Hints to General Staff Officers (1964)

By Lieut.-Colonel C.H.A. East, Royal Australian Infantry
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1964
[Reprinted from the November 1963 issue of the Australian Army Journal.]

I have presumed to offer advice on this subject following a somewhat lengthy sequence of General Staff appointments over the last ten years. I would hasten…to add that these are my personal views based on my own experience, and I realize that not everyone will necessarily agree with me. I have taken the Division and the Brigade as a background to this paper, but the points I hope to make affect General Staff officers as a whole and not solely the GSO I or Brigade Major. The sequence of the paper is really based on a list of "do's" and "don'ts" and is subdivided under the following headings:

  1. Relations with Commander.
  2. Relations with own staff.
  3. Relations with Administrative staff.
  4. Relations with Higher and Lower Formations.
  5. Relations with clerical staff.

Relations with Commander

The first and most obvious requirement is to study the personality of your commander. This falls into two parts—prior to his or your arrival at the headquarters, and subsequently when you are working together. In the first case it is simply a matter of finding out his previous military background if you are not already aware, of it. This knowledge will facilitate your getting on the relaxed terms…essential to a commander and his senior staff officer.

The second part of knowing the personality of your commander depends a great deal on who he is and how easy he is to get on with. Make a point of finding out quickly what he likes or dislikes; e.g., some like "paper" and want to see everything some don't. Some leave you alone whereas some don't. Some commanders like their staff officers to be in the office with them while they are going through papers. I suggest that a commander in this category should be discouraged as you will never have enough time to get on with your job. However, by studying his methods you will soon find the right tactics to adopt in your dealings with him. Tactics are very important. You must get to know his moods and…the best time to put suggestions to him. I found, for instance, that the worst time to suggest business was just prior to a golf match or a race meeting. (I might quickly point out that these two examples apply to different commanders.) Conversely, I found that a profit-able time and place to settle matters was while driving with the commander on visits to units in his car as opposed to the office. My second point is the requirement to gain his confidence. I suggest the best way to do this is: 1. Always be honest with him. 2. When asked your opinion give your own views and not those you think he wants. Don't be a "yes" man. 3. If you or your staff commit a nonsense let him know so that he is not caught unawares by some irate senior General Officer. I believe in dealing with the commander personally in all matters and rarely allowing any of my staff direct access unless the commander sends for an individual. If you must have an expert in, ensure that you are there yourself. Encourage your commander to avoid detail—that is what you are paid to look after. In this way you spare him and reserve him for the important aspects of making policy decisions, commanding and visiting his units. Finally, by example, ensure that the commander is treated as a god in his formation. Never permit criticism by anyone, make certain that any decision of his is carried out as quickly as possible, and that be is always put first and given the best of everything. Put him on a pedestal and keep him there.

Relations with Own Staff

In this part I have tried to give some hints on what to do when you first arrive at the headquarters. Irrespective of your rank, I suggest that when you first arrive, any temptation to be a "new broom" be resisted strongly. Go quietly until you understand the system and what goes on. If you try to seize the reins too strongly or obviously you may well get off to a bad start from which it may be very difficult to recover. This approach is one I recommend for a staff officer, NOT a commander, who must undoubtedly take charge and show that he is the commander, from the outset. Be careful of making too many changes until you have been there some time. It takes a period to get to know your subordinates and first impressions are not always right. Also, remember that your predecessor was not necessarily a fool and had, no doubt, good reasons for the systems which you may decide to change. One of your main tasks as Grades One and Two Staff Officers is to make sure that your staff works as a team. They must be capable fellows, naturally, but I believe that the officer who is not quite so efficient but who works well in the team is preferable to the brilliant one who is difficult and rubs people up the wrong way. Individualism is fine for commanders, but has no place in the staff. I am convinced that team-work is the most important factor in the working of any staff. How can you foster it? Firstly, it should begin with the senior staff officer and work downwards. Whether you are Chief of Staff, GSO 1, GSO 2 or Brigade Major you must always be approachable to your junior staff officers—never aloof. A good spirit is attained by the personal contact in dealings with your staff and this personal atmosphere should be ever present, There are a number of ways in which you can encourage this personal feeling: 1. As a Grade 2 staff officer you will always find that the Grade 3's or junior staff officers are often very hard worked. Although this is only right and proper, a little praise and encouragement at the right time by you or your GSO I means a lot. 2. When discussing a certain subject with your GSO 1 bring in the GSO 3, who is actually dealing with it—it all helps. 3. As a GSO 2, encourage the GSO 1 to walk around the offices of the GSO's and discuss various points. Let the Mountain go to Mahomet, and get rid of the impression that you can't be approached anywhere other than in your office. 4. Finally, mix with your staff on the sports field and in the mess. Be prepared to discuss matters with them outside the headquarters. In other words, be human. Another means of gaining the team spirit is to keep all the staff fully in the picture. This is best done and the personal atmosphere maintained, by holding conferences. In Malaya with the 28th Commonwealth Brigade we did this by holding a daily conference at 0900 hours. At this the events of the previous day were run through and then the work to be done that day. It ensured that everyone had an idea of the others' work. In 1st Division the requirement was less pressing and a weekly conference was held following the same principle. Our Army has developed the very bad habit since 1945 of failing to allocate responsibility to the appropriate rank. Too often have we seen the major concerning himself with the work of lieutenants while the latter find themselves doing the work of corporals. To engender confidence in your junior staff officer, to train him for higher appointments, to spread the work load—give him responsibility. Tell him on what matters he has authority to make decisions and then see that he does. Don't have units and higher formations awaiting answers from your headquarters because a GSO 2 was not prepared to make a decision without referring it to you or your Chief of Staff. Finally, on this aspect of staff relations try to be polite. There is no worse animal to encounter than the rude staff officer. Be as rude as you like when it is deserved, but rudeness as a habit to junior officers is the act of a coward and a bully. A cheerful "good morning" and a few words when you meet the first time during the day will pay a big dividend.

