20 Rules for Newly Commissioned Officers
by Mike Kelvington
You are about to embark on the beginning of your career. I wanted to share some things I’ve learned through either experience or observation to “put in your ruck sack” as you start BOLC, Pre-Ranger, and beyond.
These don’t just apply to getting your Ranger tab. They’re some words of encouragement and wisdom that hopefully you can instill without having to relearn them in your career. Best of luck on your future endeavors.
- Remember why you joined the Army. A Medal of Honor recipient once said that “it’s not because of how much you hate the enemy, but because of how much you love your fellow Soldiers.” Don’t ever forget that it’s all about the people, especially the one’s you’re responsible for. You take care of your guys, and they’ll take care of you (Read The Men, The Mission, and Me if you need someone who knows to elaborate).
- Be a good dude. This sounds like a laid back, informal phrase, but it’s one of the best compliments you can get from your peers, superiors, and subordinates alike. How you can be a “good dude”: be confident but not cocky, be strong but not overbearing, be a leader but also be a listener, put the heavy object in your rucksack that no one else wants to carry, let your Ranger buddy sleep 15 minutes past the time you were supposed to wake him up for fireguard, treat everything like a game of survivor-but unlike the TV show, it’s not about being the “king of the hill” it’s about how many people you can carry with you to the top, combat is a team sport.
- Be the moral compass. Your guys will expect it, and ultimately respect it. When your radar goes off, take action, say something, be the LEADER, and take charge of whatever situation needs addressed, NOW. (It wasn’t all rhetoric that was being spouted at West Point, there’s a reason why some curriculum has stood the test of time, and why quotes are carved into stone.) (See: memorials of old dead guys).
- Trust your instincts. Go with your gut. See point 3 for the conscience stuff, but also trust the voice in your head, and especially the things that have happened (or are about to happen) that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You MUST be responsive to that natural instinct. It may be the sign of your unit assuming too much risk in training, or may be the moment right before an ambush. (Think about that crack block in football you knew about right before it happened that your mind saw before your eyes). Use your head and common sense. There are times to be strong Ranger, but it’s typically best to be smart Ranger.
- Be Joe Cool on the radio. Regardless of the situation, whether it be getting yelled at by a Ranger Instructor or you’ve got live rounds cracking over your head, think about what needs communicated, take a deep breath . . . then key the hand mic. Confidence is not instilled in your formation with an excited tone of voice. Nobody likes a screamer or a fast talker on the net.
- You will fail, make mistakes, screw up, feel embarrassed at times. Get over it. We all do. How do you recover? Do you hang your head in shame and roll over and die, or do you put that much more effort into reaching your endstate? The choice is up to you. (Read Roberts Ridge)
- Losses will come; nothing cuts to the core more than that. Here’s how you overcome it: “The soldier who has died due to the failure of his officer is a crime before God. So study hard young lieutenant. Prepare yourself well. Burn the midnight oil so that in your old age you will not look down at your hands to find his blood red upon them.” –Gen. Patton . . . it’s the only way to overcome blame, survivor’s guilt, and the ability to lay your exhausted head on a pillow at night knowing you trained yourself and your men as hard as you could, and were as prepared as possible in the moment.
- Focus on the basics. Do all the little things right. There’s always a tendency to chase shiny objects, add too much onto the calendar, and to compete with your peers, but at the end of the day, if your guys can do all the basics right, you have a foundation to build off of. Otherwise, your unit will never have a start point or baseline to go back to when you falter. Execute them with repetition, retrain until it’s right, and enforce the standards required to accomplish the mission without cutting corners. (During Pre-Ranger Read: Ranger School: No Excuse Leadership)
- Be quick to give credit to subordinates when superiors want to praise your formation, but be the first to accept responsibility when things don’t go your way. Own it, deal with it, and learn from it, warranted or not. Life’s not fair, neither is war or the way the Army is run. No whining.
