This article is awarded 3rd place in the Cove Comp 2022 officer category. Check out more in 'Tips for New Commanding Officers'.
If you’re looking for hot tips on how to be a commanding officer, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. There are a million-and-one books on leadership, organisational culture, and command. Read them. What follows is a collection of thoughts and observations jotted down over my nine months in the job. Most pertain to a Commanding Officer’s reflections on other key appointments within an infantry battalion, which are in no particular order. Some are profound. Some are light-hearted. None should be taken as gospel until after I become a wise old ‘former CO’ tucked away in a cubicle.
The Section Commander
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood… who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." – Theodore Roosevelt
Section commanders are the building block for all command appointments. They have the most influence over soldiers. Ask any old soldier who their first section commander was; they’ll tell you. Culture, regimental pride, and service ethos starts here. They are the interface between the soldiers and the (sometimes faceless) ‘chain of command’. They must balance the commanders’ intent with understanding what drives a group of individuals. This is where daily leadership happens.
I don’t envy them. Many junior non-commissioned officers have only two- or three-years’ experience as soldiers before they are thrust into the breach. They are faced with the impossible task of converting whimsical, esoteric intent into action – balancing the many competing priorities of battalion life and dealing with up to eight soldiers. Section command is never neat and tidy. There is a misconception that ‘back in the good old days’ things were wonderful. They weren’t.
So, for the section commanders out there who are concerned that they’re somehow not living up to expectations, I have this message for you: keep going! The issues you’re dealing with now have been around for a long time. Do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Recommended reading: ‘Quartered Safe of Here’, by George McDonald Fraser.
The Platoon Commander
"...the four best commands in the service – a platoon, a battalion, a division, and an army. A platoon because it is your first command, because you are young and because, if you are any good, you know the men in it better than their mothers do and love them as much." – Field Marshal Sir William Slim
Commanding a platoon is no easy task. But there is perhaps no other job in the Army that people are more prepared for. The Royal Military College does an outstanding job of creating junior officers. Our schools refine their tactical and technical skills. Our lieutenants have spent two solid years training before they are placed in command of Australian soldiers. Not many other armies in the world do that.
My advice to subalterns is simple; be bold, be dashing, be audacious, be wrong – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you learn. The soldiers and non-commissioned officers under your command will be quite forgiving, so long as you’ve been genuine and tried your best.
Recommended reading: ‘Gates of Fire’, by Steven Pressfield.
The Company Commander
“There are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; and the true, where a man is free to do what he ought” – Charles Kingsley
Company command is the first time you’ll no longer be able to influence everything under your control directly. It is where officers learn the art of delegation. But company commanders beware! Delegation is a gateway drug to laziness. It is easy to cite ‘mission command’ as the reason for a lack of detailed orders or ‘trust’ as the reason for not checking things have been done correctly. Don’t fall into the trap.
This is the first command appointment where your subordinates (platoon commanders) have less experience that you. You will have an opportunity to develop them and help them grow. Company command also provides the flexibility to employ your tactical expertise in a combined arms setting. Be ruthless on your enemy.
Recommended reading: ‘Once an Eagle’, by Anton Myrer.
The Operations Officer
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson
The Operations Officer controls the battalion. They plan, forecast, and drive the battalion in line with the Commanding Officer’s intent. It is a thankless job, but one that is hugely important for the battalion’s success (or demise).
Operations officers must possess an intimate understanding of the commanding officer’s intent. They must advocate for the battalion and constantly explore opportunities in line with their commander’s direction – and they must do it independently. An effective operations officer employs reconnaissance pull on behalf of the commander; where surfaces and gaps are identified, providing the time and space for commanding officers to use intuition and judgement to determine the main effort.
Above all, operations officers must care deeply for the battalion, its reputation, and its performance. They must be self-starters and they must consider – at all times – the impact of their work on the soldiers on the ground.
Recommended reading: Task orders.
“An officer should be comely and above all else confident in his own dress and bearing. He should, where possible, eat a small piece of meat each morning with molasses and beans. He should air himself gracefully when under fire and never place himself in a position of difficulty when being shot at… His hair should be well groomed and if possible he should adorn a moustache or similar facial adornment. When speaking to his soldiers he should appear unnerved and aloof and give direction without in any way involving himself personally in the execution of arduous or unofficer like duties” – Lieutenant General Hubert Worthington
In the quote above, Worthington is almost entirely wrong – save for his comments on the moustache. But it does illustrate the fact that officers have always had certain expectations to live up to. The adjutant is the bearer of regimental culture, custodian of tradition, and deliverer of standards to the subalterns.
My adjutant, or as I prefer ‘the Hindrance’, has pointed out in his article the importance of incident management, reputation management, and regimental culture. Adjutants ought to be a little ostentatious and maintain an air of entitled nonchalance; they are, after all the battalion’s senior Captain!
A good adjutant is indispensable. In addition to adding considerable administrative horsepower to the executive, they provide an excellent sounding board for sensitive issues and matters of regimental significance.
Recommended reading: ‘Bugles and a Tiger’, by John Masters.
The Commanding Officer
“A ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for” – John Shedd
If you’ve made it this far; well done. It would be remiss of me not to offer some thoughts on my particular ‘key appointment’.
First, I should declare my biases. I happen to be the Commanding Officer of the best unit in the Australian Army – in fact, in any Army. I expect Australia’s other 96 Commanding Officer’s will tell you the same thing about their unit.
The Commanding Officer of an infantry battalion has one primary responsibility: to lead a battalion (likely a battlegroup) in war. Any deviation from this line of thinking is criminal. Any other task or responsibility is secondary in nature and ought to be treated as such. Of course, there are hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of directed and implied tasks that enable this to happen. Preparing for war is a non-negotiable duty.
As Jo Gullett says, ‘the Battalion thinks’, ‘the Battalion feels’. Being the Commanding Officer has nothing to do with the commanding officer at all. It has everything to do with the unit – the people – you command. Too often, commanders focus heavily on leaving their personal mark and their legacy on an organisation. Nobody will build you a statue. Just do the best you can and make things a little better for the next generation.
Commanding officers must create an environment where others can succeed. This means driving, trusting, supporting, and checking the hard work of others. No amount of personal staff effort will do. In fact, dedicating yourself to one particular issue means that you are neglecting all others. Only do what only you can do.
Recommended reading: ‘The Cruel Sea’, by Nicholas Monsarrat.