Thrown into the Deep End: Tips for New Platoon Leaders

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Lesson one: you should’ve become a warrant officer

Whoa there, high speed. Look at you, all brand new and shiny, right out of your basic officer leader course, hard-charging to take over your first platoon. Thing is, behind that brash exterior, you’re probably confused as all get-out. After years of training in ROTC or a military academy (you OCS guys know all this stuff already, I’m not talking to you), you’ve finally reached the moment where you’re going to lead troops. You may have noticed that while the Army did a great job teaching you tactics, there is a lot about the day-to-day life of being a platoon leader that you don’t know. Which is fine; the first step is admitting that you don’t know much. Now the growth can begin.

The Army does something unique: it takes twenty-two year olds with no real experience and throws them right into the role of leading troops. It is then up to that person to sink or swim. No matter if you are a National Guard, Reserve, or Active Component lieutenant, these simple steps should offer some guidance as you navigate your way through your first assignment as a leader of troops. Or not, what do I know.

1. Know Your Resources

It can be pretty overwhelming when you sit in on your first training meeting and realize that all the acronyms you learned in your commissioning source and your basic officer leader course have nothing to do with day-to-day unit management. Luckily for you, all the answers can be found in various Army databases. Of course, they would never be all in one place; that would be too simple. One is the Digital Management Training System, or DTMS. It is imperative that you get access to your unit’s DTMS site from your training NCO in order to view your unit’s mission essential tasks (METs) and training schedules. Use websites for the Army Training Network (ATN) and Combined Arms Training Strategies (CATS) as tools to figure out what key collective tasks to train on, in order to support your commander’s METs. They even break them down to performance standards. Since so much of your job involves planning your platoon’s training, these tools will be an invaluable asset to you. See, in one paragraph you’ve already learned four new acronyms. Congratulations. Have a cookie.

2. Know Your Doctrine

Look, as a butterbar second lieutenant, you’re not going to be expected to know everything. But you damn well sure are expected to know where to find the answers. And for that, we have Doctrine; Doctrine with a capital “D,” because it will control your life for the rest of your career. In addition to the doctrinal publications that are pertinent to your profession, you need to know the following: ADRP 7-0, Training Units and Developing Leaders (i.e., your job); FM 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations (how to write doctrinally correct orders); AR 350-1, Army Training and Leader Development (Yes, I know it looks like ADRP 7-0, but it’s actually a listing of all the mandatory training that you will have to do that will take time away from your mission-specific training); and…wait for it…AR 25-50, Preparing and Managing Correspondence (aka, how to write, Army style). Start with that. As you go, you will develop the love/hate relationship that we all have with Army Doctrine.

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Literally none of this is true, but you still need to know it.

3. Know Your People

You’re going to hear a lot about the “human terrain” as you move along in your career. And honestly, dealing with people will be about 90% of your job. So learn to read people early on. Learn your platoon sergeant’s strengths and weakness, what motivates them to come to work every day (one of mine loved Mountain Dew; I ensured I kept him well supplied). Learn your squad leaders and team leaders; figure out which are your rockstars and which need some improvement. Talk to your Soldiers; what are their goals? Do they even have goals? How do they see their role in the platoon? Generating this snapshot of the platoon will go a long way towards your success as a manager of people. And you’d better believe the Soldiers will notice their PL taking an interest in their careers.

4. Know Your Role

None of this matters if you don’t know your role in the organization. It’s pretty simple, really: you plan training, supervise training, own the platoon’s successes or failures, develop your squad leaders, take care of your Soldiers, and accomplish the mission. I said simple, but none of that is simple. Yes, I know you joined up to lead troops in battle, but guess what, 70% of your job is now paperwork. And it needs to be done, otherwise your Soldiers won’t get the resources, evaluation, or training that they deserve.

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You do less of this….

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…And more of this. (Wikimedia commons)

Your role also encompasses property management (hopefully you got your hands on everything in your property book before you signed for it), supply management (make friends with the supply sergeant), and personnel management (writing awards and NCOERs is a skill that you need to develop early on). You own that platoon, while your platoon sergeant runs the logistical operations of it. Make sure those roles don’t swap at any time. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good commander who will mentor you along the way. If not…well…hit me up on Twitter and I can feed you a bunch more nonsense.

5. Know Yourself

Yeah, I know I’m stealing from the great philosophers here, but it can’t be emphasized enough: self-reflection is a force multiplier. Not until you understand your own strengths and weaknesses can you determine where you need to develop. Granted, a self-aware second lieutenant is a scary thought…

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Almost as scary as whatever this is.

6. Know Your Time

As a leader, your available time will shrink down to practically nothing. Especially if you are National Guard or Reserve, and have to juggle a civilian job along with being a military leader. Time management is imperative. You need to know how much time you can allocate for planning and management, while still maintaining a healthy physical fitness schedule, having some semblance of a social life, and indulging in whatever hobbies keep you sane. It is important to develop these habits of time management now, as they will stay with you as you move along in your career. And keep up with those hobbies or interests: people who devote their whole time to the Army can burnout pretty quickly. I’d recommend writing as a hobby, as it builds your critical thinking skills. And lets you pretend that you know what you’re talking about.

