Updated on October 14, 2011
Secret of My Success
Okay, I get a bit tired and pissed at people within and without the Army who point to my time in service as a discriminator for disagreeing with me. So, I’m going to do something I hate to do, but in a way that I hope will help others do what I did – I’m going to talk about me. As I talk about my successes in the Army, I want to put something up front. I did not get where I am entirely through my own efforts. I’ve been blessed with great Soldiers who were intelligent and dedicated to the missions we were given. They were brave, motivated, and honorable in everything they did. Frankly, I could have done EVERYTHING right in my career, but I would still not have been promoted without them.
BE A GOOD FOLLOWER
You also can’t be a good leader if you’ve never been a good follower. I firmly believe that. As leaders, we aren’t always right and it’s absolutely essential that we lead in a manner in which we can recognize that someone else has a better way than ours. I’ve never been afraid to take a subordinate’s or leader’s advice that made sense, even if I completely disagreed with the manner. I have learned a lot through those actions and changed my own ways of doing things because of it.
There are probably some Soldiers reading this that desire to make the Army a career and would like some advice on how to make this a career and get promoted to the highest ranks in the process. Keep in mind that my advice has worked for me and is not a guarantee in any way. However, I’m very confident that the tools I’m about to lay before you will help you succeed.
To be a good Soldier, you have to be a well-rounded Soldier. As NCOs, we emulate what is called the “Be-Know-Do” attitudes. The Army has a set of values that define the kind of Soldier (and Leader) we should BE: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (LDRSHIP). We should KNOW our jobs, our Soldiers, our missions, our equipment, our standards, etc. What we DO as leaders carries more weight than anything we say. We learn more by serving in many different positions and doing many different jobs (more on this later).
GO ABOVE AND BEYOND
The secret of my success started with the attitude that anything worth doing is worth doing right the first time to the best of my ability. I haven’t always been the best at a task, but I always did MY best. For example, I was usually the last one done with the PMCS (maintenance) of my vehicle because I went step by step according to the manual. I got dirty looking under my truck and trying to find every possible deficiency I could find and correct it. The hut on my truck where all my electronic signal gear was racked was always the cleanest hut in the platoon. After every mission, I spent a great deal of time ensuring that everything was where it should be and as clean as I could possibly make it. I even used Armor-All on my tires that I purchased with my own money so that my truck looked better than everyone else’s.
When I had free time, I challenged members of my squad or platoon to physical fitness competitions. Not only did this instill a sense of team, but it also helped my squads and platoons to improve their physical fitness. Their goal was always to beat SGT Grisham at push-ups or sit-ups or the run. We took turns on push-up bars knocking out 25 push up at a time until someone fell out and then kept going until the last person was left – often me. Because of this, it was a rare day that my squad and I didn’t max the push-up events. Every Monday, my squad and I ran up a nearby mountain for PT. We were always the last one done with PT on Mondays because it was such a long route. But, my squad was usually the fastest.
There’s nothing that speaks about who you any more than your output. When I was given a task, I ran with it. I didn’t just accomplish the task, but I frequently found ways to add to it. As I accomplished a particular task, I’d see other things that needed to be done that weren’t necessarily my job to do. For example, if a fellow Soldier in another squad or platoon was changing out the radiator in their HMMWV, I would help them so they could finish earlier. My Soldiers frequently found themselves helping others because we were focused. We did what we were supposed to as efficiently and quickly as possible. Many times, no one could leave until everyone was done, which meant we always seemed to be doing our jobs AND helping others with theirs. I’ve always said that one’s success lies in how much they help others achieve theirs.
ENFORCE THE STANDARDS
Standards in the military are important, especially at the junior Soldier level where individuals are still learning to shift from civilian to military life. Standards do not discern between rank and I’ve often enforced that in my Soldiers. Wrong is wrong, period. Throughout my career, many people have told me that I need to “pick my battles”. I would always respond, “I do pick my battles. If it’s wrong, I pick it.” There are no degrees of wrong in my mind, just right and wrong. Likewise, there are no degrees of right. So, when I saw someone that outranked me doing the wrong thing, I called them on it. Naturally, part of good leadership (and followership) is tact!
One day at Fort Irwin, I was driving down the road and I noticed a Soldier running down the road in his PT uniform with his shirt untucked. As I always do, I pulled up next to the individual and kindly asked him to tuck in his shirt.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No, but you still need to tuck in your shirt,” I responded.
