This article by Robert Deppa originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
Commanding a company comes down to the ability to lead and failure is easy if you can’t build a professional unit. After 26 months in command, I’ve compiled a list of lessons learned to help captains waiting their turn to take a company. These key takeaways can help build a blueprint for success in your command time; ignoring them can lead down a path of certain frustration.
1. Be professional in appearance and conduct.
It’s a simple concept, but, amazingly, a lot of officers fall flat here. When you walk in the door on day one, after passing that Guidon, you don’t have to be the fastest runner or lift the most weight, but you’d better not be overweight. You also need to set the standard in all areas of conduct, especially in ethics. If you do one thing unethically, or fail to enforce the standard, then the entire unit will use that as an excuse going forward.
2. Never stop developing leaders.
One of my favorite sayings is that there are only two types of people in the Army: leaders and those training to be leaders. This is absolutely paramount to building a good company. As a commander you should seek to fill your unit with soldiers and NCOs that buy into a winning philosophy and want to learn. I stressed leader development with my junior NCOs and officers and mandated professional reading and article writing. Above all I sought to create an environment where leaders at all levels could voice their ideas, enabling them to aid in problem solving.
3. Know the job.
I was also very strict on knowing the job. Platoon leaders were expected to know tactics, not from a rote memorization standpoint, but to enable quick decision-making while conducting operations. I also took time to write OPORDS and deliver them to my lieutenants in garrison; I would then use the orders as scenarios for training events. This allowed the company to consistently demonstrate a mastery of tactics, which gave us great credibility when working with foreign forces.
4. Property is your job.
One of your most important roles as a commander is the primary hand receipt holder. You should sign everything down to lower levels, and check on property weekly. It can be a tedious process, but remember that this is a leadership function. Good property management gives your soldiers the means to complete the mission.
5. Stay accountable.
In my final six months of command, I trained soldiers for the IMCOM Readiness and IMCOM Best Warrior Competitions. By looking for opportunities to train soldiers and conduct PT with them you hold yourself to a higher standard and prevent complacency. In command, you have to remember that while you are a leader, you are also part of the team and as accountable to it as any other member.
6. Be available and flatten communication.
I’ve found that short and consistent daily meetings are absolutely essential. In command, you have to blow up the bubble so that ideas can reach you from every level. The second part of this is being available to talk to soldiers. You can circumvent disasters by simply taking a walk through the motor pool to ask soldiers questions. The more soldiers see you, especially at points of friction, the more they will be willing to talk to you and bring problems to your attention.
7. Keep learning.
This feeds into knowing the job, but the important point here is that self-development should never cease. I recall a colonel telling me once that “subject matter expert” is just describes a person who is unwilling to keep learning. I keep a personal reading list, and while it may not be as comprehensive as some, it keeps me engaged. Part of learning is accepting fair criticism and incorporating the ideas of others into your thinking, and part of that is maintaining an open dialogue with your senior rater.
8. Learn to fire people.
My greatest regret in command was that I spent too much time trying to reform some people who didn’t want to get with the program. This included senior NCOs. Know the administrative separation process; it is necessary to maintain a healthy team. Letting mediocre people go sends the message that the team is important to you, and while I would not advise jumping to conclusions or assuming malice for every mistake, a pattern of laziness, misconduct, or disrespect should be excised immediately. If you find someone that takes on a task and then quits at the first obstacle and doesn’t tell you, get them out of the unit.
9. Use good management practices.
The reality is that Army officers are often horrendous managers. I’ve seen officers work until they’re burned out and then call that leadership. Lamentably, in this common scenario, those officers typically leave many subordinates underutilized. Tasks should be spread out across the organization. The role of the commander is to ask for updates and ensure company systems are working correctly, not to do all the work. I’ve heard from fellow commanders that they are constantly staying at work until late at night. I rarely stayed late because the organization was efficient.
Capt. Robert Deppa commanded D CO, 1-18 IN and HHC USAG, Fort Riley. He was deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield in Kuwait, partnering with Kuwaiti and Jordanian forces, as well as the State Department. As HHC USAG Commander he ran the 1st Infantry Division Replacement Company.