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Think Like a Commander

Legendary Commanders: (From left) GEN John J. Pershing, GEN H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and GEN George S. Patton Jr. Photos from U.S. Army
Legendary Commanders: (From left) GEN John J. Pershing, GEN H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and GEN George S. Patton Jr. Photos from U.S. Army

No matter what your aspirations are, you’ll go further by heeding the advice of a leader who has trained troops by the thousands. 

It’s a position not everyone is cut out for. But unless your career plan is just a one-and-done enlistment, either you’re seeking out a leadership position or you will soon have one thrust upon you, ready or not. No matter where you are in your career, thinking like a commander will help you succeed now, and it will get you ready for where you’re going.

Start by focusing on something often overlooked: relationships, which are essential to what commanders do.

As the former brigade commander of Camp Shelby’s 177th Armored Brigade, Colonel Dale Kuehl knows what it takes to think big-picture. Last year, the 177th and the 158th Infantry Brigade teamed to train more than 30,000 Soldiers—many of them Guard personnel—who were deploying or demobilizing. One leadership failure in his world would have affected countless lives. He says before specific planning even starts, successful commanders build relationships.

“If you can’t work together, if you can’t develop positive working relationships, you’re not going to be an effective leader,” says Kuehl, who was previously selected to be the First Army G-3/5/7 director. “I don’t think I can overemphasize that.”

Units downrange are working closer than ever with other services and even indigenous personnel. Because of that, commanders are not just managers of people—they’re managers of relationships. Even if your career is just starting, eventually you will find yourself needing to work with somebody outside your inner circle. Make sure you’re building bridges, not burning them. You never know which of those bridges will eventually get you where you want to go. 

THINK AHEAD. WAY AHEAD.

Next, don’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to you. “I expect leaders to make decisions,” Kuehl says. “Those are the leaders I’m looking for—leaders that are willing to make decisions based on the commander’s intent and are not waiting for guidance all the time. Be proactive, and be positive.”

Successful commanders don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do. They fill open spots in the training calendar without being asked. They offer critiques without complaining and know how to walk the fine line between being constructively critical and being negative. They’re proactive, not reactive. They make decisions and run with them. 

Make those decisions the right ones by looking at the long-range targets.

“You have to have a vision of where you want to go, and what you want to achieve,” Kuehl says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to attack a hill, or you’re trying to put together a long-term training plan, you have to understand where you currently are. And then if you understand where you are, and where you want to go, then you can figure out the steps to take in between.” 

Whether it’s preparing for your next leadership school, or turning in your NCOER Support Form early, keeping an eye on where you’re going will help you avoid important details falling through cracks.

IT STARTS WITH VALUES.

Most important, be rooted in a solid set of values. In other words, don’t just think like a commander, be like a commander.

“A leader sets the tone for his organization,” Kuehl says. “If his moral compass is off, the organization is going to have problems. I can train a leader in just about anything, but if they don’t have the moral foundation to be what I think of as a good leader, that’s hard to fix.”

Every day, you are faced with choices. Usually those choices come down to doing the easy thing, or doing the right thing. Successful Soldiers make a habit (and build successful careers) out of making the hard right decisions. Whether you’re looking for leadership or not, it’s coming your way. Start thinking (and acting) like a commander now, and you’ll be ready when it does.

– Marc Acton