I failed to lead my platoon when I first became a Platoon Commander. I successfully completed the requisite training the Marine Corps determined to be sufficient for an intelligence officer to take a platoon and prepare them for real-world operations but I was not mentally prepared for the challenges ahead.
I struggled to find answers and continually made mistakes in the beginning months of leading a platoon. From selfishly not passing information to my Marines because it was more work for me to missing deadlines on products, I was not being the leader my Marines deserved. I found it difficult to even solve simple leadership problems that one would think are inherent to any Marine officer.
I had a very poor relationship with my Platoon Sergeant. He was a Marine who also had never truly lead any group individuals before in his life. The poor performance I perceived of him led me to dislike him and I let my dislike for him affect our professional relationship. I did not invest the time in getting to know the root of his issues, I did not give him challenging tasks to grow as a leader, and I didn’t give him opportunities to make me look bad. My unrespectful and resentful attitude toward my Platoon Sergeant was visible to the other Marines – further undercutting his position.
The more junior Marines tested the waters with me and occasionally said off-handed comments about how bad the Platoon Sergeant was. Not only did I not correct them, I tacitly encourage them. I thought that if he unwittingly took the fall for mistakes he and I made as the platoon leadership, the Marines would most likely think it was him and I would still be in good standing. I single-handedly created a dysfunctional leadership team.
Compounding my poor relationship-building skills was my leadership insecurity and indecisiveness. I constantly second-guessed myself and never seemed satisfied with a decision I made. This indecision dragged on all attempted improvement.
I blamed others for my failures:
- I have a weak Platoon Sergeant. I felt that if I had a scapegoat of some sort then I could remain in good light with my subordinates, peers, and superiors. This may be one of the selfish actions I could have taken as a leader.
- My lower-level leadership are all about to get out of the Marine Corps. Because I couldn’t effectively develop my junior leaders, I made an excuse that they simply weren’t motivated and couldn’t be influenced any further. This is a lazy and simply false mindset
- The Platoon Commanders before me didn’t set me up for success. I didn’t want to develop an entire 6 month training plan because I didn’t know if it would actually give the Marines good training. I didn’t feel confident with my planning abilities to enact a good plan and stick with it.
- My Military Occupational Specialty school didn’t prepare me. The reality of the matter was we had about 6-hour days for 6 months and I surfed instead of studied. I blamed my course curriculum instead of my laziness.
I tricked myself into thinking I worked hard. I came in first every day and left last most days but not nearly all of that time was actually spent working. Some was spent complaining, some avoiding my Platoon Sergeant, some doing nothing. My Marines and my boss could physically see that I was there first and stayed late and that was all of the bargaining chips I needed to hold others accountable for being lazy or not working hard. In reality I was the lazy one because that is the fakest way I could demonstrate hard work without being exposed.
I felt sorry for myself. I was convinced I drew the short straw. I allowed self-pity to defeat me and make me ineffective as a leader. I didn’t have the confidence to pull myself up and carry on despite adversity. I let excuses lead me.
By chance, I was able to take a step back and inspect myself for what I had become. I was lucky enough to be sent to a three-week training course across the country where I had reason to focus on myself and my studies. During this time of slower op tempo and being away from my platoon, I had time to think about how I was doing as a person and a leader. I hated my job, I didn’t enjoy the people I worked with, I lacked the confidence of a true leader, I was lazy, and I made excuses.
This separation from the day to day grind of leadership gave me perspective – not only on how poorly I’d behaved, but also on what I could do to improve things.
I returned to the west coast with an adjusted direction I wanted to take as a leader. I decided to make just two major changes that I thought would ultimately condition myself to lead with more efficacy and enjoy what I did once again: (1) I wasn’t going to blame any external factors for my platoon’s shortfalls, and; (2) I was going be thankful for having the opportunity to be in the leadership position I was in.
Specific examples of how I enacted change with my altered approach: I would slow down my day to enjoy it and talk to the Marines to actually get to know them. In turn, they would ask me questions and get to know me on a more personal level. After only about two weeks of simply being more friendly, I had some Marines ask to talk to me one-on-one about work or personal problems they thought I could help with.
Next, during field exercises, a significant amount of external support is required via requests, liaising, etc. In the past, I would do the absolute minimum to get the support requests submitted just to say I checked my box of what I needed to do. Often times, the supporting shops would mess something up and I would point to my request to show them they were wrong. Now I would follow up with them multiple times just to make sure everything was squared away instead of preparing myself for a “told you so” situation.
The biggest change was with my Platoon Sergeant. Instead of isolating and scapegoating him, I took responsibility to develop him as a leader. I still gave into my old habits on occasion but I made a concerted effort to allow him to fail and grow as a leader in situations I where I would have insulated him in the past. Although the verdict is still out on whether or not my approach was effective with him, our personal relationship improved significantly better as did the office atmosphere.
In addition to rebuilding relationships with my Marines, I had to improve my relationship with my immediate superior, the Company Commander. Up to this point, in his eyes, I had performed in a sub-proficient manner. With a new understanding of what it means to lead effectively, I now took ownership for everything my platoon did and gave myself no excuses for poor performance. Consequently, my platoon’s planning cycle got shorter, we went to the field more often, we maintained our equipment better, etc. My relationship with my Company Commander went from strained to positive within a few months of high performance and happier overall disposition.
Truth be told, I’m not certain if my alterations in my leadership approach have been effective or not. However, working toward making zero excuses and enjoying my time in the military has certainly made me more confident with my abilities, more focused, and generally more optimistic toward solving leadership problems.
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