Relations with Administrative Staff

From the point of view of the GSO 1 and the Assistant Quartermaster General and Assistant Adjutant General at the Division and the GSO 2 and the Deputy Assistant Adjutant and QMG at the Task Force, it is vital that they get on well together. If there is any permanent disagreement one must go. It is the duty and responsibility of the General Staff to keep the Administrative Staff in the immediate, and more important, the future picture. Practically all General Staff decisions affect the Administrative Staff and this very close liaison is most necessary. I have noticed that the system generally breaks down on the lower level—Grade 3 and Staff Captain. Junior staff officers must be educated and trained in the requirement to keep their opposite numbers informed. Again the personal visit is generally the best way. Be careful to watch for signs among your staff of the emergence of the "G snob" outlook. Nothing can be more detrimental to the team effort, and the "we are one staff with but one purpose" theme must be inculcated in all branches of the staff. Similarly, be careful that the Mess does not become a breeding ground for a "G" versus "A/Q" battle. Avoid the tendency for General Staff officers to drink together as a group-break up such gatherings.

Relations with Higher and Lower Formations

The most important aspect here is to get to know your opposite numbers at once. The more of these people you know personally the easier your work will be. If you have an aggressive nature, you will get better results from your opposite numbers if you restrain it and employ politeness and tact in any of your dealings. Try to be helpful at all times but be quite prepared to be firm if it is anything of importance such as the commander's decision or order. Never permit a subordinate unit to question or argue a decision by the commander—tell them to get on with it. If the commanding officer feels strongly about it, politely suggest that he discuss this with the commander. You may be tempted many times to promise something. Never do this unless it can be done—this is the easiest way to get into trouble. Most decisions require action by another branch of your headquarters, generally "Q". Ensure that you get their advice first. It is preferable to avoid the risk of giving a quick decision for the dubious pleasure of being considered a keen decisive fellow, than to have to go back on a ruling because of an emergence of other factors subsequently. Never criticize any of your own staff or any other branch of your staff to a lower headquarters or unit, or higher headquarters. Nothing will more quickly destroy their confidence in themselves, their loyalty and faith in you, and the team spirit. Defend your own units or formations if they are criticized by higher headquarters. If they deserve it, you can always see that retribution descends on them later. Visits are essential, although sometimes very difficult to keep going, especially if the pressure of work is great. Ensure that a roster is kept for all your staff officers and ensure that they all get out and visit all units regularly. Study the personalities of the commanders and senior staff officers with whom you have to deal. For instance, some commanders like submissions in meticulous detail and some hate anything on paper. With some commanders, the more one panders to them the less trouble they are, and if you can give way on some minor point in a magnanimous manner, you may well find a more important subject from your own point of view is accepted readily.

Relations with Clerical Staff

In this field I would include telephonists, civilian typists, orderlies and clerks of all categories. They are all generally very hard worked and the very good ones are usually few and far between. The more you look after them and the more interest you take in them the better results you get. I suggest when you first arrive that you walk around their offices and get to know them. This is equally as important as meeting your fellow staff officers. If you can make any improvement in their comfort such as better lighting, more space etc., it will be a good start.

When you first arrive check various aspects of their staff work. Two good subjects are the Bring Forward (BF) file and the calling for a file on an involved subject and noting how long it takes to arrive. There are many ways in which you can show interest and give help. Some of them are: 1. Try to refrain from submitting typing just prior to their stopping work for the day. 2. Ensure that an efficient relief roster is kept and that they get their fair share of games, exercise and recreation. 3. Encourage a pride in their work—I personally believe in the inclusion of initials with typing. 4. Discourage a "G", "A", "Q" clerk battle. A healthy spirit of rivalry i a good thing, but don't let it go too far. Establish a close association with your Chief Clerk. He is the pillar on whom you rely and he must be taken fully into your confidence. Give him responsibility, tell him what you want and leave it to him to get on with it. Finally, a point which is sometimes overlooked is the need to keep you headquarters personnel at a high standard of turn-out, smartness and discipline. There is nothing worse than a representative from one of your units or a higher formation coming to your headquarters and seeing scruffy soldiers.


The good General Staff officer must bear in mind always that his function is to serve his commander and subordinate units wisely and well. His own personality must be attuned and directed towards this requirement. The personality cult is to be developed for the commander, not the staff officer This argues a somewhat chameleon type flexibility for the average Australian Army officer, who is expected to be at different intervals an efficient staff officer and commander. Field Marshal Montgomery acknowledge his debt to Major General de Guingand. How many outside a limited circle had heard of the Chief of Staff compared with the commander at the end of the war?