I’m frequently asked, “What do I need to do to be successful? What would you recommend?”
Everyone has one or more mentors. I have had some exceptional mentors – platoon sergeants, teachers, news editors, first sergeants, some colonels, and some generals. I have learned from their guidance and leadership examples. Having had great mentors, I’ve also experienced the opposite of great (and can tell the difference) – meaning I’ve learned as much about how not to do things as I have learned how to do things the right way.
From the basic to the complex, the good ones have had an impact (for example, my drill sergeant taught me how to shave; my division chief taught me patience when dealing with Army budget processes). Having the benefit of these mentors and having made and learned from my own mistakes, I have spoken to and answered these questions for dozens of officers over the course of the last several years.
I have answered these two questions consistently, based on my experience, but rarely cover everything because of time or faulty memory. No one has the market cornered on good ideas in this regard, so I’ll ask the same questions of you and offer some quick bullet points to facilitate the conversation. These are simply off-the-cuff observations jotted down quickly. They are not “rules.” They’re just tips based upon observations and experiences. Some may be flawed; others may be brilliant. Most of them are statements of the obvious. I admit, I’m writing from an officer’s perspective to other officers, but I think some top command sergeants major can chime in with thoughts applicable to senior NCOs, junior NCOs, and junior enlisted Soldiers. Think about these points and add your thoughts. In honor of my mentors, here’s the list:
- Your Success is Paramount. Individual excellence engenders—and culminates in—institutional excellence. Your personal success undergirds a positive organizational tone as we build a culture of readiness within the Missouri National Guard. We need everyone to be promotable or to be approaching a promotable status. Trends indicate that the top limiting factors are a lack of required military education, low levels of fitness, and weight control challenges. The organization has established a new approach in this regard. Deployability, fitness, readiness, and individual Soldier proficiency now receive top priority status. Is that the case in your battalion or company?
- Live by the Army Values. This sounds obvious, but Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage aren’t simply words. Leading and living by these values will underwrite success for you and the organization. An emphasis on Selfless Service and Personal Courage will place you on the path to success – and it will keep you there. Remember, integrity and character is determined more by your actions when you think no one else is looking, than when all eyes are upon you. Whether your leadership comes from position or situation, as long as it is based on a sound, moral foundation of character and integrity, it will benefit others. Will people look to you as a positive role model?
- Do not Self-Eliminate. The military endeavor takes time and effort, but if it’s your calling in life, it is the most rewarding venture you can embark upon. Everyone has a chance to rise above and beyond their personal expectations and ambitions. Many who prematurely stall or end their careers do so because of self-elimination through misconduct, failure to maintain their military records, engaging in inappropriate relationships, quitting in the middle, or by failing to maintain health, fitness, weight, or security clearance standards—or simply neglecting the Army Values (particularly Selfless Service and Personal Courage). Realizing early on that “off duty” behavior is as important as “on duty” behavior, especially when that behavior reflects exceptionally upon the military in either a positive or negative way, helps prevent early, self-elimination.
- Be Willing to Learn. Be willing to mentor. Be able to do both at the same time. People want to be successful. You contribute to the success of others and receive cues and guidance in return. Accept it. This is a benefit of membership.
- Compete With Your Peers – Not Against Them. You are smarter than some people. Some people are smarter than you. Be excited when, as a leader or a follower, you find someone smarter than you. Embrace this fact and use it to the organization’s advantage. Putting smart people in the right places and encouraging them to do better and do more for the organization is the right thing to do. Everyone can and will contribute in a positive way if you find what they’re great at doing and let them do it. The great strength of our organization is derived from the diverse nature of its members. Harness that diversity. It’s powerful. Teamwork is preferred over individual achievement. The team includes your leaders, your peers, and your subordinates. Be a part of the winning team.
- Dress for Success – First impressions matter.
