enthusiasm for all the goodness that comes out of doing things the right way. Do not spend a lot of time examining the exceptions to the rule; do not get lost in the weeds. Acknowledge the guidelines, but point out the importance of applying judgment to specific cases and circumstances.

Tell them why. Make it clear that you will always explain why you do particular things and why you do them in a certain way. Explaining the reasons behind your decisions is another way you help them understand your philosophy and intent, and it will carry over to everything else you do from that moment forward. Not telling them why should be the exception. The most important part of the operation order process is making sure everyone understands the plan; it should also be the most important part of administration and management plans.

Headlines speak volumes. Packaging and formatting are very important in this age of instant gratification and commercial breaks. Society focuses on sound bite, so give your Soldiers and staff sound bites they can use.

One-pagers are powerful. A one-page memo communicates most effectively, and your staff may actually read the memo if it is not so long and cumbersome. Short memos set a good standard for all staff products.

Let them help you. Your notes and plans for your own personal accomplishments and project management are a great place to start when writing to your staff about where they fit in the plans. Share your personal and professional goals, as appropriate.

Know your audience. Read it from their perspective, see where they will find fault, and then fix it. Try to keep in mind how they could possibly misinterpret what your wrote.

Solicit recommendations. Act within your authority, and when it is beyond your scope, ask your Soldiers for recommendations. Soldiers, of course, should know the difference between recommendations and dissension and where the boundary lies. When they recommend actions, you can see if they are growing in maturity and understanding and if they are ready for increased responsibilities. Hearing your Soldiers’ recommendations also gives you an opportunity to check their understanding of the commander’s intent. Their task of coming up with recommendations and your feedback to them will train them for future requirements.

Expand their awareness. When managing issues and projects, refer to the unit’s area of interest and area of operations to train them to look at the big picture. Train them to approach issues by thinking about the entire system, and use operational terms they already use.

0100 inspections. Inspections at 0100 are what I do, what leaders do, how we get better, and how we confirm excellence and check compliance. There will never be a time when you, as a leader, are not comparing your Soldiers’ and your staff’s performance to a standard. You are a walking, talking, thinking inspection.

The Medical Metaphor

I found the medical metaphor to be especially useful in my role as an executive officer and primary staff officer at all levels from battalion through division. As a staff leader, you can think of yourself as the leader of a squad of doctors. Solve complex bundles of problems with the following systematic procedure—

  • List the problems (the “patients”) quickly and without priority.
  • Assign problems to staff members according to specialty.
  • Assess the consequences of neglecting those problems.
  • Prioritize the problems based on importance.
  • Perform “first aid” to stabilize the problems.
  • Evacuate the problems to staff leaders for treatment and
    long-term follow-up care.
  • Monitor the problems with a series of follow-up examinations.
  • Develop a healthy unit lifestyle that helps preclude poor performance. A good command supply discipline program that is ingrained in all Soldiers as a value goes a long way towards prevention.

This set of TTP provides guidelines for your role as a manager and focuses on solving problems in a variety of areas when time and other resources are constrained. The most important part is making an initial rapid assessment of the situation to get things moving. The first step is the hardest step. Once in motion, solving problems tends to generate its own momentum. Triage well so that your unit gets a good start on solving problems.

Effective Leadership

Solving problems can be fun, but your effectiveness depends on how well you coordinate the actions of your team and line up the resources they need to get the job done. Help your Soldiers by fulfilling your role as a leader and focusing your own time on the following tasks.

Guidance. Convey to your Soldiers your vision of how they should solve the problem and the end state that you require.

Priorization. Provide integrated, effective coordination of effort in the proper sequence. Prioritize new actions among the efforts that are already underway. Try to find the right level of priority for all tasks—the first time.

Management. Supervise tasks, conduct meetings to discuss your unit’s progress, and monitor the suspenses that you set for your Soldiers.

Leadership. Focus on leadership in your actions, intent, vision, and professionalism. You are the standard, and your Soldiers are watching. You cannot expect your Soldiers to meet criteria that you do not meet yourself.

Standards of performance. Communicate the standards and the methods and frequency of your inspections. Follow through with persistent, consistent execution.

Resources. Pay attention to your resources, such as time, money, tools, equipment, facilities, energy, labor, and knowledge. Recognize the importance of another type of resource—support from higher headquarters and technical staffs.

Integration and coordination. Make sure that your unit is working together—and with other units—efficiently and effectively. Ensure that the tasks a Soldier completes do not impede another Soldier’s tasks, and avoid duplication of effort.

Judgment. Make decisions about resourcing and prioritization based on facts and in a timely manner. Make plans to follow up on those decisions.

Wisdom. Maintain the view of the big picture. Focus on the long-term view while meeting short-term needs.

Risk management. Consider the importance of the task (or its consequences) and then identify the appropriate method of supervision: act then advise, or recommend then act.

The Solutions

Categorizing your responsibilities can help organize your actions into an integrated, achievable plan.

Short-term actions. Short-term actions are the responsibilities that cannot wait. Using the medical metaphor, they are the actions you must take to stop the bleeding, treat for shock, and stabilize the patient. These actions must be completed immediately to limit further damage. An important consideration is the possibility of legal or nonjudicial ramifications, so you must always consider the legal, moral, and ethical dimensions and make sure nothing in your immediate action drill precludes the ability to take appropriate remedial action later on.

Long-term actions. Untangling the metaphorical hairball can be a time-consuming, multistep process. Ultimately, your goal is to establish a long-term systems management program that prevents hairballs from occurring. But we are rarely afforded the opportunity to just throw the hairball away. No, they are ours to untangle, and management plans are required to untangle it as quickly as possible. Once untangled, our systemic fix should ensure that we never get back to that place again.

Systems management. The goal of your system checks is to ensure that any problems you uncover based on your metrics are of the short-term variety. Simple preventive maintenance checks and services of your commodities are sufficient to keep you on track and in compliance. Different commodities require different levels of attention and management, so your goal is to find the right things to check, by the right people, to the right standard, with a well-calibrated gauge, and with enough frequency to keep the unit from drifting out of compliance.

Watching for icebergs. Having an effective staff to efficiently manage the routine checks will free you to become a pilot and watch the horizon for danger and for opportunities. As the leader, you cannot afford to become decisively engaged in the “daily grind” of everyday routines. You have to carve out some discretionary time for yourself. Systems management will help you do that.

Focusing our education on leadership is fashionable and sensible. Also important, in my opinion, is addressing the minor art of management so that you can translate the commander’s intent into organized and coordinated actions that will lead your unit to a successful end state. These suggestions have served me well in achieving that outcome as a staff leader in a variety of Army units at all levels between company and division, and it is my hope that some of them may help you as well.

Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Long, USA (Ret.), is currently the chief of curriculum development for the Directorate of Logistics and Resource Operations at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served 20 of his 25 years on active duty in command and staff positions in tactical units from company through division, in both combat and combat service support units.