In 2016 we featured essays from our community members. These essays were the final installment of a series that explore the lessons learned from the “worst leaders.”
Show Tactical Patience
By Austin C.
I couldn’t believe what I saw when I entered the Company Tactical Operations Center (TOC). I was the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) Platoon Leader of a rifle platoon on a small Combat Outpost (COP) in Southern Afghanistan. Another platoon was in contact with insurgent forces about five kilometers from the COP, and my platoon was ready to assist them at a moment’s notice. When I entered the TOC, I saw my Company Commander shouting into two different phones, staring at a map on a computer screen, and yelling at the radio operator. Everyone in the TOC was desperately trying to keep up with him as he frantically shouted instructions. It was chaos in the TOC.
Ironically, the place with the least chaos was with the platoon that was currently being engaged. I watched the video feed of the situation from the observation balloon that floated high above the COP, and listened to the incoming radio traffic from the Platoon Leader. The PL was calmly calling up reports to the TOC as his platoon returned accurate and effective fire on the insurgents. Within a minute of observing the situation, it was clear that the platoon on the ground had the situation completely under control and was quickly gaining the upper hand. This was lost on the Company Commander who was completely wrapped up in trying to get attack helicopters on station.
The Commander shouted at me to come over to him. I walked over and he began trying to explain the situation to me, while at the same time talking on the phone and still yelling at the radio operator. After listening to the Commander try to explain what was going on, it was clear that he was completely lost. He didn’t know where the platoon in contact was or how many insurgents were engaging them. He was so wrapped up in trying to do ten things at once that he was completely unable to communicate with his subordinates or provide clear guidance; he was unable to be a Commander. He wasn’t finishing sentences or completing his thoughts.
I finally said, “Sir, I was briefed on that platoon’s mission last night, I know exactly where they are and where the fire is coming from, and my Platoon is ready to go whenever you give the word.” He couldn’t even process that information and he kept yelling into his phones. I stepped back and allowed him to finish what he was doing. After a few minutes, the situation on the ground had ended. The insurgents had fled and the platoon in contact had reported no casualties. The Commander, for some reason, was furious as if the situation had been poorly handled by everyone in the TOC.
During that fight, the TOC was a chaotic place to be, not because the Soldiers in the TOC didn’t know what to do (they actually knew exactly what to do), but because the Commander had thrown everyone into a tizzy. Unfortunately, this trend did not improve during the deployment and that Commander was eventually replaced. I learned a lot during that deployment, but perhaps the most important thing was that tactical patience is crucial to mission success. When things happen in combat, a leader must evaluate the situation, develop a course of action, and communicate clearly. Being patient and allowing a situation to develop allows the Leader to make sound decisions. When a Leader is frantic, his subordinates are frantic. When a Leader is calm, patient, and composed his subordinates are able to do their jobs effectively and accomplish the mission.
He wouldn’t stand up for us.
By Will I.
The worst leader I ever had I dealt with for a long time. He was my fireteam leader when I was a lance corporal, and was later promoted to sergeant and ended up being my squad leader at that time. The problem was the total dissonance between the standards he held himself to and the standards he held his Marines to, in a couple of different ways.
I remember one incident before a training operation at Twentynine Palms. There was an accountability incident that was mostly his fault, with a hint of fault on one of his corporals. Naturally, our platoon sergeant was a bit irate and chewed him out after the formation. His response to this problem was for the squad to go on a conditioning run in full kit in 110 degree weather. I have no problem with PT as a method to encourage lesson retention, but what I did have a problem with is his decision to not go on the run with us, despite the fact that the mistake was mostly his fault. There is little more frustrating than a leader punishing you for their mistakes while somehow thinking they have zero personal responsibility for that present situation. The resent this built was not helped by his low personal PT standards – he was among the least fit in the platoon, so any skipping out on PT chances deconstructed our respect further.