- Army National Guard officers … green is gone. Do I need to say more? Yes I do. Here’s the thing. The old Army Class A uniform is just that – old. Your peers are wearing the blue uniform. If you’re wearing the green, you stand out. I understand the wear-out date isn’t until 2014. If you’re going to retire this year, the blue uniform is probably not worth the investment. Otherwise… stay competitive.
- Civilian clothing – especially while in a travel status (which is a duty status) – should reflect well on the organization. Based on the frequency of lost or delayed luggage, what you wear on the airplane should be something you’re prepared to wear for a second day while your luggage tours the rest of the United States. Officers should look like professional officers in or out of uniform – all the time, but especially when representing the organization. Do some research before investing in a civilian or military wardrobe or old habits will lead you to make costly mistakes. What does “business casual” mean? What does “formal” mean? How should trousers fit? Should they be cuffed or straight hemmed? (the answer is preferably cuffed, if making an initial purchase) For men, a standard, well-fitting sport coat, dress shirt (usually without a tie), a simple dress watch, a belt matching your dress shoes, wrinkle resistant slacks and over-the-calf socks will give you a more professional look and create a great impression of you and your organization. You’ll feel better too. A small wardrobe investment, provided you do some research first, will pay dividends.
- According to Emily Post’s “Etiquette” book, even “casual” should never be sloppy or inappropriate. “The clothes we wear and the way we groom ourselves represent how we choose to present ourselves to others and reflect the importance we attach to the occasion.” The message that clothes can send often matters more than the clothes themselves.
- For women, from the perspective of several female officers: Ensure your clothing meets time-honored standards for decorum and good taste if you want to be taken seriously as a professional. Although today’s fashions tend to draw attention to one’s self, the key is to err toward the side of discretion. Too much skin exposure on the upper or lower body does not gain points in our environment, nor does body-hugging clothing. The general rule of thumb is not to wear clothing that is too tight, too short, or too revealing for the occasion. This type of attire is not helpful in your quest to be valuable, respected, and relevant in our trade. Read the dress code for your kids’ camps—it’s a good guide. Set the example for junior Soldiers who may need role models and mentors in this area.
Full-time Unit Support Officers – Be Ready to Move. At times, the needs of the organization trump the needs (or wants) of the individual Soldier. Understand from the start you may be reassigned to a different unit far away from your home of record. Set the conditions early to defeat the need to be a geographic bachelor or bachelorette. You’ll eventually find yourself at the state headquarters and along the way you’ll live in St. Louis, Springfield, Ft Leonard Wood or Kansas City (to name a few) or even live out-of-state on tours at the National Guard Bureau, US Northern Command, resident schooling at Ft Leavenworth, Ft Gordon, or elsewhere. Some moves can be anticipated. Others come with little warning. It comes with the territory. When people thank you for your service and your sacrifices, this is one of the things they’re talking about. Advice I was given early in my career has proven helpful to us. We have never purchased a home we couldn’t rent or sell easily. This means We have lived in nice communities, but in three-bedroom or smaller homes. Early in my career I rented small apartments. Maintaining such a small footprint has twice allowed my family and me to move across the country on two-weeks to 10-days notice. My mentor’s advice has had some very positive second and third order effects. It has limited our ability to accumulate “stuff” for the sake of accumulating “stuff” and it has allowed us to save significantly more for retirement than we otherwise would have. More importantly, except for a few deployments, our family has always been under the same roof. This has had a significant and positive impact on our home-life and, subsequently, the career. We have tried not to set roots so deep we are forced to live away from each other because of the career. We’re concerned our health and the health of our most important relationships cannot be adequately attended to if we’re hundreds of miles apart. We can’t control a lot of things, but these are the conditions we decided to control – and it’s working.
