Having the privilege to serve as a NCO, Platoon Leader and Company Commander in the Infantry provides some insightful perspective on discussions of leadership. It approaches the conversation from two entirely different and demanding directions. They each bring something different to the organization, and they each provide context for the most difficult decisions that I believe a leader must make.
When I took command of an Airborne Infantry Company, my highly intelligent and experienced first sergeant told me on day one that I had to make a choice: “Either compete for the best OER, or work on behalf of the men and for their respect.” I did not understand how truly different these two paths were, or how quickly I would find the fork in the road and have to choose.
As everyone who is responsible for equipment and others can attest to, the first few months are usually spent cleaning up someone else’s mistakes before you can go ahead and make your own. Not that we are all perfect – just that we each have our priorities, and it is rare for the previous person to share the same ones. One of the challenging parts is to open every door, drawer, box, and crate, and ask the hard questions. Finding out issues that have been ignored – like that someone had their equipment destroyed in combat but no one had completed the paperwork to remove it from their record, or that the fourth request to extend time at the duty station because the spouse is likely to give birth during the PCS move is still sitting in a drawer, never submitted – is difficult. Strike that – it’s frustratingly absurd. Correctly handling these issues means informing superiors and doing what is right on behalf of the service member. That is not to say that it will always work out.
Senior leaders are usually excited to perform actions to support their subordinates. A signature on a 4187 or letter of recommendation is one thing. Being informed that there are rampant organizational issues resulting in them having to explain to their boss the oversights is another. So, bringing up these issues can make the organization as a whole look bad – even though it is doing the morally right thing for the service member.
Here is the point, though – making an organization look bad by admitting there is an issue and fixing it is, and always should be the right thing. In fact, it is the goal of many efficiency and process improvement organizations. Identify faults, recommend solutions and improve. For the military, though, when evaluations are based on metrics and highly competitive, this can have the opposite effect. The deeper one digs and the more problems they find, the more negative publicity the organization receives.
As a leader, ignoring these problems will result in disenfranchised subordinates. In -10 degree temperatures, the fact that the heaters do not work is not annoying, it is potentially dangerous. Identifying that cold weather equipment has not been prioritized four months earlier and requesting additional budgetary funds to ensure the safety of your subordinates is important.
There are many times that following the path of the OER seems to tread very closely to the path of taking care of one’s subordinates. When that is the case, a leader can almost put one foot into both trails and make everyone happy. In the hyper-competitive environment of the military, short term evaluations make a huge difference to future career potential and many find themselves always trying to one-up their peers. Since that usually means doing something harder, more complicated, and potentially ridiculous, it is always the subordinates who bear the brunt of the leader’s plan.
As my first sergeant told me, decide what is the most important to you, your OER, or the respect of your soldiers. When he put it that way, the decision was easy.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.