Lead with the best version of yourself.

In Case You Didn’t Know It, Things Are Very Different Now: Part 2


By: Tony Cucolo

Exceptional Personal Appearance: The Baseline for a Great First Impression

I have taken a lot of good-natured chiding and grief for this portion of the coaching – one of my Majors called it “The Blazer Brief” — but I cannot overstate the importance of sustaining exceptional personal appearance and its impact on making a strong first impression. It simply has to become your lifestyle and habit to be effective. It applies to personal hygiene, uniforms and personal attire. Some tips follow on all.

Good personal hygiene is a given; don’t ever let it slip, and do your best even under the difficult field conditions of combat. You will be expected to be the walking observable standard. Back home, it is much easier to meet the standard and therefore expected. When I was a Brigade Commander, my staff and I had to depart via commercial airline for a training event late one Sunday night. As my staff assembled in the airport, I noted one of my Majors who had dressed for airline comfort (shorts, t-shirt and sandals) and had not shaved since before PT Friday morning. Before I could pull him aside for some quiet coaching, the XO ripped him up, and finished by saying, “You represent all of us, and you don’t know who you might meet on this flight.” Sure enough, I watched a renowned Congressional Representative and Member of the House Armed Services Committee walk down the aisle in coach and sit right next to my very comfortable Major. “Hi, what is you do, young man?” was his first question. After that experience, I didn’t have to say word to him about maintaining the standard.

As a Major you are expected to know what the dress codes are for the terms casual, informal, semi-formal and formal so you may coach young officers. You may find slightly conflicting definitions, so when in doubt, just “over-dress.”

Clothing and uniforms are a significant expense, so consider budgeting over time your acquisition of certain items. Items I recommend all field grades have on hand:

Blues/ASU that fit. That set you’ve had since commissioning may have to be retired. Additionally, consider multiple elements and accessories of the ASU (shirt, trousers, rank, nametags) uniform so you can have more than one uniform hanging in the closet, “ready to wear.”

Over garments such as a black windbreaker, a sweater, a raincoat or winter overcoat that fit.

“Scrambled eggs” for your ASU service cap. Don’t wait too long; you will find yourself in need when you least expect it.

Re-furbish your OCP ACU’s, T-shirts, Velcro, patches, and boots as necessary. Retire and frame, don’t wear, your lucky t-shirt that is really soft, completely faded, and has a frayed neckline and holes in the armpits. You have to set the standard. And if you were selected for Major, the t-shirt worked, you’re lucky anyway.

“Stuff maybe no one ever told you”:

The term “fit” is all important. To make a good first impression, your clothing has to fit well. This means snug and form-fitting, not baggy and not too tight. Learn what the term “drape” means; if your clothes are too tight, they do not drape properly. Avoid the “Well I always lose/gain a bunch of weight on deployment, so I’ll just have stuff I know will always fit in the closet” approach to fit. Make the effort to read about current styles and trends and do your best within your budget to stay current.

If you are just starting out building your “mature” civilian wardrobe, then purchase, and have cleaned, pressed and ready to go the “unofficial social uniform.” An example for men would be a dark blue blazer, khaki and gray slacks (both), two pair good dress shoes (one black pair, one brown), cotton white long sleeve dress shirts and several ties to go with this outfit selected by someone you trust. Men and women should consider and budget for the purchase of a quality dark “business” suit if you do not own one – it will have multiple uses.

And remember, men (we seem to need the most help): the tip of the tie touches the top of the belt, your belt matches your shoes (e.g., brown belt is worn with brown shoes), socks match trousers (e.g., grey trousers are complemented by grey socks). And while I am a fan of the current trend of statement-making bright/colorful socks, use judgement: in a conservative setting, or if sitting on a dais or elevated platform, don’t bring attention to yourself with amplified ankles. Seen it happen.

Think about what you’ll wear on TDY and travel. You represent the young senior leadership of the profession, and you never know who you will meet.

