Embrace Responsibilities of Being a Senior Commander

Embrace Responsibilities of Being a Senior Commander

Monday, September 12, 2022

Army Regulation 600-20: Army Command Policy defines the roles and responsibilities of a senior commander as follows: “The mission of the [senior commander] is to care for Soldiers, Families, and [Department of the Army] Civilians, and to enable unit readiness.”

Typically the senior general officer at an installation, the senior commander exercises command of Army installations. Not all commanding generals are senior commanders, but all senior commanders are commanding generals. Well, sort of.

What I have learned as a senior commander in close to four years across two installations is probably no different than any other senior commander who has had the privilege of being a commanding general with senior command responsibilities.

Nonetheless, what I was told prior to assuming this role varied in multiple ways. Before assuming command, I had the privilege of soliciting feedback from multiple general and flag officers who served as commanding generals with senior command authority. Senior command is only a burden or weight if one doesn’t understand what a senior commander is required to do and how to do it.

What I Was Told

I don’t profess to be an expert on senior command, and I have probably made as many mistakes, learned as many lessons and stepped in similar mud puddles as those before me. However, I have learned that senior command is something that must be embraced by the general officer in the seat. Many of us have heard or been told, “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.” It’s an adage that is true for a senior commander. The ultimate responsibility or mission as outlined in AR 600-20 is to “care for Soldiers, Families and DA Civilians.”

Each commander has a perspective going into command, and many of those perspectives are shaped by what has been learned through experiences observed or shared by the commander’s trusted advisers. As I reflect on senior command, I feel compelled to share things that I heard that bothered me when I heard them but have guided me in my approach to senior command.

The most common things I heard were along the lines of, “Hey, I give all of that crap to my garrison commander,” or “I didn’t get paid to be a senior commander. You will have a lot of other things to worry about.”

It also was obvious when a senior commander was active and engaged—or not.

There also often were questions about how a commander should split time between senior command and their Mission Command duties and responsibilities. In the end, like it or not, most senior commanders learn that they will devote a lot more time than they envisioned to wearing their senior command hat.

The golden rule of command and leadership that I have been taught is, “Do the things that only you can do.” As a senior commander, the garrison commander can do a lot for the team and installation. The garrison commander is the synchronizer and integrator of services and programs for the senior commander. There are a host of key functions, roles and responsibilities the garrison commander executes on behalf of the senior commander. In fact, and contrary to the aforementioned adage, there are duties and responsibilities the senior commander can delegate to the garrison commander unless they are “prohibited by law, regulation, or [Army] general orders.” Nevertheless, close coordination and direction by the senior commander to the garrison commander is needed and necessary.

Good, bad or indifferent, being a senior commander will easily consume a great deal of time (unless you are deployed), but it is through necessity that your experiences, knowledge and wisdom about the best ways to take care of your people will bear the most fruit.

What to Understand

The initial instinct for most senior commanders is to solve today’s problems. Who doesn’t like to roll up their sleeves and fix problems? Part of the bias to act versus the bias to understand is responding to today’s train wreck or tomorrow’s. I would argue that the value of the senior commander is to prevent the trains from wrecking at all, which by default necessitates a bias to understand.

So, what does the senior commander need to understand? There is a lot, and all are well defined in AR 600-20, but here’s a short list: long-term planning, community, budget and garrison functions. Here are some thoughts on each.

Long-term planning: In the book Legacy, which tells of the success of the All Blacks rugby team of New Zealand, team members strove to “be a good ancestor.” In perspective, good ancestors are those who “plant trees whose shade they will never see,” the book says, citing an Old Greek proverb. Put a different way by Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, he strives to “set conditions for success beyond my term.” This must be the goal for every senior commander. Short-term wins and programs are just that—short term.

Understanding processes and your role in them, such as real property planning boards, installation planning boards, range improvement, facilities management and protection councils, to name a few, place a senior commander in a position to be a “good ancestor.” Otherwise, you leave one helluva mess for your successor to clean up if you only focus on your term.

