Top 10 Mistakes Made by Platoon Leaders

If you are a brand new Commissioned Officer, listen up!  As a seasoned Platoon Leader myself, and having been an NCO beforehand, I have had the great fortune of understanding how new Platoon Leaders get started on the wrong foot and earn their stereotypical reputations.  I have spoken with NCOs, Platoon Sergeants, Company Commanders and the like and here are the Top 10 Mistakes Made by Platoon Leaders.

1) Poor Delegation – It basically all starts with poor delegation of duties.  A lot of green “butter-bars” do not understand the importance of delegation or they think because they are in charge they can tell people what to do, but that is not delegation.  Delegation is an important aspect of the job as a Platoon Leader and you have to understand what needs delegated, when, and to whom you should delegate to.  As Andrew Carnegie once said, “No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.”

2) Negligent Oversight of Team Members – Along with poor delegation of duties, new PLs often fail to oversee the execution of those duties. Letting everything slide.  You can delegate authority and tasks, but you can never delegate responsibility for delegating a task to someone else. If you picked the right Soldier, fine, but if you picked the wrong Soldier, the responsibility is yours, not his for the success and failure of your Platoon.  Just because you have delegated a task, doesn’t mean you wash your hands of it.  You must provide that oversight and control to ensure that things are accomplished to standard and within your intent.

3) Failure to Inform Leaders of Shortcomings – Many PLs remain absolutely clueless right up to the end which is reflective of their own leadership shortcomings.  Why struggle that long?  Shortcomings are not like wine, they do not get better with time.  If you don’t know something…ask!  Suck up your ego and realize that as a 2LT, yes, you are a Commissioned Officer, but you are still learning the ropes.  Take advantage of that, because later in your career there will not be much leeway for not knowing.

4) Fostering of a Negative Environment – Some PLs sour the atmosphere for everyone in the Platoon. This is a little difficult to explain without possibly offending anyone, but…some people were just not born to be a Platoon Leader.  Sure, you graduated college and earned your Commission, but perhaps you’d be better off preparing slideshows and writing memos.  Soldiers will pick up on this very quickly and will begin to assess whether you belong or not.  My tip…from day one, act like you belong there!

mistakes by platoon leaders
Top 10 Mistakes by New Platoon Leaders

5) Procrastination – Leaving things to the last minute is never a good idea, and most PL’s fail to use the time available to them now to ensure that things get done.  I see this time and time again.  Whether it be from ignorance (not really knowing what your job is) or pure laziness, PLs with bad reps are the ones who are not proactive and getting things done.  For example, you may have some Platoons who hand in their NCOERs weeks before they are due…and you have those who struggle to get them in even after they’re due.

6) Assuming Unrealistic Responsibilities – Most accept the promotion knowing that they have no experience or qualifications, and really no right to be a Leader of Soldiers. Oftentimes they accept responsibility for the things that they don’t know first thing about! Understanding your realistic expectations is always a good idea as a new PL.  Spend a good amount of time truly understanding what your job is as a Platoon Leader before you walk into your first drill thinking you know what it is all about…

7) Taking a Commission for the Wrong Reasons – Believe it or not, some Lieutenants accept the position out of spite for their peers or someone else. Using the position solely to gain power over another Soldier is inappropriate.  For example, I once knew of some prior enlisted Soldiers (young Privates) who were in college and because they didn’t like their current Squad Leader, they decided that they would join ROTC and become a 2LT.  To me, this is the worst reason to become an Officer.  If you do not have the purest intentions of leading Soldiers…just don’t do it.

8) Letting Soldiers Dictate Your Actions – Some PLs really have no idea what to do when things don’t go right, and come up with a bad plan because of pressure and irresponsible behavior on the part of his Soldiers. A strong Leader would realize that even if your Soldiers think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it is.  In fact, some Soldiers want to see you fail.  While it is always a good idea to consult with your Platoon Sergeant, never let your other Soldiers start calling the shots.  You are the Platoon Leader.

9) Poorly Executing Bad Ideas –If all you have is a bad plan, your better execute it well.  Reality most times is that PLs have some bad plans and this becomes even worse when they execute poorly.  I don’t know if it is a lack of confidence or overthinking what you are doing, but PL’s often “make simple sh*t hard”.  To me, there is not remedy for this other than to know that as a new PL you will be susceptible to this and you need to learn as much as your can as to be confident and develop good plans.

10) Blaming Other People for Leadership Failings – In the end PL, you have no one else to blame but himself, and trying to put the blame on other in front of everyone only makes it worse! A leader has to accept responsibility for the failings of their team.  After all, with every failure (which is going to happen) comes the opportunity to learn and grow.  Take it for what it is worth and move on.  Blaming others will only make your new learning harder for yourself.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Take these tips to heart, if you are a new PL, or even if you are a seasoned Officer.  Again, these are just my observations and opinions but I do believe that if you avoid these 10 things, you will be set up for success!

What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comment area below. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Top 10 Mistakes Made by Platoon Leaders”

  1. Interesting post and really great tips for anyone stepping into a Platoon Leader position. One question I have is how to know when you’re being too “buddy-buddy.” You want to maintain authority, but you don’t want to be hated. How do you find the middle ground? Any advice for specific situations to avoid?

    1. Here are some tips to help you keep from being buddy-buddy.

      1) Never hang out with Soldiers on a 1-on-1 basis
      2) Never be on a first name basis with anyone in your platoon
      3) Never think of your soldiers as your friends

      Being a leader means keeping a separation with your subordinates and keeping your relationship(s) professional, not turning it into a friendship.

      I hope that helps.

  2. Katelyn Hensel

    Fostering a negative environment is a huge problem, from the military, to the corporate world, to seventh grade girl’s birthday parties. There are just some people how always have to find something to complain about, something to bash, or something to just mope about. This sours relations for everyone around that person, and makes for an environment where people are unresponsive and unproductive. I can understand that some people were just not born to be a Platoon Leader. They might be well qualified on paper, but to actually stand up and lead, they seem to fall short.

    1. You’re right about that Kate. Some people complain no matter what. Being optimistic and having a good attitude are an important part of being an effective military leader. Yes, you have to be a realist too, but if you are always focused on the negative you won’t have a very motivated team.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Neil and Chuck. Chuck, I would have to agree that another big mistake is PLs being “buddy-buddy” with their Soldiers. To me, the best way to avoid that is to utilize your support chain. Not saying be an asshole, but use your NCOs to get your Joes to get things done. Speak through your PSG and not to other NCOs unless need be. Working with your peers is also huge. Many PLs have been doing it for a while and have some good insight. Sometimes that intimidates us and we want to outdo them and refuse to work with them. That only hurts us and our Soldiers…

    1. Trying to outdo your peers is a huge mistake. When you work together everyone wins. As a Platoon Leader I did a horrible job working with my peers. That’s one of the biggest regrets in my officer career. Another regret was trying to be “buddy-buddy” with my Soldiers and NCOs when I was a young Platoon Leader. As I gained experience, I learned not to do that anymore.

  4. Neil ODonnell

    I would imagine a great way to avoid mistakes is to ask superiors what traps to look out for. Since they have been in your shoes, they know what to expect.

  5. Great article, Justin.

    The two biggest mistakes I see most Platoon Leaders make are:

    1) Trying to be buddies with their Soldiers
    2) Not working collaboratively with the other Platoon Leaders in their unit

    All of the common Platoon Leader mistakes that you listed are spot on.

    Thanks for sharing.

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