- Traditional Officers and Officer Candidates – Prepare to Drive. But before you find yourself assigned to a unit a hundred or more miles from your home, try to select a branch most commonly found in the unit nearest your home. There’s a lot more to developing as an officer than pulling off a great drill weekend. There are a variety of tasks and additional duties—such as FLIPL, LOD, safety and AR 15-6 investigations; inventories and inspections; training management and pre-mobilization tasks, etc., which officers are typically given, and they develop through accomplishing these tasks successfully. They are usually done between drill weekends. If you live hundreds of miles from your unit, you’re less likely to take these tasks on and will miss out on the opportunity to adequately develop in these areas of the craft.
- Be on Time. Be Early if You Can. This is an admitted weakness of mine, especially as I have grown more senior and hold more senior positions in the organization (it’ll happen to you too, but at least try).
- When in Charge, be in charge. When not in charge, do all you can to protect the authority of the person who is in charge and is responsible for the calculated risks associated with their chosen course of action (COA). Execute your portion of his or her intent. Understand the most positive COAs have their negatives. Internalize all the positives and negatives and execute the order or the plan as if it were your own.
- Don’t Self-Promote or Self-Aggrandize. Don’t be seen as self-serving. Guard against using “I”, “Me” and “Mine” too much. Be part of the team. Tell your story through your actions: your hard work, competence, integrity, and accomplishments which will garner credibility for you. Take all the hard jobs you can get and do them well. You will be easily recognized for your abilities and your motivation. When you’re right, people will see that. When you’re wrong, be the first to admit it – then fix the mistake. Don’t be about “ME”. Doing so causes you to stand out in a negative way. Selfless people become leery of you and your motivations. For example, an Army officer called me a few weeks ago and listed at least eleven reasons why he should be a general officer. All I could think about was the one very good reason he should not.
- Understand the End State of the Officer Development and Promotion Process. Officers are developed and promoted to be great colonels – not just great captains or majors. Be sure you get the kinds of experiences you need at each rank and don’t feel rushed to get every promotion at minimum time in grade. Once you miss a key job, you usually can’t go back to get it. If you haven’t gotten the key jobs done at your current rank, consider entering a dialog with your leadership to get them done before advancing to the next rank. This surely applies to NCOs. We want great sergeants major at the end state. There’s a path to follow for a very good reason. It takes time to go down that path.
- Learn to Prioritize and to Delegate. Understand it’s ok to feel behind, and guard against getting to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Busy people never get everything done, but they do get more done than anyone else. By the way, in this business, if you feel “caught up” and “don’t have anything to do” you should be very, very concerned.
- Be Passionate and Authentic as a Leader. Do the right things for the right reasons. Understand the difference between learning and incompetence is usually laziness (and we don’t have a lot of laziness around here). Don’t be a jerk. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and honesty. Most want to learn. Encourage others to do well. Do not be a toxic leader, and do muster the personal courage to expose toxic leadership. Toxic leadership and micro-management erodes the fabric of the organization, undermines trust, inhibits innovation, kills initiative, and limits the unit’s ability to effectively accomplish its mission. Toxic leadership is self-serving leadership, marked by incompetent leaders who are irrationally fearful of their peers or people who are smarter than them. It is not “demanding” leadership in and of itself. Solid leaders, who are demanding, are focused on operational or organizational needs and enforcing clear standards – oftentimes at their own expense. The act of holding subordinates accountable doesn’t make a leader “toxic.” There’s a big difference.
- Be Proud of Yourself and Your Profession. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a member of the military and the following things are already true about you: You are a values-based person. You are dedicated, trained, educated, experienced, and you’re among the half-a-percent of the American population serving in the military. You are elite. You come from many walks of life and your circumstances now are what you’ve made for yourself. The basics have not been given to you. You have earned them on your own. Because you share these traits with a select few—gathered and organized into disciplined, military formations - you’re part of an organization which can do just about anything under any set of circumstances, especially in conditions others would quickly shrink from. Your life has meaning. You have a calling. You protect good people from bad people and bad things. You are, by definition, on the road to success – not just for the military, but for life.
These are just a few ideas. What do you think? I look forward to the discussion.