I originally wrote this for the Rhino Den in 2009 at the request of the Ranger Up community. It's always a little tough to write about leadership, because there's sometimes an implication that you're claiming to be an expert, when we all find ourselves constantly making mistakes. Nevertheless, this remains one of my most read pieces, having been republished dozens of times on many websites.
1) Don’t be a douche.
I am dead serious. Nothing pissed me off more than watching some wannabe tough guy treat his people like shit and then hear someone say “that’s his leadership style”. NO-GO. I fully admit there are a lot of ways of running a unit, but the foundation of leadership is integrity and love for your people. You can be hard and have high standards, but you cannot treat people like their existence is to serve you, amuse you, and accelerate your career. That is not a leadership style, it’s an ego trip. Get over yourself or you will find yourself getting a wood line attitude adjustment .
My first boss was a hard ass. We had the best trained unit in the Brigade because he was always pushing for additional training. On the surface of it, one would argue he was doing everything right. When one of my NCOs found out his mother was dying, the commander actually tried to convince him that he shouldn’t go see her, because his guys needed him more. This was pre-9/11. He was willing to trade one of his men’s last moments with his mother in order to minimize the risk that his unit might get a slightly lower grade on the training exercise. Instantly, everyone realized that all his training wasn’t to take care of us at all – this guy was really just a spotlight Ranger. His actions led to my first counseling by the Battalion Commander, but that is a different story. In short, don’t be a douche.
2) Your guys are more important than your career.
This ties in nicely with my last point, but it is worthy of its own bullet. You’re all going to be civilians someday, no matter how much you love the military or how long you serve. Years from now, the fact that you made Colonel or Sergeant Major won’t erase the fact that you threw some unsuspecting subordinate under the bus to avoid punishment, and it certainly won’t remove a stupid decision you made based on pressure from above that got someone killed or injured. Every leader I’ve ever respected has been willing to stand in the Gates of Fire when it mattered. If you’re not willing to do this for your people, be honest with yourself and quit. Join corporate America – you’ll just annoy people, not get them killed, and you’ll make more money. Everyone wins.
3) Be good at your job.
Every day you should be working your ass off to be technically and tactically skilled (note I didn’t say proficient – you need to be better than that). You should be asking questions, reading, practicing, and training. You can be a super-nice dude or dudette who loves your troops, but if you don’t know how to train them, lead them, and they aren’t ready for combat, you are a colossal failure. If you look deep inside, you’ll know the truth of where you are in this regard. Either fix it or quit.
4) It’s not your platoon.
Imagine you’d been doing a job for 12-15 years and grew so good at it that you were chosen ahead of others to lead 40 men into combat…with one caveat. You’re not actually in charge – some kid young enough to be your son is in charge…and you have to train him… but he rates you. You couldn’t make this shit up, right? When you’re walking into that platoon, appreciate the fact that you’re not the badass here. You, like your men and your platoon sergeant, have a job to do, and it is your job to do that as best you can. Acknowledge their experience and allow them to help you grow.
Towards the end of my time with my first platoon, my platoon sergeant and I were a team to be envied. We had figured out who was going to do what and we had each other’s backs. He had been very “anti-PL” over the last few years (I was his fourth platoon leader), but decided to give me a chance when I shook his hand for the first time and said, “SFC Stewart – it looks like I’ll be spending a year or so in your platoon. Thanks for having me.” I’ll give full credit to my dad, a former NCO, for that one but it was my firm intent to let him know I needed to learn and that I respected his position and sacrifice, and our men benefited as a result.
5) It is your platoon.
We were at CMTC getting ready for our field problem. I was at an OPORD and my platoon sergeant had everyone in the bay cleaning equipment. Two of my new soldiers got into a fistfight over something stupid (one of them fancied himself a rapper and the other one felt his rap sucked – damn eighteen year olds). My platoon sergeant punished them by having the entire platoon outside in the mud wearing all of their recently cleaned equipment. He was smoking the ever-loving shit out of them when I rolled up on the scene. Spotting me, he made the motion to stay back (this was NCO business). So I hung low and watched from a distance so my guys couldn’t see me. Just then Sergeant Major Chickenhawk rolled up – the same Sergeant Major that I hated and had recently outlawed this kind of “hazing” because it was politically expedient to do so. He grabbed my platoon sergeant by the shoulder and started digging into to him in front of my guys. I ran over and told the CSM that this was my platoon and that he could have the conversation with me. He told me that this was NCO business and I responded that my platoon sergeant was acting under my command with my permission to discipline the men. He walked me over to the battalion commander. They had me don my gear and do mud PT to “show me” how it felt. Well – you can’t smoke a rock.
Yes, your platoon sergeant has more experience. Yes, he can run circles around you in a lot of areas. Yes, he should probably be in charge over you – but he isn’t. You are, and anything that happens or fails to happen in your platoon is your responsibility. Furthermore, in this scenario, I had a great platoon sergeant and I agreed with him. But not all platoon sergeants are good and not all good platoon sergeants are always right – you need to trust your own judgment and execute accordingly, even if it means pissing your PSG off.
6) Don’t lie, ever, for any reason.
This isn’t grade school. Your actions matter. If you fuck up, admit it as soon as possible, even if you think it’ll hurt your career. The team cannot work on a solution until they know the truth, and this is one of the few jobs in the world where lies can get people killed. Furthermore, the military, for all its faults, is one of the few places on earth where honest mistakes are actually forgiven. Conversely, it is one of the few places where lies are extravagantly and brutally punished, and rightly so.
