7 Ways to Fail as a Staff Officer

by Captain Nate Stratton

“I want to claw my way up to brigade staff!” No little kid ever grew up wanting to be the best at briefing slides, brewing coffee, or writing operations orders. There’s a reason war movies don’t portray the struggles of warriors whose meritorious planning performance led to the creation of the perfect brief. Slideology 101 isn’t a required course at West Point.

Time spent on staff, where officers spend the majority of their career, is thankless, laborious work that is too often viewed as a block check between command positions. Much of the Army’s educational emphasis is on success as the man in front of the formation, but the officer’s plight is that he will spend much more time rowing the ship than steering it.

staff officer

U.S. Soldiers of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division provide information to the ground units from the tactical operation center while a Latvian soldier, right, observes during exercise Combined Resolve IV at the U.S. Army’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, May 17, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Private First Class Courtney Hubbard.

With good reason, TRADOC focuses on preparing its students for the key leadership positions they will occupy upon course graduation. I am a product of that focus, having left Fort Benning to assume leadership of a platoon in Kandahar only two months later. Captains get some staff training in the latter half of MCCC, but iterations of the Battalion-level orders production is scant preparation for a young officer assigned as the Battalion planner upon arriving at his new unit.

Down on the line, there are plenty of self-proclaimed experts who will share (aka impose) their insights on how to succeed as a platoon leader or company commander, but few who coach on how to succeed as a staff officer. How does one prepare for time on staff? What skills are necessary? How should priorities change as one moves from leadership to staff? What are the dos and don’ts?

In an effort (if only slightly) to right that imbalance, I offer the following list of pitfalls that Battalion and Brigade level staff officers should avoid to help create their own success and fulfill their unit’s mission.

1) Forget That You’re Still a Leader

Too often, staff officers forget that although their primary weapon is a laptop and not a rifle, the noncommissioned officers and enlisted members of their organizations constantly watch them. Just because you’re not at the front of the formation for morning PT doesn’t mean you don’t have to show up. Take the time to counsel your direct subordinates initially and monthly, just like you would your platoon sergeant or first sergeant. Pick an area you can improve on as a leader and take this time to work on it. The bad habits you develop as a staff officer when you don’t think anyone is looking will form the reputation you’ll take with you to your next assignment, so now’s not the time to get fat, whine, or otherwise slack off.

2) Treat Subordinate Units as the Enemy

It’s amazing how quickly we forget what it was like to be in the shoes of our counterparts at the next lower level. Shortsighted staff officers assume that subordinate units’ should only focus on their section’s requirements. But in reality, Company XOs deal with a lot more than just property in their unit and it’s foolish for a Battalion S4 to think otherwise. Rather than imposing impossible suspenses on subordinate units, successful staff officers should do as much legwork as possible before handing a problem off to a subordinate. Not only does this create maneuver space for the subordinate, it increases the likelihood that you’ll receive a satisfactory product back on time. (For more on this, check out Stop Creating Confusion and Start Providing Answers.)

3) Treat Higher Headquarters as the Enemy

As quickly as bad staff officers get angry at the perceived incompetence of their subordinate units, they are equally if not more short-tempered when dealing with their counterparts at the next higher level. Bad staff officers are expert problem identifiers who love to find issues with everything that higher produces, never appreciating the difficulties and short suspenses that are out of their control. When dealing with higher, treat them the way you wish your subordinate counterparts treated you. Don’t create hostility by calling attention to their mistakes in front of their boss. Choose your battles wisely: don’t fight every task that comes down the pipe. Realize that they receive orders just like you do. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they fight for you like you fight for your subordinate units.

4) Don’t Take the Time to Get to Know Your Organization

Because the Army values diverse backgrounds, it’s likely that your second assignment will be in a different type of Brigade than your first one. In most cases, there is a large knowledge gap when officers arrive to their new units, particularly for those transitioning from IBCTs to SBCTs or ABCTs. Out of laziness or a fear of looking ignorant, bad staff officers don’t take the time to learn the finer points of their new outfits. Self-instruction from the right manuals is a valuable method, but there is no substitute for getting out of the office and into the motor pool. Doing so will set you up for success in your follow on assignment and it will improve the quality of the orders you write.

5) Undermine the HHC Chain of Command

When you’re the same rank as your commander and your boss outranks him, it’s very easy to feel like you can skip the mundane tasks like annual training and dental appointments. Don’t make his tough job more difficult by being uncooperative; just take the ten minutes to get your flu shot like first sergeant asked you to do. Your cooperation (or lack thereof) doesn’t go unnoticed and it will have repercussions in the future.

6) Hide Behind Your Desk (Where It’s Not Raining)

Bad staff officers rarely leave their office. It should be your goal as a staff officer to pay a weekly visit to every subordinate unit’s CP. Rather than having a nasty email exchange with a subordinate unit counterpart, walk over to his office and talk it out. It’ll show him that you’re willing to meet him halfway and see things from his point of view, both literally and figuratively. As much as poor staff officers hate leaving their office, they also hate being uncomfortable. Don’t look for every excuse to avoid going to the field. Instead, look for ways that you can complete your staff requirements from a tent and learn where you fit in to TOC operations.

7) Get Fat

When you assume a staff position with no formal leadership role, there will be plenty of excuses (and sometimes even legitimate reasons) to skip out on PT. The organizational demands are tough to balance with personal responsibilities. Officers who are also good Soldiers will not let this happen. Physical fitness is a tenet of military life and an indicator of personal discipline. Plus, you never know what challenges await.

