5 thoughts on “How to Think Like an Officer: A Prospectus

  1. When I first read the title I had to give a small chuckle. Way back in the 1980’s I worked for a Senior NCO whose favorite way of berating us young NCOs was to yell, “STOP THINKING LIKE AN OFFICER!!!!” whenever we were trying to solve a problem and he felt we were “overthinking” it.
    In my observations during my twenty-one year career in USAF it seemed to me that USAF Leadership moved away from leadership of troops and more towards management of troops. During that time it also seemed to me that it became a “Cardinal Sin” to exercise independent thought. I heard a lot of “I will tell you what you need to do and you will do nothing more!” Sadly I don’t think the senior leadership understood the long terms effects that attitude was to have. If you don’t learn to make decisions as a young officer how are you going to know how to make them as a senior officer?
    I enjoyed your article very much and I believe it could applied to the NCO corps as well. There are times when a NCO is operating in a leadership position and must be able to “Think like an Officer”.


    1. Sir, I once saw a picture of a t-shirt once that said, “Officers: Making Simple Shit Hard Since 1775”! I think you’re absolutely right about this applying to NCOs, and also about building the habit of making hard decisions early. It has also occurred to me that there is something to be said for thinking like an NCO or non-rate. Officers need sometimes to think as they do, see the mission from their perspective. Reading CJ Chivers’ recent book has helped to drive that home for me. The Marine Corps isn’t bad at allowing initiative, but we sometimes make up for that by being type-A control freaks. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Great commentary Sir, it was forwarded to all officers here in 1st MAW by the CG, from the MAG-12 CO, and so I just thought I’d reach out as a KP ‘01 Alum (I think you arrived shortly after I departed, but I remember hearing of you when I visited a few times while stationed in Quantico).

    I wanted to say that I agreed with you in all aspects of this paper except just one at the beginning as I read part of it to a young 1st Lt in my office a couple hours ago… I think it’s probably semantics or maybe you were using hyperbole, but it reminded me of a Gen Zinni speech to a TBS company back in 2012 when he was quoted by the base paper as saying “if there’s a single most important leadership trait it has to be competence, because personal character traits cease to matter if you don’t know what your doing.” When you state that “officer thought is the most defining aspect of military professionalism, more so than values, character or knowledge…” I think you’re stepping out on the same thin ice that Gen Zinni was on… Anytime we elevate anything to a position of preimenance, we inadvertently (though maybe unintentionally) devalue everything else, and this day and age we can’t afford to devalue character.

    I know you didn’t intend to devalue character — that’s not the point of the article, but a second order unintended consequence of the emphasis on thought (which, I might add is directly impacted, if not defined by an officers values, character and knowledge) is that the officer may cease to guard their integrity as closely and perhaps justify some moral compromise after applying relativistic thought…

    Perhaps I’m just narrowly focused on the importance of character as a Headquarters Squadron XO with my tactical days of flying aircraft in combat most likely behind me, and spending my days primarily dealing with behavioral issues of officers and enlisted alike… But for what it’s worth, I think I’d recommend perhaps rephrasing what is “the” most defining aspect of military professionalism to “one of the” most defining aspects, and say “along with” verses “more so than…”



    1. MOOP,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to the article. Yup, I might have overstated a bit. I think I was trying to get people’s attn, and also apply a corrective to to the neglect of thinking. I believe I make a more nuanced argument in the book I’ve been writing on the subject. I just signed a contract with Naval Institute Press,and I plan to get the complete manuscript to them this month, so I hope the book will be out in 2019. (Working title: “How to Think Like an Armed Forces Officer: A Guide for Officers and Others.”)

      You may have read some of the stuff out there about character not being as dependable as we’d like to think. I still think it’s important, but it can’t just be treated as as set of automatic reactions. The habits that work in one setting might fail us in another, unless we’re can step outside, self-consciously critique ourselves, etc.

      I also thought that at KP there was an emphasis on competence that sometimes crowded out character and ethics, which were too much left to example and osmosis.

      In the article on strategic thought that I link in the “Think” article, I throw out a warning against moral relativism. I don’t get around to that in that in the “Think” piece, but believe me I see the danger in that.

      If you like, I’d love to enter into a discussion of this with you or the other Marines down there. I append my email address in case.

