Make Room for the Antenna: Three Principles of Performance that Breed Success for Junior Officers
As a freshly commissioned second lieutenant, I needed an updated perspective: one that rooted problem-solving and leadership in principles of longevity and critical thinking. Like the majority of my peers, my goals of success were near-sighted and focused primarily on the twelve to eighteen months I would spend as a Platoon Leader, not the two decades I could spend serving in other roles within the military. Those definitions of success were permanently altered through the mentorship I received from wise officers at my first duty station, who steered me toward three guiding principles that have radically altered in a positive way my professional life. They are (in G-rated terms) “The Three Circles”: Figure Stuff Out, Make Stuff Happen, and Don’t Be Weak.
Like many lieutenants stationed at Fort Benning, GA for their Basic Officer Leader Course, I spent a significant amount of my free time training for follow-on schools. I drove fifteen minutes from a shared apartment to my preferred on-post gym, where I trained for hours each day, fueled by the fear of failing the Army’s hallmark leadership school for young combat arms lieutenants. Upon reflection, what I remember most from those drives to and from the gym was not the anxiety about attending Ranger School, the unknowns of my future duty station, or the wedding preparations my fiancée and I were making. Instead, every day, I would pass by a damaged antenna propped against a building a block away from the gym. If it was fully erect, it would measure thirty feet in height—almost three stories—rising neatly above the row of government buildings that housed a tenant unit on Fort Benning. Instead, it was sawed partially at the middle, with the top half leaning at an angle on the sloped roof of the building. It was apparent after my first few days driving by that the antenna mast was cut to avoid getting tangled in a nearby tree. For almost nine months, the twice-daily sight of the in-use, damaged antenna was one of the more consistent aspects of my life.
Figure Stuff Out (FSO): see the problem, understand the problem, and identify a solution. In the military, the term “three-foot wall” refers to something large enough that it impedes forward progress, but small enough that you can see your objective on the other side. This antenna’s predicament was clearly a three-foot wall. Across the Army, there are countless three-foot walls, each with its specific requirement, protocol, or individual reinforcing that obstacle. Units and personnel are often content to find longer ways around them or to turn back altogether, accepting the consequences of not completing a certain task rather than face the tedium required to overcome the obstacle. It can be easy for a leader to accept what might appear to be an obstacle, especially when there are accepted norms associated with that “obstacle” within the organization. It is imperative that leaders approach each task or problem they encounter with the mindset that they will do everything in their power to solve it at the lowest level. When you apply FSO, it means that you aren’t circling back to your superior every time you hit a three-foot wall. You are instead pushing until mission completion, or until you arrive at a true obstacle and have exhausted every means of problem-solving in your faculties, resources, and connections in a manner that doesn’t violate personal or professional integrity. When communicated clearly to subordinates, FSO is a radically empowering perspective, enabling those that work for you to rest assured that they can pursue complex problem solving freely. Embracing FSO fosters a mentality in those you lead that they don’t have to have a specific rank or level of authority to think critically.
Make Stuff Happen (MSH): take action, don’t accept no, and be the change. Almost every day of a junior officer’s professional life will be filled with exposure to unknowns and unfamiliar problems. A junior officer assigned to the tenant unit on Fort Benning is probably signed for that antenna as a part of their property book, and inventories it every couple of months. Like me, its novelty was probably noticeable to them the first time they saw it, but it is now just an accepted norm. The junior officer’s mere observation of the degraded antenna wasn’t enough – there needs to be action taken for it to change! There are incredible amounts of responsibility and work as a junior officer, and often this daily barrage of information is only new and overwhelming to you: the surrounding soldiers and leaders within your formation have been there for a while. Do you shy away from a problem within a new task, or do you approach it with diligence and disciplined initiative? MSH is not a call to aggressively meddle in your peers’ or subordinates’ responsibility. It is a self-imposed standard that you will assume responsibility for problems in and out of your orbit: that you will seek to find the “yes”, even if that yes isn’t apparent at the outset.
Don’t Be Weak (DBW): be a person of integrity, do what’s right when others aren’t, and press into the task at hand. When military presence and charisma are stressed to young officers, leaders often couch them in terms of physical fitness or gravitas. The temptation when reading “Don’t Be Weak” can be to interpret it exclusively through the lens of fitness. While physical prowess in military leadership is important, too often young officers conflate physical fitness with the mentality underlying disciplined initiative. The third principle is instead a deeper call to live a life of conscientiousness, to steel your resolve towards accomplishing the task before you without bending ethical or moral boundaries. DBW’s mindset reveals that with each passing day that leaders normalize the antenna’s predicament—by inaction or by half-hearted action—greater will be both their resistance to working to remedy it in the future and the likelihood of further entropy. Understood correctly, DBW is the perfect corollary to MSH and FSO: possess personal courage, act with decisiveness, disciplined initiative, and unflinching resolve. Shake off comfort and convention and say to yourself: “Don’t let your will be bent.”
The Three Circles only work in balance. Emphasizing one over the others is what my mentors called a “violation of the Three Circles.” This final perspective is crucial in the Army, where undercurrents of duty stations, Military Occupational Specialties, and units create a distinct brand. Every organization has its own perspective on how someone should look, think, or perform over their career. I’ve seen this often in young Combat Arms officers who rely heavily on their immediacy in executing tasks and their physical capacity (MSH, and adulteration of DBW) at the expense of being critical thinkers, graceful leaders, and humble servants to the Soldiers they work for. Conversely, I’ve been around just as many Combat Support officers that can ascertain countless shades of a problem’s nuance but have difficulty decisively committing to a course of action. These are exaggerated stereotypes to make a point: it takes humility and actively exercised self-awareness to identify how tendencies and the culture surrounding you will cause you to gravitate towards or away from each of the Three Circles. As you identify drift, endeavor to return to the center.
As it so happens, I’m stationed at Fort Benning again. The antenna is still there, and the sight of it while writing this article reminded me that I have drifted in this season of my own professional life (away from DBW, towards MSH and FSO), and could have been a part of fixing the problem instead of just watching it pass me by during my commute. My charge is this: make room for the antenna. A degraded solution is never better than crossing a three-foot wall for a fully operational capability. Relocate it somewhere else on the unit’s footprint to get better signal. Reconnect it securely in its center and schedule routine trimming for the tree’s outermost branches. Conduct methodical care of ancillary communications equipment and order replacement parts. The list of solutions is almost endless, but they all start with an updated perspective.m
Ironically, the antenna was adjusted while I completed the edits to this article, and I noticed it driving to work one morning. Where is it now you ask?
It’s cut in half entirely, leaning against the wall in the shadow of its nemesis, the tree.
Geoff Logan commissioned into the U.S. Army in 2017 from the University of Arkansas and served as a tank platoon leader and infantry company executive officer at Fort Riley, KS, deploying in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. He now serves with the 75th Ranger Regiment as the Regimental Military Intelligence Battalion’s Chief Technical Officer.