The Successful Lieutenant

by Captain Christopher J. Courtney

The lieutenant years are the time we officers get our first real lessons in leadership, training, maintenance, supply, and soldier care. Though many people talk about the trials and tribulations of being a lieutenant, there is little written today on how to do it right. The purpose of this article is to pass along some helpful hints which I learned on my own and some which were passed on to me by older and wiser officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs).

Ten Rules for Success

Lead From The Front. The privilege of leading U.S. Army soldiers is an honor you should not take lightly. Your first priority must be to become worthy of leading them. Lead by example every day and in everything you do, whether it is at physical training, on field exercises, or on the range. Face it, you will have to prove yourself every day as a lieutenant. Put yourself in their shoes and take a hard look at yourself. Would you follow a person with your standards? Would you follow a person with your level of tactical and technical expertise? Do not be a hypocrite. If you expect the soldiers to meet a certain standard, ensure you exceed it. Stay cool under pressure and be a calming presence in the platoon when things get stressful. Remember this when you arrive as a new platoon leader, you are like a transplanted organ. The body (platoon) either accepts or rejects you based on your professionalism and attitude.
Put The Troops First. This rule is perhaps best summarized in a quotation from Field Marshal Sir William Slim. He was the commander of the British 14th Army in the Burma Campaign of World War II.
I tell you as officers, that you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down, or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you hold to this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth, if you do not, will break you in front of your regiments Quite simply, you put the needs of your troops ahead of your own with every chance you get. As a platoon leader, I had a simple rule in the field, no squad leader could eat until all of his soldiers had eaten, the platoon sergeant could not eat until all of the squad leaders had eaten, and I could not eat until the platoon sergeant had eaten. On the surface it appears a minor gesture but to the soldiers it cements the bond between the leader and those led. Spare no effort to praise and reward soldiers for outstanding performance it costs nothing and gains everything. Help them solve their problems and you will earn their loyalty. Remember, soldiers are smart and can smell a phony a mile away. Get to know the soldiers in your platoon. After three months, you should know their names, names of family members, home towns,and any unique problems with which you can help. Showcase your good soldiers to the company and battalion commanders. This way, when it comes time to approve their awards, they will remember the soldiers and approve them. If you take good care of your soldiers they will take care of you.
Lead Through Your NCOs. You must do everything you can to empower, support, and resource your platoon sergeant and squad leaders. Let them execute your orders without excessive guidance and interference. You do this best by issuing clear, concise orders which give your NCOs the information they need to successfully accomplish the mission. Believe me, they want to accomplish the mission as much as you do. It may be tempting to do everything yourself because you are not comfortable delegating. If you follow this course, you are sure to fail. Platoon leaders who play the sponge and soak up all duties and responsibilities will drop the ball on many missions because they cannot do it all. Delegate responsibility to your NCOs and let them execute. Delegation is all about trust: you trust your NCOs to accomplish the mission and they trust you to give the right orders. They will make some mistakes (as you will, trust me) but will learn and grow from the experience.
You should seldom, if ever, give an order directly to an individual soldier. As a rule of thumb, you give orders to the platoon sergeant and squad leaders who execute the mission. In addition, do not let your soldiers jump their chains of command to see you, except in rare cases, such as equal opportunity or sexual harassment. Allowing soldiers to jump the chain of command cheats your NCOs out of the chance to lead and weakens the overall leadership of the platoon. Be aware that soldiers may try to play you and your platoon sergeant against one another. You can prevent this through continuous, open, two-way communication. Remember, you and your platoon sergeant can disagree behind closed doors, but must present a united front to the platoon.
