Command versus Leadership

The Army has a strange relationship with words. On the one hand, precision means everything: seize and secure mean very different things to a ground forces commander. On the other hand, “leader” has become an umbrella term for both the entire force in general and the select few in command specifically. This has little impact on non-commissioned and warrant officers who — for the most part — will never command a unit; “leadership”, to them, means leadership: coercion toward a goal. For officers, however, the impact of this imprecision is significant.

In the officer corps, “leadership” has grown to encompass the separate act of taking command — so much so, in fact, that many now consider them synonyms: you cannot display leadership except through command, and by taking command you display leadership. This debasement muddies the water for the minority who will take command1 and the plurality who steward the profession in other ways.2 Although I cannot speak for other branches, I can say from first-hand experience that this inappropriate definition — what I like to call “capital ‘L’ Leadership” — is especially damaging to junior officers in the cyber corps.

From the moment new Second Lieutenants arrive at the Cyber Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC), they are presented a false reality in which Cyberspace Operations Officers are involved in cyberspace operations in name only. This disheartening refrain takes many forms: “You’re an officer, not a technician.” “You don’t need to do ‘cyber things’, you’re here to lead.” While at first this makes some sense — they did sign up to lead soldiers, after all — they soon learn that in those platitudes, “lead” just means “command”. A disturbing number of instructors even seem to take perverse pleasure in slogans like “officers lead”, repeated just often enough to keep fresh in their students‘ minds the fact that they will never use their technical skills. For junior officers who spent years learning about computer science and other similarly complex topics, and who arrived eager to commit their high-value, low-density skills in service of the Nation, this is a bitter pill to swallow. As officers, they expected to leverage their unique knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide purpose, direction, and motivation that would unite their soldiers’ efforts to achieve a mission; instead, they must now confront a reality in which they can expect to become company-grade generalists whose duties have nothing to do with their hard-won expertise. Worse, this does the added harm of presenting them with a false dilemma: become commanders — not leaders, commanders — or leave. There is no other purpose for an officer.3

It comes as no surprise to me, then, when instructors complain about “unmotivated cyber officers” who “aren’t interested in leadership.” Of course they aren’t! You confused “leadership” and “command”, and then tried to sell a career of planning, briefing, and administrative tasks to a bunch of junior officers. Of course they don’t want that. Confusing “leadership” and “command”, and then implying (or asserting) that command is the only viable route for officers in this field, just primes them to leave the military at the first chance they get. They signed up to lead soldiers, after all, not for that.

Fortunately, the operational force presents an accurate picture of reality. Those hard-won technical skills are valued. Officers do, in fact, need to do “cyber things”. There is a role for technical officers in U.S. Cyber Command. Although some units insist that officers choose between a leadership or a technical track, at least they have a choice there.4 These units are the saving grace of the cyber corps. Anecdotally speaking, after almost a year in training just two out of over twenty Second Lieutenants in my Cyber BOLC class had any intention of staying in the Army past their first contract; four years later, at least half ended up sticking around.

The operational force continues to reverse the unnecessary disillusionment its training pipeline incurs by presenting an accurate picture of reality in which technical skills are valued, and in which Cyberspace Operations Officers must understand cyberspace operations just as well as they understand traditional officer functions. So why not start there?

Junior cyber officers are not “unmotivated”, and it’s not that they “aren’t interested in leadership” — they’re just not interested in this cherry-picked definition that only allows for a career of administrative command. The way you motivate idealistic junior officers is not by berating them to conform to a system where their unique skills and abilities are not valued. The way you motivate them is by challenging them.

As a new Second Lieutenant, one of my first mentors asked me why officers got paid more. Of course, I had no idea. He told me it was because they did more: officers had to understand every one of their soldiers’ jobs as well as or better than they did, and they had to plan, supervise, and refine operations, and they had to take care of their soldiers. This is the message junior officers need to hear during their initial entry training: the Army does not need a bunch of capital “L” Leaders, it needs leaders — and that means understanding cyberspace operations just as well as they understand traditional officer functions. This is a big challenge — maybe too big a challenge, for some — but at least this way those who left would leave for the right reasons.

 Confusing “leadership” with “command” forces officers to take command to prove that they are leaders, and then absolves them of their responsibility to demonstrate leadership outside of occupying a position.

 Confusing “leadership” with “command” also penalizes officers for not taking command despite other, less performative ways in which they may have demonstrated leadership.

 Junior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) face a similar dilemma: after reaching E-6 in just a few years, the prospect of spending three-quarters of their careers in administrative roles as senior non-commissioned officers does not appeal to many. Here, too, this false dilemma primes many junior NCOs to leave.

 Distinguishing between a technical and a command track, on the other hand, does make sense given that technical mastery involves months or years of formal training in fields like data science or software development while the latter involves years spent in specific positions to achieve key career milestones in preparation for company, battalion, and brigade command. This concept, however, is beyond the scope of this article.