I had an acute attack of imposter syndrome as I signed into Officer Candidate School in 2009. I had spent the last six months imagining what it would be like to become an officer, but now I could not visualize myself in that role. In my first four years in the Army I had not worked much with commissioned officers. As a 42R Bandsman-Guitarist, I had served under the command of warrant officers. I had no base of experience to understand what commissioned officers did, and no assurances that I could perform the role as the Army and my soldiers required.
Now, as a post-command captain, I have spent time reflecting on my successes and failures as a lieutenant and a junior captain. I have thought about the advice I received from my commanders and senior NCOs, both in my time in the 82nd Airborne, and as a gunnery instructor with the Field Artillery Basic Officer Leadership Course. I’ve considered the mentorship I’ve received from my leaders, as well as what I’ve provided to my own soldiers. The conclusion I came to is that, far from the fears I had when I arrived at OCS, my time as an Army guitarist provided me a unique advantage rather than hindering my development as an officer. Here are five tenets of good musicianship that are effective in leader development.
1. Practice scales every day. In music, scales are the lexicon to the language. A musician who holds a poor grasp of the building blocks of melody and harmony will not be able to express himself musically. To ensure musical fluency, good musicians will incorporate scales into daily practice, both as a refresher, and as a way to find familiar patterns when learning new melodies.
The same is true for new officers. Doctrine and tactics are the language we speak in the Army. Planning and training form the instrument. Leaders must be steeped in doctrinal concepts to ensure clear, consistent communication. Those who do not commit to learning the lexicon will fail to effectively communicate within the military medium, and struggle to develop higher-level planning ability.
2. Know theory. As a bandsman, I spent hours analyzing songs, looking for patterns, and determining a song’s requirements for successful performance. Many guitarists washed out of the Army band’s AIT because they lacked functional musical knowledge. These soldiers were phenomenal players, but could not read music, nor apply basic concepts of musical theory; how harmonies are built, chords voiced, and melodies enhanced. As a result, they were hindered in their advancement beyond natural ability, and constrained by limitations.
How often have you seen young officers who hold all the traits of a born leader, but failed to demonstrate the technical knowledge specific to their branch? Each branch presents new lieutenants with a mountain of new technical knowledge that must be mastered by even the most gifted natural leader. New leaders must approach their branch’s professional knowledge as musicians do with theory with the understanding that just as music theory builds songs, professional knowledge builds competent and proficient teams.
3. Visualize perfection during practice, and do it until you get it right. Each one of my practice sessions would begin with a firm concept of what a good performance sounds like. The practice session would be structured around achieving that end-state. Practicing without a specific goal is nothing more than making noise. Stopping practice before you have achieved that end-state will contribute to lowered standards and performance apathy.
Likewise, when planning training, if you do not have a clear goal, then you will not have a coherent path. I have seen too many junior leaders plan training with no alignment to the unit’s METL (Mission Essential Task List); rather, they recycle old training plans they used from prior units or their commissioning source. It is imperative that those planning training nest their training objectives in their commander’s intent, and use their unit’s METL to act as a roadmap to meet that intent. Training until the intent is met ensures team members perform to standard and stay committed to maintaining their abilities.
4. Listen diversely. My AIT guitar instructor told me that for every hour I practice, I should listen to other guitarists for two hours. He advised me not to saturate my listening with things I already liked or knew how to play, but cast a wide net around diverse styles, expressions, and genres. Everything a musician listens to becomes a stitch in the tapestry of his sound.
Similarly, leaders must listen to myriad voices in the effort to become better at their job. We prefer to hear voices we agree with, or those that tell us how great we are. Seek ways to receive candid, constructive feedback from soldiers. Read books by people you disagree with. Read professional development literature from outside your branch. Read periodicals and journals from other militaries and nations. When you listen to music written from outside your experience your brain grows as it struggles to grasp an exotic melody. When you read beyond your familiarity your knowledge and perspective benefit.
5. You don’t have to love the tune to play the song well. One of the main jobs of the Army band is to play for soldiers. While stationed at Fort Sam Houston, TX with the MEDCOM band, we played regular gigs at Brooke Army Medical Center for wounded soldiers and their families. We would make a performance set list, but often the soldiers had song requests, and we did our best to fill them; even if it meant playing “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Sweet Home Alabama” for the thousandth time. I wasn’t there to express myself musically. I was there to please the audience. If I was to truly serve these wounded soldiers, I must be willing to play what they wanted to hear, and do my best at it each time!
As leaders, we are often responsible for accomplishing less than glamorous tasks. Adding to that is the challenge of motivating Soldiers to complete these types of tasks. Leaders must look on these tasks as an opportunity to coalesce as a team, and to demonstrate their unit’s trustworthiness. It’s an old maxim that if you cannot be trusted with the trivial you cannot either be trusted with weightier matters, either. Leaders must receive each order and be willing to execute that mission as if completing it is vital to their units’ mission success.
The fear I felt transitioning from guitarist to combat arms leader was almost crippling. Seeing leadership lessons in previously developed skills gave me confidence in my ability to function as a junior officer. Leadership lessons are everywhere. My hope is that you will look for your own lessons in unexpected places, and approach individual professional development with a renewed vigor and commitment.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith, US Army