The Best Leadership Lessons Came From My Soldiers

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

Don’t Be Afraid to Give Someone a Second Chance

I was the recipient of this one.  It was Day 1 of Ranger School in October 1989.   One of the requirements for the Ranger School Swim Test was to jump into the deep end of the pool with your Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) and your weapon (M16 replica…aka “Rubber Duck”), remove the LBE, and resurface with your weapon.  To drop your weapon was a no-go and you would fail and be dropped from the course.

I was a good swimmer, and I never had an issue with this before…but I dropped my weapon.  I climbed out of the pool, and I immediately was verbally “reprimanded” and physically smoked by the Ranger Instructor (RI) – push-ups, burpees, etc.  I deserved it, and I knew I failed and was going home.  This went on for a few minutes, but it felt like an hour.  My peers were all watching as they waited in line for their turn.

And then it stopped, and the RI got coffee breath close and said to me, “Ranger, if you jump back into that pool and recover my weapon, I will give you a go.”  This is a quote…after all these years I have never forgotten that.  He didn’t need to repeat it.  I jumped in, swam to the bottom, grabbed the weapon, and I climbed out of the pool.  I got my go.

To this day, I’m not sure why he did that.  But about a week later, I did have another encounter with the same RI under different circumstances.  We were preparing for a refresher airborne jump, and the RI was the Jumpmaster conducting the personal inspection of my gear (JMPI) before we loaded the aircraft.  I’m sure he remembered me from the swim test, but he never let on.  Instead, he asked me where I was from and where I was going after Ranger School, and he shared with me that he was soon going to college via the Green to Gold Program and would ultimately commission as an officer in the Army.

I lost track of SSG Bell, but I’ve never forgotten the second chance he gave me and the lesson he taught me.

The Right Decision Can Be a Hard Decision…But It is the Right Decision

The Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) is the mark of an Infantryman and Infantry excellence.  I first tested for it as a 2LT in Germany in 1991.  One of the requirements is to successfully complete Night Land Navigation.  You had to find something like 3 out of 5 points in a designated time period using a compass and pace count – no map.   This is often referred to as Dead Reckoning.  

As I was preparing my kit for the Night Land Navigation evolution of the EIB test, I saw a bunch of guys (about 5 or so Soldiers…at least one officer and likely junior Soldiers and NCOs) gathered in the corner of the GP Medium where we were all staying.  I didn’t walk over there, but from where I sat, I could tell what they were doing…they had a map with the points for the land nav course plotted on it.  Somehow, they had gotten a hold of the “answer sheet” and they were plotting the points on their own maps to create their own answer sheet.  BLUF – they were cheating.

I spent 4 years at West Point living under the Honor Code – “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”  Clearly, I was a person of honor…how could I not be?  I graduated from West Point.  So, what did I do?  I did nothing.  I ignored it, completed night land nav, passed, and earned my EIB.  As for the guys who cheated, I don’t know what happened to them.  But it doesn’t matter.

For many years, I never publicly shared this story because I regret how it went down and I was embarrassed.  It wasn’t until later in my career that I began to share this story – I wanted others to learn from me.

But I never forgot what happened and I would like to believe that it shaped and guided me when confronted with other tough decisions.  In this case, the right decision was to not tolerate the cheating in whatever form that took – confronting them, turning them in, etc.  It would no doubt have been hard and uncomfortable, but it remains the right decision.  Instead, I did nothing.

Ask What Others Think…You’re Not the Smartest Person in the Room

In 1990, my first assignment as a brand-new Infantry 2LT was to Germany and Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division (Forward).  I was a Bradley Platoon Leader forward deployed to Germany; an Airborne Ranger; a graduate of the Bradley Commander Leader Course at Ft. Benning.  I was ready to go!

About 1 month after arriving, the battalion deployed to the then-Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) in Hohenfels for its annual training rotation.  This was a big deal.  It was an ARTEP (Army Testing and Training Program), and we would be evaluated on our ability to complete tasks and accomplish missions.  Back in the day, urban legend (with a hint of truth) was that leaders got fired for their inability to perform the simplest of tasks during an ARTEP.   

I remember only one thing about that rotation, and it occurred on the first mission.  My platoon was the lead platoon of the lead company of the lead battalion for the brigade attack.  Why my company commander made me the lead platoon, I have no idea.  But there I was…no shit!  

In the days before GPS, Blue-Force Tracker, and any other navigation devices, all we had was a map, a compass, terrain association, and a 60-mph finger able to trace the route over a map board while trying to command and control the platoon, make decisions, and talk on the radio from the commander’s hatch of the Bradley.  It was dark, and we were wearing first generation night vision goggles.

Despite the exhortations and insistence of my squad leaders and platoon sergeant that I should delegate some of these responsibilities, I was trying to do it all.  I was in the lead Bradley.  What could go wrong?  What went wrong was that my platoon hit a navigation impasse and I had to make a decision.  I made the wrong one…I went left, when I should have gone right.

Fortunately, the remainder of the company took the correct turn, and it wasn’t a complete disaster.  My pride was hurt, I felt like the dumbass I was, and I earned the “Bent Bayonet” for stupidity at the next Officer’s Call.  But most importantly I learned early on that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room and that I needed to listen to my Platoon Sergeant and Squad Leaders and leverage the talents of my team.

