How to fail as a Major

By Maj. Terron WhartonOctober 23, 2018

How to fail as a Major
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"…the expectations of a Major are very different than those of a captain, and not everyone knows what these expectations are or the impact they have on personal and professional success."

-MG(R) Tony Cucolo, "In Case You Didn't Know It, Things Are Very Different Now: Part 1"

While attending the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), instructors and mentors constantly drove two points home. First, transitioning to the rank of Major and the expectations of a Field Grade Officer is a difficult and steep learning curve. Second, what made an officer successful at the company grade level does not necessarily translate to success as a Major. I have been a combined arms battalion S3 for ten months now and during this period I've planned, resourced, and executed field training exercises, live fire events, gunneries, an NTC rotation, and spent enough hours on my Blackberry that I never want to see one again. However, I can definitively say two things about my instructors' advice: They weren't kidding about either point … and they vastly downplayed both.

The transition to Major is less of a learning curve and more of a sheer cliff. There is less tolerance for officers who need to "grow into it," and the expectation is you are value added on day one. Finally, the room for mistakes grows smaller and smaller. What follows are the hard lessons I've learned either through personal shortcomings or watching peers fall by the wayside.

Failure #1: Believe Help is Coming

When things became supremely difficult or complex as a captain or lieutenant, we would often look for a field grade to give refined guidance and direction. The Major knows the answer. They are the responsible adult in the room. The Major may get cranky and hand out a butt chewing, but they would bring resources to bear on the problem. They were help when we needed it.

As a Major, YOU are now that responsible adult who has the answers and can bring resources to bear. You ARE the help that's coming. There is no help coming for YOU. Majors are the Army's problem solvers and workhorses. If a room of Majors looks around and cannot tell who among them is lead on an issue, then the issue is probably not being addressed. Majors don't get to look around and wonder who will solve the problem. They must own the problems as they appear and work with peers to solve them.

Failure #2: Burn Bridges and Fail to Cultivate and Maintain Relationships

Early on in my time as a BN S3 something went wrong during our FTX. A situation changed that was outside of my control and I blamed the brigade. Over the phone, I got into a heated discussion with the BDE S3 and XO and lost my temper and composure. When I was done venting, the BDE S3 said something I will never forget: "Do you want to keep complaining or do you want to solve the problem?" Those words stuck with me. I apologized, we moved on, and we fixed the issue.

The argumentative Major, the one who picks fights, protects their own rice bowl, and never gives an inch will quickly find themselves isolated without a seat at the table. In the end, their unit will suffer for it. Conversely, the Major is willing to give more than they take, willing to put the brigade's success over what's easier for their battalion and work well with peers to find solutions and compromises will succeed.

Leaders do not have time for personality conflicts, especially Majors. The biggest power Majors have is that knowing where to look, who to call, and having a network of friends, peers, classmates, warrants, and NCOs that can be leveraged to solve problems. Most problems in a brigade are solved by the S3s and XOs sitting around the table, developing a course of action, and moving out to attack the challenge at hand. That requires well-cultivated and maintained relationships. More than anything, those relationships and connections are the most powerful resource at your disposal.

This is also the point in our careers where many of us will begin to regularly interact with DA Civilians. Do not forget about them. The GS-14 serving as your Division Chief of Training could well be a retired LTC and former Battalion Commander. They have either been where you are now, or they have seen many in your position come and go, and they often serve as the long-term continuity in higher headquarters and support functions that are critical to your success.

Stop by and talk to your peers regularly. Take time to talk to DA Civilian, get away from email, and drop by offices. Come to meetings early and stay a little after to talk to each other, even if it's just letting each other vent for five minutes. It will pay dividends when you need to move a mountain and get a short notice task done. You cannot afford to have personality conflicts or fight with your peers. Ever. Period. Learn to swallow your pride and be the first one to apologize or mend a relationship after a heated exchange.

