Few jobs in the Army inspire the phrase “better you than me” than that of a headquarters company command. There are paths to success if you find yourself in that gig, especially if you follow good advice like that offered by Captain Scott Nusom in his article “Surviving Headquarters Company Command” published at From the Green Notebook.
But along the way to completing a successful headquarters command, there are a handful of slow—sometimes painful, sometimes cathartic—realizations that change the way you perceive the job, for better or worse.
You Always Brief First
Thanks to what’s called “regimental order,” you are first in the chute to brief at pretty much every meeting. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, and may vary from meeting to meeting depending on the boss’s mood. You can try to set the tone of the meeting positively, and maybe you succeed. Maybe the boss breezes through your brief to get to the “more interesting” line units.
Or maybe, on a day when the coffee runs out and the skies darken, the boss crucifies you because he decides to set the tone of the meeting with the first briefer by verbally ripping your spine out through your mouth. On the plus side, your fellow commanders get the benefit of learning what and what not to say in their subsequent briefs. Your sacrifice was not for nothing.
I was never successful in convincing the boss to go reverse-regimental order, but I also rarely took an ass chewing in a meeting. That was probably because of another realization I had:
Your Mission Isn’t Sexy
Face it now, face it early. Your headquarters command gig is far more administrative than operational. The soldiers in your command are sustainers and supporters, with a handful of leaders from your organization’s organic branch to drive the overall mission. Your focus is generally on the less attractive training objectives. You plan and execute the endless and arduous AR 350-1 trainings. You nag the staff to attend yet another Resiliency training, or SHARP, or EO, or suicide prevention, or ASAP, or OPSEC class. You coordinate urinalyses, and you nag the staff to complete online training.
Of course there are strategies and diplomatic methods involved in being successful, and of course the job has a lot more involved than what I’ve just described, but what you come to realize is that even the simple things are exponentially harder to get accomplished. Sometimes getting 100% completion for online training feels like you just crushed a live fire exercise.
Your Ambitious Plans Make the CSM Giggle
The week before I took command, the CSM asked me if I was ready for the job. Is there really any other answer besides “hell yes!”? I then launched into describing some very ambitious plans about how I was going to take the organization to a whole new level in terms of readiness and expeditionary capabilities. I was going to leave my mark!
The CSM laughed, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “That’s great, sir. Let me know how it goes.” He walked away as I puzzled on his amusement.
I spent the first several months of my command planning and carrying out a simple field exercise while trying to wrap my head around supply, maintenance, and budget issues. There were a lot of lofty goals I never even came close to reaching throughout my time, but at some point I grew familiar and comfortable with my job and the left and right limits of what I could accomplish. I achieved smaller, more realistic goals and celebrated things like excellent support to deploying and redeploying companies, a robust Air Assault graduation rate, the establishment of a decent leader development program, stellar command climate surveys, and the development of a good unit training management program, among many other successes.
This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t accomplish big, ambitious goals, but don’t be surprised when you celebrate little things as big victories and big things as huge.
You’re a Glorified Facilities Manager
Flickering fluorescent lights? That’s you.
Latrine out of paper towels? That’s you.
Hey commander, those shower curtains are a little mildewy. Take care of that.
There’s no sugarcoating this inglorious part of your job. The smart commander has a designated facilities manager or two with all the right certifications and contacts along with a supply sergeant that keeps the unit comfortably stocked with toiletries and office supplies. However, that won’t stop the field grades in the organization from coming to you to handle a printer being out of ink or a door hinge coming loose.
I’d be lying if I said I was always the “smart commander” I write about above, but I had a great team to handle everything the unit demanded. As long as you can swallow the fact that one of your duties includes changing lightbulbs, you’ll come to realize that your whole role is enabling the organization in whatever ways that it requires. If you thought this job would be all guts and glory, someone sold you a hell of a line. I have some oceanfront property in Arizona you might be interested in.
You’re Not in the Rating Chain
A headquarters company commander rates literally only a few folks and senior rates not many more than that. In my case, as a detachment commander on what felt like a mini-MTOE, I never rated more than two folks at any given time. Nearly everyone in my command had their rating chain run through the S3 or XO.
But here’s the catch. You still command everyone in the organization. Maybe you don’t have a direct say on evaluations, but you’re still responsible for training, administration, accountability, UCMJ, and everything else. After all, you have to earn that “Commanding” line in your signature block.
This strange dichotomy may take some getting used to, but don’t put too much unnecessary brainpower behind it. You’re a leader, no matter what. You may just have to be more diplomatic than most line commanders. Within your command, you have same-ranked peers and higher-ranked leaders. Your patience will be tested in many ways, but you’ll be better for it.
Although I have yet to serve as a Battalion S3 or XO, I can see how my time as a headquarters organization commander can inform that future experience, both in terms of staff diplomacy and in understanding my future headquarters commander’s hard job.
You Really Can Make a Difference
Speaking of being a leader, despite all of the negativity you may glean from my ranting above, understand that a headquarters commander is still a leader in a green-tab leadership job perfectly positioned to make a real difference. First of all, as CPT Nusom writes in his piece, you are in a place to mentor junior staff officers, even if you don’t rate them. You’ve likely been in their boots. Time to give back.
Second, even though I complain about thwarted “ambitious plans,” you still have the chance—really the mandate—to move the needle, even if by a little bit. You’ll never have a perfect unit, but there are things you can do to improve the foxhole and to make your corner of the Army the best it can be.
Commander or not, headquarters unit or not, Army leaders have a very real responsibility to ensure they’re doing the best job possible to improve the team and the organization and to be mission-ready.
Command was one of the most challenging and professionally rewarding experiences of my short career, and the unique demands of commanding a headquarters unit stretched my abilities and grew me as a leader. Maybe I wasn’t training my team to kick in doors or assault an enemy position, but what I (really the talented folks in my unit) did was enable important things to happen.
Perhaps most telling of my cumulative experience, I didn’t end up giving a speech like this guy:
What’s your experience?
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