Community: The best advice I received before assuming a senior commander role was, “The community will want to love on you. … Let them!” What senior commander wouldn’t prefer to be on a live-fire range instead of attending the mayor’s town hall? The key thing to remember is that the community will remain long after you leave, and we serve the public. It is the senior commander’s responsibility and obligation to engage, interact and communicate with the community. You will be the Army’s senior representative in the community. Your soldiers, families and Army civilians not only live in the community; they are part of the community. The garrison commander can help lighten this load, and it will ebb and flow over time, but remember that you both will be “graded” on each interaction by those you engage with, whether you realize it or not. It’s important for the senior commander and garrison commander to be on the same sheet of music when engaging with those outside of the installation. Another helpful hint for a senior commander when it comes to the community is to engage whenever you can and as much as you can.

Budget: Funding is the most finite and constrained resource. Many senior commanders will come into the position with a good understanding of the types and categories of funding, but being a good steward of available resources is a different learning curve. As Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, director of the Army Staff and former commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division, astutely stated, “If all you do is ask for more resources, you are not helpful.” As a senior commander, you must understand how your budget works for your installation. Shape wise spending and be a good steward of leveraging resources for the long term.

Garrison functions: The garrison team does so much for a senior commander and the installation that not even AR 600-20 can adequately cover it. From the tangible to the intangible, the garrison team can make or break a command tenure. It is worth it—and highly encouraged, in my view—to have daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly touch points with the garrison commander and garrison team. Just as we use training meetings, quarterly training briefs and other events to conduct commander activities, the same can be true with the garrison team. The names will be different, but the ability to conduct commander activities with the garrison team similar to battalions and brigades is paramount. Viewing the garrison team as another regiment inside your formation is a good thing.

What to Do

Now that we have explored some of what you will be told and a lot of what you will need to understand, the next thing is to determine what you should do. I’ve found three things to be key to my role as a senior commander: communication, prioritization and engagement. There is no fancy acronym for this, and I wouldn’t dare try to create one. Nothing is as simple as it appears, and in many cases, it is similar to Dwight Eisenhower’s quote: “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.”

Senior command comes with a plethora of problems and challenges. Trying to make them smaller is fruitless. One of the best approaches to seeing problems and challenges clearly is by communicating them vertically and laterally. The means are important, and even social media enables a senior commander to not only share, communicate or illuminate challenges; it also sometimes enables solutions. There are many in the social media sphere who want to help you solve problems—and just as many who want to create them for you. The key is to communicate early, often and when the stakes are low.

Prioritization is the No. 1 task of any senior commander. You will be asked how to prioritize everything, from military construction to ranges. Priorities are your friend, as many of us have probably been told. However, prioritizing with an outcome in mind that spans beyond your tenure is key. Your priorities will be “mildly interesting” and “wildly entertaining” when you are viewed as not spending your time and focus where your priorities are. Your ability to prioritize and communicate them go hand in hand with your engagement.

As a senior commander, engagement at all levels is imperative, but it can and must be shared with the garrison commander. Community engagement—both inside and outside the confines of the installation—is key to creating a shared understanding of issues, challenges and progress. Engagement goes beyond “grip-and-grin” photo opportunities. Engagement should aim to establish meaningful, lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with community and installation partners. Simply said, engage with a purpose and, as a rule, no engagement is without purpose.

Engagement enables things that are good for the installation to be good for the community, and vice versa. Not every installation project or endeavor will benefit the community, but where they can, they should. As an example, a cut to child care off-post will have impacts on-post, and the opposite could be true as well. When engagements transform into relationships, second- and third-order impacts can be mitigated well before they are felt by the installation or the community. As a senior commander, key decisions will be what engagements to sustain, which ones are mutually beneficial and how many are needed to turn an engagement from transactional to transformative.

Senior command doesn’t have to be viewed as a burden or weight in your rucksack. It is a responsibility that must be embraced. The most important thing a senior commander can do during their tenure is demonstrate exemplary decision-making and conduct and demand the same from their teammates, because the senior commander sets the tone across the command and the installation.


Maj. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. is commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York. Previously, he served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson, South Carolina.