“I’m Major XXXXX.”
“Sorry, Major XXXXX. You need to tuck in your shirt, sir!”
This might seem trivial to some, but when we talk about standards, they apply to all. He was perturbed but he couldn’t do anything to me because I was right and he was wrong. A story I love to tell is when we were in Kuwait prior to invading Iraq. Soldiers that worked in the secure areas of camp had badges that gave them access to those areas. It is Army policy to treat all badges that give access to classified information with the same protection as the information to which it gives access. Therefore, when you leave the area, you are supposed to remove your badge and place it in your pocket or under your shirt. This way, you aren’t identified as a potential target as someone with access to classified information to the enemy. It also protects the badges from unauthorized duplication. It was a fun game for my team to compare who had corrected the highest ranking individual. At the time, I was in the lead after correcting a full-bird Colonel.
Around Christmas time, a 4-star general visited our camp. I can’t remember his name. My troops were in formation and the General was going down the line after his speech shaking hands. When he got to one of my Soldiers, he noticed that the General was still wearing his badge outside the secure area. He asked him if realized he still had his badge out. When he said he did, my Soldier asked him to put it away – politely, of course – when outside the secure area. The general did and I never did find anyone outranking a 4-star general violating that policy. Wrong is wrong, regardless of rank. If you want to be a good NCO, you have to enforce the standard.
To understand what the standard is, you have to educate yourself. Back in the day, the only way to get regulations was to visit the MOS library on post visit the free pubs table. Each time I went there, the library had different publications. If I didn’t have a copy, I picked one up and I read it. I educated myself about what the uniform policy was, what the safety policies were, what the training requirements were, what the language policies were, what awards policies were, what APFT standards were, etc. I became a trusted source of information. I even read the entire the MCM while we were downrange. Boring? Yes, but I knew my stuff. I knew what was and was not allowed by regulation. This made me a more effective leader. And if I didn’t have an answer, I found it.
This is also important for when you have to defend yourself against people who are envious of your success and want to bring you down. My father always told me, “as long as you’re doing the right thing, you’ll never have anything to worry about.” It’s true, but doing the right thing doesn’t mean you won’t have conflict. By knowing your left and right limits, you can respond to people who want to bring you down. They may not like the way you do things, why you do things, what you believe, what you say (or what you blog about), but if you know the rules and you stay within the limits they prescribe everything will work out in the end. You won’t always make people happy even if you always do the right thing.
However, you always support your chain of command and leaders. It’s important to the military way of life that we don’t undermine our leaders. People die when we second guess our leaders without good cause. Just because a leader made a bad decision about one thing doesn’t mean they can never be trusted. They got where they are for a reason. Instead of constantly fighting against those individuals, find ways to strengthen them. Don’t challenge them in public, but definitely speak to them one on one about any issues you may have. Regardless of the outcome, always support their decisions – again, as long as their ethically, morally, and legally sound. I have had my share of poor leaders, but I always supported them. You never complain down, but should always complain up when you feel something isn’t right. And when you complain up, make sure no one at the bottom is present. Explain your case until you’re blue in the face and if the leader still tells you that the office needs to be painted plaid and you can’t park in a particular lot – execute!
VOLUNTEER FOR SOLDIER/NCO OF THE MONTH BOARDS
Having all that knowledge, I decided to start going to the Soldier/NCO of the month boards. Initially, I didn’t do so good. I was able to answer the questions, but was still nervous in front of board members. Eventually, I learned to relax and kept going back until I won. I would continue through the various level of boards until I lost, then started over from the beginning until I was eventually named the Post NCO of the Quarter. I didn’t do it the first time, but I never gave up. This set me apart from my peers. It also helped me on my promotion boards. When it was time to go before a promotion board, the members of the board had already seen me numerous times. I only had to do facing movements and usually just answer one question and I was dismissed with maximum board points. If you really want to get promoted, you have to put yourself out there and set yourself apart from your peers.
As an unintended side effect of winning all these boards, I was awarded Army Achievement Medals. Those gave me even more points and would later serve to help me on my centralized, senior NCO promotion boards. But, awards and boards alone won’t do it.
When I joined the Army, I seized the opportunity to make up for my lackluster performance in high school. School bored me growing up. I did very well on tests, but rarely did homework and didn’t respect my teachers. Because of this attitude, my barely graduated. I just didn’t apply myself. I vowed to change that in the Army.
