On Leadership

The above image is one of the finest sergeants I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. He was a real leader, not a placeholder or a slot-filler. The US Army expects soldiers of all ranks to step up and lead; “when in charge, be in charge!”

I was never a Ranger like Pete, not anything special at all. Just a soldier from what is known as the “line,” a one-size-fits-all ground pounder with a few schools and various experiences. I had a mixed career, I was a “mustang,” or a commissioned officer with at least one completed term of enlistment behind me.

So I had the chance to see good and bad leadership from all kinds of angles. My earliest career was spent as the lowliest possible rank cleaning toilets, I eventually ended up as a captain. My chances of making “field-grade” rank, or the next step, major, was cut short by wounds and injuries.

It is what it is. Looking back on the whole military thing, I’m probably most grateful for the insight my career gave me into leadership.

I’m not going to write a book about this, just a short blurb then you all can tell me what you think.

The Army has a formalized school path to teach leadership, of course, but it’s really a story of OJT, or on the job training. Probably the very best leadership school I had was Officer Candidate School, an in-your-face beatdown that weeded out the weak. Somehow I made it and reported in to my first unit as an old second lieutenant; this was an eye opener that made me review what I had experienced as a private, a sergeant, and an officer candidate.

Some observations. Caveat: I was an imperfect leader. I screwed up. I made decisions that bother me to this day. If you try leadership, so will you.

The very first thing that a leader must realize is that EVERYTHING that happens on his or her watch is either one’s fault or problem to solve. A weak leader passes the buck or blames others. If you are that person and you think no-one will notice, you are wrong. If there is a problem, a leader fixes it or realizes that they’re in over their head and they call in help. This is not “weakness,” it is an honest assessment of the situation.

Next, a leader must realize that everything they say and do is under observation at all times, also when they think no one is looking. Like hell, not looking! Your family, co-workers, subordinates see. Nothing escapes them. So if you say one thing and do another, people will notice and it WILL be thrown back in your face, probably at the worst possible moment. Gaslighting and bullshitting will only get you so far, if you are of a mind to try it. Sooner or later the rubber will meet the road and you’ll have to back up what you say. Another factor is to be very careful about joking with your troops, etc. What you may think is a harmless wisecrack might really stick with them and come back to haunt you.

Another point is to be willing at all times to do everything that you ask of your people. Your subordinates will sense it if you are sticking them with an onerous job, especially if it’s something that YOU should be doing, not them. Be an up-front leader, not the dude who is kicking it in the back of the toasty truck while your guys are stringing barbed wire or something in the rain. This point is even more a “thing” if the job is nasty and dangerous. If that is the case, then heaven help the lieutenant that I find fucking off while his people are, I dunno, looking for IEDs.

I guess what I really want to say with the above is to lead by example.

What do I mean by that. Say that you want your people to be professionals, to be experts. Would you show up for work unshaved, stinky, and hungover? Would you give your people bad guidance, or not know diddly about their project? If you do these things, beware, you have no grounds for chastising anyone.

Also, as a leader, you owe it to yourself and your people to be a subject-matter expert in whatever job you take on. It’s OK to start out not knowing a blasted thing; no-one can know everything. What is not OK is getting to the end and you still don’t know anything. If you are that type of leader, then your people are running rings around you and you don’t even know it. Seriously. So if you don’t know shit halfway through a task, then you are not ignorant. You are willfully stupid. There is a difference. If someone like me were to catch you, you would be relieved for cause.

Leaders take acceptable risks, they assume danger. This is not to say that a leader is reckless; your people will see a difference between something bad that needs to go down and someone gets hit or you jacking around and getting someone killed for no good reason. Do you see the difference? A combat leader must motivate people into doing things they desperately don’t want to do for the sake of the mission. If that person is hurt or killed, it wasn’t a result of carelessness. Which leads into the next point.

Leaders are not buddies. One of the big things I learned as a LT is that you must be willing to make the unpopular decisions for the maintenance of good order and discipline, along with furtherance of the mission. The mission overrides all else. So if you need to piss someone off really bad to get the job done, so be it. In a military setting you might have to threaten your soldier with lethal force; if you do, be absolutely ready to pull the trigger and be damn sure you are in the right.

On a lighter note, leaders form teams, they try to bring everyone in on the common effort. A great first sergeant once told me that the Army is “like little league. Everyone gets a shot. If you lean on you star players too much they will burn out; also, your weak players will never have a chance to improve.” He was dead right about this. There will always be those who just don’t get it, who can’t be redeemed. They are part of the team as well. A leader must find some way for everyone to contribute or marginalize those who won’t play ball.

A note: Never, ever give an order that you know will be widely disobeyed. Find another solution.

Make. A. Decision. There. I’ve said it, and with this I will wrap up my mini-course on down and dirty leading. You can never be the deer in the headlights; you must choose. You can ask for advice; this is wise and not weak. What you cannot do is defer the decision onto another. If you do so, then you should not be in a leadership role, that other person should be.

No decision is also a decision, remember that.

So as a spouse, a parent, a team leader, a boss, a military commander of some sort, go with the OCS standard.

“When in charge, be in charge.” Make a decision. Lead.

Now go get ’em, tiger.

4 thoughts on “On Leadership

  1. Great article! I was sent this by a former member of my company that may be of interest, regarding being appointed as Company Sergeant Major in an Australian infantry battalion. For reference, we have the rank Warrant Officer Class Two (WO2) as CSM … I never got there, stopping at Sgt.(Pl Sgt)! So our ranks differ somewhat to the US model.


  2. The things which stick with me are lessons from mistakes in leading a team. The points you’ve made ring true. Knowing each role so you can demonstrate it and teach it. Rotating the team through each role, including myself in those rosters. I prefer to know what’s being faced anyway, helps with planning. Taking a shitty task, doing it and explaining why it’s necessary is crucial. After a while I find most of the team taking on those parts of the work as a matter of course. It’s kind of satisfying returning after leave and finding nothing at an operational level requiring my immediate attention.
    The other thing is avoiding complacency. That can quickly bite you on the arse.
    This was a good post, resonated well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s