The following post was penned by Army First Lieutenant Kyle Amonson, a native of Northern Virginia and proud Virginia Tech Hokie. Recently returned from Iraq, he is a rotary wing aviator and AH-64D pilot stationed at Storck Barracks, Germany, where he is assigned as a Flight Platoon Leader. He spends his spare time attempting to find his Warrant Officers and becoming a connoisseur of Bavarian Hefeweizen.
“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” — Colin Powell
They say you don’t know what you don’t know. Understanding that fact is daunting, yet motivating at the same time because there is so much progress yet to be made. Nonetheless, regardless of a lack of knowledge or experience one must be expected to be the best leader they can be to the peak of their abilities. Whether you are a freshly-pinned NCO, a newly-commissioned Lieutenant, or a Captain taking your long-awaited Command, you have one shot in that moment in time to make the greatest positive impact you can.
In my first year as a Cadet I developed a mantra to live by, a Steve Prefontaine quote: “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.” I often find myself asking, am I giving my best to my Soldiers, am I inspiring or just motivating, leading or just managing? I always have to pull myself back to ask myself if I am passionately caring… sometimes it’s praise of a job well done, sometimes it’s punishment to teach a lesson. If a decision is made in the best interest of the Soldier in relation to the unit and the mission is that giving your best? Or at least a pretty darn good attempt?
Don’t let me claim to be an expert, because that is far from the truth. What I am is a Junior Officer who is learning. Who is honored to have the opportunity to lead the citizens of America’s sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. I don’t take that lightly, no leader should. So you ask yourself… how can I give nothing less than my best to these Soldiers? They deserve it.
I will start out with what I feel is most important, the most complicated, yet the most simple. During my training, I heard many different tips on how to be a “great” leader. From “praise in public, criticize in private” to “don’t lose your cool on the radio,” and always “don’t ask anyone to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.” They were all great. However there are some that override all of these tips and tricks, and are at the core of what a leader is, regardless of rank or profession.
Not a word you hear in the military, kind of emotional, the type of word that might make you raise an eyebrow and call your SHARP rep. But passion is the most important, a passion to take care of your Soldiers, to look out for their best interests and their families as if they were your own, to make their problems your problems, to realize as a leader you might literally be the only one at all looking out for them and their well being. It’s putting in the extra effort. But how do you put that into motion?
Get to know your Soldiers
When I come in to a new job I sit down with every Soldier. We talk about 5 things: Their background, their experiences in the Army, their personal goals, their professional goals and expectation management. I write in a personal journal about each Soldier and reread it every couple of weeks. That way I can remember to ask SPC Smith how his run time is coming along or SSG Jones how his bachelors degree classes are progressing. I also expect this level of detail in knowing Soldiers out of their supervisors. I was excited to see some of the junior leadership in the Company adopt it…not all counseling has to be “counseling”. It can look a whole lot like informal mentorship.
It’s a little formal I know… but sometimes sitting down, writing goals and having a conversation is important. Maybe you aren’t into the formalities, that’s fine, you can get to know your Soldiers in a number of ways. Which leads me to the last step of passionately caring for your Soldiers.
Be there, be present, be available
I know work gets busy, the paper piles up on your desk and your Outlook won’t stop receiving incoming mail but just taking part in their day to day activities is important. When you are present it helps you learn so much about your Soldiers and how to serve them better. I know Officers are the biggest culprits of this, hand me a disorganized property book and I can vanish for a week without even knowing it, two weeks depending on the shortages. PT was always my saving grace to spend time with Soldiers when the days got the best of me. Earning respect while enduring the physical suck with them is always a money maker. PT is also my favorite low risk environment to push junior Soldiers into leadership roles.
Use your resources, you aren’t in it alone
It’s daunting and I have stressed myself out through self evaluation of whether or not my performance is my best but you aren’t in it alone. I have had some amazing Non-Commissioned Officers. They have taught me more than any leadership seminar by a General has. Some of my best memories in the Army have been working side by side, PL and PSG, to achieve a mission. It takes a hefty dose of humility and constant, honest, communication. You don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t have the experience. It’s a fact, just accept it. However you are responsible to give those men your best and you still have a lot to offer. What I considered my best was creating the most valuable training and efficiently managing their time through proper planning. The best way I’ve found to do that was for myself and the NCOs to have an open line of communication and ideas (and for them to be able to call out my occasional good idea fairies). Doing things right the first time, effectively, so that you get them home to their families. Soldiers need quality training and quality family time and you owe it to them. There is nothing that drives me up the wall more than inefficiency from a lack of planning that causes Soldiers to waste their time, resulting in less family time.
Also you have your Commander, he knows you don’t know everything. Yes he rates you but don’t be afraid to seek his input and admit you need help. He was in your shoes at one point too. A good Commander will mentor (and enjoy doing it), it benefits the unit and it benefits you. Heck, I had one Commander (a Rhodes Scholar), have me rewrite my OERs so many times we ended up staying late having an OPD on the proper use of parenthetical phrases and the Oxford comma. I have been lucky enough to have some great, intelligent, and selfless Commanders, all with different leadership styles that I take something away from.
I have always found even the worst situations are tolerable with the right people, and even the best situations are miserable with the wrong people.
Train your Soldiers to be Leaders
Lastly, my goal as a PL and Company level leader was to train my Soldiers to be Leaders. One day when my Company was running in a million directions to meet the unit mission and I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off I noticed we often got so focused on the 25 meter target that we forgot to take care of the people that make the mission possible in the first place. I stayed late, found some paint and painted above my Platoon’s door “Train your Soldiers to be Leaders.” It served as a reminder that in addition to their role to meet the mission they were also responsible for developing subordinates under their charge. Regardless of whether it was a PV2 straight out of AIT or a SSG with 20 years we all had a lot to learn and a lot to learn from each other. I did my best to help them live outside of their comfort zone to develop as a person, as a leader and a Soldier of character. I hoped that they would teach their Soldiers the same and pass it on. Fortunately that is something many NCOs are incredible at. I am a firm believer that when pushed outside of their comfort zone and given increased responsibility, 9 times out of 10 the Soldier will step up to the plate and excel.
The Army can get you down… that is inherent. There will be cruddy duty positions, missions and assignments. However, passionate, caring leaders who inspire can change a culture and create a positive atmosphere affecting countless people’s work environments, families, and lives as a whole. Nobody is going to remember your impeccably-organized property book or sexy training meeting slides.
What they will remember is how you affected their lives. Most notably on arrival to the unit, during personal or family emergencies, and departing the unit.
I’m not offering up any complex theories or doctrine, just a simple guide to keep myself aligned with how I feel I need to be as a leader. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it and your Soldiers deserve it.