- Find someone as strong-willed and optimistic (or more) than you are, snap link into that guy, and become best friends. Hold each other accountable, don’t let each other slack, let iron sharpen iron, and work together to reach your common goals. Some of my best friends (and some of the most successful classmates that I know) are ones I went to IOBC and Ranger School with. And bonds like that pick up right where they left off years later, in garrison, out on the town, or in a dangerous place overseas under night vision. (Read: The Long Gray Line)
- Servant leadership will serve you well. Serve chow to the men, eat last, be the first one to the office, counsel your men. They want your feedback, good or bad, so they know where they stand and how they can improve. Then tell them how they can get better, or personally work with them to get them to the next level. PT with your men, shoot with them, burn their shit in the patrol base. (See: Jesus in the Bible)
- Get to know your troops. Time is always our most precious commodity. Visit them in the guard tower, get them to talk about home, write letters to their families. If you need to be told why, see points 1 & 7. Ultimately, you have to understand that everybody is motivated in different ways, they were raised differently, come from different backgrounds, and respond to different types of leadership. It’s not your subordinate’s job to adapt to your leadership style; it’s your job to know what approach reaches each individual in the appropriate manner. This isn’t easy, and with everything else, it takes time.
- Have fun. You set the tone for your organization. Yeah, everybody loves the to talk about the guy who’s “harder than woodpecker lips” but the Army doesn’t always have to suck. It’s your job to motivate your men, find out what makes them tick, and redirect that energy towards mission accomplishment.
Take care of yourself, especially your mind and your feet. Points 1-13 make this tough to do, and I have failed at this miserably. Start paying attention to this now so that when you’re 31 it’s as easy to roll out of bed than when it was when you were 21. Unfortunately, I never listened to this advice, so do yourself a favor and learn from me on this one. Sometimes you have to do a bit more than “take a knee and drink water.” Talk to somebody, go to physical therapy, do more than pop pills and try to find a remedy at the bottom of a 12 oz. can.
- Listen to your senior NCOs. They won’t lead you astray as a collective brain trust. They know that if you fail, they fail. The good ones will NEVER let this happen. But also, don’t be afraid of them. You’re still the Leader, but remember the reference earlier about the team sport concept. I didn’t put this low on the list to minimize its importance, but rather saved it as a “best for last” lesson.
- Alcohol will not solve your problems. I’ve seen more people ruin their career over this than probably anything else. It leads to bad decisions. If you drink, exercise moderation. I could’ve used this advice more than once in many different settings. ‘Nuff said.
- Remember that there’s always an enemy of the United States that’s training and plotting to kill you, your men, and the freedoms that they hate about America. He never goes on R&R, never has mid-tour leave, never PCS’s, hardly ever sees his family, and would never have mercy on you. Never let HIS determination outweigh yours and be the tipping point in the battle. See point 7 and burn the midnight oil. A wise SF officer once told me, “War is 10% combat and 90% everything else, but you can never lose that 10%.”
- No matter how successful you are in your career, your family should be a priority. When the music stops and you end your Army career, all you’ll be left with is a shadow box with a flag and some medals, and hopefully your family. This, along with everything else, takes time, so use it wisely.
- Don’t ever try to “go it alone.” Remember that you always have a host of people that love and support you, regardless of the outcomes. In specific order, God, Wife, Family, and Friends will get you through anything. Spiritual wellness has been one of the things that have gotten me to this point in my life and career, although it took me a while to figure this one out. When life gets hard, you’ve always got someone there, whether it be God, your Ranger buddy, your spouse, your classmate, or close air support. When you need it, lift up your concerns in prayer, pick up a phone and call a friend, or key the hand mic and call for fire . . .
- When you know you’ve hit the sweet spot for training, leading, and living . . . fire for effect!
These are some of the BIG ROCKS that should save you some heartache and pain in BOLC, Ranger School and in your career.
Rangers Lead The Way!
PS- This message is unclassified, so feel free to share with your buddies if you want. There’s no “list of works cited” in a patrol base, collaboration is optimal.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal July 4, 2015.
Mike Kelvington grew up in Akron, Ohio. He is an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army with experience in special operations, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations over twelve deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a Downing Scholar, and holds masters degrees from both Princeton and Liberty Universities. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or DoD.
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