Lead with the best version of yourself.

A Letter to Junior Officers



This is post is also available at Small Wars Journal

By Joe Byerly

Recently several lieutenants have written me to share their fears and anxieties about their own particular development as the tectonic plates of the Army and budgets continue to shift.  In their eyes, their experience as a junior officer will be characterized by garrison administration, episodic training events, and canceled rotations to the National Training Center.  Their fear is that by the time they make it to company command and beyond, they will not possess the necessary tools required of them to be effective commanders.  They won’t be ready.

I do my best in my correspondence to not only give them a space to vent, but to also offer them words of encouragement about the future.  I usually redirect the conversation towards the idea of being a military professional.  Without echoing the definitions of Huntington or Janowitz, I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the junior officers who might be feeling the same anxieties and fears as those with whom I’ve come into contact with lately.

Being a military professional does not mean waiting for the system to develop you.  It means taking charge of your own development and seeking out opportunities to make yourself a better leader.  It is our responsibility to those that we might lead in future assignments to be prepared when the time comes, regardless of the opportunities that are presented to us by the military.   In an ideal world, we would have unlimited training budgets, the perfect balance of field time and family time, and all officers would feel like they are fully prepared for the next level of leadership. We must come to terms with reality and although lacking hands-on practical experience, we must turn to history and other professional literature to develop and mature our own understanding of the profession of arms.

History is ripe with examples of military leaders who have faced similar difficulties, but they compensated for their lack of experience with a practice of self-study.  Generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower as well as the majority of the leaders in the Second World War spent their formative years developing in an environment characterized by the following passage:

“It is terribly difficult for military men to keep their methods adapted to rapidly changing times. Between wars the military business slumps. Our people lose interest. Congress concerns itself with cutting the Army than with building it up. And the troops…find a large part of their time and energy taken up with caring for buildings, grounds, and other impedimenta. In view of all the inertias to be overcome, and in view of the fact that our lives and honor are not in peril from outside aggression, it is not likely that our Army is going to be kept to an up-to-the-minute state of preparedness.” -William E. Lassiter, 1929

I encourage young officers to read Roger H. Nye’s book, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader, (a very quick read) to see how George Patton approached his personal growth as an officer.  Also, read Robert Carroll’s The Making of a Leader: Dwight D. Eisenhower, an article in Military Review, which describes the career path of a young officer who missed out on combat experience in World War I.  Both of these pieces may provide inspiration to those struggling right now as many units adjust to garrison life.  They also give us insight as to how these leaders prepared themselves for their future roles in combat.

More recently, General (ret) Paul K. Van Riper’s essay, The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View, describes how reading prepared him for leadership roles in combat and in garrison, and how returning to previously read material at different stages in his career helped him in making sense of his experiences.

In addition to the works mentioned above, read military blogs such as 3×5 Leadership, Company and Field Grade Leader, and The Military Leader. These provide officers with a wealth of practical knowledge.

Globalization, rapid-advances in information and communication technology, the rise of ethnic nationalism, the diffusion of military technologies to non-state actors, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has complicated the current landscape.  The future is uncertain.  None of us know, much like the young lieutenants and captains during the interwar period, when we might be called upon to lead our nation’s men and women in conflict.  We owe it to our Soldiers and our nation to begin preparing our minds now, so that when the day comes we are ready.

5 thoughts on “A Letter to Junior Officers”

  1. I too, have had similar conversations with junior officers. Many of them feel like they’ve ‘missed out’ on the GWOT, and therefore will be seen as lesser officers with no deployment experience. This post reminded me of a conversation I had with my Brigade Commander at the time (Senior Rater) COL Paul Paolozzi almost 2 years ago:

    I asked him as a company commander how can I motivate my Soldiers and Leaders to train hard and develop themselves in a garrison environment with no deployment in the future for my unit. I further clarified my concerns of seeing complacency and lack of motivation spreading in garrison when Soldiers and Leaders are forced to spend their time with all the “impendimentia.”

    I’ll never forget his answer. (I’m paraphrasing) He said, “What do you think all the Soldiers in the Army were thinking on September 10th, 2001? They were probably thinking that they would never see an Army at war or be required to deploy to fulfill their units mission. But the next day, 9/11 happened and that immediately changed everything. There was no going back in time to train harder or be more motivated about PMCSing a vehicle. You always have to keep your sword sharp because you never know what can happen in the world.”

    The same principle applies here. Our Junior Officers cannot predict the future and what the future holds for our nation’s wars. They must keep themselves ready for whatever may come.

  2. Talk to all the LTs/ CPT’s that were CONUS or in Korea when Desert Shield / Desert Storm occurred. I was stationed in Korea and felt I would never get promoted because I was there instead of SWA. Looking back dealing with ROK Army and the cultural and language barriers, prepared me better than I could have ever predicted to deal with Iraqi’s and Afghans. Every good leader uses every opporunity to train, remember hip pocket training 🙂

  3. Our country may be approaching its first time of peace in thirteen years, and so many are afraid of what the drawdown in Afghanistan will mean for their careers. What they fail to realize is that now is a perfect opportunity to reflect and learn from the conflicts of the last decade, and refocus our training to be ready for the next potentail military action. We have time to take a break from deployment cycles, an opportunity to train, a chance to strengthen the fundamentals and adapt our TTPs–even as we learn to do with less. There are a new set of challenges ahead, but the fundamental purpose of our armed forces is no different in times of war than in times of peace.

    Don’t worry about missing the boat or not having deployment experince. The author does a good job highlighting uncertainty of the international landscape and the perpetual need for readiness; regardless, experiences and opportunities for development don’t come only from a right shoulder patch.

  4. I remember the same conversations with my LTs. The real truth is that our combat experiences in GWOT did little to increase our readiness to fight the next wars. The luxuries we have come to expect to be provided for us by contractors will not exist when we deploy in the future, at least in the short term. And we need to prepare our junior leaders and Soldiers for harsh environments, where a whole in the ground is your latrine, and a 5 gallon water jug is your shower (if you have enough water).

  5. “Being a military professional does not mean waiting for the system to develop you.” What a perfectly concise way to communicate a critical lesson. That is exactly what our profession needs to hear, particularly the junior leaders who don’t quite understand the concept of constant readiness. Thanks for the great insight!


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