That was one incident among many, which led to his biggest failure: he was incredibly timid when it came to dealing with his superiors, and he would let his Marines get steamrolled with issues because he was too afraid of stepping on people’s toes. Multiple Marines had issues that took an unconscionably long time to resolve because he was not willing to stand up for them. Pay issues and administrative issues, mostly, but sometimes other problems as well. When Marines inevitably jumped the chain of command to get their issue resolved, he would be angry at them for doing so.
From these experiences I learned two main lessons in leadership. The first is that leaders must truly take responsibility for their subordinates. They must internalize that what their troops do, or fail to do, reflects upon them, and hold themselves accountable when that fails to happen.
The second lesson is that leaders absolutely must stand up for their subordinates when necessary, and cannot be timid about it. If a subordinate does not think a leader cares about his issues enough to get them taken care of, or thinks that a leader is timid, that leader’s authority wanes in a very destructive manner.
Worst Leader – BM1 X
By Kerry K.
I wish I could say my first year and a half in the United States Coast Guard was engaging, inspiring, and everything I hoped for and more. Basic training kicked me into the fleet on a high note, full of pride and confidence; however, my first experience with the Guard turned out to be the most degrading of my life.
The small boat station I was assigned to was riddled with poor leadership and bad blood, though I will highlight only one individual. I caught onto the tension in the atmosphere the day I reported.
To blame it all on poor individuals would be unfair, because there was a negative culture instilled long before my arrival. Work-life balance was essentially non-existent, with an undermanned duty crew spending literally half of their lives there in 2-3 day shifts. A casual lack of recognition of humanity was the norm, propagated by the “tough it out, you’re in the military” or “that’s just the way it is” attitude. Wrongs were assumed to come from ill intentions, and being “the new guy” meant being shamed for incompetency.
I am not so naïve or arrogant to admit that I didn’t play a role in my own misery. Mistakes snowballed as my self-esteem and confidence dwindled, and for awhile I crawled around on rock bottom in full-on depression. I kept my head above water only by throwing myself into training and cherishing my non-CG life. Off time was spent in the mountains, the ocean, or in the comfort of friendships made in our small town.
The most notorious leader at our station though, was Boatswain’s Mate First-Class (BM1) X. BM1 demanded respect, but failed to command it. He was frenetic and antagonistic, volatile and ineffective. Stress levels rose the moment he walked through a door.
When BM1 X was on duty for a case, a relatively simple issue quickly became stressful and convoluted. Most of us would step back with wide-eyes, watching the wreckage unfold. He would rip a phone out of a watchstander’s hand, mid-call, then snatch a pen out of the hand of another; he would speak in a heightened tone, failing to listen to suggestions or data previously gathered.
I learned that leadership style characterized by volatility, stress, and negative assumption is nearly catastrophic. We gave BM1 respect via obedience and acknowledgement of rank. His respect, though, was not of the genuine sort, the kind inspired by hard-earned experience and consistent good action.
Finally, I received orders to Helicopter Rescue Swimmer school in North Carolina for June 2015, my ticket to escape. The first weeks of school were incredibly difficult, but for the first time in a long time, I knew again what mutual respect was.
There, I was led by some of the finest men in the country: driven, humble, humorous and chock full of courage. Unquestionably, these men would risk their lives for another. Every graduate credits their instructors for outstanding leadership, which carried them through the storm that is swimmer school. We found our 20x factors1 and redefined limits.2 If not fighting for our own careers, we fought for them. How could we let them down?
When it came down to fighting non-compliant survivors in the water, I would still think of BM1 X. I would think of him as the big, thrashing buffoon who needed rescuing. I even wanted to save him. First, because it was my job; second, for that sliver of humanity that he had left in him, which I was empathetic towards.
Even the worst have something to offer.
- 20x factor: term coined by Mark Divine, author of The Unbeatable Mind and The Way of the Seal. He says it is that watershed moment when you find out that you are capable of far more than you previously allowed yourself to experience.
- Mario Vittone, a former Rescue Swimmer and now the CEO of Maritime Risk Consulting gives a great talk on redefining limits in “Redefining Limits: The Hidden Value of Hard” (https://vimeo.com/50273432). It’s long, but pretty rad.