7. Know Your Peers

File this alternately under “play nice with others.” Having a good relationship with your peers is important. One, they are experiencing the very same things that you are; exchanging information can be mutually beneficial. Two, you have a pretty good shot at working with them again at some level in the rest of your career. It is a small Army, so be very careful before you burn a bridge, because that person just might be someone you need to work with closely someday. Third and lastly, you’re going to need friends to help you stay sane. And no, that handle of Jack Daniels does not count as a friend at the end of the day.

8. Know Your Career

There’s a lot to be said for focusing on the now and enjoying the moment. And as a platoon leader, all of your energies should be focused on getting the best training for your Soldiers that you can find. However, if you ignore your career, then you will soon find yourself stuck on the backside of the battalion staff headquarters in a windowless room lit only by the glow of a dying laptop. Sound ominous? It is. Now I’m not saying that you need to be a careerist, trying to jump on the coat tails of every passing star that you see, but you do need to be cognizant of the opportunities around you and which duty position you would best like to serve in. This is where a mentor comes in handy. Do you want to go from PL to executive officer, or do you want to spend some time on staff? What are your weaknesses? If they’re in logistics, maybe spend some time in the S-4, honing those. What is your endstate? Do you want to be the battalion commander or do you want to branch out as a strategist? The Army has a myriad of opportunities; you just need to know where you want it to take you.

9. Know Your Profession

In the Marine Corps propaganda film, I mean, in the popular movie, 300, Leonidas famously asks his Spartans, “What is your profession?” To which they respond with a lot of testosterone-filled grunting, and then presumably went off-screen to beat some of their slaves and then get it on with each other (Sparta is the worst possible model for the American military). What is your profession? Is it infantry, armor, medical, adjutant general corps, field artillery, cyber, or engineer? In order to be that role model in your platoon, that mentor for your squad leaders, and the subject matter expert to your commander, you need to know your profession. And that means hitting the books, kid. The Army wrote all of this stuff down; and it’s only a lot of reading if you do it. The Army Publishing Directorate has an online database of all branch-specific field manuals, technical manuals, and data cards. Spend some weekend with a lot of coffee and some Army reading. Your friends may hate you for it, but if you can speak knowledgeably to your subject, you will gain a lot of traction with your Soldiers. Similarly, your NCOs are a wealth of personal knowledge. Speaking with them about their experiences whether deployed or in garrison will help you develop professionally, as well as building valuable relationships.

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Or you could just wing it, in the great American traditions.

10. Know Your Equipment

Chances are, you’ve got some trucks in the motor pool and boxes in cold storage that you probably haven’t looked at closely. Depending on your branch, you might have a small amount of gear or a massive amount. As a platoon leader in a horizontal construction unit, I had nearly twenty vehicles in my motor pool, and when I first arrived there, I knew what about three of them were for. Learn your equipment’s capabilities, what it can and cannot do. Learn who in your platoon is licensed for what, when those licenses expire, when they need check rides. Learn your company’s maintenance schedules; when will your equipment need to be taken in for services? Carefully review your sensitive items inventory and keep multiple copies of where these items are stored. Want to have a bad day? Lose a sensitive item. Equipment accountability is a joint task between yourself, your platoon sergeant, and your Soldiers. In the end, the commander is signed for everything, so do her or him a solid favor by being organized. At the end of the day, it’s about being ready to accomplish the mission. You can’t do that if your equipment is broken or missing.


 

Quite obviously, this list could go on for some time, but I’ll stop here because I finished my coffee (coffee is a force multiplier; that maybe should have been my first point). These ten basic points should empower you as a platoon leader to begin finding your way. Of course, as soon as you feel like you’ve got the job figured out, the Army will move you to a new position. They’re nice like that.


 

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5 thoughts on “Thrown into the Deep End: Tips for New Platoon Leaders

  1. Additionally, when faced by a senior NCO looking for sport at your expense there are two really useful questions you can ask.
    1. What do you see as the options here?
    2. What do we normally do in this sort of situation?

    You don’t need to do what is suggested, and you should certainly consider what could go wrong before giving any orders. By far the safest approach, having got an answer to q2 is “Excellent! Carry on Sergeant.”

    Like

  2. “Thrown in the deep end” is what happens when you’re stuck in a company/battery/troop where your Company Commander doesn’t do diddly-squat for mentoring 2LTs and your NCO doesn’t see any advantage to an independent platoon leader (or in my case FIST Chief). Otherwise, you’re just ‘thrown in the pool.’

    Like

  3. Pingback: Surviving When You’re Stuck on Staff | Bourbon & Battles

  4. This is an excellent article. Thank you. My biggest issue was knowing what questions to ask. ROTC/OCS (yes did both, long story don’t ask) taught me how to handle people, but I had no idea how to handle the job. It’s so different once you’re actually in the position. Taking care of soldiers is the key to what we do, but so is completing the mission, and I had no idea how to do that. I’m still learning how to, matter of fact. DOCTRINE IS KEY. studying outside of training is also key.

    We’ll get there…have patience with us. Also, slap us around if we aren’t listening, NCOs. If you don’t like your leadership, the best revenge is to train new leadership into the leadership you want to see. Earnest leaders listen to those who know more than they, and we’re always glad to be schooled when we’re wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Post-Platoon Leader Series: Take pictures, share them | Carrying the Gun

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