Don’t Forget the Tactical and Technical- Building the Tools to Succeed as a Junior Officer
Junior officer leader development programs often have a strong focus on things like character, emotional intelligence, or the interpersonal skills necessary to lead formations or serve on staff. Each of these skills is unquestionably critical, but, due to this focus, the development of tactical and technical competence can sometimes be overlooked. Because of this tradeoff, both junior leaders and those charged with their development need to constantly ask themselves: how am I investing in the technical and tactical skills that are expected of a junior officer? To help me answer that question, I interviewed COL Andrew Saslav, who commanded the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division from January 2019 to January 2021, and is currently on assignment to be the Commander of the Operations Group at the Joint Readiness Training Center.
COL Saslav, Thank you for your time today sir. I’d like to jump right into the central theme of our discussion today: why do you think the technical and tactical part of leader development is under-emphasized and how can we do better?
Over the course of the last 20 years, we began to undervalue doctrine. When I walked out of the Career Course 20 years ago, our tests and evaluations were about doctrinal mastery. Over the course of the Global War on Terror, we began to move away from doctrine and it lost its importance. It goes back to that well-known saying, and I’m paraphrasing, but the Germans would say the Americans had all this great doctrine but would never follow it. That’s the essence of our Army. We saw it on Pacific Pathways, where you interacted with other armies. The South Koreans are a great example. They’d look at something and say “This is not what your doctrine says”. That’s because we’re a doctrinally foundational Army- we don’t execute doctrine, we execute tactics, techniques, and procedures that are based on a common foundation in doctrine. What we need to be technically and tactically proficient is to re-establish the importance of doctrine. And that’s a leader’s responsibility to build that bridge. Leaders and officers in our Army shouldn’t be “winging it”. They should always be doing something based on a doctrinal foundation. Then they apply, this almost cliché, but its not, METT-TC to doctrine. So based on this situation and these factors, “this is what I need to do”. But it’s based on a common understanding and a common factor. Our Army needs to reemphasize that. It should be the foundation of our institutional army and how we evaluate in the operational army.
The current systems we have are really good, but they take more work. And so in my day, I took my MTP, my mission training plan and it had the checklist of how to knock out a bunker, how to do a squad attack. Now I have to go into an Army system, I have to print that out, I have to build my own book. It was just easy for me to reach into my rucksack, because I always had Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, FM 7-8, 7-8 MTP, 7-8 Live Fire, and 7-8 ARTEP. A nested series of manuals, all cargo pocket size that fit into my rucksack and went to the field with me every time. Each told me how to do the basic functions in an infantry rifle platoon and that system existed across our Army. Those things are there now in ATN, but they’re harder to get to, and they’re not readily available, and I think we as leaders need coach junior leaders to dig into ATN and build their resources of training plans. As a company commander, when a Lieutenant came to me with a question, my response started with “Turn around, look at my bookshelf and pull off FM whatever and look up your answer. OK, now do you understand doctrinally with your answer, is?” “Yes sir.” “Alright, now let’s talk about TTPs that we can apply to that.” I think we need to go back to that.
Is there specific, foundational doctrine that you encouraged junior officers to learn?
Well, what are you expected to do? Company grade officer- what does that mean? That means that until you are complete with your key, developmental positions at the O-3 level, you are a branch-specific officer. And your job is to master your job within that branch. Field grade officer- the officer who observes the field of battle and can begin to think about that integration and what each branch brings to the fight. And then you have an army senior leader who plans and synchronizes across our combined forces. So as a junior officer, mastering your craft and the doctrine of your craft is fundamental to what our Army does.
Were there specific areas or skills you particularly emphasized while in command? Be they systems, tactical skills, or other areas that may have atrophied over time?
Decisiveness. You have to make a decision. Leaders make good and bad decisions. Judgment isn’t about being right or wrong. If you’re decisive, you will at some point be wrong. Judgment is about understanding that there are only two factors to decision making- time available and information available. Judgment is knowing how much emphasis to place on both of those. If you consider all the information available, but you make the decision too late, you’ve wasted your time and possibly costed lives. If you don’t take any time, but don’t consider any information- you’ve wasted people’s lives. Judgment is about understanding the balance between those two.