Social Awareness: Tradition, Propriety and the Differentiating Sign of a Mature Professional

Some tips that will set you apart from both a decaying civility in our society but also your peer who have not yet matured:

When approaching a senior leader to talk to them, don’t ignore the spouse, partner or significant other, and certainly do not ignore their children. In fact, make a point of engaging the spouse and children. I can’t tell you the number of times one of my officers came up to my wife and I and only spoke to me. Clumsy, impolite, and…noted.

Practice the lost arts of properly making introductions (senior to junior, junior to senior, add a comment to kick start a conversation); actually answering rsvps; and sending notes – thank you and sympathy for example. All these things must be familiar, natural and sincere when you advance into the more senior ranks.

Practice “The Hello” and “The Goodbye” at social events. Gone are the days when you were expected to be present before the senior leader arrived and remain, no matter how bored you are, until the senior leader departed. However, make a point to go up to the senior leader and say hello early in the event, and then ensure you say goodbye if you are departing before they are. A minor thing, but it is the right things to do and it will set you apart

“Love the one you’re with” – that is, your assigned unit. You may have been in the greatest unit on earth during your last assignment, but you are a field grade officer in your current unit. Keep the t-shirts and spirit gear from your last unit in a closet somewhere – as far as s you are concerned, your current unit is the greatest outfit ever assembled in the history of warfare. Exude that feeling, always.

Actively Self-Police the Profession: You Now Care About Diversity, Equity and Fairness.

I’m not being flippant here, I know you care about diversity, equity and fairness. But perhaps as a Captain you wanted to make sure you “treated everyone the same.” You quietly led by example, took care of overt problems and issues, but focused on your duties. In short, you might have been a comfortable bystander, comfortable because you believed someone else was policing this battlefield. Now, as a Major, you are expected to consciously check to ensure there is equity and fairness and it is happening as part of the climate and culture of your organization. As a Major, you know demographics are important, and you actually look at numbers, you pause and see who is getting assignments, how awards are done, and you look for conspicuous or unconscious bias in the evaluations that cross your desk. You immediately speak up and address the overheard inappropriate comment. …you’re an active participant in ensuring fairness and equal opportunity exists.


This is about your professional reputation and a personal brand, if you will, that is crafted by your behavior and your presence, in both combat and in garrison/headquarters environments. You must realize now that as a Major, people are talking about you – the “Field Grade Slate” for an organization takes on the trappings of NFL Draft Day, and we all want to know about you. But you also need to know people will talk about you forever, too. I still receive calls with the question, “Hey, Tony, I see Emily Smith was on your staff…I am considering her for a key job here…what do you think?”

You have the image of a professional US Military Officer to live up to, but more importantly, you have a legacy to leave. Your example will help raise the next generation of professionals well. I acknowledge this is a unique and difficulty stretch of years, but I am adding my voice to others who are asking you to commit yourself to the self-discipline and high standard of professionalism expected of you in this new role. You will find great personal pride and satisfaction in doing so.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing across all functional areas, I am extremely proud of who you are and your continued selfless commitment to the survival of our nation. I wish you great success in all you do and stand ready to be an outlet, a sounding board, an advisor, or a mentor should you need one.

Tony Cucolo transitioned from the military in September 2014 after 35 years of service. He is currently the Associate Vice Chancellor for Leadership Development and Veterans Affairs at the University of Texas System, and remains an active mentor for several US Army senior leader development programs. He can be reached at acucolo@utsystem.edu.

8 thoughts on “In Case You Didn’t Know It, Things Are Very Different Now: Part 2”

  1. The one place I disagree with this article is the blue blazer/khaki pants/white shirt advice. This screams to the world that you’re a soldier that doesn’t know how to dress. There are many combinations you can go with that are conservative and not dull that work better. Go to a good men’s store and ask for help. Avoid Joseph A Banks and Men’s Warehouse. Find the local place that’s been around for years. And if you’re under forty, go with the flashy socks, and a bow tie. Both are very accepted and set you apart from the white shirt red tie crowd .

