How someone handles an issue will determine if they are a leader or a manager. Everyone wants to think they are a leader, but in reality, few actually are. Here is an issue that I encountered as a new squad leader from start to finish.
Introduction of a problem
So there I was, on Fort Lewis, no shit. One of my soldiers, Sean, approached me to tell me that he had hit his time in service requirement and had not been promoted to E-3. My first thought was that this was an oversight on my part and that as the squad leader I should have their time in service dates handy.
I promised to look into it. Like everyone else, I thought these things were automatic. When I went in to talk to the platoon sergeant he informed me he already knew of the situation. Apparently, when the paperwork came across the First Sergeant’s desk he recommended the commander deny Sean’s promotion. His reasoning was that Sean had been injured in a vehicle rollover in AIT and was on permanent profile. Top wanted to make sure that Sean wasn’t sandbagging and wanted to take more time to determine what kind of soldier Sean was.
While I didn’t agree with the determination, I did understand the reasoning. Like everything else in the Army, I didn’t have to like it, I just had to deal with it. As the squad leader, I thought I should have been brought into the discussion earlier instead of having to bring it up. I went back to Sean to tell him what had happened.
Let them vent
Not surprisingly, he was not pleased with the answer. It was more disappointment in not getting promoted and the uncertainty of when it would happen more than being mad at me. Soldiers, more than anyone else, need to be able to vent their frustrations. I let him vent out and that included him cursing and raising his voice. It was no big deal until he attacked me personally and was disrespectful. At that point, I had to put him in the front leaning rest.
Subordinates have every right to be upset and vent but you can’t yell at your squad leader in public and not expect come corrective action. He crossed a line and so I had to snap him back. Then I had him at parade rest and explained the error his ways and dismissed him.
I don’t blame him for not letting it go. You feel slighted and no one likes that. Had it been up to me, I would have let him slide on the PFC rank. He was a good kid and in the Army the transition from private to private first class isn’t that big a deal. But he shouldn’t have talked to other squad leaders.
The next morning at 0545 I had to give the daily squad status. I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes and as I pass Sean’s open door I hear SGT Burklund say, “Sessum is full of shit!”
That stopped me in my tracks. Burklund was holding court with a few other soldier in the room, a couple of them were my soldiers. As I look back on that moment, it is one of those time that test you as a leader. Instead of being angry, I asked what I was full of it about. Honestly, it was the best way to handle it. Now Burklund had to defend his statement.
He claimed that my reasons were wrong and that Sean could get promoted by Army regulations. “It’s in AR 670-1.”
I calmly reminded them that I didn’t make the reasons, it was the first sergeant. Regulations or not, it would still have to get past his desk. And more importantly, “AR 670-1 is for wear and appearance of the military uniform, AR 600-8-19 covers promotions.”
When he said the number of a regulation all the privates, not knowing any better, thought he knew what he was talking about. Of course he didn’t. It was the only regulation number he knew of. My saying the correct regulation hurt his credibility, but what he did next was even worse for him.
“Get out of here Sessum,” he said. “I am going to lose my bearing.”
Unfortunately, though we were equals by position, he outranked me. I had no other course of action than to leave the room. I could have stayed and fought, but then it would have reflected poorly on my and my military bearing. Besides, I had a better idea.
An important part of military discipline is when someone gets smoked, it is over. Sean did pushups for being disrespectful already and I had let it go. It wasn’t his fault that Burklund was a douchebag so he couldn’t be punished for that. Venting to another squad leader is messed up, but not against military regulations. However, I did have a credibility issue and we needed to end this nonsense right away. I wasn’t going to have him sulk about a promotion so much that it looked like he was a substandard soldier.
I ordered Sean to go to the MOS library on post and retrieve AR 670-1 and AR 600-8-19. He had to look in both of them and find the articles about promotions. Then bring both manuals to me and show me what he found.
At the end of the day, Sean reported back and showed that Burklund was stupid because his Ar had nothing to do with promotions. He confirmed that I was right and the regs supported the decisions. I then made him go show Burklund. I knew that if I went, Burklund would have been a bigger ass. I didn’t need to see his face, and if I wasn’t there he would know he was wrong and might get a little humility. In the end, Sean got his promotion later. He was a decent troop and despite having a bum knee still tried to do his job. He later transferred out of the Infantry and became supply from what I understand.
Leadership challenges happen. How you handle them say a lot about you. I always tried to look out for my guys and tried to keep my cool. There was a time when I yelled at them more than they needed, but no one is perfect. I tried to earn the respect of those that followed me and I think I was overall successful at that. I didn’t do what NCOs like Burklund did and be squad dictator. That is the difference between leaders and mangers and that makes all the difference in the world.