Next, we have to understand the role of risk. That what we do is as commanders, essentially, is balance, mitigate, and accept risk. It is a commander’s main role. As a brigade commander, I never planned anything. I never achieved the decisive point. I never made first contact with the enemy. I never analyzed a single process. Most of the critical factors of a decision were presented to me and had the Military Decision Making Processes applied to them. What I really did was I weighed, mitigate and accept risk. When are in a training environment part of a commander owning risk, is allowing failure. If you want to learn good judgment, if you want to learn to be decisive, you have to try. If you try, you will fail. If you don’t try, you will never truly succeed. The world believes that Edison invented the lightbulb. He didn’t. Edison found a long-lasting filament. He tried hundreds of filaments before finding one that worked. To succeed, you have to try. Leaders have to underwrite the risk of trying to allow for the development of junior officers.
Leaders have to also understand the balance between art and science and whose role is each. At the platoon and company level, you have to learn that balance- again, that doctrinal foundation with TTPs on top. At the field grade level, at the command level at the O-5, O-6 level, you have to understand your position. As a brigade commander, my role was art. A young major, heading to a staff- his or her role is science. My staff provided facts. This balance is much harder at the junior level. You think about the decisions I made at the brigade level. I had 22 years of experience as an infantry officer, all the jobs I’ve had, my fifth command, and all the people I still had to help me make a decision- two majors, two sergeants major, all these staff officers. And then you take a lieutenant, who has months in the Army, right? They’ve got squad leaders and a platoon sergeant, or some NCOs and an NCOIC, and they have a complex problem in front of them. It’s not complex for a colonel, but I have twenty-plus years of experience with these problems. But for someone with six months? That’s why junior officers need to gain the best understanding they can about their craft- it allows them to navigate these problems and to call an audible.
Finally, for company commanders-think about the desired end state. In intent, you have expanded purpose, key tasks, and desired end state. We typically talk about endstate in terms of friendly, enemy, terrain, and civilian population. That should apply to training. If we as leaders talk about mission command, about intent-based leadership, and if everything goes sideways, and you remember that the boss needs our formation to look like X at end state, then we’re going to be okay. So, now look at training- what’s the endstate of this training?
So, sir, this was touched on with decisiveness, but what other unique challenges did you see at each stage of leader development?
At the young lieutenant level, I believe being a platoon leader is the hardest initial entry job that exists. Because really, you don’t know enough. You have this baseline education that is hopefully strong enough and is grounded in doctrine. But what you really lack is experience. You’re now in charge of the very people who will give you that experience. Technically, the company and battalion commanders are the primary trainers for platoon leaders. But who really trains them? SFC John Carpenter was the primary trainer of 2LT Andy Saslav. You are in charge of these non-commissioned officers, masters of their profession, leaders, and teachers who will make you capable of doing your job. So I think a balance of humility and being in charge is key.
We don’t hire lieutenants not to lead their formations. The number one thing you have to do is lead. You have to accept that the people that are going to teach you to master your profession, are those very NCOs you are leading. That’s a hard place to be at. I think focusing on that balance is where you should be as a lieutenant, as a platoon leader. Build that relationship with your NCOs where they know you’re in charge, but they know you want them to make you better and that they are responsible for shaping who you are.
At the company level, I think it is about understanding that you’re not a platoon leader or young lieutenant anymore. A company is not platoon- it’s now about systems. If you want to command, you need to create routine systems to handle routine problems. That’s what frees you up to command. You can and will handle a problem, no matter what- you now have that experience. But if you create a system to handle that problem before it becomes one, you’re going to be able to work it on your time. Shape your time the way you want. When to be at training, when to do leader development, or whatever else your formation needs. Without systems, you will fix problems on someone else’s time, typically your S3 or XO’s, whichever IDs your problem first. Understanding the systems to make a company or staff section run- tactical and administrative- and making routine things routine, will allow you to command. Also, remember to add your platoon leaders into your systems. We often dump everything on the XO and wonder why our systems fail. PLs and PSG have the capacity to help manage company systems.
Another part of command, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t master this until- if I even mastered it- I was a battalion commander, is recognizing that doing things correctly may not be the way you would do it. Your subordinates are going to go out and do something and it’s not going to be the way you would do it. But it is still sound and still meets the desired end state. That challenges leaders and it challenges field grade leaders a lot.