      SF, RB


    2. I thought this excerpt from my forthcoming book might interest you. Any thoughts?

      Thought and Character

      The officer’s most prized possession is or ought to be his character. I have alluded to the importance character in the earlier parts of this book, most particularly in the section on moral prudence, and in other parts of the book I argue that character, as well as thought or intellect, is vital to the performance of an officer’s role. In this section, I will take on character as at least in part a cognitive challenge. In fact, I will suggest that the distinction between mind and character is not as sharp as it is sometimes implicitly understood. Like other human capacities, character may be partly innate, but we may also consciously think ourselves into character.
      Since Aristotle, character has been thought to be based on habit. In humans, who are less guided than animals by blind instinct, and still less like inanimate objects that assume a certain shape from use and environment, habits require the intervention of the conscious mind to acquire, apply, and adapt them. Some habits may creep up on us unawares, and we may even find ourselves one day with a character (not necessarily a bad one) that has been acquired willy-nilly, and without intention. This is the power of the environment to shape and guide us. In fact, most military institutions aim at the development of character, and include “character building” as part of their stated mission. Character development is thought to be imparted both by exposure to the cultures of these institutions and also (more recently) by programs specifically aimed at character development and assessment. Even at the service academies, however, where character is “on the menu” (and perhaps is even force-fed), the individual as well as the institution has an important reflexive and deliberative role to play in the development of her own authentic character.
      Some definitions of character will be helpful at this point. Philosopher Joel Kupperman says this, “X’s character is X’s normal pattern of thought and action, especially in matters related to the happiness of others and of X, and most especially in relation to moral choice.” Writing in The Armed Forces Officer, S.L.A. Marshall wrote “What is the main test of human character? Perhaps it is this: that a man will know how to be patient in the midst of hard circumstance, and can continue to be personally effective while living through whatever discouragements beset him and his companions. Moreover, that is what every civilized man would want in himself during the calmer moments when he compares critically what he is inside with what he would like to be.” Lord Moran, an army doctor in World War I who would go on to be Winston Churchill’s personal physician, wrote about British soldiers in the trenches “moving away from. . . primitive valour, fumbling for a type of soldier whose courage was a thought-out thing.” He concludes that “it is the thinking soldier who lasts in modern war.” Moran holds up as an example for character an aristocratic officer named Barty Tower. After Tower’s death in action, Moran reflects on how the combination of thought and imagination he saw in Tower had “blossomed into character,” allowing Tower to triumph over fear.
      History records examples of soldiers who appear to have consciously thought their way towards character. George C. Marshall was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, and he had excelled as a student and instructor at Army service schools, and he had the benefit (as we’ve seen), of some great mentoring, but his biographies and his own words give the impression that his most significant learning was on his own, and that he was his own best pupil. Thousands of officers had the benefit of similar educational experiences in the inter-war Army as did Marshall, but in only one case did these experiences add up to the World War II “Architect of Victory.” Marshall invited criticism and, according to his wife, was engaged in constant self-critique. Having disciplined himself to be able to give lectures (and later press conferences and testimony at Congressional hearings) without notes, he passed on this ability to his subordinates. This ability to think on one’s feet that he found so important in an officer went along with a consistent emphasis on creativity over rote solutions. The thoughts and plans an officer expresses must come not from a sheet of paper, still less a manual. They are an expression of character and conviction, of ideas matured over time. Marshall developed in himself and in his subordinates the ability and willingness to take responsibility for their own actions and over matters of enormous difficulty and importance. He expressed his desire to find subordinates who would not ask for permission, but take action and inform Marshall afterwards, anticipating the military adage that it’s sometimes better to ask for forgiveness than permission. One of the most impressive examples of this does not find Marshall in his role as an Army officer, but as adult friend and neighbor to a little girl. Marshall began a friendship with Rose Page Wilson when she was eight years old that lasted the rest of his life. Marshall, childless himself save for the children by a previous marriage of his second wife, and proverbially friendly and kindly towards children, offered corrections and encouragement. Wilson wrote to Marshall, “I’m a lot saner and better for having had your guidance and example to follow, I think you for all the advice and affection and even scoldings and I thank the Lord for your sense of humor which fitted all these into a workable formula.” One of Marshall’s most memorable lessons to Rose occurred when the young lady accused herself of being “dumb.” Marshall told her that she was not dumb, but rather sometimes lazy and inattentive, and that to excuse an error by calling herself dumb was “a weak pretense,” even a form of “cowardice.” Marshall tirelessly trained his own mind assiduously to meet the demands he might face, and he exercised enormous self-discipline in fulfilling his responsibilities, responsibilities which probably reached their height in his years as Army Chief of Staff from 1939-1945.
      In other officer memoirs and biographies (and I will have more to say about these later) we can see the contribution of thought to character. The officer and historian S.L.A. Marshall was an autodidact who acquired on his own the facility with words and mastery of a variety of texts and subjects that made him so successful as a field historian and writer. After his service in World War I, an unemployed and married Marshall grasped at journalism as a way out of a rudderless existence. Words became his salvation. Lacking a formal education past high school, he became his own academy, reading, building a personal library and voluminous files until he had acquired both an impressive amount of knowledge of contemporary military trends and the character of an officer, so that he was able to rise in the Army during and after World War II, writing official publications and also publishing books commercially. Marshall’s masterpiece is likely the original 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer which is part of the inspiration for this work. Marshall’s book exemplifies the importance of reading and reflection in the development of character, and the importance of character in intellectual development.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s