Command vs. Leadership
The Army has a strange relationship with words. On the one hand, precision means everything: the term “seize” means something very different to a ground forces commander than the term “secure”. On the other hand, the term “leadership” has become an umbrella term used imprecisely to cover a wide variety of positions and roles. The impact of this imprecision is significant – especially for officers.
In the officer corps, “leadership” has grown to encompass the separate act of taking a command position—so much so, in fact, that many now consider the two terms (“leadership” and “command”) to be synonyms: you cannot display leadership except through command, and by taking command you display leadership. This lack of distinction muddies the water for the select minority who will actually fill the roles of Company, Battalion, or Brigade Commander and the plurality who steward the profession in other ways. Although I cannot speak for other branches, I can say from first-hand experience that this improper definition—what I like to call “capital ‘L’ Leadership”—is especially damaging to junior officers in the Cyber Corps.
From the moment I arrived at the Cyber Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC), I was presented a false reality in which Cyberspace Operations Officers are supposedly involved in cyberspace operations in name only. This disheartening refrain took many forms: “You’re an officer, not a technician.” “You don’t need to do ‘cyber things’, you’re here to lead.” While those claims make some sense at first— I (and my fellow Second Lieutenants) signed up to lead soldiers, after all— I soon learned that many of those in charge felt that “leading” meant taking command and that company-grade officers in the Cyber branch should do little more than complete administrative tasks until they reach the field-grade level.
A disturbing number of Cyber BOLC instructors even seemed to take perverse pleasure in slogans like “officers lead”, repeating that phrase (or ones like it) often enough to keep fresh in their students’ minds the fact that we would never use the technical skills we possessed. For junior officers who spent years learning about computer science and other similarly complex topics, and who arrived eager to commit their high-value, low-density skills in service of the Nation, this was a bitter pill to swallow. As officers, we expected to leverage our unique knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide the purpose, direction, and motivation that would unite our soldiers’ efforts to achieve a mission. Instead, we were confronted with a vision in which we could expect to become company-grade generalists whose strictly administrative duties would have nothing to do with our hard-won expertise. This presented us with a regrettable dilemma: become commanders—not leaders, commanders—or leave (i.e., pursue a command track career path or risk promotion and reach a retention control point and be forced to leave the service).
It comes as no surprise to me, then, when I heard instructors complain about “unmotivated cyber officers” who “aren’t interested in leadership.” Of course we aren’t! You confused “leadership” and “command”, and then tried to sell an administrative career of planning, briefing, and paperwork to a bunch of junior officers eager to prove themselves at the tactical edge. Of course we don’t want that. Confusing “leadership” and “command”, and then implying (or asserting) that command is the only viable route for officers in this field primes them to leave the military at the first chance they get.
To its proponents’ credit, this is effectively the reality: survivorship bias is strong in a branch dominated by senior officers, warrant officers, and non-commissioned officers who made their bones in other branches, and in which civilian instructors with little experience in cyberspace operations (and none at the junior officer level) provide the majority of institutional education. That does not, however, mean this should be the reality. Officers lead from a base of technical competence, and the absence of that technical competence makes them little more than managers who must rely on positional power (rather than expert power) to accomplish anything. Junior Cyber officers (and most junior officers I imagine) signed up to lead soldiers and to lead them well, not to manage them poorly.
Fortunately, the operational force presents a more positive picture of reality. Our hard-won technical skills are valued. Officers can, in fact, do “cyber things”. There is a role for technical officers in U.S. Cyber Command. Not everyone thinks officers have a single track to success (i.e., the command track). The operational force does reverse the unnecessary disillusionment its training pipeline insinuates by presenting a more positive picture of reality in which technical skills are valued, and in which Cyberspace Operations Officers must understand cyberspace operations just as well as they understand traditional officer functions.
Junior cyber officers are not “unmotivated” and it’s not that they “aren’t interested in leadership”—they’re just not interested in this cherry-picked definition that only allows for a career of administrative command. The way you motivate idealistic junior officers is not by berating them to conform to a system where their unique skills and abilities are not valued. The way you motivate them is by challenging them.
As a new Second Lieutenant, one of my first mentors asked me why officers got paid more. Of course, I had no idea. He told me it was because they did more: officers had to understand every one of their soldiers’ jobs as well as or better than they did, and they had to plan, supervise, and refine operations, and they had to take care of their soldiers. This is the message junior officers need to hear during their initial training – rather than the misguided perspective that everyone needs to be a commander.
1LT Zachary Szewczyk is a Cyber Operations Officer with three years of experience in defensive cyberspace operations. After entering the operational force in June of 2019, 1LT Szewczyk supported or led 15 operations across two battalions, including several high-level incident responses. He also wrote a field manual for defensive cyberspace operations, and wrote several technical white papers distributed across the Cyber Protection Brigade and at the Army Cyber and USCYBERCOM levels. 1LT Szewczyk remains one of the few Senior Analytic Support Officers in the Army, a work role that combines domain expertise, planning, and data science to support decision making at the tactical edge. He writes about adventuring, writing, weightlifting, leadership, and information security on his blog
 Confusing “leadership” with “command” forces officers to take command to prove that they are leaders, and then absolves them of their responsibility to demonstrate leadership outside of occupying a position.
 Confusing “leadership” with “command” also penalizes officers for not taking command despite other, less performative ways in which they may have exhibited similar or even greater leadership.
 Junior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) face a similar dilemma: after reaching E-6 in just a few years, the prospect of spending three-quarters of their careers in administrative roles as senior NCOs does not appeal to many. Here, too, this regrettable dilemma primes many junior NCOs to leave at the first chance they get.
 Distinguishing between a technical and a command track, rather than a leadership track, does make sense given that technical mastery involves years of formal training in complex fields like data engineering, data science, and digital forensics while the latter involves years spent in specific positions to achieve key career milestones in preparation for company, battalion, and brigade command. Both require leadership, and both are (in practice) exclusive given the immense time requirements necessary to remain competitive in each track. This is not a new idea: COL Aimee DeJarnette proposed it in 2019 in In Pursuit of Improved Officer Management, after General Westmoreland proposed multiple career tracks in 1968. And General Reimer did again in 1997. The Army Talent Management Task Force in 2021 proposed exploring dual career tracks for the Logistics branch, given the branch’s status as “both an operational branch and a specialty branch with a high density of technical backgrounds”, but it remains to be seen whether this becomes a feasible route, much less a viable one. Further discussion of this concept, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
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