Finally, and this is for all levels, think about transitions. A platoon leader shouldn’t be worried about what’s happening right now. He or she should be worried about the transition for their formation. Think about a battle drill. When I ask what the purpose of a battle drill is, I always get “It’s muscle memory”, “It’s instant action”. That’s what it is, not the purpose. The purpose of a battle drill is to allow a leader to make a decision, to manage a transition. Take react to contact. When a squad receives contact, the team in contact takes automatic steps- return fire, seek cover, report. This allows that squad leader to make a decision about what to do next, about that next transition. Expand that- when you create battle drills for anything, it allows your team to immediately to respond to a problem, so you as a leader can make a decision about the transition that you need to manage.
So, before reaching a unit, what can a junior officer do while at either BOLC or CCC to better prepare?
In addition to what we’ve talked about, [understanding and mastering the doctrine of your branch and grade], read about the profession at your level. There are countless stories out there about leadership at the platoon and company level. It used to be mandatory reading, but sometimes shocking when I walk into a junior officer discussion about the defense and I ask “Who’s read the Defense of Duffer’s Drift” and not a single hand will go up. It’s about a lieutenant learning how to defend. So learn about your profession at your level from the writings of those that have come before.
Next, and this really applies to the Career Course- your peers are now going to have experience. So share those experiences-your experience is going to be singular. CCC is an opportunity to learn how someone in another part of the Army did what you did. The best part of CCC, of ILE, is the interaction at the peer level and the sharing of TTPs. These courses are a chance to not just learn doctrine, but to learn how others have executed that doctrine.
The last thing is to drill in about where you’re about to go. Using the example of the 82nd– if you’re about to come here, and you have not have read FM 3-99 Airborne and Air Assault Operations, you’re behind the power curve. This concept applies across formations- read the foundational documents and doctrine that’s relevant to the unit you’re about to go to. Wherever you’re going, there’s going to be doctrine that can help you prepare.
After getting in the seat, what were the biggest struggles and biggest successes you saw from your population of junior leaders?
I think leaders struggle with planning training. We’re in this habit where everything is supposed to look like a CTC, like a full mission profile. It’s not task training. I think we don’t understand FM 7-0, a very good manual on how to train. We struggle because we have this thing called a METL assessment and we think it’s a tool to brief our boss. We don’t understand it’s a tool to understand the current training level of our unit and what we need to train next. Doing a proper METL crosswalk helps leaders really understand this process.
I also think we struggle with the question of “What do we do for the organization?” Whatever branch or organization you’re in, you have a purpose. Again, going back to my experience- if you’re in an Infantry Brigade Combat Team, you exist to help put an infantry rifle squad at the decisive point. If you’re an Armor Brigade Combat Team, you exist to put an M1 Abrams at the decisive point. Ask yourself- what are you for and why do you exist in your organization. Because once you understand your purpose, you can better shape your formation and your training goals. Leaders come up with great ideas all the time, but they need to be put behind that purpose.
Something that we’re also fighting from the FORSCOM level on down, that the Army itself is working on, is getting out of the check the block mentality. A squad isn’t qualified just because it completed a squad live fire. What type of live fire was it? Was it in a building? Was it knock out a bunker? Did they do it successfully? Did they do it to the standard? It’s not about just doing it, it’s about achieving a practiced level or a trained level of proficiency.
Finally, leaders, and we’ve probably always done this but it’s amplified by military social media, but leaders have to focus on the problems that they can fix. “Those bastards at squad” exist at every level. Focus on your team, and what you can fix there. Because there’s no unit that’s problem-free. Leaders are going to make mistakes. Focus on how can you make the unit you’re responsible for better. Focus on the problems that you can fix and control.
Moving to leader development programs- what leader development programs have you seen are particularly successful? What would you like to see more of?
First, I’d say find a way to synch your LPD program with your upcoming training. That way, leaders have the ability to tie practical application to the lessons they’re learning in the classroom LPDs.
