Lessons I Learned from My Soldiers

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

Over a 33-year Army career as an Infantry Officer, I learned a lot from the men and women with whom I served.  This is a small sampling of those lessons and the stories that led to them.

“You can never lose your professional composure, sir”

Several months before deploying to Iraq in 2008, I took the Battalion to the National Training Center for our Mission Rehearsal Exercise.  All the platoons executed a live fire training event as part of their certification for combat.  My CSM and I walked all these live fires and certified the platoons as ready to deploy.  For one platoon, it was a really bad day.  The platoon leader and the platoon sergeant essentially lost control, and we almost had Soldiers killed on the training event.  I immediately called a cease fire and pulled the platoon together.  I lost my temper.  I fired the PL and PSG on the spot…and I embarrassed them in front of their platoon.  Several hours later, as I reflected on the event, I felt terrible about how I acted.  I talked to my CSM about it and thought he’d say something like, “don’t worry about it, sir” or “it’s all good, sir”.  Instead, he looked at me and told me I could never do that again and that I should never lose my professional composure…I was the battalion commander.  

Counseling Matters

As a Cadet at the U.S. Military Academy and then as a brand new 2LT at the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC), the importance of counseling was (is) constantly reinforced.  Most important…as I was often told…is to counsel your Platoon Sergeant.  This sounds great and briefs well, until you meet your Platoon Sergeant.  I reported to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment in the summer of 1990, right after graduating IOBC and Ranger School.  I was feeling pretty good about myself.  This feeling lasted for about 30 seconds after reporting to my unit and meeting my PSG.  At the time, I was intimidated and overwhelmed.  For about 2 weeks I essentially followed him around and did pretty much anything he told me to do.  One day, during command maintenance in the motor pool, my PSG pulled me aside and asked me when I was going to do initial counseling with him.  As I recall, I pretty much laughed and said something along the lines that I thought he was going to counsel me!  The rest of the story is that we went to lunch and had a professional discussion about expectations – his expectations of me, and my expectations of him – and how we would lead the platoon as a command team.  This lesson on counseling over 33 years ago shaped how I would counsel others for the remainder of my career.

Don’t be a Seagull

My first assignment as a Major was as the Operations Officer for an Infantry Battalion.   One day I found myself in the motor pool, which was an unusual place for me to be as the Operations Officer.  Regardless, I walked up on a group of LTs talking and laughing.  As I approached the group, they immediately stopped talking and looked awkwardly at the ground, in the air, off in the distance…anywhere but looking at me.  Eventually, one of them locked eyes with me, called the group to attention, and saluted me with the greeting of the day.  I returned the salute and then asked them what they were talking about.  This was met with silence, and everyone was uncomfortable.  There was no way I was going to let this go…they were clearly talking about me!  So, I repeated the question and after no response and even more uncomfortableness, I said something to the effect: “OK, I get it, you’re talking about me.  I hope it’s good.”  One brave LT finally spoke up and said, “Sir, we weren’t talking about you.  We were talking about XXXX.  He’s a seagull.”  Of course, I had to follow-up, so I asked, “What’s a seagull?”  The LT looked around and gathered his thoughts.  “You know, sir, a seagull…he flies in, shits all over the place, and then flies away.”  After stifling a laugh, I walked away.  The lesson here is to be value-added.  As I became a more senior leader, this was a great lesson to remember as I would go and visit training, ranges, or attend briefings given by more junior leaders.  I wanted to be valued added in these spaces.  I did not want to be a seagull!

Stay Steady in the Saddle

Like the first lesson on professional composure, Soldiers take their cue from their leader when responding to a crisis or a problematic situation.  How I react to a situation can be infectious…for either good or bad.  If I respond with anxiety, trepidation, or fly off the handle, Soldiers will respond accordingly…and vice versa if I respond in a calm and collected manner.  Fortunately, I had great NCO role models who showed me what right looked like in these situations, but the best was CSM C.  We have served together for many years.  When I was a Battalion Commander, then-SFC C was my Scout Platoon Leader (we didn’t have an officer in the platoon).  The words of wisdom he imparted on me then…and to this day…are to “Stay Steady in the Saddle.”  Given his background, which included plenty of horseback riding, this was a natural thing for him to say and remember.  The more anxious one becomes in the saddle, the more anxious the horse became and less responsive to the rider.  A steady rider makes for a steady horse.  It’s the same way with Soldiers…a visibly anxious leader makes for visibly anxious Soldiers.  This is critical in combat, and one of the best compliments I received as a leader was how steady I remained in a particular gun fight.  So, when things get tough, decisions need to be made, or a crisis looms, I try to “stay steady in the saddle”.

SSG Joe E’s 3 Principles 

When I joined the Army in the summer of 1985, Soldiers who fought in Vietnam were still serving in the operational Army.  One such Soldier was SSG Joe E. who I met in 1990.  He was a Platoon Leader in another platoon in my company (we were short officers in the battalion).  Joe was a tunnel rat in Vietnam.  He had a break in service after the war, and then rejoined the Army.  Joe shared sage advice with me one day via his 3 principles that define a good officer [LT]:

  1. A LT that will listen to his NCOs when they are right.
  2. A LT that will allow his PSG to accomplish his missions when in garrison.
  3. A LT that knows when to step in and drop the fucking hammer.

One other thing that Joe shared with me that I have never forgotten and that I share with leaders all the time: Your troops are most always an accurate reflection of yourself.  If you lead with standards, Soldiers will follow with standards.

Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.


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