“Administrative discipline is the index of combat discipline. Any commander who is unwilling or unable to enforce administrative discipline, will be incapable of enforcing combat discipline. An experienced officer can tell, by a very cursory administrative inspection of any unit, the caliber of its commanding officer.” –GEN George Patton, referenced in Commons Sense Training: A Working Philosophy for Leaders, by LTG (Ret.) Arthur S. Collins
On the spectrum of what is urgent and important as a leader, I firmly believe that leader development is one of the most important. But we can only effectively tackle leader development if we are organized to deal with the urgent and other necessary stuff like administrative issues. A leader must be personally organized, and must ensure his/her organization is as well, in order to maximize impact on those important things like leader development.
I write about this now because it is extremely relevant to my current job and I am learning this necessity the hard way. As a Tactical Officer (TAC) of a 120-Cadet company at the United States Military Academy (USMA), my primary responsibilities are Cadet leader development and being the integrator of the four pillars of their development (academic, military, physical, and character). However, I can only begin to think about getting after these priorities if I have comprehensive and effective organizational systems. I am the legal commander of the Cadet company, but I don’t have the headquarters staff of a “normal” company commander, so my days can quickly become overwhelmed by administrative demands. I must have strict personal and company systems in place so we can get to that “graduate level” of leader development that we have the potential to with the Cadets.
So far, I’ve learned there are three key elements to a company-level leader’s personal organization: a calendar, a battle rhythm, and a task tracker. These three tools create the foundation for your personal organization and allow you to forecast time and tasks in the future, better plan and prepare for upcoming events, and use your time effectively and efficiently. My current boss routinely asserts that “great units do routine things routinely” and I think these three tools allow leaders to do just that.
Below I expand on considerations and recommendations for the three tools: calendar, battle rhythm, and task tracker to help others best materialize these. This post and these recommendations are primarily intended for company-grade officers and below. At the battalion levels and higher, units tend to have these systems well established, but I’ve learned that not all companies leverage these well, if at all. Platoons and below, especially, generally don’t have systems like these in place and I truly believe they can make daily operations as those levels significantly better. Ultimately, I recommend leaders start at the individual level; build these tools and systems for yourself and then expand them to your organization to make your outfit both effective and efficient.
You must plan out your days and your weeks; you cannot react day-to-day to the urgent fires or meetings. You need a calendar to map out how you use you time and must schedule the important things in advance so that the “urgent” issues don’t overwhelm them. For example, as a TAC, it is important to me to visit my Cadets in their academic classes; it’s a great opportunity to see my Cadets in action, to see what they are learning, and to enact some leader presence when I don’t get to own their time each day. In order to prevent daily “emergencies” disallowing me to visit classes twice a week, I plan out my class visits two weeks in advance, contact the instructor, and put it on my calendar. Leaders need to do the same with leader development sessions, counselings, and even their time for leadership by wandering around!
A calendar can be digital or analog. I encourage leaders to determine what platform is best for them based on their work context. As a company commander in the operational Army, I found that a digital Outlook calendar worked best. However, as a TAC, I am rarely in my office throughout the day and I can be meeting up to 10 Cadets or coworkers a day, so I can’t rely on a digital calendar source as much; I don’t want to be overly reliant on my computer or phone. Thus, I currently use an analog calendar, which is actually the USMA Cadet planner. It fits and travels well in my leader binder.
For those looking into digital options, primary ones to consider are Outlook calendar or a Google calendar, which offers great, easy access via cell phone. No matter the platform, I encourage leaders to create a robust calendar legend where you color-code events. This allows you to better analyze how you use you time each week (do I see a lot of a certain color each week? What does that mean? Is that an important or urgent type of event?). I set up re-occurring events across the week to keep a running legend on my calendar each week. The picture below shows my digital calendar legend for my current TAC job. This serves as a banner across the top of the calendar each week for easy reference.
At the personal and organizational level, there are routine things that you need to do routinely. It is important to capture those in a simple snapshot. What meetings do I have tomorrow? What products or information must I submit to higher headquarters on Wednesday? If not managed well, things like these can easily lead you to lose control of your day. A leader needs to have a personal battle rhythm. A small-unit formation, even down to the squad level, should have a battle rhythm. I create a one-page product broken down by day, Monday through Friday, and additional components for things that need to occur daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. I check this document every day and carry it in my personal leader binder; it is my essential checklist.
This is the battle rhythm I created for myself while in company command, which I first introduced in the Company Command Series Part III. It was more unit-tailored and less about personal requirements. Looking back, I wish I made this my unit battle rhythm, specifically, and made a different one for personal items.
This is my personal battle rhythm I am continuing to refine currently as a TAC. It only lists organizational battle rhythm events that apply personally to me. This lists due dates, meetings, and routine tasks.
Finally, how are you keeping track of your to-do list(s), statuses of on-going projects, personal reminders, and assigned task suspenses? There really is an art to doing this well, and to be honest, I don’t think I’ve truly cracked the code on how to do this well at the personal level. I used to keep my to-do list on a legal pad; I naturally prefer legal pads over notebooks and using this method forced me to re-write my to-do list at least weekly. This made me mentally re-address each task every time I wrote it so it wouldn’t get forgotten or ignored over time. Unfortunately, my to-do list(s) now cannot fit on a single sheet of legal pad. I require a more complex platform.
So, I’ve turned digital. Many will argue for Evernote, which I do fully support. However, there are some apps out there that better fit my style. Right now, I use Wunderlist, which is a web-based list application. I create different lists and tasks within each list. For a task, I can add a suspense and/or reminder, sub-lists, notes, etc. The suspense date aspect helps me remain aware of what is urgent. The “today” and “week” viewing options allow me prioritize my to-do list and keep a snapshot of my short-range targets. I like Wunderlist particularly because it’s a sleek and user-friendly design, has a desktop and phone app, and works well on webpage browsers so I can access basically anywhere and at any time. Task tracker / to-do list structuring is highly individual, so I encourage you to experiment with a few options or talk to others on how they manage theirs (it’s literally taken me years of experimentation to get to this point…and I’ll likely be using a different system years from now).
Like many things, including leadership and leader development, I continue to learn through my experiences and education. I refine my personal systems based on ideas from others and, of course, trial and error. I encourage you to start testing ideas that work for you!
As a student of individual organization myself, I am always interested in seeing how others get and remain organized as busy leaders with sustainable systems and products. I encourage you to share your methods and ideas with others so we can all benefit. Feel free to share in the comments below or on 3×5 Leadership social media (links to Facebook and Twitter below). I look forward to hearing from you!
The thoughts in this post reflect my personal opinions and recommendations only, and do not reflect that of the USMA or the US Army.
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