As a newly commissioned infantry officer, I was tough, ambitious, resourceful and looking to make a name for myself in the most brutally competitive arena on earth --namely, the United States Army.
I was initially assigned to the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, and my very first, most enduring lesson in leadership hit me right between the eyes the first time I drove up to the main gate. Prominently posted over the sentries' guardhouse in two-foot letters was the Infantry Center's motto: "FOLLOW ME"...
And they weren't kidding!
For the next two years the senior training officers and non-commissioned officers (staff sergeants) of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions did their very best to drill that one, indelible lesson into our heads. "Troops are most effectively led, they don't follow orders blindly!"
Any commander can "issue orders" but troops respond far better to those who lead by example, and genuinely care about their men. As a rabbi once pointed out to me, "the model of leadership in the Jewish tradition is not the individual who is willing to subjugate others, rather the individual who is willing to sacrifice for others."
ONE WHO CARES
I remember my favorite (actually, everyone's favorite) officer at Fort Benning. His name was Captain Rice, and he was the nicest, most caring officer at the Infantry Center. He was also noticeably older than the other captains by a good 5-7 years. When I asked our battalion commander about him, he told me the following:
"Ed Rice? He's a great guy, but he's been passed over for promotion to major several times now. Seems the army didn't approve of his extended leave of absence after his tour in Viet Nam."
"Huh?" I prodded the major.
"Ed was in command of a long-range recon (reconnaissance) company that lived in the boonies the better part of six months out of the year -- faces all painted green, living on tree bark and lizards, that kind of thing. They took pretty heavy casualties, too. Ed lost 60% of his troops. That's a lot of very tough letters to write to parents and loved ones... Anyway, Old Ed didn't stop with letters. After he returned home, he went on extended leave over the army's objections and went and visited every single one of the families of the 90-some-odd boys in his unit who never made it home. Went on his own expenses, too, and it took him almost a year and a half..."
That's what made Captain Rice so special. The men knew he loved them and how far he'd go for them.
That's what made Captain Rice so special. The men knew he loved them.
During the time I was at the Infantry center we learned to do every squad leader's job, every machine gunner's job and every staff sergeant's job as well, if not better, than our own. We had to instill confidence in the men we were expected to lead into battle by first winning their confidence in us. That took patience ... and it took incredible self-restraint. It took uncompromising honesty, and, when called for, uncompromising toughness. It took day-after-day consistency. To be able to count on us, our men had to know us inside and out -- to the point where they could almost predict what we would say or do in any given situation.
Which makes perfect sense since, in a combat situation, we were expected to think for them. When reaction times are cut to nearly zero, the invariable consequences of any hesitation at all are instant and catastrophic. "Staying cool under fire," is a much-used phrase, and for good reason -- it speaks volumes to the characteristics of good leadership.
The best compliment your troops could ever give you was to call you "the Old Man" behind your back. That meant you won. That meant their hearts and minds were yours, and yours alone. It meant they would follow you anywhere, and, yes, literally kill for you if you so ordered...
I was "the Old Man" at the tender age of 25, and believe me, next to "Daddy," it is still the very best title I've ever held.
THE MILITARY VS. CORPORATE AMERICA
Since those fading days of glory, I've served in various senior management positions over the course of my career, and am currently serving as Chief Operating Officer of my present company. I can look back over the years and unequivocally state that the military analogy to leadership in present-day corporate America is a fitting one.
Today, more than ever, the corporate environment is a complex, challenging arena where the rules of the game change almost daily. To help leaders/managers level out the playing field, here's my checklist of the ten most desired leadership traits:
- Consistency is still the key. Display consistency and you display confidence.
- Be patient. Know when to be tough, and when to be compassionate. Every co-worker is different, with different skill sets and different needs.
- Rely on your subordinates. You can't do it all, and they know their jobs at least as well as you do.
- Encourage growth at every opportunity. Establish a regimen of constant training.
- Reward performance. One good word of encouragement or a well-placed compliment is worth more than all the criticism in the world.
- Treat everyone with the exact same degree of respect. Never crack a joke at someone else's expense, and never, ever criticize anyone in front of anyone else!
- Unwavering honesty is still the best policy, even when speaking the truth isn't "politically correct." Save the "spin" for politics.
- Listen to others -- those above you and below you. As LBJ's father once told him, "You ain't learnin' when you're talkin'..."
- Be decisive. After you've listened to others and carefully evaluated your options, make your decision and go with it. At this point trust your instincts. That's what they pay you for.
- Establish your company's goals and make sure they become everyone's goals. The single best way to build teamwork is to get everyone pulling in the same direction.
Finally, there is a science to being a good leader and an unimpeachable source for learning how to become one. The Torah describes the leadership qualities of Moses -- arguably, the greatest, most effective leader in history.
He was, at once, the greatest prophet and the humblest man who ever lived. Why? Because he knew himself inside out -- his strengths as well as his weaknesses. He knew that his abilities and his authority came from God and that once he committed to do His will, he never wavered, never faltered in his determination to lead his people from bondage to the Promised Land.
Remembering where we come from and from where we derive our strengths is, perhaps, the greatest leadership trait of them all.