You Are Always Being Watched, So Set the Right Example

Lead by Example – Lead from the Front – Set the Standard – Be the Standard.  While somewhat cliché, these principles do anchor the top of the most basic leadership philosophies.  I felt like I always lived and modeled myself accordingly, but it never resonated like it did in early 2002.

I was the Battalion Operations Officer of an Infantry Battalion – an incredibly busy job at any point but made busier and more complex given that it was shortly after 9-11, with an impending training rotation and deployment, and I was serving in a unit with a command culture that was dysfunctional at best.  Fortunately, the CSM was strong, as were the company commanders.

I was married with 2 young children at the time, and I was working incredibly long hours planning, executing, and preparing operations and training events with my team of great Americans in the S3 shop.  While it was an exciting and exhilarating time to be in the job, the downside was that the operational tempo was insane, and I sucked as a father and husband.

One afternoon I was having a conversation with a company commander.  He was a great commander.  He was on his second command, and unfortunately, he would be leaving us soon as he was getting ready to change command before our training rotation and deployment.  As we were chatting about his next job, he told me he was leaving the Infantry and going to a different career field in the Army…one that would likely afford him more career opportunities, stability, and time with his family.  Admittedly, I was shocked and a little disappointed.  I asked him why.

I’ll never forget what he said: “Sir, I don’t want to be you?”  He went on to say nice things about me, personally and professionally; how much he respected me; blah, blah, blah.  But the truth was that he didn’t want to matriculate through the Infantry because he didn’t want to live the life I was leading.  In short, I was setting a bad example.

Going forward, did this mean that I created more balance in my life, changed my habits, etc.?  Maybe…probably not.  I don’t know.  But what it did do was make me acutely aware that I am being watched and that my actions – big and small – truly do set an example, good or bad.

Don’t Be Afraid to Apply Leadership to a Problem…It’s Not Always Black and White

Leadership is not black and white…everyone knows this.  At least that’s what we’re taught in a classroom or the schoolhouse.  In the world of discipline and punishment – UCMJ in the Army or the Cadet Disciplinary Code at West Point – there are manuals and regulations that define a certain punishment for a certain offense.  

In my opinion, good leaders are going to use this as a guide recognizing that more often than not there are mitigating circumstances to any offense and that intangibles such as character and potential should factor into any punishment or accountability measure.  However, in my experience, either through laziness or rote and blind compliance with the regulations, leaders follow the “letter of the law” when exercising judgment on an offense.

In 2008, I was the battalion commander of an Infantry Battalion deployed to Iraq.  I commanded that battalion for 3 years – 2006 to 2009.  I knew the Soldiers and leaders well.  I had strong NCOs and junior leaders.   I had an exceptional CSM.  About 8 months into a 12-month deployment, we had a situation in Alpha Company with one of our most senior and experienced Squad Leaders and his Platoon Leader.  

Both the SL and PL had been together for over a year – in the train-up and in combat.  They normally worked well together, but both were strong willed and somewhat opiniated.  Combine this with the stress, volatility, and chaos of a combat environment; and the tight confines of living, recreating, and eating on a small combat outpost for 8 months – it’s surprising we didn’t have a situation earlier.

While talking through the planning for an upcoming combat operation, the SL and PL disagreed on a point.  The PL pushed his point across, and the SL didn’t take kindly to having a course of action jammed down his throat.  In response, the SL told his PL to “f—k off”.  This occurred in front of the other SLs and PSG.

When word of this reached the CO and 1SG, they recommended to me a Field Grade Article 15.  We temporarily reassigned the SL to another position while we investigated the matter.  Ultimately, this came to me for adjudication.

The facts were clear, the SL was insubordinate and disrespectful.  The punishment for this was normally a reduction in rank, loss of pay, restriction, extra duty.  Essentially, this could be a career-ender for this senior SSG/squad leader.  On the day of the Article 15, my CSM and I huddled before bringing in the chain of command and then the SL.  My CSM recommended to me that I consider tossing out the Article 15 if the SL owned the offense and held himself accountable for what happened.  If he didn’t take ownership and blamed the PL or extenuating circumstances than punish him – reduce in rank, relieve him, etc.  After further discussion, I agreed.

We brought in the chain of command in advance of the Soldier.  I didn’t tell them about my plan.  They all shared their recommendations.  I then brought in the SL.  After reading him the charges, I asked for his explanation and what he recommended for punishment.  He took complete ownership of the situation, he recommended that I reduce him in rank, fire him, etc. 

There wasn’t one mention of anyone being responsible for his actions other than himself.  I agreed with him, and then swiveled in my chair and dropped the Article 15 paperwork in the trash can behind me.  You could have heard a pin drop.  I explained my reasoning and told him that he did have to share with the entire platoon what he told me about accountability and ownership.

The CSM then had a separate conversation with the SL and 1SG and I with the CO and PL.  This could have gone bad, but it didn’t.  We exercised leadership when leadership was required.  The platoon, company, and battalion were better because of it.  The SL went on to be a senior leader in our Army.

Brian Reed is a U.S. Army Veteran with 34+ years of active-duty service as an Infantryman.

Subscribe to MTI's Newsletter - BETA