I am sure that none of my views on leadership are at all new and ground breaking. The subject has been thoroughly researched by people a whole lot smarter than me. You can go to any bookstore and find a book on leadership and find it more insightful than anything I could say here. I do believe that a true leader is born, not bred. It is an innate ability that very few people have or choose to cultivate. However, I do not believe that you have to be one of the greats to be effective. Good leaders are rare not because it is rare to be born with the trait, but because so many won’t put in the work it takes to become great. To me leadership is a fragile balance between a lot of things that can make or break that leader. The number one thing that I have learned is that even the great leaders memorialized in history were not perfect. No matter how hard you try, you cannot be everything that every soldier needs in a leader, but you can sure as hell be effective anyway.
As I came up through the ranks, I decided that I would choose what I liked about all those I served under and throwing away their bad habits. Of course, one of the first things you learn when switching roles like that is the reason behind many of the things that those leaders did. So I looked at some of the things I respected in leaders, particularly when faced with situations where it was impossible to make everyone happy, and came up with my own leadership style that suited me. It did not come without failing hundreds of time before I found my groove, and to this day I’m still finding ways to be a more potent leader.
There is probably not a whole lot of demand for the opinion of a 11 year veteran who is getting medically retired, but as I walk around looking at the organization I am about to leave behind, I am worried that the art of leadership has not been passed down to the next generation of soldiers. I could be wrong. Hell I would love to be wrong. I am the man I am today because of some of the leadership I have had, and the lessons I learned that I still apply to my life on a daily basis. I suspect that the rapid rate of turnover because of the constant state of war is to blame for the lack of knowledge passed down. That being said there are always going to be people who just get it. There are those who are born to lead, but I don’t think that you have to be born a leader to be just as effective. You just have to work harder. I also think that this can apply to those outside the military if you substitute soldier for employee and NC/O with management. There is a big difference between leadership in the military and leadership in the civilian world, which is that a good leader can be the difference between life and death in the military. When those are the stakes, it becomes harder to justify getting complacent and not trying to find ways to be a better leader.
So now, onto the fun stuff, what are those lessons in leadership that I learned? First, you have to look at what leadership is. Simply put, its manipulation. It’s the ability to get others to do what you want even though they may not want to do it. In combat you could be giving directives that will end that person’s life in order to accomplish your mission. Any rational person faced with their death would simply say no thanks, I choose life. I know from personal experience that some of the leaders I followed gave me the courage to face that end, because I knew that the decisions they made were for the good of all of us. Pause. Deep Breath. Execute.
So what does it take to be that kind of leader?
Motivation. To have true motivation, you have to know why you want to lead. For me it came in the form of the first soldier in my unit that I knew who lost his life in Iraq. Before that day, I was blind to the reality of war. For those who have experienced having someone they know who was killed in combat, they know that it is a life changing event. It turned my world upside down. I knew that I couldn’t ever fully control who got hit or who didn’t, myself included. Combat is chaotic and unpredictable, but I never wanted to feel that way again. Every NCO’s biggest fear is losing one of their soldiers, and forever being haunted by the thought that they could have done something to prevent that loss. Could I have done more? So it drove me to be the best leader I was capable of being. It can apply to any job you have. What drives you to lead? Money, Fame, Glory, promotion? You just have to want whatever it is bad enough to work harder than anyone else around you and push past the limits of whats comfortable.
Knowledge. You are never going to know everything about your job. The second you decide that you know everything there is to know, and stop trying to learn more, is the day you are defeated. There is always more you can learn to be better and continue growing as a leader. My boys saw that I knew my shit and trusted me because of that fact. More importantly, they also saw that I was always trying to find the best solutions, not just settling for passable ones. I never allowed myself to stop learning, because I also knew that there was more information that could give me the edge. I had all those kids looking at ME trusting that I was going to make the best decision when they didn’t know what to do. You have to understand the jobs of those below you, you have to be a master at your own job, and you must have the ability and knowledge to do any job above you. So I read books on culture, history, what war does to your mind, tactics. I trained myself constantly. Through me, because I soaked up all the knowledge I could, my soldiers learned more. They were more prepared and performed at a higher level.
Compassion. Everyone in the world is more concerned with what effects them and their immediate surroundings. It’s human nature. They ride through life with blinders on for the things that don’t affect them. You have to recognize and sympathize with the struggles your soldiers face in their day-to-day lives. If someone has a problem they consider more important than their work, then their performance will suffer. As trivial as it may seem to you, you have to ensure that you support them and help where you can, and remember what it was like when you were in their shoes. The bottom line is you have to genuinely care. Treat every situation with a certain level of compassion, and it will pay dividends. If you care about your soldiers and put their best interest as a priority, then they will start to do whatever it takes not to disappoint you. Put their needs before your own and it will never go unnoticed. They will care because you do. Being a leader is an extremely selfless endeavor, and has to be for you to develop the type of relationship that you need to succeed.
