Three Guiding Principles of Enlisted Leadership

By: Peter Sessum

Photo: three soldiers on top of a mechanized mortar vehicles.

My first squad, mechanized mortars. SGT Brennamen (right) was one of my top 3 worst squad leaders.

I’ll bet if you put the authors of books on military leadership in one room you would get a bunch of former field grade officers jacking each other off about how great they are. Every book on military leadership I have read was some officer patting himself on the back when really all most ever did was get out of the way of their NCOs. Honestly, military leadership, as well as in the civilian world, isn’t that difficult, just follow a few simple guiding principles.

Inept leaders always say they have inept soldiers

Have you ever noticed that the worst leaders always seem to have the worst soldiers? Whenever you hear someone in a leadership position say their have crappy soldiers, know that it is the leader’s fault. There are so few “lost causes” in life, especially in the military. Anyone that can’t get the most out of a subordinate, or thinks their subordinates are substandard is lacking in good leadership.

If you were to ask my former team/squad leaders you would find a mix of reviews. Some, the ones that were recognized as good leaders, would say I was a great troop. The ones that everyone hated and thought were pieces of shit would say I was a poor soldier. There is a direct relationship between the leadership soldiers receive and what kind of soldier they are.

SGT. Brennamen was my first squad leader. He was one of those NCOs that constantly contradicted themselves. If you ever say, “I thought…” he would interrupt and tell you not to think. Then later, he would yell at you for not thinking. It was like the movie Office Space, you would work just hard enough to not get yelled at. His squad would never take initiative and would wait for orders even when they knew what needed to be done.

Compare that to (then) CPL Tieman. Everything got done without him having to say a word. His squad was always one step ahead of him. On a Hohenfels field rotation it became a game for him to try and actually give us an order. He would come back from a briefing and give us a list of tasks and we would respond, “done, done, working on that now.” In the end, we had to leave one easy thing undone for him to notice and tell us to do it. For us, it really wasn’t a competition, it was just having fun among the team. This was his first field exercise as a mortar squad leader, and at the conclusion he was selected from the platoon to receive recognition from the battalion commander. He later told me that he didn’t deserve it because he didn’t do any work, that I made him look good. That was enough for me, as long as my supervisor recognizes my hard work, I’m good. I don’t need the big man to know my name.

If you ask the two, what kind of soldier I am, Brenamen would say I sucked, Tieman might say I was squared away. Tieman went on to a successful career, last I heard Brennamen was in jail for stealing military computers and got caught by bringing them into a computer repair store to be fixed.

Attitude reflects leadership, not the other way around

When I hear a solider has a bad attitude, I always look to their leadership. More importantly, when I hear a sergeant say his troop has a poor attitude, I always suspect the sergeant’s leadership style. Bad attitudes rarely come put of nowhere. Unless that soldier is short-timing, there is a reason they have an attitude. If you think your soldier has a poor attitude, and when they move to a different team that NCO loves them, you need to check yourself. The problem might be you. This guideline is also universal when it comes to morale. Whether in the military or civilian world, anytime there is low morale, it is always directly connected to leadership. Even in high performing teams, if they are not happy it is because the leadership is doing something wrong. Teams that perform well but have low morale are often afraid of their leadership. Unfortunately, far too many leaders equate positive results with good leadership.

This also means that when they see poor results, they think it is due to poor performers and not poor leadership. There is no one size fits all style of leadership. Even within the same team, different soldiers respond to different leadership styles. Some need more accountability and others need a free hand. Micromanage some, and you will only get exactly what you ask for. Give them top cover and a free hand and they might impress you.

The one thing most successful thing I did as a squad leader was to ask, “what do you think?” Privates, especially in that platoon, were not used to being asked what they thought. This was in direct conflict to what I was taught, but it yielded great results. They stopped coming to me with problems they could solve, they just fixed it.

I had a soldier that was considered a shitbag by the platoon. My platoon sergeant even said he wanted five minutes alone with that kid with a baseball bat. Six months later, that same platoon sergeant made me sit down and put that kid in for an award. My time in the Army up until then taught me to keep a shitbag constantly under your thumb. Instead, I put him in charge when I was away. He got to see it from the other side and it is better to give a PFC pride in a job well done rather than feeling like a shitbag every day. Unlike officers writing about military leadership, I understood the best way to help the kid was to get out of his way and let him turn himself around. He went on to a successful military career because he was given the opportunity to succeed.

The more rank and position you have, the more people you work for

Captain Kolb said those words in his change of command speech. Those words have stuck with me. If there is any justice in the world, he became a general. That view totally changes how many would view their subordinates.

photo: four soldiers by a mortar tube. One hold a mortar round.

81 mm mortar squad. My first leadership position. Smitty doing the thing he does in the back. There is always one.

In a mounted/mechanized team, the driver is responsible for the vehicle. That is it. If the vehicle is good to go, he is done. But it is the leader’s job to make sure that soldier is taken care of. Leave, pay, awards, punishments, promotions, etc. If the leader sees him/herself as working for their soldiers, they are more likely to take care of their soldiers. When you think of soldiers as working for you, they become resources for your own selfish needs and not careers to be cultivated. They also become interchangeable and disposable which makes the previous two guiding principles come into play.

This also doesn’t work if you only do this with a select few. Cultivating the careers of your favorite doesn’t make you a good leader. If you can’t get the best out of everyone, or at least put in your full effort, then you are still a shitty leader. Which brings us to another good point.

Just because it is working for you don’t mean it is working

Not necessarily a guiding principle of leadership, but something for everyone to keep in mind. There is usually one that is happy on an otherwise unhappy team. They are the favorite. Of course, they think things are going great. Just like rich kids, with old money, they think that everyone can succeed if they only applied themselves. They totally neglect to factor in the advantages they have. It is easier to think that you are getting ahead because of your own abilities than the favor of another.

There is nothing wrong with being a favorite. Someone has to be. It is just a blue falcon move to not recognize that fact and use your favor to help your fellow troop. Trust me, no one is mad that you are the favorite, they are mad that you being the favorite is screwing them. Giving un-earned rewards to the favorite and overlooking the hard work of others is a shitty leadership thing to do.

Unfortunately, they never write about that kind of thing in books on military leadership. Have you ever noticed that the books are really just long pats on the back? They never talk about the soldiers they failed, just how successful they are. Sometimes they mention a setback, but only as a plot device to demonstrate how awesomely they overcame the situation.

I wish I could do that. But I have to admit I failed a soldier. I was more old school and he was a young kid that I thought wanted to be coddled. If you smoked him for screwing up he would complain that he was a person and shouldn’t be treated that way. I don’t think the embraced how the Infantry worked. I wasn’t able to get the best out of him. That isn’t to say I didn’t try, but nothing I tried worked. I was only his squad leader for a few months but I guess someone got a hold of him that was able to speak his language because he went on to make rank and become a sergeant. Unlike the other writers of military leadership, I can’t claim to be perfect.

If you ever meet an author on military leadership, ask him about these guiding principles. If they don’t know anything about them, don’t buy the book. It is just going to be a couple hundred pages of a former officer stroking his own ego. I, for one, saw enough of that in the Army, I don’t need to pay for it now.


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