It is fairly easy to admit that I’ve made many mistakes in my military career thus far. It is more difficult to reveal that many of my mistakes have originated out of pure, unadulterated insecurity and self-centeredness. These twin character flaws have been at the heart of many of the experiences I wish I could do over. I could tell you about how my self-centeredness caused me to compromise my joint fighting position, which I manned with three other buddies in the Florida Phase of Ranger School.
I could tell you about how while leading my rifle platoon through a training simulation in the mountains of Fort Carson, CO, my insecurity as a tactical leader drove me to push my first squad too quickly over the crest of a hill, forcing my platoon sergeant to resolve the “accordion effect” I’d created in the rear of my element. But, the mistake that taught me the most was a strained relationship with my Company First Sergeant (1SG) when I was the Company Executive officer (XO) on a deployment to Eastern Afghanistan. This mistake, like many previous ones, stemmed from insecurity.
Forty-eight months at West Point, 16 weeks of Infantry Basic Course, 61 days of Ranger School, and thirteen months as a rifle platoon leader had finally succeeded in teaching me to be an effective platoon leader. Then, in the last months before my brigade’s deployment to Regional Command-East, Afghanistan, I was given the responsibility of being a Company XO, the second in command of a 160-man rifle company.
At this juncture, I was a First Lieutenant, still two years away from promotion to Captain, with a massive amount to learn about leadership, professionalism, and the Army. I walked into a situation in which I had four critical responsibilities: (1) maintenance and accountability of over $40 million of weapons, vehicles, and equipment; (2) ensuring the company had sufficient amounts of everything it needed to shoot, move, communicate, evacuate, and conduct its assigned mission; (3) assisting and mentoring three platoon leaders; and (4) commanding the company in the absence of my Company Commander (CO).
At no point in my Army experience had I developed the competence necessary for this demanding, vital, and highly visible role. After a few months into my role as the XO, this became readily apparent.
Interestingly though, my obvious difficulties in handling the job were a shock to no one except me. I felt physically insecure in my role as the XO every day. I lived under the palpable weight of feeling like I would be “found out” at any moment.
The funny thing about being a Second or First Lieutenant is this: many, if not most, of the jobs you have could be done way better by your Non-Commissioned Officer counterparts.
In this case, there were four platoon sergeants (PSG) and my 1SG who knew how to perform my job better than me. Initially, I had no idea how to leverage their knowledge without feeling ashamed and like a failure. I assumed I had to get it all right on my own. In short, the fruits of my initial insecurity ripened into self-centeredness. It was all about me and my performance. It was all about my glory. If you don’t already know this, this is precisely the opposite of what folks teach you at West Point, Fort Benning, and in Ranger School.
I continued to try to do things on my own. I continued to not ask for advice.
My 1SG, fearing that my stubbornness could ultimately hurt the company, began to try to offer constructive criticism when I didn’t ask for it. In my insecurity, I interpreted this as unmerited, unsolicited attacks on me. I started to respond passive-aggressively. I began to make it clear that I didn’t respect his opinions about how I should do my job. Note the irony—in that I didn’t even know how to do my job. This eventually came to a boiling point.
At one point just over two months into our nine-month deployment, my 1SG blew up at me in the Tactical Operations Center. He stormed out. My commander knew intervention was finally necessary. He talked with us separately. He then strongly encouraged me to broach the issue directly with my 1SG. I did. It was painful.
I don’t begrudge a man for crying, but I’ve cried as a grown man just three times that I can remember. The first time was with my Ranger buddy in Mountains phase. The third was in Summer of 2016 when I was watching coverage of the senseless deaths and injuries in the Syrian civil war, particularly the orphaning of small children. The second was in my 1SG’s room in a combat outpost in Eastern Afghanistan. I was mortified at how I’d behaved. I was ashamed that I’d been more concerned with my own reputation than the company’s mission and the well being of our soldiers. I was overcome by my own immaturity and self-centeredness.
This unexpected low point ultimately proved to be an unexpected blessing.
My failure was in the open. It was all out on the table. There was nothing to hide anymore. I was vulnerable and exposed. For the first time since transitioning from Platoon Leader to Executive Officer, I was in a position where I wanted and needed to listen and to seek help.
This excruciating experience served as the turning point in the deployment for me. My relationship with my 1SG, the PSGs, and my CO grew from there. We coalesced into an impressive team. We had daunting logistical and operational trials that lay ahead of us. As a team, we conquered them. I had newfound advisors around me. I shed my pride and began to leverage their immense amount of experience. By the end of the deployment, we had seen amazing success. We had accomplished so much as a company. After that early trial, there was no more drama smoldering under the surface.
To this day, my 1SG and CO remain close friends of mine. While we eventually all parted ways, as happens in the military, we will pick up where we left off next time we see one another. The leadership lessons and growth I derived from those painful first few months as an XO, particularly in Afghanistan, will pay dividends for me the rest of my life. In those early months, I learned that insecurity and self-centeredness are twin evils that need to be exposed and dealt with severely. I learned that their greatest antidote is to admit their presence and leverage the strengths of those around you. This has an inherently humbling effect, while also providing crucial guidance and advice. Paradoxically, admitting your inadequacies, as a leader, doesn’t cause others to see you as a failure; rather, it causes others to respect and support you.
Call to Action: What inadequacies do you need to share with a close and fellow leader? In what ways are you attempting to live a lie to hide insecurity? Search you heart and admit to yourself whether or not the roots of your decision-making are self-serving. If they are, consider seeking help in dealing with it instead of ignoring it.
About the Author
The author commissioned into the Army Infantry in May 2010 after graduating from the United States Military Academy. After completing Infantry Basic Officers Leader Course and Ranger School, the author reported to Fort Campbell, where he spent just under three years with the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles. The author has since graduated the Maneuver Captains Career Course, worked at the Infantry School, and is in the process transitioning to a different job within the Army. The author is married with three young kiddos.
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