6 Important Lessons From My First 6 Months As A Company Commander

The Long March

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every lieutenant compiles a list of things that “they’ll totally implement” when they take command. We spend years as platoon leaders, executive officers, and staff officers, just waiting for that moment where finally we can be in charge and turn that company into the perfect company in the Army. Because that’s what lieutenants do, right? Ideally, they soak up everything that’s happening around them: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they keep that knowledge on standby for the day when they can finally implement it.

And then reality happens. We slap on those captain’s bars, accept the guidon, and all of a sudden we’re the top dog. We blow the dust off the plans, begin typing up policy memos, and formulating initial counseling techniques. We get our checklist of all the things that we said we would do and all the changes we would make. We’re bright-eyed, optimistic, and believe in the innate goodness of our soldiers.

Then, as a few months pass by, the stark reality of the situation sinks in: this isn’t what you expected it would be. Ever.

  1. One, as a company commander, you really don’t have a significant amount of power to affect the training schedule. When looking at the training plan, you already have a significant portion of it mapped out for you: ranges, mandatory briefings, physical fitness test, health assessments, the works. Then you add in your collective training events, briefings to battalion and brigade, family days, safety stand-downs, and the like and you’re left with just a small bit of time in which to cram leader development, team building, and anything else you thought was important.
  2. Secondly, you get hit with the knowledge that the Army has boiled down your essence to one thing: a signature. You sign everything. You are merely a walking signature. Your authority to bind and loose is tied directly to how quickly you can enter your PIN for a digital signature on a PDF. And everyone wants a piece of that signature, and they want it right now. Delegate it out as much as you want, there will always be an email in your inbox or a soldier at your door with a clipboard as sure as the sun will rise on a day where one-tenth of the company has to conduct a urinalysis.
  3. Then there are the soldiers. Now, 90% of the soldiers in your unit are fantastic individuals who are an honor to serve with and who will motivate the hell out of you. The other 10% makes you wonder if there’s something in the water because they will make the stupidest mistakes, get in crazy amounts of trouble, or be some of the most elaborate liars in the entire world. And sometimes, all three at once. If you didn’t have enough time in the day already, these few soldiers will ensure that you have only enough time to occasionally eat and use the bathroom.
  4. And then there’s higher, which will send down short suspense items and quick changes to the training schedule, which is always sure to happen at the worst opportune moment. A call from the battalion commander can cause your pulse to quicken as you wonder which of your soldiers got in trouble or whether you totally missed a requirement.
  5. And when you go back to your list of all the things you wanted to do, you find that those were specific to the unit that you were in at the time. This is where you - hopefully - make the incredibly important discovery that not all companies are created equal. They will each have their strong and weak points and you will have to adjust your plans accordingly.
  6. Add to all that the family readiness group meetings, engineer project planning meetings, equipment breakdowns, the random accident here and there, and the ever-present problem of retaining the best soldiers. Suddenly, a command is a daunting and draining test. It was nothing like you had assumed.

But when you walk out information and stand next to the company guidon, or finally escape out into the training area to watch equipment moving by with soldiers wearing giant grins from getting to do what they love, or get to pin sergeant’s stripes on a deserving specialist, or get to watch that “aha” moment during professional development, well it all pops back into clear relief why you wanted this job for so long. No, a commander is not God on Earth. No, we can’t make all the changes we want. And no, it’s not at all what we thought it would be. But at six months in, it is one of the most challenging, interesting, and rewarding episodes of my life.

Talk to me again in six months and see how I feel.

US Marine Corps

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