From an enlisted point of view, what separates a good officer from a bad officer?

Posted 30 May 2017.

“Sir, I would follow you down the barrel of a loaded cannon.”

I have given this compliment to many officers, and as one of the grizzled NCOs they implicitly trusted, they understood that not only had I meant it, but I would do it.

“Mike, how do I set myself up for success when I get to my first unit?”

[Looking at my nearly-empty glass of Scapa] “I’m gonna need more Scotch.”

Ask for it by name… (Source: author.)

This was a question posed to me by a 2LT, fresh from Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course and about to head to his first duty station. The rant that followed consumed over half of my bottle, included profanity-laced points of emphasis/reminders, and enough use of the infamous “knife-hand” that I probably looked like some errant martial art toy.

In both cases, these are examples of what separates a good officer from a bad one – the ability to instill loyalty and confidence, as well as the humility to ask for improvement. A while ago, I wrote a blog about the four human qualities which were important for leadership – “empathy, charisma, duty, and ethics.”

A good officer will know himself/herself enough to know where they are solid in these areas, and a great officer will know where they need to improve in these same areas. A bad officer will do the opposite – they will focus on their strengths at the sacrifice of their improvement and a horrible officer will insist that they are perfect in all areas.

As far as my perspective, a good/great officer relies on his NCOs and does not get in their way if they are doing good by the men, mission, and leadership. The good/great officer will listen to his NCOs as well as the men, and hold those who are abusing their position and/or trust accountable (specifically, document the canine feces out of the sub-performers and folks that think that they are untouchable due to personal connections and/or rank).

I say again: The good/great officer will listen to his NCOs as well as the men, and hold those who are abusing their position and/or trust accountable.

If you listen, the troops will talk. Find that “grizzled NCO” who people trust and respect, take him out for a drink, and ask him/her the same question. Bring a notebook, and remember one simple thing:

If you need that [firmly thumping your rank] on your collar to lead, then you are probably doing it wrong.

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