Command versus Leadership

The Army has a strange relationship with words. On the one hand, precision means everything: the term “seize” means something very different to a ground forces commander than the term “secure”. On the other hand, “leader” has become an umbrella term for both the entire force in general and the select few in command positions 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: influence to accomplish a mission. For officers, however, the impact of this imprecision is significant.

In the officer corps, “leadership” has grown to encompass the separate act of taking a command position — 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 fill the roles of Company, Battalion, or Brigade Commander1 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 improper 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 those claims make some sense — those Second Lieutenants did sign up to lead soldiers, after all — they soon learn that in those platitudes, “lead” just means “take command”, and “take command” in the Cyber Branch means little more than completing administrative tasks until the field-grade level.

A disturbing number of Cyber BOLC 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 strictly administrative duties have nothing to do with their hard-won expertise. This presents them with a regrettable dilemma: become commanders — not leaders, commanders — or leave.

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 an administrative career of planning, briefing, and paperwork to a bunch of junior officers eager to prove themselves at the tactical edge. 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.3 To its proponents’ credit, this is effectively the reality: survivorship bias is strong in a branch dominated by senior officers, warrant officers, and non-commissioned officers who made their bones in other branches, and in which civilian instructors with little experience in cyberspace operations (and none at the junior officer level) provide the majority of institutional education. That does not, however, mean this should be the reality. Officers lead from a base of technical competence, and the absence of that technical competence makes them little more than managers who must rely on position “leadership” to accomplish anything. These junior officers signed up to lead soldiers and to lead them well, not to manage them poorly.

Fortunately, the operational force presents a more positive picture of reality. Those hard-won technical skills are valued. Officers can, in fact, 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 a quarter ended up sticking around. That’s certainly not great, but it is some improvement.

The operational force continues to reverse the unnecessary disillusionment its training pipeline incurs by presenting a more positive 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 training: the Army does not need a bunch of capital “L” Leaders, it needs leaders. That means understanding cyberspace operations just as well as everyone else, and understanding traditional officer functions just as well as everyone else. 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.

Note: An edited version of this article appeared on West Point’s The Center for Junior Officers, published July 23rd, 2022, which can be viewed here.

 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 exhibited similar or even greater 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 NCOs does not appeal to many. Here, too, this regrettable dilemma primes many junior NCOs to leave at the first chance they get.

 Distinguishing between a technical and a command track, rather than a leadership track, does make sense given that technical mastery involves years of formal training in complex fields like data engineering, data science, and digital forensics while the latter involves years spent in specific positions to achieve key career milestones in preparation for company, battalion, and brigade command. Both require leadership, and both are (in practice) exclusive given the immense time requirements necessary to remain competitive in each track. This is not a new idea: COL Aimee DeJarnette again proposed it in 2019 in In Pursuit of Improved Officer Management, after General Westmoreland proposed multiple career tracks in 1968 and General Reimer did again in 1997. The Army Talent Management Task Force in 2021 proposed exploring dual career tracks for the Logistics branch, given the branch’s status as “both an operational branch and a specialty branch with a high density of technical backgrounds”, but it remains to be seen whether this becomes a feasible route, much less a viable one. Further discussion of this concept, however, is beyond the scope of this article.