These are by no means a comprehensive list of what makes a great leader, but these are simple lessons to live by. I argue that these lessons matter not only when leading soldiers into battle, but in everyday interactions, friendships, and business, whether formal or informal leadership. When we build trust in others, they invest in us. They need not waste mental capacity considering your honesty or character, they simply dive in with you without a second thought.
- Leaders Eat Last: Your men and women are the workforce. They are the ones who make what you want happen. Whether it is in the military, in civilian employment, or socially, eating last makes an impression. It lets those around you know you care. You are willing to put one of their primitive basic needs over yours. When I was in the military this always made a huge impression on me, especially when resources were limited. To know that command was willing to not eat (and at times did not) to ensure we did. In the civilian world, I have had many people comment on how much of an impression this makes on them, whether at work or socially. I refuse to eat until everyone has their food and I always eat last, no matter where I am.
- Pay for Others: Obviously, this is not something you can always do but paying for others’ food has the same impression as eating last, especially if you can do it without making a big deal about it. When I was in, we got a new Captain. We all went out to eat before deployment and he refused to let us lower enlisted pay, food, and alcohol included. He told us it was his duty as our Captain to pay for our meals before we deployed. That was that, he did not make a big deal about it, it just was. My wife is currently in the Guard. She texted me today to let me know she was paying for every lower enlisted’s lunch. Budget issues meant they had not been paid for weeks. She is a senior enlisted, some of them were about to deploy, and we have dual income. She did this without a word to them and without them finding out. It was her duty to do it.
- Humility: On my first deployment we had to build out our own tents. One private tried to lightly speak up about how to construct everything. He was quickly told to shut the fuck up by the E4/E5 mafia, as he was a private. After the walls fell down, someone informed the mafia that said private had done construction for close to a decade before coming in. You learn a lot more when you are humble. People are also willing to follow you anywhere. The leaders I was/am willing to follow to hell and back are those selfless and humble leaders. They are the ones that say success is a team effort and failures are on them.
- Explain When You Can: The “why” goes a long way. One deployment Admiral McRaven came to our base. It was during one of the surges. People were pissed and could not understand what the fuck we were doing. He opened the door by telling us he did not want the bullshit pre-staged questions. He wanted and answered the real questions. When guys stood up and asked “Why the fuck…” he took no offense to the language or question, he answered. He earned massive respect from everyone that day. When you explain things, people can understand and do not feel like things are pointless. They can also offer input and might have something to offer to improve things.
- Admit What You Do Not Know: If someone asks you something and you do not know, do not bullshit. This creates false information and impressions. When the lie is discovered, it corrodes trust, which is everything. If you do not know, admit it, make an effort to find the answer, and then come back with what you got. This also sets the example for them to do the same when you ask questions. False information can destroy organizations, friendships, or relationships. The act of looking things up also keeps us in check. It makes us rethink what we think we know and what we take for granted. The same Captain that bought our food walked up to me on his first deployment and mission with us. He looked at me, put his arms out, and said, “Cpl, check and unfuck me.” He always admitted when he did not know things. We trusted him completely and wholeheartedly when he told us something.
- Be Open to Criticism: The infallible leaders are untrusted and isolated. This really ties into much of the above, but it deserves its own point. We all know leaders who are never wrong, have nothing to improve on, and refuse to listen. These are arguably some of the most toxic leaders out there. My first 1SG was like this. Morale was atrocious and honestly played a part in my getting out. Luckily, the next 1SG was amazing, a man I reference more than once here and in other places.
- Ask “Why”: Growing up I always hated when people assumed they knew what I meant or thought. I quickly realized that so much is discovered when you ask why. I dubbed this “giving an explanation, not an excuse” because there is a difference between the two. When I became a newly tabbed E4, there was a new guy who was deploying but I was told he could not go out. He was in his 30s, plenty old enough to know how he ticked. I asked him why he was struggling. He explained. We adapted to his style of learning and what he said he needed… He was operational within two weeks, not because of me being a great leader, but because I listened to him. If you do not understand the why, or the root of things, then you are not going to fix the actual issue, just the symptoms.
- Explain Before You Punish: We are all bad at assuming people think and know the same things we do. This is human nature. I was lucky enough to have leaders that took the time to ask why, to quickly realize there were often gaps in my knowledge. They had assumed I knew things I did not. When I became tabbed, I was approached by a lot of infantry privates, as I was an FO, who asked me questions of all sorts. They told me they knew if they asked their SPC/CPL/SGT they would get smoked for not knowing, but they were not sure how to find out without asking. My policy was always to explain/show, let them stumble, and punish only when necessary (they made no improvement or obviously did not listen to a word I said). No one likes to be punished for something they were not even on notice about. On the rare occasion, I smoked people (which was often pretty harsh), they always apologized, never complained, and told me they deserved it. We remained friends after.
- Set the Condition, Don’t Rush to Failure: I stole this from my old 1SG, a man who encompassed all the above traits and more. Frankly, there is not much else to say. The saying goes both ways and stands by itself, “Don’t rush to failure, set the condition,” “Set the condition, Don’t rush to failure.
U.S. Army and foreign paratroopers board the C-27 Spartan, to perform a military free fall operation for the 20th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) on Dec. 4, 2017, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation with nine partner nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to train on their military occupational specialty, maintain their airborne readiness, and give back to the local community (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Madelyn Hancock/Released). Source.
Jake Smith is a law enforcement officer and former Army Ranger with four deployments to Afghanistan.
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