Academic journal article Military Review

Assignment: Special Assistant to the Commander

Academic journal article Military Review

Assignment: Special Assistant to the Commander

Article excerpt

If you are or will be serving (especially for the first time) in a higher headquarters--such as service component command, combatant command, service staff, or joint staff--it is likely that you will be assigned to or collaborating with something called a commander's action group (CAG). These are also known as commander's initiatives groups, commander's special studies groups, or special assistants groups. If you are assigned to one, you may carry the duty title of special assistant (SA), and your duty description will likely be broad and vague. Additionally, if you are like most first-timers in a CAG, you probably will have heard little to nothing about them in prior assignments.

Yet, in today's military, CAGs are very common and play important roles in the handling of routine informational needs of senior military leaders. Once only associated with four-star headquarters, these ad hoc teams have proliferated down to staff directors at three- and two-star-officer level or equivalent civilian levels in response to requirements. In my observations, senior field grade officers are frequently called upon to join CAGs without a clear understanding of what the role entails beyond being ready to provide "whatever the boss needs" (1) Moreover, some SAs are transients, temporarily assigned for a year or less to gain exposure to the senior leadership environment while awaiting their next assignment, potentially as battalion or brigade commanders. Thus, many SAs learn enough about their particular responsibilities to succeed but do not always gain the broader perspective of what capabilities CAGs can offer to Army leaders.

I served as an SA to various commanders of service component, joint, and combined commands for 10 years, and led action groups for five of those years. Those assignments were tremendously rewarding and allowed me to see first-hand how several general officers and equivalent-level civilians perceived their environment, engaged with stakeholders, made decisions, formulated and communicated their vision, and ultimately accomplished their missions (with varied levels of success). It was eye-opening how differently each commander operated, including the degree to which things at the senior levels got done through informal means--for instance, through collaboration and negotiation--rather than formally through the military bureaucracy.

Performing the duties of an SA can sometimes have the feel of walking on eggshells. The job has a learning curve that is uncomfortably steep. Tasks like speechwriting, ghostwriting, special projects, and internal consulting are generally highly sensitive and fraught with procedural and cultural challenges that could put unwary SAs in untenable positions within the headquarters. Completing assigned tasks is always the easy part. The hard part is ensuring that CAGs remain helpful conduits of information and are effective in getting non-routine things done between staffs and leadership while not being viewed as duplicating staff responsibilities and roles.

The purpose of this article is to introduce and summarize four common duties that SAs perform. These are, based on my experiences as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, special projects officer, internal consultant, and commander's archivist. I offer these perspectives for both SAs and the leaders they will serve. I present these views knowing the sensitivities involved in even defining the roles of CAGs and SAs, but I have become convinced that it is better to be more transparent about the expectations rather than less. (2) After all, CAGs are emerging as commonplace within U.S. military organizations.

Special Assistant as Speechwriter

When asked by nonmilitary people what I did as an SA, I usually responded "speechwriter," as it is the one duty that requires the least amount of explanation. Commanders spend a lot of time communicating orally and in writing with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders through speeches, papers, presentations, and video (such as scripted messages for American Forces Network spots). …

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