The Strategic Development of Tactical #Leadership

Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Braddock was nothing but grateful with how his career had gone so far. Properly mentored as a junior infantry officer, he had succeeded in key leadership positions along the way and was now beginning battalion command. His training and assignment experiences were almost entirely at the brigade level and below, which made him a knowledgeable, confident tactical leader.

Braddock had also once been an avid student of military history and doctrine, but the pace of his self-development had slackened in recent years. Understandably, his free time was going to his three exuberant children, his wife, and her aging parents. He no longer had the mental energy or the margin in life to be as focused on tactical warfighting as he once was.

Then one morning in his office after physical training, Braddock found a moment to scan the latest military headlines: “Army Chief of Staff Speaks on Countering ISIS,” “Soldier Modernization Program Stalls in Congress,” “Defense Secretary to Recommend Pay & Allowance Reform.”

A realization came over him, “I could be dealing with these high echelon challenges in just five short years. And I’m not prepared for any of it.”

To those in most of today’s military career tracks, Braddock’s feeling of unpreparedness would be rational. Today’s mid-level military leaders looking upward at the complexities of future strategic leadership and back at their personal experiences must acknowledge that their current competencies are predominantly tactical. A natural question arises: Should I be preparing for strategic leadership now? This article tackles that question.

A Natural Tension: Growing Upward and Teaching Downward

Each service’s professional military education path gives leaders a glimpse of life at the highest echelons, but brief weeks of schooling is not enough. As they ascend the ranks, those who will lead at senior levels must gain the needed skills from operational experiences, personal mentorship from more senior leaders, and through their own self-development.

Army Leader Development Model

Leaders like Lieutenant Colonel Braddock realize that they must shift their focus of self development to higher echelons as they become more senior; they must "grow upward" into operational and strategic leadership. But growing upward can come at the cost of "teaching downward,” that is, preparing their current organization for success.

Growing upward is a leader’s personal effort to prepare for success in future years, while teaching downward is that leader’s effort to grow those for whom he or she is responsible. The two components compete for the time and mental capacity of the leader and create a natural tension for those who know that to continue leading, they must continue learning. Growing upward can be seen as selfish and career focused, even overly ambitious. On the other hand, teaching downward is selfless and fulfills the leader's responsibility to the profession and their institution as teacher, coach, and mentor.

How then should leaders balance the requirements of developing the current team while preparing to lead future ones?

A Balancing Act

Every hour is a choice, a statement of priorities. And every hour of self-development carries with it the decision to develop some areas and ignore others. Leaders who decide to intellectually prepare for their upcoming years of service must evaluate the terrain to determine what is appropriate for their current job, their station in life, and their goals. They should keep a few principles in mind.

First, leaders must lead at the level to which they are assigned. If in command at the tactical level, like Lieutenant Colonel Braddock, they cannot divert their attention from preparing their unit for its mission. Readiness is a non-negotiable priority. Depending on the strength of that unit’s junior leaders, this may require that leaders spend substantial time personally teaching the fundamentals of tactical competency to the formation. In these instances, it could be inappropriate for the leader to spend his time ruminating on defense spending or the status of civil-military relations. These topics surely have their place, but not at the expense of mission-critical development.

Company and field grade leaders serving at the operational and strategic levels, maybe as aide-de-camp or working on a staff or initiatives group, have a similar responsibility. They must master their current assignment, but cannot ignore the fact that leadership at the tactical level may still await them. These leaders must balance their growth accordingly and avoid getting lost in the lofty ideas of their current assignment. Warfighting expertise, especially in the warfare of the 21st century, demands that leaders regularly revisit the basics. 

Next, when there is room for leaders to grow upward, they must not confuse self-development with unit development. With good reason, for example, the previous Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List separates “Battles and Campaigns” from “Strategy and the Strategic Environment.” The leader’s particular niche of study may not be appropriate for junior leaders and, frankly, might be a waste of time. Imagine a battalion intelligence officer, a finance major in college, spending hours to create a class that explores the various retirement benefit models that Department of Defense is considering. What’s interesting for her is irrelevant for her team members, especially at the expense of their tactical intelligence competencies.

Honest self-assessment is the start of this growth process. Leaders must be objective about their self-development and their unit’s development, asking key questions that include but are not limited to:  

  • What areas of study will improve my capability as a proficient and trusted leader?

  • What knowledge does my team need to fulfill the mission of one and two echelons higher?

  • What distractions can I eliminate from my team’s environment that will allow them to focus on core competencies?

  • What areas should I cultivate for myself (as well as for my team) that will improve my overall effectiveness (i.e. personal/family resiliency, study of leadership, productivity, health and fitness, etc.)?

The leader’s professional development journey should be intentional and designed to achieve specific effects—for both the officer and the institution.

The Intangible Quality

It is safe to say that the institutional domain of leader development, professional military education, cannot alone prepare leaders to achieve strategic success. Self-development is a crucial component of long term service, but so is individual talent. The most successful leaders have the ability to adapt to the environments in which they find themselves, regardless of the echelon. They learn people and processes very quickly, and rapidly adjust to organizational norms, bringing early value to the team. Prior experience and professional schooling are less important for the leaders who can seamlessly reorient to new conditions. One might call this intellectual agility, and although it’s an intangible quality and likely impossible to teach, it might be the decisive factor for career-long success.

Tactical Focus for Strategic Success

Continued service brings with it the obligation to prepare for increased responsibility. The program of professional military education accounts for some of this development, but leaders cannot hope for future success without mentorship and dedicated self-development. Leaders must take charge of this process, but not at the cost of their unit’s readiness. Instead, they would be wise to heed the advice of a senior officer who said, “Lead at your level, think at your boss’s level, and accept that you’ll just have to adapt to everything beyond that.”

Matt Rasmussen has been a US Army Infantry Officer since 2001. He has served from platoon to division level in operational assignments and has had broadening assignments as a Small Group Instructor, Infantry Branch Assignment Officer, and ARCIC Staff Officer.

Andrew Steadman is a US Army Infantry Officer and creator of The Military Leader, a website devoted to helping leaders of all professions grow themselves and their teams. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.

The opinions expressed are their own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Soldiers attending Ranger School learn additional leadership, and small unit technical and tactical skills, in a physically and mentally demanding combat-stimulated environment. (U.S. Army Photo)