Commissioning from Appalachian State University in 1988, then 2nd Lt. John R. Evans Jr. launched his military career. Years later, after decades in special operations aviation, former Army ROTC Cadet Evans would find himself the Commanding General of the United States Army Cadet Command.
Maj. Gen. Evans came to Fort Knox in 2018, excited to interact with and encourage Cadets.
“I really approached the job with a lot of high expectations for having a really exciting opportunity to influence the lives of young aspiring officers,” Evans said.
Coming into this new role, Evans wanted to focus on getting back to the basic leadership skills that all U.S. Army officers will need, while continuing the efforts of his predecessor.
“A lot of that was more contact time in the field during Cadet Summer Training, more focusing on the basics and really kind of small unit level leadership, which I think is very, very important,” Evans said. “We kind of make a distinction here, we tell them we are not trying to build platoon leaders—we’ll do that in a basic officer leader courses—we are trying to build Lieutenants. We are trying to provide those basic foundational building blocks from which every branch can build a branch specialist which can go off and be a great platoon leader and great company grade officer. Those are the things I wanted to do. I wanted to sustain that and move us to the next level.”
Being the Commanding General of a command that encompasses 274 Senior Army ROTC programs pulling from 1,000 universities across the U.S. presents unique challenges.
Balancing differences in grading scales, academic rigor, and academic content across the universities to create a standard can be a difficult task.
“We try to bin the schools based on their accreditation agency, based on national reports and how they are looked at by the college environment, the educational enterprise in general,” Evans said.
Different schools and academic disciplines are awarded various points on the Order of Merit List to account for differences in academic rigor.
This past year and a half has introduced some new challenges to the Commanding General’s role with the introduction of COVID-19. Now, Evans turned his efforts to not only training Cadets to commission as 2nd Lieutenants but also to keeping people safe during a global health crisis.
“I don’t think the leadership challenge changes a lot, you are still trying to produce world-class Lieutenants for the Army, you are still trying to make sure that all of your programs are operating at an optimal level. I think it really does make you think hard about where are you assuming risk, with these young people and your Cadre, and where you can, and should assume risks,” Evans said.
In light of this, Evans and the command introduced Operation Agile Leader (OAL), a dispersed training experience. During OAL, Cadets were able to receive training comparable to Advanced Camp normally held at Fort Knox, Ky. Training happened regionally and at the universities lead by Cadre members.
This summer, Evans continued to focus on keeping everyone safe and healthy while being able to return training back to Fort Knox. To safely conduct in-person training, every Cadet and Cadre member received two COVID tests within the first ten days of arrival, they were also kept in small pods for the first ten days to reduce potential exposure to the virus.
“We had set out a model where we were going to be very COVID informed in what we did in our training base, so we still were probably overly cautious in protecting people,” Evans said. “Really, I tried to the best of my ability to encourage people to get the vaccine, because I am a big believer, I think it works. All of those things I was trying to do, and those were right with the significant challenges of COVID.”
During his nearly 39-month tenure, over 23,000 Cadets have commissioned as Second Lieutenants.
“When you think about the fact that I have had the opportunity to at least influence by virtue of my presence or my leadership in the command, 23,000 officers, that is pretty significant,” Evans said. “It is a pretty significant responsibility and I take that seriously, because the talent of the young people that we have coming into the Army today is just amazing.”
Evans has spent his time here focused on engaged leadership and what he considers to be the four A’s of leadership.
“We have to be aware, we have to be available, we have to be action oriented and be accountable for what we do,” Evans said. “I have told the Cadets those are the four A’s that I look for in leadership. I think that this has made me want to reinvest in that part of my own leadership philosophy.”
Evans wants newly commissioned Second Lieutenants to be officers that listen and lead well.
“The more you listen, the better off you are going to be as a young officer,” Evans said. “You haven’t had the opportunity yet to build experientially the instincts that you will develop naturally as you become more senior. I tell them to listen to their platoon sergeants, listen to their company commanders, their first sergeants and to listen to the people around them. Secondly, what I really try to hone in on, hopefully we talk about it enough in terms of leadership, is to approach leadership with humility, with some compassion and some empathy. It is important to understand your soldiers, to understand the people that you will be working with and the people you will be working for. As a leader, you work for the people that serve with you or serve for you. It is an important thing.”
His message to Cadets isn’t much different.
“I tell Cadets the same thing all the time,” Evans said. “Study hard, pay attention, work out, the physical element of what we do is important, and then just try to be humble leaders.”
As Evans moves on to his next assignment, he is excited about the future of the Army and Cadet Command.
“I’m always excited to think about what our Army will look like 20 and 25 years from now,” Evans said. “I think it is going to be so much better than it is now because they are smarter, faster, and stronger. It is a great group of young people.”
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