The Leadership Legacy of John Whyte
John Whyte commanded three companies, including
a rifle company in Iraq. John was killed in an accident after returning
from combat, when a car struck him while
he was standing on the side of a Kansas City highway.
There is a proverb that reads, "As iron
sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Those who knew
John might change it to read, "As iron sharpens iron, so John
Whyte sharpens those around him." He was on a self-imposed
mission to be the most effective leader that he could be, and even
better, he was on a self- imposed mission to help other people do
the same. He was driven to make a difference for his family, Soldiers,
and the larger profession like no other person we have encountered.
One of the many ways that he made a difference was by participating
in the Platoon Leader and Company- Command professional forums.
His contribution in these forums was, quite simply, remarkable.
In tribute to John, we have captured a few of his words in this
The toughest leadership challenge I had was
bearing the personal responsibility for my Soldiers throughout operations.
I really took it to heart. I guess I probably wouldn't do it differently,
but it was a personal challenge in that it was harder than I had
expected. My Soldiers were actually able (and very willing) to do
a lot more than I was ready to ask them to do at first. Later, when
Soldiers got hurt, I second-guessed myself a lot and that slowed
me down. It snuck up on me, but I realized later that it really
took its toll over several months. My first sergeant and I became
very close and we got through it together. I learned from him to
give the platoons some guidance and let them execute. He taught
me the dif- ference between company leader and company commander.
Training Latitude/Fostering Initiative
I think we all have to constantly work to give
subordinates the opportunity to try something in training, possibly
fail and learn from it. I've always recognized and fought my tendency
to be too directive or prescriptive. It often seems that training
opportunities are too precious to waste an iteration of an event
by letting a subordinate leader do some- thing you're pretty sure
won't work. If you are that sure that it won't work, then you're
better off letting them try it-you'll never truly convince them
any other way, and they'll learn from it.Who knows, you could be
wrong and it might work! When you give them some latitude in training,
it will pay off as initiative in combat.
The most important things we did before combat
were training and building a strong team of leaders in the company.
We spent a month at Ft. Stewart in the fall of 2002 training and
operating as a company, day-in and day-out. Then we trained more
in Kuwait. By the time we crossed the berm, we were a team of teams.
I was privileged to have a top-notch 1SG who kept me straight and
a great bunch of lieutenants and platoon sergeants who did the heavy
lifting. I think they knew my priorities and how I expected them
to do business. The result was that the platoon leaders and platoon
sergeants were confident and able to execute as subordinate teams.
Decentralized Execution/Trusting Subordinates
The thing I'll remember in 50 years is our
day on Baghdad International Airport, because I am so proud of how
my Soldiers and subordinate leaders executed their missions. At
one point, I had five separate elements, with four of them in contact,
and I thought I was losing control. I thought that I had over-extended
my company. I thought someone was going to get hurt because I was
screwing up. In slow motion, I started to realize that every single
element was doing exactly what I would have told them to do if I
was standing there next to them. At the end of the day, we had one
Bradley Commander who was evacuated out of theater (since recovered),
and a couple of other guys hurt, but we accomplished the mission
because Soldiers and leaders had stepped up-and, to a man-done the
I love their enthusiasm. I miss walking into
the company in the morning. These days, they know what they've signed
up for, and they demand combat capable leaders. They are the world's
toughest critics, and they've earned that right. They'll let you
know when they're buying what you're selling, and they'll call you
on it if you're full of it. When you've taken them through something
tough and they smile at you afterwards, you know you've passed the
<text>Combatives training makes Soldiers
more disciplined, and certainly more mentally and physically tough.
In fact, I don't know of anything that does a better job of making
an individual Soldier more mentally and physically tough. Personally,
I think the best place to make the difference is at the company
level, and I'd encourage all company commanders to try to get at
least one Soldier trained up to "Level II" and a few Soldiers
to "Level I."That will get the ball rolling.It's worth
It's discouraging, but I'm here to tell you
that bad things happen, even in good units. The First Sergeant and
I had to "reel in" a platoon camped out on the side of
the road in a palm grove in Iraq in May 2003. I woke up one morning
and saw some pretty unbelievable stuff in my company. All of a sudden
it hit me-what the heck do we look like? If the boys were looking
for the limit, they had found it. The 1SG got a little more involved
in life than the PSGs would have preferred. ... we were straight
within an hour, never again to return to "China Beach"
Lessons from Ranger School
Can someone honestly tell me that they learned
true leadership skills while in Ranger school? Yes. Yes! Good. God,
yes! Of course!
Here are the first 20 lessons that come to
1.I learned that you run off a drop zone-and
make the correction when Soldiers are straggling.
2.I learned to pull out my map even when I'm
in the back of the truck on a long ride.
3. I learned the value of tie-downs and sensitive
4. I learned what hygiene is important and
what's not, and to make sure Soldiers are staying healthy.
