Commentary: Leadership means more than being a nice guy
February 4, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - It is a lot easier to define leadership than it is to put your finger on the attributes of a good leader.
There are as many ways to look at the question as there are ways to lead effectively.
A common thread is often taking care of Soldiers. Looking out for your subordinates' well being is certainly an important consideration, but it always has to be tempered by the knowledge that accomplishing the mission might put those subordinates at grave risk.
Leaders must weigh the risks against the benefits of any decision they make. Sometimes those decisions lead to the death or injury of their Soldiers. That is the inevitable price of following the profession of arms.
Those who call for compassionate and caring leaders are also correct - and wrong at the same time. Army leaders need to focus on the greater good.
Feeling sorry for the troops when they are complaining about long training in bad weather might seem like the compassionate thing to do in the short term, but having the toughness to keep them at it even when they are cold and wet and tired can save lives later when the enemies they face are real.
Many young Soldiers will insist that good leaders should always put the Soldiers first. That sounds good, and in some respects it is true. When I was a young sergeant my platoon sergeant gave me some sound advice.
"Never eat until your Soldiers are fed; never sleep until your Soldiers sleep; never take a break until your Soldiers get one," he told me.
But he wasn't advising me to place the Soldiers before myself out of kindness. Doing so was a calculated way to better get to what always came first: the mission. Good leaders always place the mission first - and always look out for their troops because they are the mechanism to mission success.
Those of us who have been around the Army for more than a few years have certainly served under some very good leaders. Most of us have probably suffered through a few bad leaders, too.
It is a sad irony that those who require the most leading are the poorest equipped to identify when it is being done well.
When I was a young specialist at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and new to the Army, I had a sergeant I thought was great.
Under his supposed "supervision" we would sneak away from the motor pool to go skiing on post. If he was questioned, he would tell the first sergeant we were training on "over snow movement." He would also report we were heading into a local training area for work on map reading, then drive us to his quarters, where we would spend the day playing darts.
He was just like one of the guys.
The problem, I recognized later, was that he wasn't one of the guys; he was our sergeant. That time we spent shamming would have been better spent doing real training. He seemed like the best possible NCO at the time, but could have cost us our lives through his lack of commitment to duty.
The Army is blessed with thousands of leaders who do things the right way. They have different styles and per-sonalities, but they share a commitment to treating their subordinates with fairness and respect, to making sure they are properly trained, that their families are cared for - all so that the mission can be accomplished in the best possible way.
It is hard to describe in detail exactly what makes those leaders good at what they do. But, like so many other things, you know the good ones when you see them.
David W. Kuhns Sr. is a retired Army sergeant major and editor of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.