Thursday, February 15, 2007

I don't know what it's like to lead men, and I don't think that I am very good at it. I do have some observations though, even though in the heat of the moment it's really hard sometimes to put them to good use.

I used to think that in the military everyone was interchangeable. No one is irreplaceable, as they say. You cross-train riflemen to fire the machine gun and system administrators to repair a network switch. That way when one man's down another can step in. The problem with this is that it's sort of like treating everyone as a round peg in a world of round holes.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of square holes, or rectangular holes, and sometimes you even have to bust through and make the hole. It took me a long time, but I eventually tried looking at the person rather than the position. Everyone has specific strengths and weaknesses, and to force every person to be “round” in the same way tends to result in more homogenized group, but at the expense of individual initiative. So now I try to fit a task or an assignment to a person's individual strengths, and, even, desires. It may seem pretty basic to realize that a soldier will be more productive doing something he likes than he will doing something he hates, but there you go.

Eventually though, I realized that even this wasn't enough. Different people (always it's the people!) respond to different styles of leadership. Some need only to be encouraged or coached, most do what they are told, and others need to be practically bullied. So my leadership style varies depending upon the maturity of the led. The mature follower I tell what I need done and then ask how they would do it. For the gold brick I would provide much more detailed directions and probably specific reporting procedures. The downside of this is the potential to seek out favorites, and to overload them with tasks. This can lead to their burn out, and is also the best way to ensure the group as a whole has low morale.

As an officer, I need to make sure my guys have what they need to do their job. But another, often overlooked aspect is to make sure they are given the space to do it in. I don’t mean the physical space, but more of a conceptual box consisting of time, the awareness that I trust them (and that they can make mistakes - so long as it’s not the same mistake), and the knowledge that I am doing my best to look out for them. Basically, I try to run interference between my guys and customers who think they know what they want but don’t, commanders who want to micromanage, and a headquarters that labels everything the highest priority and wants it all done yesterday. This is by far the most frustrating part of leadership, but perhaps the one area I think I do really well.

Yes, I try to “lead by example.” This is often confused with knowing everything and being able to do everything that a Corporal or a Sergeant can do. But it’s not my job to program a router; it’s my job to make sure the Corporal has a router to program, is trained to program it, and that he programs it in accordance with any security or configuration policies I have set. To me, leading by example is more about stopping in to chew the fat with the midnight crew at 0330, or going the electrician into the basement of an abandoned palace looking for the main distribution box, or being there to pull cable in a sand storm. Or taking the front humvee when the convoy has to pass by a potential car bomb.

The Army culture is hard nosed - do it or else. But to me that's crappy leadership – a copout where they confuse the authority inherent in a rank or position with true leadership. It’s not about telling others what to do, it’s about looking out for others. Letting them figure out what to do. Instead, of looking out for others, too often I see officers sneaking off early, or being the first in line at chow. My Platoon Commander in the Marines always ate last, and if they ran out of food, we'll, he was satisfied that at least his men were fed. And every single one of us noticed that.

So that’s it. No great insight, just some observations from 18 years of being an NCO and an officer. I just pray that it’s enough to get us through.


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