Wisdom of the Ages

Several events recently have led me to reexamine my own notions of leadership.  The school of leadership I grew up in was the Boy Scouts and then the Army.  Those lessons are the ones I carry with me still.  How to lead, why to lead, how to set goals, how to form and motivate a team, all these tasks and more of a leader come from a knowledge base I learned as a teen and throughout my military career.  Add to that my passion for history and particularly quotes and “wisdom literature” and you get a pretty good basis for a unified and general theory of leadership.  These are the lessons I try to pass on to my own children and to the youth and young men it falls on me through relationship or duty to help grow into the best leaders they can be.  


But even an old warhorse like me needs refresher training from time to time.  So I have taken the liberty of compiling some thoughts on leadership, to remind myself what I have learned over the years.  I hope you find these thoughts useful in evaluating your own relationships.  After all, we are all leaders in our own ways, some formal, most not.  


Duty before self.  One of the first lessons I was taught as a brand new Butter Bar lieutenant was “a leader sleeps last, eats last, wakes first”.  As an officer I received certain privileges.  Better pay, accommodations, automatic respect as an “officer and a gentleman”.  Traditionally these are granted because it was recognized that an officer doing his duty was required to also do things his soldiers were not.  Wise NCO’s look after their officers because we have a tendency to not let ourselves rest when there is a mission to be accomplished.  While a soldier will often do more physical labor in a day than an officer, an officer usually can’t rest in the course of his duties and carries the strain of command that is a drain on the greatest constitution, especially in combat.  Now here is where we get to the wisdom part.  Not only will a good NCO look after his officer, making sure he takes the time to eat and rest, but a good officer will listen.  I mentioned above that an officer sleeps last, etc.  This is true.  Watch a unit in line at a field chow line.  Platoon leaders and Platoon Sergeants will be the last of their unit to eat.  Company commanders and First Sergeants the same.  On a rare occasion you will see a command team break a chow line.  Usually this means there is planning session they are required to be at and it’s a case of grab now and go or don’t get at all.  Any soldier past his first year knows these unwritten rules and the quickest way to lose all respect is to abuse this situation.  Good NCO’s don’t let their officers do this; good officers listen and learn these rules early.  In my mind the single greatest bit of wisdom for an up and coming leader is to fully internalize the concept of duty before self.  Some call it servant leadership; I just call it competent leadership.  If your motivation for obtaining a leadership position is for any sort of self-gain or promotion or prestige, you will either fail or the fires of command will winnow your soul until you learn.  Should you fail to learn, you deserve to roast in hell.


Before you can learn leadership you must learn followership.  Every leader has a boss unless you’re a top dog dictator or warlord.  Even they are usually married!  Independent command is one of the holy grails of military leadership.  It means you have been entrusted with a team and a mission and told to go and do with very little oversight.  Commanders lust for this.  But first you have to learn to follow orders.  Not blindly, but intelligently.  You have to learn to understand the term Commander’s Intent.  Once you learn how to interpret your orders so you understand not just what you are supposed to do, but what the commander is trying to accomplish, you can innovate to accomplish your mission.  This is necessary because the more detailed the order you have to be given, the less likely you are to accomplish it.  This is the secret to the U. S. military.  NCO’s and platoon leaders have to be entrusted to make decisions without direct guidance or they will be crippled by indecision when faced with the unexpected, anything not specifically covered in their orders.  The commander has to trust them to follow the intent, not just the letter of their orders.  If the junior leader hasn’t learned followership, he will take the easy route when he becomes frustrated by circumstances.  This leads to mission failure, which is not an option.  


Leaders make leaders.  One of the major responsibilities of a leader is to grow his subordinates until they no longer need him.  A leader must motivate and teach; he must inspire those who follow him to become leaders to the best limit of their abilities.  To do this he must know them, intimately, and his actions must be worthy of emulation or there will be insufficient trust and respect to allow him to be an effective trainer of leaders.  There is a debt to whatever organization he is a member of to develop those coming along behind him.  


I’ll be returning to this topic again.  My hope is that you, my readers, will be able to take these lessons and apply them. These are not just lessons for military leadership.  They are equally valid in business, family, and recreation.  Good leadership is always in demand and, let’s face it, whether you feel like a leader or not we all have obligations of leadership in our life.  My prayer is that you will learn the right lessons of leadership and be of both value to those whom you serve through leadership and worthy of emulation.

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