Inspiration. This to me is the most powerful tool a leader has in his arsenal. It is also the most difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain. Inspiration to me is making a soldier want to emulate you because of your actions. Inspiration gives a soldier a reason to push past their comfort zone because they see you are willing to put it on the line for them. For inspiration to be beneficial you have to be the example to follow. That means you have to practice what you preach. If you hold your subordinates to a high standard, yours should be higher. You cannot slack off if you want to inspire someone. You can never ask a subordinate to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. You have to prove it every time there is an opportunity. You have to show them that no matter who you are, and what title you have, that you are willing to do whatever it takes for them to succeed. That is why the infantry’s motto has always been “Follow me!” That means getting your hands dirty every once in a while, when your responsibilities permit it. Taking a turn stirring the burning shit every now and then, helping with the heavy lifting, carry some of the extra load, and when shit hits the fan, be the first one headed toward the sound of gunfire.
Personalization. Everyone you ever work with is a unique individual with their own goals, desires, and ways of thinking. To get the best out of your subordinates you have to know them. You have to spend the time observing and talking to each and every one of them to see how they tick. Motivation is not a one size fits all kind of thing and it is constantly evolving. So your methods of rewarding and disciplining soldiers has to fit the soldier in a way that makes the greatest impact. You have to know the limitations of every soldier and find ways to show them how to push past their preconceived notions of their own ability. Positive reinforcement would be the preferred method because most of the time confidence is what holds people back. There is a time and a place for the negative feedback every once in a while but used too often your message will eventually be drowned out because you can easily lose the respect and trust of that soldier.
Mentorship. A true mark of a leader is in the performance of those subordinate to you. You must be able to teach and pass on your knowledge. Just like it is important for you to be knowledgeable, it is even more important that you set your soldiers up for success by sharing that knowledge. At the end of the day for the machine that is your team to function, it has to have every member working together toward a common goal. Everyone is responsible to pull their own weight but its the leader’s job to identify where the team is weak and provide the guidance to fix it. Don’t be satisfied with proficiency, and don’t allow your soldiers to settle either. You have to pass on and teach the principles of leadership and continue to challenge them with responsibility to develop them as future leaders.
Consistency. You can do everything a leader is supposed to do but if you cannot do it on a daily basis your work could end up being in vain. It is not an easy task to be “on” all the time. Everyone is entitled to bad days here, its human nature, but you can’t have those days become commonplace. If you struggle to find a reason to put forth the effort to be a good leader on a daily basis you should evaluate whether or not you are suited for the responsibility. In the case of leading soldiers, especially in combat, they deserve more than a half-assed leader who only performs when he feels like it.
Balance. All too often you will find leaders who become to friendly with their Soldiers and allow the relationship to become to lax. On the flip side you will see leaders blindly and aggressively demand the respect of their soldiers based on the position they hold and not the merit of their leadership. You shouldn’t lead to be someones friend nor should you ever become tyrannical. Both are poisons that can break down the efficiency of your team and destroy the trust in how you lead. At times you are a confidant, a shoulder to lean on, teacher, coach, a disciplinarian but you have to maintain a clear line in your relationship with your soldiers that makes you approachable but when it comes down to it they execute your directives without hesitation. You have to create an environment where the understanding is that you will never be easy on them, but you will be fair when they make mistakes.
The bottom line is that everyone wants to be in charge. Earn a bigger paycheck. Feel important. The gratification for the best leaders does not come from their title but from the impact they have on those they lead. That person who changes people’s lives and pushes them to be the best that they can be. You may be able to delegate certain responsibilities but at the end of the day you should be the one owning the responsibility of all the failure. Soldiers are going to screw up. When they do, ask yourself if you have done everything in your power to give them the tools to succeed. Sometimes you did and there is nothing you can do about it but keep trying to reach that soldier. Never let yourself get into a situation where you have to wonder if you could have done something more, or something different. Give 100%, and no one can ask for more. Taking the success of your team is just as backwards, because without them you are nothing. Give them the credit because although because while you do deserve some credit for your role, so do they. A strong leader is critical, but you can’t be a leader if is no one to lead.
My biggest pet peeve in leaders is simple. Who works for who? If your first thought is that your soldiers work for you, you’re dead wrong. You work for your soldiers. There is not one thing you can accomplish without them putting in the hard work. The real work. If you work hard for them developing, teaching, pushing and giving them all the tools they need to be successful they will turn around and work hard for you so you can achieve whatever goal it is your working towards as a leader. I was lucky as a leader. As a squad leader and a platoon sergeant, I never lost a soldier in combat directly under me. I never had to ask myself if I could have done more to make sure they came home. Most of it is undoubtably luck, but a part of me likes to think it’s because I worked hard for them and in turn they worked hard for me. The single most gratifying part of my military career is the day they got home and were stuffed in formation in a tiny gym shielded by a curtain with a noisy crowd of families on the other side. The curtain opened and I felt overwhelming satisfaction and pride. No medal, praise, or stellar evaluation can compare to that feeling.