Reflections On Being a Colonel

It is colonels who really run the Army, and it is tough to earn promotion to this rank. I know, as I was passed over the first time considered for promotion. I was one of two armor officers selected above the zone for colonel on the 2000 U.S. Army promotion list, and, in reflecting on that time, I thought I should write about the advice I received prior to pinning on the rank and share some lessons I learned along the way. I offer these thoughts in the spirit of a retired soldier passing knowledge on to those still in uniform. Much of what the military does is shaped and pre-decided by colonels; the final decisions come as a result of the few slides a council of colonels present to General Officer Steering Committees. What colonels must know and do is important.

Shortly after the colonels’ list was released, I had the good fortune of meeting with one of the brigade commanders in my division, a colonel nicknamed “Stumpy.” Stumpy shook my hand and gave me some advice on how to be a colonel. He told me four things: remember, he said, colonels outrank 98 percent of the people in the Army—so people will treat you differently, and, because you wear eagles, people will assume you can solve their problems. Finally, he noted, people will think that because you are a colonel you will somehow be able to be blunt—“to speak truth to power,” as he related—even if you are in the hunt for your first star.

I reflected on these observations and decided I would not be a too-full-of-myself full bird, that is overly impressed with wearing the eagle insignia of rank. When you pin on the colonel’s eagles, you make the transition from being a doer to being a guider. This does not mean colonels do not have the technical or tactical expertise required of subordinate officers, non-commissioned officers, soldiers, or civilians. Far from it. It simply means there are times when colonels should not do things themselves. It is not only a bad idea, but it also professionally not acceptable to the unit due to the specific roles colonels occupy in command and general staff positions.

The late Major General Aubrey “Red” Newman wrote a column for Army magazine in the 1970s and 1980s in which he described what he called “planned leadership.” One of the actions he took in preparing to lead his regiment into combat was to instruct his headquarters company commander on his personal schedule: when he would get up in the morning, when he would eat breakfast, how he took his coffee, and so on. Newman did this so his subordinates knew what the colonel expected and to free himself of these concerns. He viewed his job as preparing his regiment for combat, not getting mired in the day-to-day details of living—someone else could do that.

One thing I learned as a colonel is that sometimes leading by example includes asking an expert—someone who is almost always younger than you—for help. It could be a somewhat uncomfortable moment, though it need not be. Asking an expert to help is not an admission of weakness, but an act of humble leadership. It suggests you are approachable, open to suggestion, willing to learn, and not afraid to be instructed by someone who actually knows more than you do about a particular subject. To be clear, military problems are not always new problems, but the conditions under which we operate often are. This means colonels must recognize that while they are not always the smartest person in the room, their rank requires they find that person and empower them. While this is true of all military leaders to a degree, a colonel’s senior rank has the potential to shut down other voices more dramatically than that of more junior officers. A colonel also has the responsibility of representing subordinates to general officers, which means you will have to tell the general your subordinate knows more about something than you do. Do not be uncomfortable. Recognizing excellence in others is one of the reasons you are a colonel.

The colonel, acting as a guider more than a doer, has to actually give guidance and depend on others for the doing. But colonels must learn how to do this, and well. Raising your voice or losing your temper is not giving guidance: that is venting your anger and frustration and should have no place in your leadership. A colonel cannot be an ‘I know what I want when I see it’ type of leader, an officer who cannot give guidance and just shouts until his subordinates stumble across something to please him. There are plenty of senior officers who are like that now, one more of them will not help our military. A good colonel must have an ability to listen to and translate a general’s ideas and concepts into viable guidance for subordinates, especially those who might not be in the room when those in the stratosphere hand down their requirements. While a colonel must understand she might not be the smartest person in the room, it is equally true people will come to you expecting answers. Carrying the expectation that you will know what to do requires maintaining balance between answering a question and empowering the correct person to answer.

Frequently those who achieve the rank of colonel have perfectionist tendencies. This makes intuitive sense as our Army; through their ability to do things well at lesser grades, they are rewarded for their perfectionist bent through promotion. Once promoted, however, the scope of their responsibilities increases dramatically. Thus, attention to detail and the ability to work and rework a single idea until every word has been scrubbed, parsed, and minutely examined becomes a trap turning formerly good lieutenant colonels into micro-managing and inefficient colonels. Colonels, like all Army leaders, are responsible for managing their organization’s most precious resource, the time and energy of its members. Colonels who delude themselves into believing everything they are responsible for can be executed at the 99.9% level of perfection are engaging in fantasy. Colonels own the responsibility for assuming risk for the organization, and risk is often manifested by accepting an 80% solution and moving on. Holding on to perfectionist proclivities as a colonel is a conceit the organization simply cannot afford. A colonel’s lane is bigger.  

Colonels make corporate decisions regarding what generals see before taking decisions for the Army. This is the so-called "council of colonels" method of making corporate decisions. Another wise man, a general officer, once told me there are issues, concerns, and problems that come up in the decision cycle in the Army. Issues are dealt with at the lowest level possible, the daily work of the Army. When issues cannot be resolved, they become concerns and rise to the level of the colonel or council of colonels. The colonel’s role is to ensure that concerns do not become problems, and, if one does rise to the level of problem, all sides of the problem are scrutinized and presented to generals for resolution and decision. I do not believe this is commonly known, and most colonels stumble in to this realization.

In this sense, colonels serve as the bridge between the highest-level executives in the military, the generals, and the doers of the institution. As problems flow up, so solutions flow down. Colonels must translate what generals say into executable tasks for the organization and correspondingly translate what the majority of the institution sees, thinks, writes, and believes into something the corporate level leadership can and should act on. This demands extraordinary levels of effort, but it is precisely the right kind of work for colonels—they are the ones with the right range of experiences, both tactical and corporate, to handle the work. The truth is that the vast proportion of what the military does is shaped and pre-decided by colonels; the final decisions come as a result of the few slides a council of colonels present to General Officer Steering Committees. These committees decide on priorities for budgets, programs, and policies—but very often the details have already been worked out by the colonels; they are pre-decided.

Because a majority of colonels’ careers are behind them as the promotion point for colonel comes at around the 18th to 20th year of a 30-year career, whereas subordinates have most of their careers ahead of them, they are morally obligated to shape the careers of those on the way up. Acting as a mentor to subordinates does not mean coddling and handholding. Colonels demonstrate leadership by listening, acting decisively, enforcing standards, giving orders in one’s name, not giving unenforceable orders, and not putting subordinates in that position through poor guidance. Colonels must still lead by example. Colonel Doug Tystad shared a maxim with me: “Don’t let the fog of battle begin with the commander’s intent.” Colonels must think before they open their mouths, because people will do what the colonel directs.

One final observation is this; be humble; you might be the latest example of the Peter Principle. As Stumpy pointed out to me, colonels have tenure and can serve for 30 years. The protection of tenure means colonels are obligated to speak truth to power, even if they are in the hunt for command and a star. Tenure carries great perks, but also carries the responsibility to speak up since the Army is a colonel’s lane. The event might never come but some colonel somewhere will face the situation of either being right or being promoted. Your career legacy really consists of how well the people you touched perform after you hang up your spurs and head to the Old Soldiers’ Home.

Kevin Benson retired as a colonel in 2007. His final assignment was Director, School of Advanced Military Studies. He gratefully acknowledges the editing support of Mark Perry, and the suggestions of Colonels (Retired) Greg Fontenot and Steve Leonard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Rank Insignia (Wikimedia)