“I would like to be allowed a bit of hubris and give a bit of advice directly to this young man as he prepares to go down a road which will be filled with experiences most cannot even begin to imagine. There are many lessons that will be taught to him while at West Point, so these are lessons taught through experience.”
Recently I received some incredible news. One of the parents of a former JROTC cadet called me to say that her son was just accepted into West Point. What a monumental feat to accomplish. While its reputation has become somewhat tarnished due to recent controversies; West Point is still the premier leadership school in the world. In addition to the fact that it is training the next generation of military commanders, it also imparts a world class education upon those who volunteer to attend.
This young man starts his sacrifice to our nation in July. I use that word carefully as a sacrifice is what it is to attend West Point. While his collegiate peers will be out smoking pot, drinking themselves into stupors, and using poor judgement (if the nanny state of colleges doesn’t ruin their fragile lives before they even begin), this young man will be standing for hours in formation, pulling guard shifts in the middle of the night, and spending his weekends in the woods during a rainstorm.
What truly touched me was that his mother wanted to personally reach out to me because of the impact I made on her son. She wanted me to know that he wanted to emulate me in his career, which was a truly humbling thing to be told, especially considering the amazing talent that this young man possesses.
If you have to rely on rank to accomplish something, you have already lost the battle. You must lead because of who you are.
With all of that being said, I would like to be allowed a bit of hubris and give a bit of advice directly to this young man as he prepares to go down a road which will be filled with experiences most cannot even begin to imagine. There are many lessons that will be taught to him while at West Point, so these are lessons taught through experience.
Don’t ever tell a Sergeant Major you outrank them
This one I already knew from spending six years enlisted prior to becoming an officer, but I have actually seen this happen before. While I will not go into specifics, it was not a pretty sight. With that being said, never tell anyone you outrank them. Your rank should be nothing other than a pay grade. If you have to rely on rank to accomplish something, you have already lost the battle. You must lead because of who you are.
Additionally, Sergeants Major and Command Sergeants Major will be the best mentors you will ever find. Period. There is a reason why every commander battalion level and higher is issued one. Sergeants Major see everything and have more experience than you could possibly imagine. Show them you care about the troops first and the mission always and they can make your life infinitely better. I have never met a Sergeant Major who did not see mentoring as vitally important, especially when it comes to officers.
Your troops are never wrong and you are never right
This of course is not to be taken literally, as you will spend about 75% of your time with troops who are definitely wrong. However, you don’t ever use your soldier’s mistakes as an excuse. When you volunteered to become an officer, you agreed to take those soldiers under your wing and be responsible for them. If they are wrong it is because you let them be.
Soldiers push themselves to the limit for a seventy-cent ribbon, imagine what they will do for a leader who shines the spotlight on their accomplishments.
In today’s world this is a tough pill to swallow as most want to hide from being responsible. In the military it is a simple fact of life. By the same token, never take any accolades for yourself. Your career will be made or lost based upon how well you motivate your formation. When you accomplish a tough mission, it was those under you who made it happen. This is a lesson that is often lost on leaders who want to make it about them. Soldiers push themselves to the limit for a seventy-cent ribbon, imagine what they will do for a leader who shines the spotlight on their accomplishments.
Leaders lead from the front, but push those under their command across the finish line before them. Always try to keep punishments at the lowest level possible and in private, while giving honors in front of the masses.
Every decision is made by you, even if you disagree with it
You are going to be told throughout your career what to do, and not just you but those under you as well. Do not ever tell your subordinates that your boss is giving you an order or that you do not want to do something but are being ordered to. First off, it is totally disloyal to your command. Secondly, it makes you look weak. If you disagree with a course of action, never be afraid to voice your concern (unless of course you are in the middle of a firefight). I have had many an intense conversation with leadership before. That is perfectly fine. However, when you leave their office you are of one mind and one voice.
Don’t worry about leaving your mark
I was told throughout my career about how important it was to go into a unit and leave my mark. That goes completely against my second point. My first battalion executive officer, and one of the most astute officers I ever worked for, broke it down for me once. We as officers are graded on what our subordinates accomplish, not what we accomplish. Do not make it about you. Focus on training and motivating. That is how you leave your mark, through your exceptional leadership. This does not mean that you should be afraid to make changes. Just make sure that the changes you make are for the better.
Never turn down troop time
As an officer you only have a limited amount of time directly leading soldiers. Specifically, your lieutenant years, company command, and if you are lucky enough, battalion command. Anything above that is a different world entirely. Your troop time will be simultaneously the best time in your career and the most infuriating. You will spend countless hours planning for training that will be cancelled at the last minute. You will be called in to your commander’s office to explain the actions of your soldiers before you’ve even heard they did something wrong.
Command is like being a parent. It is a thankless job that will suck your soul dry if you let it, but the rewards it gives you cannot be enumerated or explained.
If you are lucky, you will leave command without ever having to send a letter to next of kin, because if you do you will likely spend the rest of your life wondering if that extra five minutes of training that you cut could have saved their life. With that being said, I would never change a moment of time that I was able to spend leading soldiers, because every moment I was in command was a gift.
Command is like being a parent. It is a thankless job that will suck your soul dry if you let it, but the rewards it gives you cannot be enumerated or explained. You will love every moment and the day you give it up will be one of the saddest days in your career, each and every time.
Most importantly have fun and when you no longer do, get out
You should go to work every day excited and motivated (you won’t, but you should). You are being paid to lead the most innovative, intelligent, and exceptional Americans that we as a nation have ever produced. You are going to live a life that others wish they could lead.
Marty, you have earned this incredible privilege and I have high expectations for where you will allow it to lead you. Trust in yourself and your abilities. You are an intelligent and gifted leader. The Army is lucky to be receiving you!