By Major General Tony Cucolo, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Over the length of my time in uniform, I often found myself scratching my head and saying to no one in particular, “I wish someone had told me that…” So, I make it a point to wherever and whenever possible pass on the tribal wisdom and scar tissue that only comes from personal trial and error during long-service in a closed society like the military.
Here’s the premise of this article: the expectations of a Major are very different than those of a Captain, and not everyone knows what these expectations are or the impact they have on personal and professional success. I want to share my thoughts on this to help you be successful – successful for the right reasons.
If you are a Major, you have left the ranks of the “sprinters” and quietly committed to the “marathon” – you’ve mastered your varying pace for the hills and the flats, but are uncertain of the location of that distant finish line. As the underlying title of the article states, you may not realize it, but there are new expectations of you as a Major. Honestly, sincerely, it really is automatic: the day after you pin on or Velcro that oak leaf to your uniform, you are judged differently, and you may not realize it. People (seniors) will watch you, form impressions, and pass judgement about you – and never tell you. Hard to explain why, and some may argue with me, but we senior leaders are quick to correct a Lieutenant and we won’t hesitate to say, “Captain, what the…?” But a Major who just doesn’t quite “get it”? Well…we quietly say to ourselves, “Noted,” and slide the image of that man or woman to the bottom of our mental order of merit list.
I have seen wonderful young officers both in combat and in the garrison environment fail to adjust to the issues I will cover here. They were left behind for the wrong reasons, leaving the Army at a great disadvantage for missing their talent. Certainly a lack of coaching by myself and others was patently unfair. I woke up to my own coaching shortcomings just prior to assuming Brigade Command when an outstanding young Major whom I rated was damned with faint praise and given a mediocre rating. When I confronted the senior rater about it, he told me, “Tim (not his name) is…well, he’s just a rough cut…he’s never grown up…he looks and acts like a Lieutenant…” I was crushed; I had failed Tim. It was my job to “raise” Tim properly, but I let Tim be Tim: with the ever-present dip cup, moderately crude language, clumsy social skills, scruffy outdoorsman appearance, and pronouncements of “Hell, sir, I can’t go to that event, I don’t own a suit…shoot, I don’t even own a tie.” I let Tim be Tim because he was one hell of a fine warrior, the best tactician and trainer I had, and was beloved by all. I thought everyone saw Tim the way I did: a future battalion commander and then some. I was wrong.
Field Grade duties are varied, far-flung, and put you in operational and strategic settings – sometimes with little or no notice – engaging the full spectrum of thought leaders, key influencers and decision makers, from the civilian intellectual elite to senior foreign military officials. I didn’t help Tim understand he needed to make some personal changes for this new level of duty if he was to be taken seriously as a future senior leader.
Smarting from this personal failure, I went into Brigade Command with a pitch deck, a briefing, and a coaching session that is the basis of this article. I have given some form of this article’s contents to the senior Captains and Majors of every organization I led from 1999 – 2014. Over the years and as recently as last month, I’ve passed on the slide deck to countless peers and rising senior leaders. I want to minimize Majors being “noted” and ensure that their success is for their Character, Courage, and Competence, and not lose a good officer because someone felt they were “a rough cut.” I pass on this tribal wisdom to you now.
If you have made it this far in the article, fair warning: some of the things I will lay out for you will seem light and relatively meaningless to men and women in the profession of arms of a Nation at war, but they are still important. Some of what I will discuss sets us apart as professionals, as Officers, and is the Military Tradition.