When I was in basic, I was the longest serving Platoon Guide because I was motivated and my platoon was frequently the best at every task. When I went to Language school in Monterey, California, I graduated at the top of my class. Same with Advanced Individual Training (AIT). When I went to PLDC, I went with the goal of learning as much as possible and didn’t waste one day of my month of hell! The Basic NonCommissioned Officer Course (BNCOC) was frequently called “BeerNoc” because many NCOs used it as a social opportunity. Not me. I was nerdy and studied hard. If I had time after my studies, THEN I’d hang out with my classmates. Same with the Advanced NonCommissioned Officer Course (ANCOC). As a result, I received “Exceeded Course Standards” bullets on all but one phase of my training (I missed it by .1% GPA). I also go “Excellence” blocks in all my rated areas at school. I graduated the First Sergeant Course with a 100% GPA and top block.
I say this because if you plan on making the Army a career, it’s important that you seek that top block in EVERY course that issues a 1059 (course evaluation). I honestly think that one of the main reasons I got promoted so quickly was because I excelled in all my leadership courses. It’s one of the few places where one can really set themselves apart from their peers.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR TROOPS
While you’re doing all that, don’t forget your troops! THEY are the reason for virtually everything I do. My Soldiers know right from wrong. I don’t treat them like robots. I lead under the philosophy that an educated and informed Soldier is a more productive Soldier. Not many leaders feel that way. Many leaders intentionally keep information from their subordinates because they just want them to do what their told. I want my subordinates to do what their told AND understand why they’re doing it. And if there isn’t a good reason for why they’re doing something, I make sure that they see me doing it along with them. We do a lot of stupid stuff in the Army simply because some fairy thought it was a good idea! Their good ideas tend to make me and my troops work harder for absolutely no reason.
There will come a time when Soldiers have to do stupid, nonsense things. My job is keep them motivated and accomplish the task, not pretend it’s a good idea. A good leader – and Soldier – does what he is told to the best of his ability whether he agrees with it or not. We don’t have to agree with everything (or anything) we’re told to do. But, we do have to do it as long as it’s not ethically, morally, or legally wrong. Again, this is where I differ with many people.
Many still think that they have to put on this front of agreement to get Soldiers to accomplish a task. This, of course, is a fine line. Obviously, you don’t want to disrespect the leaders responsible for such stupid decisions and undermine their authority as I mentioned earlier. The key is in education. The Army definition of leadership is the ability to influence Soldiers to accomplish a task by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. Too frequently, that definition is lost on us as leaders.
SEEK CHALLENGING POSITIONS
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with NCOs who actively seek easy jobs. I’ve been promoted past those individuals who have more time in service than I do. Why? Because I’ve never settled for the easy route. I’ve constantly sought positions that challenged me. When I got comfortable with a position, I sought after something else. Every MOS has a career progression chart that they can consult with a list of positions recommended for promotion to the next level. Treat that like a professional bible. Get out of your comfort zone and seek any and every opportunity you can to become a well-rounded Soldier. Often, it’s easy to fall into the rut of wanting to be the best at a particular job and sticking around until you are. A good NCO is not a master of anything, but a jack of all trades. You don’t have to have all the answers. Once you get to the E8 or E9 level, you will be dealing on the macro level and if your experiences or jobs were limited, you won’t be a very effective counselor.
If you are a non-combat arms Soldier, seek tactical and strategic (*shiver) positions. Seek special assignments and tough jobs like recruiter, instructor at a service school, observer/controller at a Combat Training Center, or drill sergeant. Don’t stay too long in one place or you will stagnate. It’s okay to stay at one duty station as long as there are many different opportunities there for you. For example, at Fort Irwin you can serve in the Regiment and then request to be transferred to Operations Group as an O/C or garrison if a position is available.
DON’T GIVE UP
Unfortunately, you can do all these things that I’ve suggested and more and still not get promoted to the senior NCO or Officer ranks. Unfortunately, the higher you get, the fewer slots there are with more people competing for them. But, if you strive to be the best at EVERYTHING you do, your chances will greatly improve that you will be one of those few to get selected. And if you aren’t, keep doing the best you can and applaud those around you that move ahead in the game. Envy, never got anyone promoted either. Constantly strive to be a better Soldier. While you’re at it, help those around you as well.