How To Best Lead At Every Level Of Your Military Career

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon

While leadership is best described as an art that takes years of practice, trial, and error to improve, it also requires an important mathematical technique: addition. Every stage in your development as a leader requires you to master certain skills and avoid various pitfalls. A productive and selfless senior leader is someone who is able to build upon their skills at every level but also retain the previous lessons they learned. Let’s “add up” some techniques, lessons, and ideas that make leaders respected, emulated, and successful.

After I was a major for a couple of years, I finally felt like I had learned everything I needed to know about leadership to go back in time 10 years and command my first platoon successfully. The aim of this article is to outline some of the things I wish I knew about leadership at different stages of my career as a leader in the Army as I transitioned from infantryman to noncommissioned officer and then from cadet to company-grade officer. In a second article, I will discuss leadership techniques for field-grade officers and also give some insights into leadership skills required of senior field-grade and flag or general officers from my years as the right-hand man to three generals.

The Training Period

This chunk of time covers the initial training environments before you join a permanent team at your first job. It might be in high school, basic military training, or college when you are just one among many trying to prepare for the next stage of life.

Things to do

Listen more and speak less as this is the period to absorb the lessons on teamwork and leadership by watching. No one expects much of you; so listen, try, and fail and then try again. Better to learn from your mistakes at this point then when your leadership is truly needed.

Help others to get to your level and even surpass you. This is really the teamwork phase of life. Practice with people who need help to improve because you learn a lot from teaching others. Likewise train with those people who are excelling so you can learn from them.

Things to avoid

Don’t always try to take charge. This is the time to prove you are a good follower too. Teams don’t need 10 leaders. So when someone else is in charge be a good teammate and listen to their ideas and directions. If you constantly try to stop them to rewrite the plan and show how capable you are, they will never get to learn some valuable leadership lessons.

The Newbie Period

You have arrived at your first job and joined a permanent team with a real-world mission. Now is the time to really be a team player and carry your own weight. This is when your skills as a team member start to get compared to others and your attitude toward teamwork and the mission is tested.

Things to do

Become an expert in your craft. To set yourself apart as a future leader you must master your own tasks first. Be the person that doesn’t need to be spoon fed instructions. Take the initiative and complete your work ahead of schedule. Finally, when you feel comfortable with your own job, start to learn what others do and be able to fill in for them when they are sick or absent.

Help your leaders. Follow instructions and don’t make stupid mistakes. Don’t be the person that always has to be babysat; you will have people on your team who can’t be trusted operating a stapler. When you see a problem arising, head it off or alert your boss to it.

Things to avoid

Don’t blame other people or “the system” for your errors. This is the time to learn to own up to your mistakes honestly and truly learn from them. Your leaders will recognize this ability in you and mark you as someone they can trust and possibly promote.

Seasoned Team Member Period

Now that you know your job and the jobs of the rest of the team; you can really help your team and leadership. As you are not yet in a leadership position you are now in training to take over your first small team.

Things to do

Learn how to lead your peers. Leadership courses for junior leaders are a great place to hone these skills and learn from your own and other’s mistakes. When asked to take charge for short periods of time, you will likely be leading your friends. This is a tricky point in your career and offers valuable lessons for you if you take it seriously.

Learn to mentor. You are always in a position to mentor the “new guys.” There will be a steady flow of people joining your organization who are just as clueless as you were on day one. This is your chance to build team cohesion more quickly and take a load off your leader’s shoulders by getting the new folks settled in.

Things to avoid

Paraphrasing the great Han Solo, Don’t get cocky kid. This is not the time to think you know everything and can sit back while the new guys get the work done. You still need to contribute every day and start stretching yourself to learn about the next phase of your career. If you get lazy at this point you will likely not advance and you can break down the team cohesion by setting a poor example for the younger team members.

Small Team Leader Period

The time for big mistakes is over now that you are officially a small team leader of four to ten people, but don’t think you will be flawless. Keep improving on the little mistakes and don’t be afraid of losing your team’s confidence if you screw up now and then.

Things to do

Get to know your people well and not just what makes them tick at work. Know how to best reward their hard work or motivate them to improve.

Develop your ability to critique others in a way that helps them to identify and improve their shortcomings. This can mean firing people so develop the ability to let people go or transfer them to another team to rehabilitate them.

Things to avoid

Don’t stop working. Some people think that their first leadership job means they can just delegate tasks all day. Most small teams require their leaders to accomplish part of the daily workload. You won’t be sucked into all day meetings yet so work beside your people and show them what you expect.

Medium Team Leader Period

Now it’s getting tricky as you are leading 20 to 40 people at once who all have specific jobs, strengths, and weaknesses. You might even have a deputy leader on your team to help you keep the train running on time. This is one of the most fun times you will have.

Things to do

Learn to identify your most talented people especially those who have unique talents. Ensure they are in a position to use those talents. 

Learn what key tasks need to be reinforced constantly. How to build a team that can conduct its primary missions in any circumstances without hesitation. 

Things to avoid

Don't embarrass your subordinates by belittling them. Don't embarrass yourself by saying disrespectful things to your bosses especially in public. Find a way to be brutally yet tactfully honest with everyone.

These skills clearly apply to both civilian and military leaders alike in whatever type of organization they are in. These ideas can be learned earlier or later in your career, but hopefully this maps out a sequence you can follow. Bottom line, the more you can learn in your first job the better. Warning: Time has a way of passing quickly when you are a leader so ensure you learn all this before you arrive in senior leadership positions.

During these earlier leadership positions, the key is to become an expert in your own tasks and smoothly progress and stretch until you learn the basics of leadership. You will stumble, as I did many times. The key for me was listening to others more experienced than myself and finding a few good mentors at every level of leadership that could show me a path forward.

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