I knew a staff Captain who thought he had 12 months before starting company command, but was one of those guys who was committed to top fitness. To his surprise, a company commander got injured and my friend got the call. He went from staff Captain to Company Commander in 48 hours. Luckily, he was ready. (See also I Admit It…I Forgot How to Workout.)

Questions for Staff Officers

  • Have you missed the growth that your staff position offers because you’ve diminished its value?
  • How could you be more of a team player for your adjacent and higher units?
  • What should you be doing to keep your edge as a leader while serving on staff?
This is a guest post by US Army Captain Nate Stratton. Nate is a 2010 USMA graduate currently serving as the Battalion S4 in 1-18 IN/2 ABCT/1 ID, forward deployed to Kuwait. His previous assignment was with 5-1 CAV/1-25 SBCT, where he served as a Platoon Leader, Troop Executive Officer, and Squadron Assistant S3.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • vulcan1701

    Enjoyed the read, Sir. These lessons learned should be required reading before that first S-shop job at Battalion/Squadron.

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  • Greg Carlstrom

    Well said Nate. I would like to first take a moment and say that I am proud to have served with this man during my near 7 years in the Army as an MI Officer. I was the BN S-2 in 1-18 IN REGT while he was, indeed, the S-4 right up until the time he left for his current deployment to Kuwait. There were many days where we shared a mutual respect and digust for the positions we held. Second, I can absolutely relate to everything that he stated in this blog. I decided to leave the Army for many reasons, but becoming demorlaized by a soul sucking staff officer position was definately in the top 10 of my reasoning. Not to mention, be marooned in the middle nowhere at Fort Riley,KS. Having been a platoon leader, company XO, and battalion staff officer, the staff officer positions truely develop you as a leader because they challenge you stay focused and contribute to the success of unit without directly maneuvering an outfit on the battlefield. Having to critically think and ensure that the contributions from your focal area fit into the concept of operations can have a profound on the outcome of the fight. Though you’re not tactically involved in the fight itself, you’re directly accountable for the success and failure of the troops on the ground. It becomes a matter of going from a game piece that moves on the board to understanding how the pieces move and what makes them move. This becomes even more challenging when you have rally your section troops and NCOs to execute the very projects that shape fight and ultimately make decisions for a commander. In short, you always work your ass off burning the midnight oil and never receive a fraction of the appreciation or respect that you deserve. However, never lose sight of the fact, as I did, that the operation your unit just successfully completed would not have been possible without the blood, sweat, and tears you shed in the critical hours of planing. Great blog Nate!!

    • Completely agree! Staff develops us in countless ways, but only if people are willing to learn those lessons. Staff is time to put aside the ego and serve, which leads to growth. Nate did a good job capturing that with this guest post. Thanks for commenting!

  • Chris Theilacker

    This is great advice, not just for Army staff officers, but for anyone not sitting at the top of their particular organizational pyramid. I always try to remind my fellow supporters that we aren’t here to do the sexy jobs right now. Our job, until we move on to the next one, is to ensure those sexy-job guys and gals are resourced and supported in their efforts to do what they do. Their success or failure is, at least indirectly, a result of the level of effort I put into doing my boring staff job. With the right attitude and approach, that crappy staff officer assignment can accidentally become one of the most rewarding periods of your career. And oh by the way, people do watch what you do and how you do it.
    Admittedly, I haven’t always avoided some of these pitfalls, so this article was a good reminder for me as well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yeah, nugging away on slides at 0200 is not glamorous by any means. But is does make a difference. It’s important to remember that icons on slides represent actual people and viewing them as such can give purpose to otherwise boring, mindless, menial work. Thanks for weighing-in!

  • Austin Commons

    These are great points that every leader, whether in a command or staff job, should take to heart. Unfortunately, there is an underlying attitude among many officers (because we all read “Once an Eagle”) that you’re either a hardcore field commander or a backstabbing staff weenie, and thus many of us don’t give staff jobs our full energy as leaders. At the end of the day, everything a staff officer produces directly affects a soldier’s ability to win the fight, and keeping that reality in sight can maintain your morale through the hardest days of rowing. The truly great staff officers know how to lead from behind the scenes by not only building a cohesive headquarters team, but also by knowing how to shape and influence the commander’s decisions. If you need a green tab on your shoulder to be a leader, then you’re not one.

    • That’s right, look at the impact that General Marshall had as Chief of Staff during WWII. I do feel like the divide has diminished since those days (i.e. Once an Eagle), possibly because our career progression timeline is published and everyone knows they’ll have to go through staff time.
      Also, the non-linear (aka 360*) fight of the last 14 years has shown us that everyone is vulnerable to attack, not just the combat arms and front line troops. Open for discussion, but just my initial thoughts.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • GrZ

    This is the best piece of military literature since Once an Eagle! Hooha!

  • David

    Good nuggets of information, I was just talking with one of my peers about a similar blog/article idea.
    Staff time does not have to be “purgatory”

    • True. And really, from a development standpoint, should ANY job be “purgatory?” If a leader is waiting for the right job to 1) gain the right skills or 2) teach the right skills…that’s no leader. Hard work, leader development, intrinsic motivation are characteristics to be exhibited daily, not just when conditions are right.

      Thanks for the comment!