Career Tips for Leadership for Military Officers


John Howland from posted this career advice. It deserves a wide audience.

Career Tips:

How to get ahead the “smart” and ethical way and avoid running your career aground—

My point of view

by Dick Nelson ’64

1. Always remember and apply the basic leadership trilogy: “Know your Stuff; take care of your people; and be true to yourself.” This one says it all.

2. Keep your head on a swivel. Threats come at you from 360 degrees, especially when you least expect it. Why do you think the Japanese picked a Sunday to attack Pearl Harbor? Review the Japanese and U.S. tactics in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which demonstrate—on both sides—how easy it is to be caught napping by making the wrong assumptions. Remember what happened to USS Stark, USS Cole [Good Plebe questions!] and the World Trade Center. When you stand a watch, the welfare of the ship and the crew (or the Marine unit) has been entrusted to you. That’s why you get the “big bucks.” Don’t let them down.

3. Trust your subordinates, but verify their performance. Corollary: Trust your superiors, but quietly back them up by cross-checking their assumptions, especially in matters of navigation. Cliché: Watch my back, and I’ll watch yours!

Continue reading at the jump.


Thank you (foot)notes:

Be sure to follow Your Business Blogger(R) and Charmaine on Twitter: @JackYoest and @CharmaineYoest

Jack and Charmaine also blog at Reasoned Audacity and at Management Training of DC, LLC.

4. Never quit learning—no one is smart enough to completely master the environment for which he/she is responsible. If you think you know everything there is to know about a professional topic, you are likely to get a nasty surprise.

5. Empower your subordinates, especially in front of their people. Corollary: Never tear your subordinates down in public.

6. Adapt Admiral Lord Nelson’s custom (no relation) of getting input from subordinates before a major operation for which you are responsible. More ideas and points of view can never hurt. Also, the key players are then invested in a successful outcome, and will feel that they have ownership in the results.

7. Be decisive and execute your plan aggressively. However, when conditions change unexpectedly, be flexible and adapt. Always have an alternative, or tactical option. Don’t forget to bring the rest of your team along as you change tactics. Every ball-carrier needs blockers. By the way, all of life’s challenges can be distilled into a football metaphor. Even I know this, and I was cut from Plebe football.

8. Whatever your specialty is, try to learn the fundamentals and terminology of other specialties that are part of the Navy/Marine Corps team. If you are a Marine aviator, spend some time with the Grunts. If you are a Naval aviator, learn how the ship works, and try to get qualified as OOD underway. Don’t be a pest, but be professionally inquisitive. Find out how and why your organization members do things. As you rise in rank, you will need to even understand how the other Services operate and how best to integrate their capabilities into a total force response.

9. Sooner or later, you will find yourself working for a difficult superior. Never criticize that person to anyone, because “a bird of the air will tell the matter,” and you will regret it. Moreover, your criticism will not change anything for the better. Many, if not most of these poor leaders inherently know they have deficiencies, and they don’t appreciate being reminded. If, in your ego-centric moments you really think you are a better officer, there are three things you should do:

a. Talk privately with the superior, and ask him/her how you can improve your performance, and what he/she expects of you, beyond the obvious. Thank the superior for his/her suggestions. This is not “butt kissing.” It merely reaffirms that you know who is in charge, and that you are not going to be pulling in the wrong direction. Even problematic personalities can’t resist seeing themselves as teachers or coaches, and this approach opens the door for a positive relationship.

b. If you see that your superior has problems in some administrative or operational process, take it private again and ask if you can help by taking some of that load. Show that you are sincere in wanting to be a team player. Obviously, you don’t need to say “You’re doing a lousy job, and I can do it better.” Just say, “Sir, with your oversight, I would like to take that problem on.” Examples might be maneuvering in formation, preparation for airborne assault, or in-port ship handling.

c. Always conduct yourself in a manner that shows the rest of team that you are loyal and backing up your superior. Don’t kid yourself—everyone can read your tone of voice, body language and facial expressions as well as verbal content. Whether you know it or not, your Sailors or Marines are always watching your every move.

10. When your troops screw up, stick up for them with your boss when possible, and counsel them in private. As an example, you can earn a lot of loyalty from your troops if you go to Mast with them, and if appropriate, request that they be placed under your direct “probation” supervision instead of having the book thrown at them. If they subsequently let you down, then unload on them as appropriate. This sends a powerful message.

11. Always empower your CPOs or SGTs [non-commission officers]. These people make the Navy and the Corps work. Without them, and their respect and support, you are DEAD, sometimes literally. Try to work through them, especially in personnel matters, and don’t circumvent them, which diminishes their authority with the team.

12. Early on, get your senior non-comms (see above) in a private one-on-one and simply say something like, “I have a lot to learn from you, and I promise you I will be a fast learner. I need you to keep an eye on me until I get some experience.” This sounds like you are abdicating your rank, but the effect is just the opposite. The non-comms will respect you because you are honest, and because you recognize their vital role and experience in the organization. These fine people can keep you out of a world of trouble and make you look good, if they want to.