Second, and there’s debate on this, but do LPDs on maintenance and support. You need to grow sustainment expertise outside of sustainment organizations. Your XOs may not know what an ESR (Equipment Status Report) is, what a 5988-E is. Do your LPDs on how to sustain and maintain your type of formation. You’ll see units go to CTCs and platoons say “The BSB didn’t get us water” when reality, your unit isn’t submitting proper LOGSTATs to let the BSB know you need water.
Something else that’s very effective, especially at the lieutenant and squad leader level, is tactical decision games. Get leaders around a table, around a map, and present them with a problem or scenario that they work through together. As a battalion commander, I would make them present the answer as if they were in the scenario. So if the exercise had them geographically separated, they would have to present their solution via radio. The Marine Corps has a great set of these games in the Marine Corps Gazette, so grab them, adjust them for your formation, and execute. These games are a great way to get your leaders in a decision-making mindset and a way to get them to work and communicate together as a leadership group.
We did Tactical Decision Games when I was a Rifle Company Commander, and the discussion alone was worth the time invested.
Absolutely. And you can’t be lazy about it- these exercises aren’t just for maneuver formations. You know, we say things like “The Forward Support Company is too busy turning wrenches” and they’ll figure it when we go to war. No! Get those companies in and have them work through scenarios that they’ll face.
I mean, I think you can expand it to not just tactical decisions, but decisions more broadly.
They’re great for ethical scenarios as well. When General Marshal was the Commandant of the Infantry School in the 20s, he had his leaders write a book called Infantry in Battle. It is a series of vignettes from WWI and his fear was if we don’t share the lessons, we’ll be in trouble in the next war. Now it’s dated, but if you set the stage for your leaders, it’s a great way to look at moral and ethical challenges for combat forces.
I’d like you to share an anecdote from training where you saw a leader grow. What do you think was the catalyst and how can future junior leaders incorporate training iterations like that to better develop their formations?
I thought long and hard about this question. When I was a Brigade Commander we were executing company live fires, the leadership would come to me the day before to backbrief me on the terrain model. The next day, they would execute a force-on-force movement to contact into a blank deliberate attack, day and night. The next day, we did day live and night live. I had a brand new commander and a young, Sergeant First Class filling in as a 1SG. He was a good non-commissioned officer, but he should have been learning to be a platoon sergeant. Instead, he was forced into a scenario because of manning to be a 1SG. He was your typical infantry NCO- hard-charging, smart, but in this case, he was over his head. In the backbrief, it became uncomfortable because the company commander was struggling with how to lead and it was clear he wasn’t confident in himself. Yet, everything that came out of his mouth was correct, but he had zero confidence. That lack of confidence was exacerbated during the first blank run. After day blank, we conducted an AAR and the battalion commander had a good conversation with the commander. The night blank? Worse than the day. So the battalion commander and I talked and we said he is not going to go live tomorrow. Again- it’s not about checking the box. We also did not do an AAR after the night blank.
Instead, we let the company know that there were not going to go live the next day and we were going to give them some time in the morning to do retraining and then redo the blank fires. We also sent OCs at echelon to sit down with the units they had walked and to talk about how to get where we needed to be to shoot live. These OCs also went out to observe the rehearsals and had the battalion leadership go down and lend a hand. I then took the company commander and had a long conversation about leadership. The essence of that conversation was that “I need you to have confidence”. He knew what to do, and we talked at length about it. I also told the battalion commander that before he came to talk to me, he needed to have read the manuals relevant to live fire and company maneuver. This allowed us to guide and frame our conversation and was our starting point.
After both I and the battalion commander talked to this company commander, we executed again. The company just clicked, and what you saw over the next 18 months was continued growth in that young man and in that company. It soared at JRTC and had phenomenal reviews by the OC/Ts. Sometimes you just need to sit your leaders down and just have a conversation. We don’t do that enough. A lot of times, at the point of failure, and even if we don’t mean to, we become hyper-critical of the leader and we suppress their growth. It’s important not to do that and to instead help them achieve success and growth. This lesson is huge for company commanders- remember, your job is to train lieutenants. They don’t show up knowing everything. This also goes for field grades- remember everything that CCC didn’t teach you about command- who taught you? A major. Don’t get down on a company commander for not knowing what to do. Teach them what to do.