7) You make mistakes – admit them.
Don’t be that guy. Your men don’t expect perfection. They expect you to strive every day for perfection. You’ll be wrong a lot. Fess up, get over it, get their feedback and drive on. They will respect you infinitely more and they will trust you for it, as opposed to committing themselves over and over again to proving, quite creatively and to everyone’s amusement, that you are often wrong.
8 ) Leader is not equal to BFF.
I loved my guys. I still love my guys, even though I’m very far removed from being in command. Many good-intentioned leaders make the mistake of believing that being a great leader means never having your guys be upset with you and hanging out with them all the time. There’s nothing wrong with taking your platoon out for a night on the town. There’s nothing wrong with socializing with guys when you bump into them at a bar. There is something wrong with passing out on your PV2s couch at 3AM. Once you become “one of the guys”, you’re no longer their leader, and they need you to be in charge a lot more than they need another buddy.
9) You’re not the smartest guy in the platoon.
A lot of guys make the mistake of thinking that because they have achieved a certain rank, or have a certain degree; they are in some way superior to the others in their unit. In my first platoon alone, I had 7/20 privates or specialists with college degrees – one with a master’s degree. One of them was literally a genius, having maxed out the MENSA (weak-ass organization, by the way) test. You’re not in charge because you’re the smartest or most talented or anything else – you’re in charge because you signed up to be the LT. Don’t act superior, because you aren’t – just do your job.
10) You can never quit.
You don’t have to be the fastest runner, or do the most pushups, or be the best at combatives, or be the best shot, but you can never quit. The second your guys see you give up, you’ve lost them. Period.
11) You are not the focal point of your subordinate’s lives.
They don’t spend their nights thinking about you, your speeches, or your goals. They have wives, kids, girlfriends, bills, friends, and problems. Acknowledge that – your men are not here to serve you. They’re here to serve your country. You’re here to serve them.
12) But your subordinates watch everything you do.
Just because they don’t live their lives around you, doesn’t mean you’re not important to them. If you lie, they assume it is okay. If you quit, they assume it is okay. Your actions, not your mission statements, speeches, codes, creeds, etc. will set their standard of behavior.
13) Get your boss’s back.
Everyone wants to be in charge…until they are there. We all think we could do a better job than our boss – sometimes it’s very true and sometimes it isn’t – but as long as he or she is working hard to take care of your men and complete the mission, you owe it to them to ensure they succeed. You’ll be there someday, and you’ll find that despite your best efforts, you are very fallible.
14) Have a sense of humor.
You will be tested. When I came on board my first platoon, my guys tried to get me with every snipe hunt in the book – PRC-E8, keys to the indoor mortar range, box of grid squares – you name it. Skillfully, I held out for three weeks, until that day in the motor pool. In formation, the motor chief announced that today was the day that everyone had to turn in vehicle exhaust samples. Promptly, the motor sergeants disseminated to each platoon a vehicle exhaust sample kit, which included labels, sharpies, and garbage bags. My guys grabbed the bags, turned on their vehicles and began throwing the garbage bags around the exhaust pipe, filling it, then promptly tying the bag off and labeling it. This just didn’t seem right – all the more so when they asked if I wanted to help get samples. I balked. They guilt tripped me. Finally, even though I was at least 25% sure I was being had, I filled a bag with exhaust and started walking to drop it off at the motor chief’s office. Sure enough, they snapped about 2000 pictures of this jackass 2LT running around with a bag of exhaust.
They got their laughs and busted my balls about it. We were about to head to an 18-hour computer simulation exercise. Immediately afterwards they had a room inspection with all their gear laid out. They, of course, had done this the night before, knowing they’d be going right from the exercise to the inspection.
As all the guys moved to the simulator, all the officers got called back to the bays for the OPORD. When I came back, I asked them, “Don’t you guys have an inspection tomorrow?”
“Roger, sir” they responded.
“Man, it’d suck if someone dumped everyone’s gear into one huge pile and then covered it in baby powder, wouldn’t it?” I asked.
Their faces dropped. They fucking hated me. I had gone way too far and clearly was getting back at them for the exhaust sample thing. For the rest of the exercise it was hard to get anyone to talk to me – even my platoon sergeant was edgy.
The exercise ended and we all came back to the bays – they knew they only had an hour to salvage the inspection. When they busted into their bay, they found that none of their stuff had been touched and was in perfect inspection mode.
“Sir, you are a fucking dick!” my platoon sergeant shouted.
“Why’s that sergeant?” I asked.
“You said you dumped all our shit out on the floor and covered it in baby powder!”
“No, sergeant – I said it would suck if someone were to do that.” I smiled.
I could take it, but I could give it back too. There would be no more fucking with this LT.
15) Do the right thing.
This is the last and perhaps most important aspect of leadership. I am a big believer that in almost every single case, people know the right course of action. The bigger question is whether they have the courage to make the right decision, even when making that decision could be personally harmful. Decide now to always be a force of good. Don’t justify away indiscretions. Don’t sell out. Your life will be easier, your men will respect you more, and you’ll sleep at night. More importantly, you won’t start down that slippery slope towards being one of those leaders that will do anything to get ahead. We all want to think we’re the next coming of Patton or Eisenhower. No one thinks they are a bad leader, but it doesn’t take much to get there and it happens incrementally – one little lie or moral concession at a time.