There are many articles and books detailing successful leadership traits to emulate, and an aspiring leader should consume as many as possible. I’ve always felt that it is better to find something to work toward, rather than away from, so I’ve felt that criticism was most helpful when it gave me something constructive to focus on. Having said that, my times as a team leader and platoon sergeant in the infantry were full of mistakes. I had times when I could look back on a mission or training evolution and say, “Hey, I did _____ right, and that was good.” More often, I had times when I would look back and say, “Man, I really screwed the pooch on that one.” Each bad call, each terrible decision, was a learning experience in and of itself that seared itself into the grey matter between my ears. I learned much more from reflecting on my mistakes than I ever did from my successes, and because I had so many of those mistakes, these are the lessons I will share in abundance. All of these lessons were learned the hard way.
– They’re not supposed to be your buddies. If you try to make all of your guys happy with you, you’re not going to make any of them happy. Focus on accomplishing the mission before anything else.
– You don’t know everything. The combined experience of your men will overcome almost any perceivable obstacle, but only if you tap into that resource. The PFC on your squad might be the low guy on the totem pole, but he might also have an in-depth knowledge of radios or vehicles. If you’re an officer, your NCO’s have a wealth of knowledge waiting for you to use.
– Action, even the wrong action, is better than endlessly pondering what to do. There were many times where we came up against a difficult situation, and while I was thinking of the solution, five of my guys had already figured it out. This was a good thing for us, because those were often situations where we were being freaking shot at. Even if you’re moving directly toward a firing enemy, you’re still making it harder for him to hit you than if you stay still in indecision.
– Having said that, don’t be afraid to let a situation develop.
– Treat your men with the respect due a man who is putting his life in your hands. I got snarky with one of my guys once, forgetting that he was the pointman (first guy in the patrol formation) through numerous danger areas. There is a difference between speaking with authority while giving orders, and being a chocolate-frosted dicksnack to a guy who was the first man in your formation while negotiating a known minefield.
– Don’t be naive. There are those who want to see you fail, if only because it will make them look better. Don’t be a self-serving douchebag, but realize that douchebags are out there either waiting for you to fail, or waiting for one of your men to screw up so that they can talk smack about you in front of the commander. Even if you manage to have the best group of guys out there and accomplish every mission flawlessly, others will be jealous, and find ways to make you look bad.
– If you suck at something, find the guy on the team who doesn’t, and have him teach you. Admit it when you don’t understand something. I sucked at radios, but I had two Lance Corporals who could get HBO with a tin can, some Maxim magazines and some string. I could have learned a lot from them, but never found the time to sit down and learn it. In contrast, we once had a Staff Sergeant assigned to us who had never dealt with Scout Snipers before in his career. He managed to maintain his leadership role, but he did it while being a total sponge by learning everything he could about the craft of sniping.
– Having said that, it’s your job to be the most tactically and technically proficient man on the team. If you aren’t at least close to being the best shooter, fastest runner, strongest rucker, work to get there. Your men will respect you more if you don’t suck at life. A good team can’t have the weakest link as the leader, and they need a role model to look up to.
– Disseminate information to the lowest level. This is actually one of the things I managed to do well. I was criticized constantly for telling everyone on my Scout Sniper team all of the information I had received. “A Lance Corporal doesn’t need to know every single part of the mission.” “Why do you constantly bring your Assistant Team Leader to mission briefs? You’re the one in charge, so you should be the only one getting this info.” No. My guys knew everything I knew. We were at the point that even the lowest ranking guy on the team could call in supporting fire on the on-call targets while running for his life in a firefight. They knew every inch of the terrain we fought in, every phase line of the mission, and all of the adjacent units and their positions. If your team can’t accomplish the mission or function without you, you’ve failed. Luckily, when I got a little bit of a boo-boo on a mission and had to be evacuated, my team was able to continue kicking ass well after I was gone.
– You’re there for them. You should be the one working the latest hours, getting everything ready to prepare them for success. I have seen many “leaders” who view their subordinates as mere serfs to attend to their every need. I have seen other leaders who are constantly working, and their subordinates know and respect them for it. If I’m taking a nap while my guys are prepping for a mission, there’s a problem.
– Don’t fall in love with the plan. It’s easy to feel like you have to accomplish the goal in the way that was given to you, especially if you came up with the plan, but you need to check your ego at the front gate of the FOB. Be able to adapt the mission to the circumstances. I can recall more than one occasion where my team was sent out to support a platoon, but after the first shots were fired, the plan took a nose dive down the ugly tree. While I was still trying to salvage our original plan, I saw my men instantly adapt the plan to the scenario. As a result of their quick thinking, we were able to mow our way through numerous enemy contacts while the plan was still back at the vehicles taking it up the poop chute.
– Be the buffer between your guys the the chain of command. If you see that your team or platoon has become the whipping boy of your unit, then maybe, just maybe, that’s because you’ve allowed it to happen. If a chain of command senses weakness in one of the guys who is supposed to be in charge of something, they will ride his ass like a wet pony. If that leader is strong enough, and is able to stick up for his men, those above them will leave them alone.
– Comfort is the enemy. If you find yourself relaxing and settling in, there are things going on that are not being taken care of. While you’re sitting back and enjoying free time, someone else is thinking of ways to get outside the wire, or coordinating with the Intel shop, or making plans and missions behind your back. There are other units out there who are competing for the honor of accomplishing the toughest missions, and there is also a determined enemy who doesn’t knew the meaning of a four-day weekend or two-hour lunch break. Free time is for E-4’s and below. Always find ways to look for the next mission, the next improvement.
-Don’t make excuses. Did one of your subordinates do something dumb? It’s your fault. It’s not because you made him act like an idiot, but because you’re his leader. That’s all the reason there is, so take responsibility for the actions of your men.
If you want to read the best book ever on leadership, check out “The Mission, The Men, and Me.”