Stay in the Army Line Units as Long as Possible

One of my old Army mentors, CPT Goins, once shared some amazing career advice with me that I never forgot.  He told me to stay at the bottom as long as you can and then go straight to the top!

He explained to me that the best thing you can do is stay in line units (battalion and below) as long as possible, preferably until you’ve done EVERY job in those units.

For officers, stay in line units until you finish Battalion Command.  For NCOs, stay in line units your entire career.

As I matured, got promoted and advanced my career, I quickly discovered that this advice is very true.

The best leaders I ever served with had TONS of “line” experience.  Most of them had never been outside of a line unit, and if they had, it wasn’t for very long.

In the Army, the “line” is where it’s at.

Deployable units.  MTOE units.  That’s what the Army is all about.

All other jobs and units come SECONDARY to these units.  I’m not knocking other types of units, but the experience in those units is inferior to the line units.

You won’t get the same leadership experience as an instructor or staff person, that you would in a line unit.  You won’t get the same combat experience.  You won’t get the same tactics or training experience, either.

Many Officers and NCOs make the mistake of leaving a line unit too early.  They either don’t like the field time, the responsibility, or the high OPTEMPO.

So they run to positions that are less stressful, easier, and don’t require much effort or leadership.

As a result, they don’t get the experience, leadership training, or skill-set that they COULD have, had they stayed in the line.

Why do you want to be in line units?

First of all, the mission of the Army is to fight and win our nation’s land wars.  It’s the MTOE units that do that.  You won’t get much experience deploying, doing tactics, or anything combat related in a non-deployable unit.  Last time I checked, school houses and TDA units don’t go to the field much or deploy much.

Next, true leadership is learned and developed in the line units.  These units have lots of Soldiers, opportunities for leadership, schools, and real world experience.  Leading a few Soldiers as a Staff Officer or Staff NCO is not the same as leading a squad in combat.

I also believe that line units have lots of opportunities for advancement.  Most of these units are filled with leadership jobs, if you want the responsibility.

On a side note, I’m not telling you NEVER to leave a line unit.  Sometimes you have to take a staff job or a TDA unit position to get promoted.  When that happens, by all means do it.

But NEVER leave the line for more than 18 months.  If you do that, you will lose a lot of your leadership and tactical skills, you will soften up, and you will become what I call “out of reality.”

To me, the worst leader in the Army is someone who has never been in a line unit and/or deployed.

Nothing beats real world experience.

After all, who would you rather have as your combat leader? Would you rather have a leader that spent the last 15 years in staff jobs and TDA units and never deployed or supervised anyone? Or, would you rather have a leader who has held every leadership job in your unit and has several deployments under his belt?

I know who I would rather serve with.

The longer you are out of the line, the worse you become as a leader.  And once you lose those leadership skills, it will be hard to get them back.

What do you think?  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

*** This is part of a mini-series.  Read the original post about my 37 Career Tips.

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8 thoughts on “Stay in the Army Line Units as Long as Possible”

  1. I agree: the best leaders are almost always the ones who have spent enough time in the front lines, whether that is in the military or civilian arena. How can you lead people if you do not know what they are doing, or have never experienced their day-to-days yourself? Your mentor sounds like he was very wise, and you were wise to listen to him.

  2. I admit I have a mixed response to this. On one side I sincerely believe that an effective leader should have an active role or experience in EVERY position they have command over. On the other side I think it is a little harsh to say they will go soft if they leave and not return to the line.I also understand the point of staying on line as long as possible then catapulting yourself through the ranks. That may be good for the individual but it also leaves the potential for a huge gap in the middle ranks who do not know their butt from a hole in the wall. Just my opinion.

    1. The Army is really about the “deployable” units.

      From my experience, when a Soldier works in non-deployable unit too long, they lose their battle focus, warrior mindset and tactical skills.

  3. That mentor of yours gave you some very good and practical advice. The best leaders are the ones from line units. I like what Candace said; anyone can lead a desk. Now with that being said, I must also mention that the Army does still need desk jockeys. If that is your call, then by all mean, do it to the best of our ability. Everyone placed in positions in the Army have a use and are needed.

  4. Chuck, thanks for sharing your insights on this topic. I think that line units are where it is at, no matter what your MOS is. I call it, 'being operational', and I am NOT in any kind of hurry to command a desk.

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