What is the process of rising to a high rank in the Army?

Stephen Maranian

February 6, 2023

Stephen Maranian - Process of rising to a high rank in the Army

If you are wondering what it takes to rise to a high rank in the Army, you are not alone. Whether you’re serious about a career in the Army or aren’t quite sure yet if a career is in your long-term plans, it’s essential to have a clear idea of what it’s like to get your foot in the door and what skills you will need to have.

Get a bachelor’s degree

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree is an essential first step to becoming a commissioned officer. This can be done by attending the United States Military Academy – better known as West Point, going to a civilian college or university and participating in their Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, or by obtaining a degree, then joining the Army and attending Basic Combat Training and Officer Candidate School. 

By following one of these three paths, you will earn a commission as a Second Lieutenant which is the lowest officer rank in the Army.

Study hard and become an expert in your chosen field

Once you become a Lieutenant, you will attend an Army school called the Basic Officer Leadership Course (BOLC). It is designed to provide you with the knowledge and skills to be an effective leader in your chosen field. Whether you join the Infantry, Cyber, Field Artillery, or any other branch, if you want to rise in rank in the Army you must study hard from the beginning to become an expert in your field. This is not easy; you must be ready to commit your time and energy to the profession. Knowing what you’re getting into and relishing the opportunity is essential.

Doing well at BOLC is only the first step to becoming an expert. You must commit to life-long learning both in progressively more difficult courses as you become more senior as well as on-the-job training – getting your hands dirty and learning from the Soldier you lead. A successful officer is always looking to improve their knowledge and hone their leadership skills

Be flexible and take hard jobs when offered

As you progress through the ranks you should seek opportunities to take hard jobs. Jobs like serving as a company commander, battalion operations officer, or brigade-level staff officer are difficult, and those that perform well improve their chances of promotion to higher ranks. A lucky few will get to serve on the staff of general officers as an aide-de-camp, or in another role. Officers aspiring to rise in rank should be flexible and always take opportunities that present themselves to take on difficult assignments. 

Sometimes these hard jobs will take you to places that weren’t in your original plan; roll with it! This is an excellent way to see how the Army works and to gain experience that will serve you well later in your career. You will also gain insights into your personality, strengths, and weaknesses. 

Look for mentorship opportunities

There is no set path for every officer to advance, so maintaining flexibility and following the advice of mentors and advocates is essential. Some mentor relationships come naturally based on the commanding officers you work for in your Army assignments. Other opportunities come through networking and connections with peers. Mentors are usually senior to their mentees in rank and experience and are eager to share their experiences and advice with younger officers to develop them and “pay forward” the mentoring they received as younger officers.

Maintaining a relationship over time with a mentor can be extremely beneficial. As the relationship grows and both officers move up the ranks the younger officer not only receives advice but sometimes the relationship can also lead to excellent assignment opportunities. The mentor benefits as well from gaining insight into the climate in their organization and understanding the thought process of junior leaders. Along the way, both mentor and mentee will no doubt serve with superstars who will rise to the top in the Army. 

Do a good job and be an excellent teammate.

One of the most essential elements of rising in rank is performing well in each job. The Army is a team of teams and at every level, a successful officer must work by, with, and through not only their team, but they must work to make the greater enterprise better by working well with their peers. An officer will not rise to the top by withholding their good ideas that make only their team successful. It may work in the short term, but senior officers and your bosses are looking for team players who make their entire organization better.

Take care of your people

Most important of all, the Army is an organization full of people. If you want to rise to a high rank in the Army, you must take care of your people. You may think this applies only to soldiers, but in fact, it includes your soldiers, their families, and as you rise in rank, civilian employees and their families too. Excellent communication skills, displaying genuine caring, empathy, and sincere humility are key skills and attributes which you will require to effectively take care of your people. You can’t fake this. You cannot rise to the highest ranks without a genuine love of your teammates and those that do, reap the rewards of loyal, dedicated members of their team who strive to make their leader successful.

There is much more to rising in rank over a decades-long career, but if you follow these steps above, you will be well on your way.