Training Is Your Number One Priority. Focus your training on the platoon mission essential task list (METL) and do whatever you can to reduce training distractions. Push your soldiers hard to make them the very best but do not burn them out. Everything you do should prepare the platoon to conduct its wartime mission. Remember, soldiers fight the same way they train, so make training as realistic as possible. For example, preventive maintenance inspection should be conducted wearing Kevlar and load-carrying equipment, under the same conditions as the range. If you have a platoon battle drill which must be conducted at night, ensure you train it at night. Train your platoon to execute battle drills and prepare for deployment on "autopilot" where everyone knows exactly what to do and when. A well-trained platoon in action is a sight to behold. In addition, study both FM 25-100, Training the Force, and FM 25-101, Battle Focused Training, until their principles become second nature.
Inspect What You Expect. One of the greatest favors my first platoon sergeant did for me was to teach me how to inspect the platoon. We went to the motorpool for two days and I learned how to inspect every piece of equipment and he showed me ways soldiers would sometimes take shortcuts. Armed with this knowledge, I was able to inspect weapons and equipment to see if the unit was doing proper preventive maintenance checks and services, field recovery, and so forth. For example, my platoon's generators were becoming nonmission-capable because they kept blowing seals. Soldiers were often reading the wrong side of the dipstick and overfilling them, resulting in many blown seals. The solution was simple squad leaders ensured the soldiers knew how to read the dipstick so they knew the standard. I knew how to read both the hot and cold sides of the oil dipstick on the generator so the NCOs and I put special emphasis on generators at the normal platoon Friday inspection before the platoon was released. Generators overfilled with oil had to have the excess oil removed before that crew could go home. Needless to say, generators stopped going down for blown seals. It was important that the platoon leader inspect the vehicles and equipment along with the squad leaders. Soldiers need to see you getting your hands dirty and checking things. It is human nature that people will do their best at something that will be checked. If you do not check something, your soldiers probably will think it is not important to you.
Know What You Do Not Know (And Do Something About It). It is a cardinal error for a lieutenant to be a "know-it-all." Nothing turns off the troops faster or brings down morale more than a know-it-all lieutenant. Yes, those of you with prior enlisted service, this includes you too. Work hard to learn the unit's tactical standard operating procedure, battle drills, field standards, maintenance procedures, and regulations. You will never know it all. Admitting to your platoon sergeant that you do not know something is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of honesty. Weakness is the lieutenant who does not take the time to learn their profession and asks the platoon sergeant about everything.
Professional development is something you should constantly pursue. Any good program of self-development should include vigorous professional reading. The military qualification standard reading list is a great place to start but do not stop once you have finished those selections. Books I recommend that every lieutenant reads include Platoon Leader by Jack MacDonough, The Defense of Duffer's Drift by E.B. Swinton, and The Armed Forces Officer by S.L. Marshall (DA Pamphlet 600-2). I particularly like The Armed Forces Officer for its chapters on leadership, morale, and training. Professional development also comes in many guises other than formal schooling, such as
Guard Your Integrity. An officer must have impeccable integrity in word and deed. Your soldiers must trust you because in combat they are trusting you with their lives. Never compromise your integrity. It is perhaps best stated by Captain Peter G. Kilner in an article titled "Developing a Cohesive Unit" he wrote for the May-June 1995 issue ofInfantry Some people think integrity means to refrain from lying. They are right, to an extentabout 10 percent. Integrity is much, much more than simply not lying. It means telling the whole truth, unsolicited, even when it hurts you or someone else. It means not allowing someone to be misled or misinformed. Integrity is proactive.
You will face numerous ethical dilemmas as a lieutenant and must maintain your integrity in each situation. Some situations will seem so murky you have a difficult time telling right from wrong. When in doubt, trust your instincts to do what is right.
Understand the Roles of the Other Leaders. You should understand the roles other leaders play in your success as a lieutenant. The following are some to whom you should pay particular attention; they include the first sergeant, commander, and your peers.
First sergeants are a great untapped source of guidance since many lieutenants do not take advantage of their expertise. The 1SG has already been a successful platoon sergeant and trained many lieutenants just like you. The 1SG can be particularly helpful when you and your platoon sergeant are having a personality conflict or you need help writing NCO Evaluation Reports. The 1SG is the commander's right hand and totally loyal to the commander. If you have any type of disagreement with the first sergeant, ensure it stays at a professional level and that neither of you says or does anything to compromise the other's position with the troops. Ensure you do not ever force your commander to choose sides between you and the 1SG, you will lose.
