Thursday, March 20, 2008

On military leadership

Skippy has a good post about military leadership. I thought I'd take up his challenge and consider three examples of leadership that inspired me during my service.

First example. (I told my buddy Lawdog about this and he posted the story on his blog some time ago, so some of you may have read it before.) I'd just entered the South African armed forces and was doing basic training (which involved much blood, sweat and tears, all mine - the SADF was fighting a border war at the time and they didn't believe in soft training!). On the firing-range one day I was being my typical teenage dumbass self (I hadn't grown up yet, of course - some would say I still haven't!), and muttered a comment to the guy next to me, something about having practiced this stuff enough and when were we going to do something more interesting?

There came a tap on my shoulder. Looking around, I snapped to a brace. The Sergeant-Major of our training unit stood there in his polished, creased, mirror-bright glory, glaring at me. I was sure he was going to rip my head off my shoulders or have me running up and down serving as a moving target for the rest of the morning, but he just looked at me. In a slow, resigned voice (the kind they use to dumbass recruits), he said, "Troop, an amateur practices until he's got it right. A professional practices until he can't get it wrong!"

That Sergeant-Major was doubtless tired and pissed-off by the thousands of new recruits fumbling their way through basic drills that he could do in his sleep. He could have torn me into shreds without bothering to use the occasion as a training opportunity, but he chose to overcome his irritation and make a point so well that I - and those around me - could instantly appreciate and remember it.

I've never forgotten his words. They've kept me alive on at least three occasions. Words to live by, indeed. Thanks, Smaj.

Second example. The Lieutenant in command of our platoon had emphasized before our patrol the basic rules of engagement, including a great deal of sage advice on how to fight and survive. (He was what Americans would call a "mustang", commissioned from the ranks, so he had a lot more experience than the average Lieutenant.) He emphasized things like: keep your weapon on semi-auto and don't waste ammo in full-auto fire; shoot only at an identified target unless you're ordered to put down suppressive fire; keep low and keep moving - to stay still is to die; and other words of wisdom. (They all proved true, in my experience.)

We hit a well-set ambush in thick African bush, the classic L-formation along a trail. Those of you who are combat veterans will know how it went: the sudden explosion of noise as weapons opened up on us, the frozen split-second of shocked disbelief and the instant orders from the Lieutenant to charge down the ambush and take the fight to the insurgents . . . if you've been there, you know.

When it was all over and the insurgents (the survivors, at any rate) had fled and backup had arrived, we gathered to be taken back to base. Some of us were wounded and all of us were on edge and jittery. The Lieutenant gathered us around and debriefed us in the field. He went over the sequence of events, praised those who'd done well, gently corrected those of us (including yours truly) who'd screwed up at some point or other, and generally ensured that we all left the field having learned all there was to learn from the engagement. He didn't want us getting back to base and forgetting about it - he wanted us to come out of it better soldiers than when we went into the fight. Even those of us who'd made mistakes weren't harshly criticized. He acknowledged that we were relatively inexperienced, pointed out where we'd forgotten our training, and ensured that we each understood our errors and wouldn't repeat them.

A great man, that Lieutenant. He went on to senior rank in the SADF and richly deserved it. He showed us that a good officer makes sure his troops aren't treated like mushrooms (i.e. kept in the dark and fed on bulls***) but handles them with the same respect he expects from them, leads them from the front and by example, and strives to weld them together into a proud, effective team. In all my subsequent years of service I compared my commanders to him, usually unfavorably; and when the time came for me to command others I consciously modeled myself after him. I hope I was as good.

Third example. I was part of the duty watch at a sophisticated joint-services electronic warfare center monitoring Soviet, Cuban and East German activity in Angola. We stood a regular watch schedule, and this time we'd pulled an all-nighter.

One of the junior watch-standers received news just before we left for the center that his mother had been seriously injured in a car accident and was undergoing emergency surgery. His father called and asked that he be allowed to fly home on compassionate grounds. The Officer of the Day, a real (insert appropriate curse here), refused to do anything about it, saying that the operator would have to see the Chaplain in the morning and make arrangements. We left for the center with the operator in tears in our midst, the rest of us trying awkwardly to provide what comfort and support we could.

On arrival at the center a couple of us hastened to the office of the SNCO of the Watch, a Navy Chief Petty Officer, and told him the story. He let out a couple of choice expletives, hurried to the operator's station and pulled him off duty. Against all regulations, he overrode the telephone exchange block and let him make three long-distance calls to his family while he went to another room and telephoned the CO of the center, telling him what had happened. The CO, a Navy Captain, was furious at the neglect shown by the OOD at the accommodation base (and later made sure he answered for it). He had the chaplain come out to the center to collect the operator, and by ten that evening he was on a flight home. His departure left us short-handed: but the Chief voluntarily took over that operator's console and stood watch with us for the rest of the night. He wasn't up-to-date on the latest EW bells and whistles, but wasn't afraid to admit it and asked us to help him when necessary. We had a busy night and couldn't have coped without him.

Again, inspirational leadership from that Chief. He went out of his way (including breaking regulations and risking his good relationship with other officers by going out-of-channels directly to the CO) for one of his guys who needed it, and pulled an all-night watch with us rather than call out someone who'd earned his time off before taking up his next shift in the morning. The rest of us made sure he had a case of cold beer waiting at his quarters when we got off watch next morning. He'd surely earned it.

There are three examples of positive leadership from my military experience. I'd like to invite all readers who are military veterans and who have their own blogs to follow Skippy's lead and post their own examples of good leadership. For those who don't have their own blogs, how about telling us of your positive leadership experiences in a comment beneath this post? Hopefully it'll help others who read it.


1 comment:

Cameron said...

OK, this was too good of a chance to pass up. I can't compare with combat stories, but I do have a few good leadership ones here.