Horrible Military Boss, Best Military Mentor?

You’ve seen the movie — need I say more?

It’s the year 2000 and all is well. I’ve been a military surgical technician for over a year, assisting in numerous traumatic procedures. I had awesome supervision, peers, and a love of the job. We were saving life and limb after all, and even got to assist in cesarean sections. There is nothing like helping bring a new life into this world!

Then our worst nightmare happened. In comes Sergeant “Ketchup” (not his real name) to replace our leader. Ketchup was no leader, he was a manager of sorts, but embodied zero leadership qualities. He was a “cross-trainee” from the Security Forces world, which basically meant he was a guy who the cops couldn’t wait to see go, so they gladly “allowed” him to leave their career field and join ours. At that level of rank coming into our job he spent zero operational time as a surgical technician. He walked right into managing us young troops.

Funny enough, I learned a great number of leadership lessons from Ketchup. Lessons of what not to do, and how not to treat people. You can learn almost as much from a horrible boss as a good one. By swearing to never be “that guy” you’ll be able to ensure your behavior has a positive impact on yourself and your team.

My number one tip if you find yourself in this situation is to journal all of the examples of how not to be. Writing it down will not only be therapeutic, but will become a comical reminder, years down the road when you are the boss.

I could write a book of stories on Ketchup and his morale-crushing ways, and maybe I will one day, but for now we will just talk about 3 of them.

1. Be Knowledgeable Of What Your People Do

Ketchup moved right into management before he knew what it took to be responsible for all of the equipment, supplies, sterility, and handling of life-saving surgical devices during a procedure. This lack of knowledge not only led him to make poor management decisions, but also quickly depleted any credibility he had, because he couldn’t perform even the most simple tasks.

There was never a time I remember him stepping in to help when manpower was low. He didn’t even jump into an easy procedure here and there, just to show his young subordinates that he actually cared about the mission. He just hid in his office, scared to be exposed for lack of capability, never getting to really know his people or the job.

As my career went on I was placed into multiple managerial positions in the operating room and clinical environment. I always ensured I could still actually perform what I asked of others, and wasn’t afraid of making a young buck’s day, by having them teach the ole sarge how to use the new instrument.

2. Give Respect, Earn Respect!

Ketchup was one of those guys who gives cops a bad name, the kind who wants power because of some high school insecurity he was still holding onto. He felt everyone should respect him as a person because of his rank and position. He didn’t put in the time to earn anyone’s respect, and wasn’t afraid to let you know it. This caused his subordinates to not trust him, go to others outside of the unit for help, and outright avoid all contact with him. I vowed to always be the leader or peer that people could come to. It helped me form bonds and friendships that I still value today.

3. Help Others Do Better Than You

One of the things Ketchup used to often say was, “I didn’t get to do that when I was coming up in the military and neither should you.” The military is full of great programs that young people can use to progress and better themselves while serving, but if management doesn’t support it, it might as well not exist.

Not only did Ketchup hold people back from opportunity, he caused the military to lose some of its brightest future stars. These people left the military because of the “crabs in the barrel” environment created by one man. How sad.

I’ll never forget the time spent helping three of my enlisted troops become officers, an achievement that I myself, didn’t accomplish. I couldn’t be more happy that they and others took my advice, and achieved more than me in the military. I especially remember the day I got invited to one of my troop’s commissioning ceremonies, to pin his rank on and to give him his first salute in uniform — a time-honored tradition in the military.

How funny the universe works, that this same troop ended up getting stationed at my final duty location, where I gave him my last salute in uniform.

Unconventional Veteran’s Main Point: Be The Mentor You Wish You Had!

1. Be Knowledgeable Of What Your People Do

2. Give Respect, Earn Respect

3. Help Others Do Better Than You