Failure #3: Confusing Leadership and Management

Leadership and management are not the same thing and are easily confused when assuming organizational level leadership for the first time. Leadership is about people while management is about systems. While these concepts may appear obvious, it took me about three months to learn this and I am still working to improve my management skills.

As a Major, your primary concerns are building and managing systems. Majors are about touch points. Identify critical touch points for your organization, develop systems to manage that information, and use those systems to recognize where the train wrecks and pitfalls are. The Major's aperture is so wide that there is no way you can directly affect it all with personal involvement or presence. If you try, you will fail.

Time is now your most precious resource. Systems help manage the information flow so you can focus your limited time on things that are commander priorities, mission-critical, or something only YOU can do based on knowledge, skills, or relationships. For everything else, develop your staff to handle routine business, empower them to make the routine decisions, and train them to know when things require your personal involvement. If you don't develop systems to manage the massive amounts of information coming in, you will quickly become overwhelmed and remain in crisis management.

This is not to say that personal leadership is not important as a Major. It simply means the balance has shifted. Your personal leadership is still critical in two areas: training your staff and mentorship.

Do not expect to walk into a staff that can do MDMP perfectly with just an occasional guiding nudge from you. You will have to train your staff. MDMP is just the beginning. How to write emails, brief the commander, write orders, develop courses of action, work as a team, interact with the higher headquarters staff, Army culture and expectations of officers, and a thousand other things you now take for granted after over a decade of service. All of this requires your personal presence, time, and effort. If you do not teach them, no one else will.

The Major is also a mentor to younger officers, especially the staff officers they interact with daily. This mentorship requires personal leadership and is just as important to the Army's success as the next round of MDMP is to your unit's training event. I am wearing an oak leaf because of the mentorship two Majors provided at critical junctures in my career. Officers in your organization will look to you as a model for future service: how to act, how to look, and the path they should chart through the Army, just as I looked to those Majors when I was a Lieutenant and a Captain.

Failure #4: Fail to Predict the Future

Majors must forecast out, identify implied tasks, determine conditions that need setting, and execute without guidance, FRAGOs, or WARNOs from BDE or higher. If you fail to do this, the train wreck is waiting and, remember, no help is coming. Your higher HQ may give some guidance, but never enough, and never on the timeline you want it. If you wait, it will be too late.

Predicting the future allows planning to occur that can mitigate future problems. This is critical because at the battalion and brigade level dynamic re-tasking is never dynamic. As a BN S3, I can pick up the phone and redirect the work, efforts, and lives of 700 Soldiers, officers, warrant officers, leaders, and their families. However, a battalion has a certain organizational momentum and inertia that is hard to overcome and shift on a dime. Every dynamic shift exponentially increases the chance of details being missed, mistakes being made, and can push you into crisis management. Look deep, develop a concept, and address potential gaps through FRAGOs, IPRs, and update briefs as necessary.

As Majors our words, actions, and decisions carry serious weight as BN and BDE S3s/XOs, planners, and action officers. An errant email, simple misspeak, or a rash outburst will affect entire organizations exponentially more than when we were company commanders or staff captains. As such, the tolerance for those who fail to grasp this and make the transition is low. Unfortunately, many Majors step into these pitfalls, sometimes irrevocably, without ever knowing they have made a fatal error. Fortunately, the Army is a learning organization and just maybe sharing my own shortcomings can help another Major avoid failure as they climb the cliff and make the transition.

Terron Wharton is currently serving as the BN S3 for 4-6 IN, 3/1ABCT at Fort Bliss, TX. An Armor Officer, he has served in Armor and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams with operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of "High Risk Soldier: Trauma and Triumph in the Global War on Terror," a work dealing with overcoming the effects of PTSD. His other works include "Becoming Multilingual", discussing being multifaceted within the Army profession, "The Overlooked Mentors" which speaks to NCOs as mentors for junior officers, and "Viral Conflict: Proposing the Information Warfighting Function" which proposes establishing an Information Warfighting Function.