By Trent Gardner, MTI Contributor
For many military officers, the transition from the tactical level to the organizational and strategic levels is unwelcome. Most of us prefer tactical jobs, with their smaller teams and direct impacts. However, the military desires officers capable of leading at the national and strategic levels. The normal career path of an officer provides them with the experience to lead at the O-5 and above level, and consequently removes them further and further from the tactical arena. Maintaining a career at the tactical level requires initiative and an acceptance of lost opportunities.
Getting Off the Path
The entire officer career path is a pyramid, every step up representing an increase in the scope of the work. Ultimately, the goal is to funnel every officer towards generalship, and winnow out the ones who can’t hack it at every step of the way. Deviating from this “golden” path leaves the military with members who don’t contribute to the base of the next step. Ultimately, once you deviate, you almost never get back on. Attempting to maintain a career at the tactical level is brutally difficult in the face of this. It requires acceptance of lost opportunities, but more importantly, it reduces job security. The first officer to be involuntarily separated will always be the one who’s topped out. Pursuing a tactical career is a difficult balancing act, and sometimes ends in failure regardless of how you play it. Ultimately, pursuing a tactical career is only a viable choice when the other choice is getting out of the military.
Officers are giving up opportunities to stay tactical. For a historical figure that shows the consequences of this path, read John Boyd’s biography. John Boyd’s contributions to maneuverability theory and overall decision-making still resonate throughout the Air Force. He was the unquestioned expert in his chosen fields. And for all that, he never made Brigadier General. He didn’t have the right skills or the right connections to get into that rarefied air. And he bitterly resented the fact that his unconventional career choices became the glass-ceiling of his time in the Air Force.
John Boyd is the best-case scenario when pursuing a tactical career. You can impact your force for decades after your retirement, but you will never get a star. In all likelihood, you will not even attain the height that Boyd did. If you do not fully believe that remaining at the tactical level is the only way for you to remain in the military, you probably should not strive for it.
Speak Your Leaders Language
A good unit leader pursues the military’s broader goals regardless of their thoughts or the thoughts of their subordinates. This means your commander’s job is to drive you up the career pyramid until you demonstrate you don’t have the competence.
To stay tactical as much and as long as possible, Deliberately managing your leadership is essential. You need to “speak their language.” Communicate your short-term career goals in language that speaks to your leader’s goal: tell them how it will make you a better candidate to climb the pyramid.
For example, I tried to attend Ranger school as a captain. As an MQ-9 pilot in the Air Force, Ranger School provides no obvious benefit to the community. Why should my commander allow me to move away from my core career for 4+ months when there’s no benefit? However, by communicating it in organizational level terms, I was able to get buy in for my goals. Specifically, I presented it as providing the MQ-9 community with someone who had a solid grounding in the tactics of the partner ground forces that we consistently worked with. It would give me credibility as a major/lieutenant colonel working in Joint Billets, discussing how MQ-9’s could support small-unit tactics.
Certainly, these weren’t my goals for going to Ranger School; I just wanted to experience the crucible and learn leadership lessons in a way that wasn’t available at a USAF school. But by communicating the goal in these terms, I got my leadership to support me (though I didn’t end up going because of COVID).
Corner the Market
The second aspect of pursuing tactical goals throughout your career is cornering a niche. It’s unfeasible to bounce between different tactical arenas over 20 years, never staying long enough to master one. You have to identify what particular tactical skill you are going to master at a level no one else in the force can achieve. You must be the unquestioned expert, the only possible answer when the question arises. Expanding on the above example, I also pushed the same commander to send me to Joint Terminal Attack Controller courses. I had already attended Joint Firepower’s Course, and aimed to corner the market on MQ-9 expertise on the ground aspect of our employment. Once again, I got leadership support, and COVID prevented me attending. An important aspect of this is identifying your niche as soon as possible. You need to rack up such a commanding lead on your peers that no-one can catch up by the time you need to leverage your experience.
You notice that both of my examples required commander involvement. This speaks to the most crucial aspect of this, fostering and maintaining relationships with your leaders. If you can’t foster a relationship where you can positively communicate your goals to your commander and expect support, you won’t succeed. You will become their sacrificial lamb every time an undesirable duty comes up. In my first assignment, I had terrific relationships with my commanders at all levels, and was able to leverage that into support for my goals. Many of these goals didn’t support the unit’s overall goals, but they were willing to support me because I could articulate how they moved me into unique positions to help the force. In my next assignment, that rapport with my commander wasn’t there. I achieved no forward movement in my goals while there, and was eventually shuttled off to a non-desirable training spot. Once there, I achieved rapport with my commander again, and this is where I got buy-in to attend Ranger School and JTAC courses.
Solve A Problem
Finally, be a solution to an existing problem. Don’t pitch them on how this will make you better, and maybe in the future you can use that to make the organization better. Start with an existing problem that needs solving, and show yourself as the solution. This leads to a cumulative growth in your knowledge and skills in your desired area, until you reach a critical mass and become “the expert”. The problem that Ranger School and JTAC courses solved was short term. We recognized a lack of institutional knowledge of the small-unit tactics, and attending those courses would improve the situation.
It’s Not Easy
Note that none of these are guaranteed to work, nor easy. This will take tremendous amounts of effort and initiative from you, starting at a point in your career when you probably aren’t sure what’s going on. And there is no guarantee of success. As I attempted this throughout my career, a variety of factors conspired to block my path: a commander I didn’t get along with, poorly timed PCSs, and the COVID pandemic. Ultimately, I separated from Active Duty as a captain, because the opportunity window had closed and I had no intention of continuing up the pyramid and being miserable the whole way.
The military desires leaders at the strategic level, and the process for creating them often conflicts with individual officer’s personal desires. There are paths to long and fruitful careers at the tactical levels, but they are uncertain and demanding of personal initiative. Identifying what problem you can solve, and pushing at the earliest opportunity to become the expert in that niche can work. Above all else, building consistent rapport with your commands and getting their buy-in on how you’re going to fix their problems is essential. Pursuing these opportunities will close off opportunities you need for higher ranks, and ultimately will shorten your career to some extent. Be honest with yourself before you commit to pursuing this path, and be mentally prepared to accept the possible consequences.
Trent is a former Air Force MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilot and avid multi-sport mountain athlete.
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