Do Previously Enlisted Soldiers Make Better Leaders As Officers?

It is a question that will garner a wide variety of answers: Do previously enlisted soldiers make better leaders as officers? This is not an easy question to answer because any answer could be both right and wrong.

I recall working in a large metal fabrication facility as a civilian, and we would often talk about how the shop foreman had come straight out of college and because he had family in the right places, he walked into the position. To be very honest, his leadership skills were terrible, and we made it even harder on him because of the way he attained the position.

But, there was also another leader on a separate shift that had worked for approximately 15 years on the floor. He had worked his way to a leadership position, and I would say that his leadership abilities were as bad, if not worse than the other guy.

I also saw other leaders that came from both sides that were highly competent leaders. So it really didn’t matter if they worked on the floor or gained their position through education. The leaders were either good or bad no matter how they gained that leadership position.

I believe it works the same way in the Army. There are both good leaders and bad leaders; some came straight from West Point or ROTC, and others were enlisted and chose to go to Officer Candidate School and get commissioned as officers.

What Some Have Said

I decided to take a look at multiple forums and discussion sites on this subject. What do other soldiers and officers have to say about this subject? Do keep in mind that in the Army, they refer to previously enlisted officers as Mustangs.

From Blackfive“I’ve known Mustangs who were the worst officers in the service. Some just became officers in order to stop painting rocks or pull KP. I’ve known West Pointers who were absolutely terrible, too.”

From Major Chris Nelson“Some (very few, but they are out there), feel that because they were enlisted they know EXACTLY what the enlisted job is, and will not bend an inch to help with the mission and are very quick to remind the enlisted troops what they need to do. MOST, I feel have an additional insight that will help them lead and work with enlisted. The fact that they have “been there, done that” sits well with many enlisted members. It also lends a degree of credibility when they speak.”

From Tymon Kapelski“The officers I respected most were the prior enlisted officers. Enlisted soldiers bear the brunt of the military, they’re the ones that do the heavy lifting, shitty details, and vast majority of the fighting. Enlisted soldiers pull the howitzer lanyard, man the crew served weapons, drive trucks through gates, clear houses, and sleep in the dirt. The only officers I ever had get dirty with everyone else were the prior enlisted, because they knew what it was like to do what they are asking you to do.”

And From Anonymous – “A wise old Master Sergeant once told me that there are three types of former enlisted officers: 1) those who are still enlisted in their thinking and behavior, even though wearing officer rank (which is bad); 2) those who forget that they were enlisted and think of themselves as superior in every way to enlisted troops and therefore treat them badly (also bad); 3) and those who capitalize on their enlisted experience in a positive way, neither forgetting that they are mustangs nor behaving like they still wear stripes (good). I worked with, for, and led some of each. Obviously, the third type is preferable.”

And My Thoughts

Out of all these comments, the one from anonymous stands out the brightest. I truly believe that leadership is only for a certain few. I have met both good and bad leaders from both sides of the fence. If we look at some of the Army’s top leaders, we find that many were never enlisted: General Colin Powell, General Petraeus, etc… But there have been some great leaders who were enlisted too: General Walter Krueger, General Courtney Hodges and General Frank Grass who is the current Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

So essentially, a good leader can come from either zone.

President Abraham Lincoln said it well with this quote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Final Thoughts

Let the comments flow…I would like to hear your thoughts on this debatable subject. Do you think prior enlisted makes better officers? Just post your comments in the section below. If you have any questions, you can post them there too.

Please do not use names of any officers or soldiers unless it is positive. If you have a story to tell of either good or bad leadership, that is good, but if it is negative, please leave their name anonymous. Thank you.


  1. Does Enlisted Time Make An Officer A Better Leader?
  2. Do prior enlisted service members make better officers?
  3. Should I enlist first, or go for OCS first?
chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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