I think that sometimes we have an instinct to move past failure as quickly as possible and to not pause at that moment of failure like you did sir.
There are three reasons we fail. The first reason we fail is the one we think is most typical but is almost never the reason we fail. So number one- because the person is incapable or they don’t want to do it. That’s what we blame everything on- “that leader sucks”. It’s rarely the case.
The second reason is that they should not be doing it. That’s also rare, but it exists.
The third reason is why we typically fail, but we never want to account for it because it reflects backward. That reason is that a leader failed to properly prepare us. The problem with accepting this reason for failure is it means I screwed up, not you. As a leader, you have to remember that. When your subordinate fails, chances are you didn’t properly prepare them. Not always, but chances are that’s the reason.
So to follow up on that sir, and to incorporate it into training- how can you lean into training beforehand? How do you assess if you’re ready to execute training?
It’s the eight-step training model. If we’re not prepared, it’s just simply that we didn’t follow it [the eight-step training model]. We didn’t actually prepare leaders, we didn’t train the trainers. We didn’t rehearse, we didn’t do reconnaissance. What’s the last time we did PMI before stepping off for a qualification range? Follow the eight-step training model, and that’ll make training that much more meaningful.
Sir, I’d even say that, and using the example of qualification, that the preparation is almost more important. Qualification isn’t the endstate, and that the preparation will make you better prepared.
The endstate is marksmanship. The endstate is at zero illum, on a ridgeline in North Korea, when you squeeze the trigger, you kill what you intended to kill. Qualification is the starting point. Take the -10 [the operator’s manual]. It’s not about memorizing the -10, it’s about understanding it and using it to maintain his or her vehicle so it’ll crank over and roll into combat.
So, we often hear talk of “focusing on the fundamentals”. Sir, I’d like you to share what that means to you and why it’s important.
To me, it’s task training and a good METL assessment. Understand what your organization is supposed to do, understand the sub-tasks, and train them. Don’t try to put everything into a single training event. Master tasks, first and foremost. That METL assessment should start your training meeting. Look at previous training, AAR it, and then say “Did we actually increase our METL readiness?” If the answer is yes, you move on to the next level of training. If the answer is no, you re-execute that task. That’s what focus on the fundamentals means to me.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for the tactical and technical development of our junior officers?
To me, it’s three things. Two we’ve already talked about- confidence and the willingness to try. The last I’d add is self-study. Junior leaders have to invest time in self-development. Now it is not their fault. We as senior leaders need to build an environment where they can do that. We have to understand that “My way isn’t the only way” and that subordinates will fail. There needs to be a positive environment to lead in. If as a company commander or a field grade officer all you do is talk horribly about “stupid lieutenants”, you’re not building an environment where they want to learn. Create a place where they want to try, want to learn, and gives them confidence. It’s a two-way street and it is not solely that junior leader’s responsibility. In fact, most of the responsibility is on the leaders above them. But as a junior officer? Again, master your doctrine. Learn the technical aspects of your trade. Try, and try new things. Work with your subordinate leaders and have confidence. The criteria to lead as a lieutenant is successful completion of BOLC. Come with the confidence to lead.
What resources would you encourage our junior officers to use?
Get into ATN, the Army Training Network. Get into things like companycommand.com (now CJO- juniorofficer.army.mil), there’s websites and blogs. But in all of those things, remember, we’re a doctrinally foundational Army that executes TTPs. So take ATN, or whatever you’re reading, you have to make it your own, you have to shape it your organization, and it has to fit. It has to fit who you are as a leader and the dynamics of your organization. Have the strength to do that.
Some suggested resources for those interested in learning more about doctrine:
Podcast: Breaking Doctrine
MAJ James McLaughlin is a native of San Francisco, California. He was commissioned in 2010 from the United States Military Academy as an Infantry officer. His career highlights include leading a Rifle Platoon in the 10th Mountain Division during Operation Enduring Freedom XIII, commanding two companies in the 25th Infantry Division, and serving as the Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General, 25th Infantry Division. He is also a 2019 recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. Major McLaughlin is currently a student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he is pursuing a Masters in Public Administration with a specialization in International Security Policy. He will be attending the Command and General Staff College beginning in the Summer of 2021.