13. Remember that no one cares about your Academy record after you graduate. In the eyes of the Fleet and the Corps, all graduates are the same: newbies. Just because you were a Regimental Commander, were on the Supe’s List, or were a big jock, save that information to bore your grandchildren. The Fleet and Corps are going to judge each of you only on your current performance as officers, and some of you Academy “stars” are going to have problems with this cruel transition. Life is really unfair. And by the way, the value of a post-graduate degree is debatable, unless you are leaving the Service. If I had my choice for a combat command position between an officer with a Masters and one with superlative years of operational experience, it’s a no-brainer. I want someone who knows which end of the weapons to point at the enemy.

14. Show that you are willing to take more than your share of the tough assignments or missions. This is one of the ways t hat you will form your reputation as an officer. It is also important that your peers see you as a team player, and not just out for yourself and your own image factor.

15. Whatever your specialty is, learn it cold. You should strive to be the best bridge watch-stander, the best engineer, the best pilot, the best navigator, the best weapons officer, the best platoon leader, the best logistics manager, etc. You will never achieve perfection, but you can be the best.

16. If you are the junior OOD on the bridge (or the Marine platoon leader), when you see something going off track, even if the CO ordered it, let someone know in the most appropriate manner. This keeps platoons from getting ambushed, ships from running aground, and aircraft from crashing. Even if your concerns are unfounded, at least you showed that you were paying attention to detail. Better to be embarrassed than stupid and let your entire unit be devastated.

17. Navigation errors are particularly unforgiving, whether you are a Marine platoon leader or an OOD on the bridge. Maintain situational awareness at all times—your life and the lives of your people depend on it. This is not a profession where you can relax and day-dream. If there are two words to live by, they would be “constant vigilance.” Nothing will destroy your credibility faster than getting “lost.”

18. Lend your peers a hand and don’t be a “know-it-all.” Don’t be like that guy or gal in class that quickly raises their hand after every instructor’s question. If you know your Stuff, it will quickly become known and you won’t need to advertise it. Be helpful to peers when they have a problem, and never usurp credit for their successes. Doing favors for others, such as trading watches, etc., will also make your stock go up faster with everyone. Even if you are competing with your peers for advancement, you want them to like and respect you. Your peers can often help your career later in unforeseen ways. Never be a “back-stabber” to get ahead, because that will become part of your reputation.

19. Push hard to get the “career path” assignments. Do everything you can to avoid getting side-channeled. For Navy ship and sub types, staying at sea—especially in combatant ships—is crucial. For Naval Aviators, get every flying billet possible, especially in combat squadrons. For Marines, stay with the Air Wings or the ground combat units. For all, avoid the temptation of taking “Hollywood” jobs like embassy assignments, admiral’s aide, White House or Congressional liaison, or any training command billet. If you want to reach Flag rank, push to always be “at the point of the spear,” or in a major staff that aims it, like the theater commands such as CENTCOM. While it seems like you will be a junior officer forever, remember that you only have a small, finite block of time during your career to amass the necessary professional experience and show what you can do before the big lottery begins at about the O-6 level. Each assignment is of cumulative importance. Don’t waste it on “gedunk” billets that don’t advance your career ball. Who would you want for a battle group commander, an officer that had been Naval Attaché to Liechtenstein, or a hard-charger that had amassed combat experience and excelled at several prior unit commands? What factors would you look for if you were in charge of making important operational assignments and approving promotions? Just like in a NASCAR race, it is very easy to get bumped off the track, into a graveyard assignment. Fight hard, but professionally, for your career assignments. Learn to use your “detailer” at BUPERS to achieve your goals.

20. When you are in a difficult operational environment (e.g., combat), construct a mental playbook of threat responses or tactical engagements. You can’t think of everything, but you can “pre-program” your response and reduce your reaction time as a leader if you have thought through the most likely or most troublesome scenarios. How should I maneuver? What weapons should be employed? Where should my assets be deployed? What logistics issues will arise? What are my communications protocols? What “external” assets are available (armor, artillery, air support, unmanned vehicle surveillance, other force units, etc.)? This is why football teams have playbooks, and adjust as necessary at the line of scrimmage with “audibles.”

21. Learn to play an excellent game of golf. This sounds silly, but it’s absolutely true! In the military, as in the private sector, the game of golf carries a disproportionate influence. It becomes a common denominator and upscale social activity that can be enjoyed by all genders and ranks. You will meet influential people on the golf course that you never would have met otherwise, even if you are a top operational performer. For junior officers, it presents an opportunity to have many hours of informal conversation with Flag or General officers, or civilian government officials. Many important deals have been forged, and professional relationships have been established while playing golf, and you need this skill and exposure! (Sadly, I was a tennis player–and I can tell you tennis doesn’t work!)

Good luck and smooth sailing!


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