The company commander wil have the greatest impact on your growth as a lieutenant. Your commander should be your mentor, leader, coach, and counselor. Company commanders in MI units are generally more senior than those in the combat arms. Like you, they had to interview for their positions and were chosen for their outstanding potential. Luckily for you, this all means your commander is very qualified to develop you and guide you in your growth as an officer. Expect your commander to be hard on you and give you what seems like an impossible number of tasks to accomplish. Your commander will never give you a task you cannot accomplish. You can prove yourself best to your commander by working hard and taking care of the platoon.
You may end up serving under a commander you think is not a good leader or who is only looking out for himself. If you do, keep your mouth shut, work hard, take care of the soldiers, and do your best to make the unit successful anyway. If there is unethical or criminal activity, talk to the battalion executive officer or chaplain.
In almost all cases, your commander will be an outstanding officer you can look up to and learn from. Good commanders counsel you for good and bad performance and set goals for you to achieve. You will make some mistakes and should expect to be counseled for them either formally or informally. Take this counseling to heart but do not get down on yourself. What your commander is looking for is to see if you make the same mistake twice. Your job is to ensure you do not.
The camaraderie you develop with other lieutenants in your unit will stay with you the rest of your life. Work together and share ideas so you all will be successful. Whatever you do, never try to undermine another lieutenant to make your platoon look better. For one thing, that is both unprofessional and unethical. In addition, that lieutenant's troops will not appreciate it (and troops have funny ways of letting you know this). No one likes a backstabber. Friendly rivalries can be good for all of you as long as you keep it in perspective. Remember, there is plenty of room at the top.
Learn to Make Do With Scarce Resources and Personnel. Lieutenants today must make do with fewer resources and personnel than many of us did as lieutenants. In the past, the platoon was almost always over-strength, fuel was plentiful, and our class IX (repair parts) budget seemed limitless. In today's world of dwindling resources and personnel shortages, leaders must be more creative and resourceful. This means you and your NCOs take on more additional duties and cross-train in more skills than ever before. You must figure out how to come up with two MI systems crews when you only have personnel for one. You and your NCOs must figure out how to maintain six vehicles and ensure their servicing, etc., is completed with personnel for only three vehicle crews. Remember too that these are the same soldiers who are taking on these extra duties, cross training on everything else, pulling post details, going to the range, and pulling staff duty.
Remember to Have Fun and Never Lose Your Sense of Humor. Serving as an Army officer is very rewarding and can be fun if you keep your perspective. It all depends on your attitude. Your attitude is a choice you make every day and has a great effect on your troops. An officer's negative attitude will spread throughout the platoon and lower morale. Keep a positive attitude it can be contagious. When it is freezing cold and rainy in the field, look like you are having the time of your life. Your troops may say "that lieutenant is crazy," but they will have a better attitude and work better as a team. If your troops and peers play harmless jokes on you, look at it as a good sign; it means they think you are OK.

And Finally

The lieutenant years are some of the most rewarding and memorable of your Army career. I will not mislead you and tell you that every day will be pleasant, butas you meet all the challenges, your confidence will grow. You will experience both great successes and many disappointments along the way. If you remember the points in this article and use your common sense, you are well on your way. Learn from your mistakes and do notrepeat them.
In closing, you will note that nowhere in this article did I discuss Officer Evaluation Reports or how to impress your senior rater. If you always lead by your example, train your troops, take care of soldiers, maintain both your equipment and your integrity, and develop yourself as a professional, those matters will take care of themselves.
Captain Courtney is currently the commander of Alpha Company, 306th MI Battalion at Fort Huachuca. Captain Courtney has a bachelor of arts degree in International Relations from Ball State University. Readers can reach him by E-mail at