    • I really appreciate this comment. It shows some generational differences in the perception of business casual and what screams SOLDIER! There was a time the blue blazer/khaki pants/white shirt was most appropriate. It still is in our region of the country – – the Midwest. Downtown Kansas City on a Friday afternoon or early evening has plenty bankers, attorneys, political figures, and other professionals in gray suits, purple shirts, and blue blazer/khaki pants/white shirt combos. They don’t scream soldier like shiny, black, high-gloss dress uniform shoes with civilian attire. In DC, it might be a different story. We have a magazine “cover guy” a couple of cubicles away in the office and he goes for pastels but always looks like he just stepped off the cover of GQ. He still has a blue blazer/khaki pants/white shirt combo that he carries well. The bottom line of all of this is “too many up and coming leaders have no clue as to appropriate and professional dress for specific and general social occasions.” We were fortunate to get the “Cadetiquette” training at the Academy; it needs to be “military-wide.” This helps. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the comments — from two professionals who clearly have sartorial chops. Allow me to give some context, though, so you don’t chalk it up simply to a generational issue, because some of my peers and I are fairly fashion savvy. I wrote the most simple, “non-threatening,” and most-widely-acceptable-in-any-venue assembly of a starter wardrobe for the officer (or senior NCO) who has rarely or never had to “dress up” in civilian clothes due to the fact their entire professional lives have been primarily in combat uniforms or dress uniforms. I’ve seen ti over and over again. These folks (it has been my experience) would not be ready to jump to pastels, bow ties, and cap toe monk strap Cole Haans with the first building of their civilian wardrobe. Part of dressing well is not just trending and fit, but also being comfortable and confident in what you are wearing. For someone new to dressing well, comfortable and confident often translates into, “I want to look good, but I do not want to look like someone I am not.” This further translates into something relatively conservative, and relatively traditional. Its just a start…knowing that how you look in civilian clothes is absolutely key to making a good first impression often motivates folks to learn more and take chances beyond the “starter kit.” That’s the only point I am trying to make. And you know, for what its worth, I don’t mind having a look that “screams” Soldier — its more presence and carriage than clothing of course — because that’s what I am (well, was). Not a pushback, guys — you’re absolutely correct…just context. Thanks again.

  3. Great pair of articles, Tony. Although written from an active-duty context, it also applieis well to the reserve component officer. And for that matter, a lot of it also applies to the civilian career. TOTL

  4. Sledgehammer 6 (Ancient): Tend to agree w/ Tony C’s comment about the ‘unoffical social uniform’, and Leonard Wong had a great tongue-in-cheek article about it (Fashion Tips for the Field Grade) that stuck w/ me after reading it the month before I pinned on Major and went to Korea. W/ that in mind, I budgeted money for smart looking sportcoats and suits, and I’d rather look good than feel good. 😀 Coincidentally, my father — a retired Vietnam-vintage Redleg — taught me the business dress lessons as a young man, and I still practice them today. Shoes go a long way toward making a good impression w/ folks who don’t know you, but the comment on drape/fit is explosive and on-target. No matter what, we’ll still continue to judge on appearance. It’s in our nature. Along those lines, I remember back in the ’90s when, as a very junior company grade officer, we could peg the field grades and CSMs by their dress in the PX (i.e., khaki shorts, plaid camp shirt tucked in, woven leather belt, white crew socks and boat shoes, cellphone attached to belt at waist). Still see it today, still makes me chuckle. Hope all else is well, Headhunter 6 (Ancient) — Rock’s Support!! Sledgehammer!! Rock of the Marne!!

  5. I think you speak to the importance of the job and being prepared. From a Veteran perspective, we would rather be in ACUs, but it’s very important to be able to shift between roles. Being prepared is a part of the job. No one really takes the time to lay it out and explain requirements and how to ease growing pains as one develops into a national leader. I was just talking about senior leadership mentor ship and this would be something I would wish my mentor would have laid out for me. I am sure many people will benefit from this explanation.

  6. Great article Tony. I still remember my senior TAC officer at OCS showing up for a social event in cut-off jean shorts and running shoes. My first thought was “this MAJ could probably afford to get a some descent business casual attire.” I never forgot that when I became a field grade.



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