“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”
– General George Smith Patton Junior
The Royal Military College – Duntroon is rightfully respected as one of the world’s premier officer training institutions. Australia’s coalition and regional partners have modelled their programs or even sent their cadets to march through the Gun Gates and toss their caps due to the level of professionalism and tactical competence that the institution instils in its trainees.
But for all of the situations that the ‘College of Knowledge’ prepares and inculcates the members of the Corps of Staff Cadets to handle, there are lessons which are only gained by the burgeoning junior officer through mistakes, failures, and from a well conducted after action review.
Through this subalterns’ own self-induced friction, three lessons have been provided in support of any future junior officer. Accompanying this, for the benefit of the up-and-coming junior platoon commander is what every lieutenant craves – a templated solution to their first engagement with their company/squadron commander.
These key lessons are simple. Notwithstanding just how simple they are, it is imperative to highlight that it has taken this junior officer nearly the entirety of his first command to appreciate them. This in itself is a key takeaway from this piece – lessons are hard learned, and their benefits are often only visible in the rear-view mirror.
To draw on the work of Lieutenant General David Barno (U.S. Army, Ret.), a junior officer should develop flexible doctrine and an adaptive mindset to assimilate these lessons post H-hour and achieve mission success against the pernicious foe that grows like a tumour as a commander becomes more competent and experienced – the fixed mindset.
So, to cut to the main body of this piece, the following constitutes the sum of three years of mistakes, missteps, and self-induced angst. I can only hope that they provide future graduating classes with a boost past the first few rickety rungs on the ladder of their career.
1) Determine your freedom of action at the first possible instance
You are not your officer commanding’s (OC’s) opposition force – so stop probing for the perimeter of your freedom of action. Engage early, engage deliberately and engage intelligently. You are not going to change the world, frankly you may not even change your company. What you will impact however, through well planned training and meaningful engagement with your first platoon or troop, is the readiness and standards that today’s senior privates and junior non-commission officers will take into their next appointments, positions, and units.
The impact that a soldier’s first commander can have on them cannot be overstated – it sets the tone for their service. You can only set a positive and professional tone if you know your own left and right of arc. Understand your freedom of action early so you can support those who look to you for direction.
2) Command is a privilege and professionally fulfilling but operations is where you learn your craft
Much is made of commanding in those formative 18 months in Canberra. It is not unfair, when entering the wider organisation, to assume that command is the norm and where you will spend the bulk of your career. This is not the case.
As many a lieutenant can attest, two years in command is a blessing. The assistant adjutant or company operations officer positions beckon and provide a clear picture of what the bulk of a career looks like for an army officer. Staff appointments at the unit, brigade, and division headquarters level will fill your years in green, with command existing as a rare opportunity to lead troops towards, and for a lucky few, on, deployment.
Remind yourself of this when you consider your future and write the annual ‘Five Year Plan’. Plan your career to enable command through intelligently placed staff appointments in the multitude of operations cells that comprise our service’s higher headquarters. Not only will you learn to communicate more effectively, you will gain a broader appreciation of how to coordinate and control groups of people in the achievement of a team outcome. Command is a team sport and the operations cell is the field on which we train.
3) Your subordinates do not know you are new – they will simply assume you know the answer
Much like the adage that there is no way to know if a captain is newly promoted or moments away from being a major, even a corporal will rarely know whether their new subaltern is freshly minted or ready for promotion. Confidence is key, but that is not to be confused with arrogance. You should approach your first appointment well-educated on your corps and your role, even if you aren’t yet fully qualified.
Understand where you sub-unit is in the training cycle, understand what role your sub-unit is filling in your unit and your unit in your brigade. Being able to understand simple questions such as “why are we doing this?” and the inevitable “when are we going field next?” will put you in good stead.
You aren’t expected to have an answer to everything, but you will be expected to advocate on behalf of your people. It is difficult to advocate to your OC or higher if you don’t have an appreciation of the second and third order effects of approving that corporal’s leave. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, understand your operating environment and you will never fear the result of a thousand office calls.
With those key lessons outlined, as promised, now comes the templated solution to your first meeting with your OC. This list will assist you in achieving all three of the above lessons and will put you in good stead to shine as the ‘switched on subbie’, (assuming of course that the answers to these questions haven't already been provided in command directives/guidance). Though not exhaustive, this list provides a framework for you to shape and refine to suit your new operating environment. Consider this as a multi-tool or a screwdriver with an interchangeable head – it won’t be the perfect tool for every situation, but with a bit of creativity and torque, it should see you hold it together until you get back to the safer waters:
- What is the Commanding Officer’s vision for the unit?
- What is your vision for the company/squadron?
- What do you need from my platoon?
- What is my freedom of action on the following:
- Training my platoon?
- Resourcing that training?
- Personnel management?
- Outline what you want for the platoon and for your time in the sub-unit and unit.
- Be open and candid about your perceived shortfalls and how you intend on addressing them.
So to my fellow juniors, ‘here endeth the lesson’. Do not allow this subaltern’s mistakes to go by without good being drawn from them. Though not a guarantee to see you receive a bronze commendation in your first twelve months, these lessons and questions should give you a solid place to start your journey.