First of all, congratulations! You’ve probably been rowing in the S3 shop for at least twelve months, anxiously awaiting your turn to take the guidon. Well, the day is finally here. It is truly one of the best jobs in the Army. I took command of a Stryker cavalry troop in May 2023, a job that the Army and my leaders have been preparing me for since the day that I set foot in Fort Moore’s Patton Hall back in 2017. While all the lessons and experiences prior to command have helped shape me into the officer I am now, no amount of preparation can set you up for success if you’re not learning something new every day. Here are six of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my tenure that have made me a better commander for my soldiers, and I hope that they help on your journey.

Pace Yourself

Depending on the state of the unit when you assume command, you could have your work cut out for you, whether in one particular area or many. Perhaps you’re inheriting a well-oiled machine, and you can’t quite put a finger on where the organization is lacking. On the other hand, maybe issues that need to be addressed are immediately clear—training was poorly managed, your unit has a bad reputation with soldier issues, morale is underground, or your maintenance systems are severely lacking.

If there are multiple issues, you could attack them head on, but this is daunting and often fruitless. I call it “new commander brain,” and it’s extraordinarily difficult to avoid even if you’re aware of it—I find myself falling victim to the same pattern as I prepare for a second command. You are filled with hope and have a lot of awesome ideas for your command (even the best of companies have room for improvement!). However, you must set priorities and pace yourself and the soldiers. Make a full list of what you want to get after, determine which area demands your attention the most, and put your energy into improving it. Focus on one to two things at a time, and don’t be upset if those are the only one to two things you manage to address in your tenure. Some issues like bad culture or neglectful maintenance can be deep-seated and take significant time and effort to turn around. Any change in a positive direction is something to be proud of. Once you feel you’ve made sufficient progress (be sure to set specific, measurable goals), move down the list. If you’re struggling to determine the priorities for your unit, ask your first sergeant, the soldiers, and your battalion commander, and reference the battalion long-range training calendar to stay focused on what matters most.

Change is an Incremental, Painfully Slow Process

Change and growth take time. So. Much. Time. As an example, your subordinate officers are learning every day what it means to lead, how to manage systems, and how to plan effective training. No matter how many counseling sessions or LPDs (leader professional development events) you cram in a week, they won’t wake up at the end of the week as the perfect platoon leaders. It takes patience and dedication to seeing their development through. Over the period of a few months, they’ll absorb everything they’ve learned from you, their noncommissioned officers, and their training and it’ll start to click. There is no better feeling in the world than when that day comes and you realize they are briefing with ease, taking initiative with training, and leading from the front.

Being a commander requires you to have endless patience. Stay focused on the end goal and come to terms with the fact that it will take time to get there. When you do, you’ll realize it was all worth it.

Find Your Thing and Nurture It

Nobody is lying to you when they say that soldier issues will consume your time. Administrative and legal actions are tenuous processes, and they deserve your time and attention. But that does not mean that they should be your primary focus in command.

What do you care about? Personally, I love developing LPDs and tactical decision exercises for my junior leaders. A lot of tactical expertise is required to be a leader in a cavalry organization, and the most difficult task of all is learning how to interpret the information you’re receiving on the battlefield and making recommendations to the brigade commander. I take opportunities during working hours and after hours to challenge myself in creating learning opportunities for this training audience because it has given me the best opportunity to teach the importance of not just reporting but painting the picture. I also enjoy reading and writing on topics that are particularly important to me. Don’t neglect what matters to you, even when soldier issues take up time. If you do, you’ll find yourself drained and jaded in command. Give these soldiers their opportunity to improve, but if you find yourself more dedicated to their improvement than they are, it’s time to refocus your efforts. You’ve got a lot of other soldiers that deserve a commander who is excited to come to work and who stays focused on the positives.

Say It, Say It Again, and Again . . .

I’ll admit that I’m stealing this piece of advice from my squadron commander, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Things only happen if you apply nonstop pressure. If you’re finding yourself frustrated because something isn’t getting done, it is probably because you’ve failed to give clear guidance or a firm timeline, or (most likely) you haven’t followed up on the task. Your executive officer and platoon leaders are human, and other tasks come up. If you simply give a task and never check on the progress, they may assume that it’s on the back burner and prioritize other things. If it is important to you, make sure it is important to them. Have a tracking system so that you’re able to follow up appropriately.

Always Row in the Same Direction

I truly feel like the luckiest commander in the Army, because I have the best battle buddies in my first sergeant and executive officer. These two individuals are the reason our troop is as successful as it is. When you’re in command, never forget that these two people run your unit’s day-to-day operations to allow you to focus on leading the company. The most important component to your relationships with them is trust. Trust both individuals to get the job done, because not only will this empower them, but it is impossible to get your job done if you’re focusing on their efforts all the time.

For your executive officer, take off the kid gloves—it does no one any favors. I’ve ensured that my XO knows that despite wearing the same rank, he is not an equal to the platoon leaders, because he is not. If I die, he’s the commander for the troop. You need to be preparing your XO for the next step because it is coming a lot sooner than he or she thinks. Give them the left and right limits, communicate consistently, and back them up with the company and with higher-ups.

The first sergeant position may be a touchy subject for some of you. I have been blessed throughout my career to have top-notch noncommissioned officers as counterparts, and I am naturally inclined as a result to trust them. But I realize that not everyone has the same tremendously positive experiences that I have had. If not, don’t hold your past against them. It’s a hard position to reach, and until they have given you a reason to micromanage, don’t do it. It is impossible to act as both the commander and the first sergeant, so establish your lanes from the start if you have concerns.

Lean On and Be On the Team

If you and your peers are constantly jockeying for position, you’re wrong. You are in competition with each other for rating purposes, but nothing more. I’ve spent countless hours in my fellow commanders’ offices hashing out training, seeking advice, finding ways to approach various problems together, and just venting about the frustrations of command. It’s been an awesome experience cultivating trust and bonds that will last forever, and it’s a much better use of your time than cutting each other down. I have heard horror stories where this isn’t the case in some other units, and I think it’s a travesty. Set the example for teamwork to your soldiers by being the teammate your fellow commanders deserve. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and your weakness just might be someone else’s strength. Lean on each other! You’re all in it together.

Command is so much more than the culmination of the hard work that led to taking the guidon in the first place. Each day teaches you a lesson if you take the opportunity to continue to develop and refine your leadership style. Some things you do will work, and some won’t. Get comfortable with failure and give yourself and others grace when it happens. I wish you the best of luck.

Captain Haley Morton is an active duty armor officer currently serving as a Stryker cavalry troop commander in 4th Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Dean Johnson, US Army