5. I learned how to live out of a rucksack
and that Soldiers carry weight they don't need.
6.I learned that snivel gear is for when you
stop moving and Soldiers sneaking snivel gear will become heat casual-
ties in the winter.
7. I learned to make subordinate leaders brief
8. I learned that you brief back what you've
been told to do, even if your leader doesn't ask you to.
9. I learned that you get out of the bag in
the middle of the night to check on your Soldiers.
10. I learned that staying positive and staying
motivated regardless of the circumstances is a combat multiplier
and that there's no such thing as negative leadership.
11. I learned how to supervise.
12. I learned that standards are standards
even if you're cold, tired, hungry or all of the above.
13. I learned how to involve subordinates in
a plan without letting it be a democracy.
14. I learned how to lead and operate under
15. I learned that even if your lead squad
leader is a great navigator, you still keep track of where you are.
16. I learned that you don't "finger drill"
17. I learned to ask privates questions to
make sure the plan got down to the lowest level.
18. I learned that I can lead hurt, and how
to recognize when a soldier is hurt or just "wimping out."
19. I learned that you can count on a Ranger.
20. Most of all, I learned that memorizing
the Ranger Creed is easy; living it is harder. <subhead>Expectations
of a Lieutenant
The minimum standard is not the officer standard.
If I were training my next set of 2LTs, here's what I would want
them to know to make them successful platoon leaders or junior staff
officers, focusing on 3 areas:
1. Officership: To me, this means 100% round-the-clock
professionalism and commitment to competence. Officership includes
doing a lot of the "old-fashioned" things like:
a. Standing at attention when the CO is talking
to you, because that's what the NCOs are teaching the Soldiers to
do when the lieutenant is talking to them.
b. Reading Field Manuals or professional reading
(not magazines) when you're on SDO, because it's a profession (not
a job) and Soldiers are watching.
c. Always being seen by your Soldiers in a
proper uniform or presentable clothes (or wearing your K-pot and
vest) even when you're off duty (or "just going to the next
d. Checking on your Soldiers hanging out in
the barracks on the weekend (or securing a bridge in Baghdad in
the middle of the night).
e. Pulling a shift of radio watch in the middle
of the night.
f. Showing up for work 30 minutes before PT
(and not sleeping during stand-to in the TAA in Kuwait).
g. Personally supervising command maintenance
or a lay out (and climbing into the turret of every BFV-walking
2. Combat skills of the Soldier: Warrior tasks
and drills. These are non-negotiable. If I walk up to a PL with
no warning and give him an APFT, he should pass. No question, no
worries, no "I need to hydrate and eat pasta the night before.
"With a week's warning so that he doesn't do the mother of
all workouts the day before, he should "max" the APFT,
or at least earn the APFB.
3. Combat skills of the officer/leader: Read,
write and give an OPORD. Task and purpose, the "nested"
concept, and how they're either the main effort or supporting the
main effort. Knowledge of U.S. and threat weapons and their capabilities-what's
the range of my 81mm mortars and where are they?
Respectful disagreement is always your duty.
When it's moral and ethical, but you just don't like it, you have
to execute. These days, I try to give someone the benefit of the
doubt when I hear something I don't like. I try to first figure
out how what he's telling me to do is for the right reasons. More
often than not, they're just trying to do what's right, too. Again,
do the right thing and you'll be fine in the long run.
One problem we have as trainers is teaching
subordinates something once and then calling them "trained."
Adult humans don't learn like that. If you teach call for fire,
you can't expect that they can call a polar mission several months
later unless you continue to train it. You have to revisit everything.
The problem is not usually, "I was never taught that."
The problem is usually, "I think I did that once 3 years ago."
Sometimes when we're leaders, we want to side
with our Soldiers no matter what-we think that's loyalty. Some-
times we have a hard time balancing loyalty to Soldiers, loyalty
to the unit and loyalty to the Army. Remember this: loyalty to your
Soldiers is important, but blind loyalty is dangerous. I had trouble
with that myself as a lieutenant, and as a CO I watched my lieutenants
learn to pick their bat- tles. Here's my story:
My first CO was a great guy. Everyone loved
him. We thought the company was the best around because every- one
would do anything for him. Naturally, none of us lieu- tenants ever
disagreed with him-it was always good news.
My next CO was as hard as nails.He chewed our
collective lieutenant butts daily. We hated the guy; I mean we couldn't
stand him. Every last one of us was "outta here" as soon
as we could do the paperwork. Here's what I figured out later: we
needed it; we were screwed up; and we deserved most of the butt
Looking back, in most cases I could recall,
the second CO had been doing the right thing, I just couldn't see
it from his perspective. He was loyal to his Soldiers, too. He loved
them enough to train hard, train to standard, and fight for the
company without them even knowing he was doing it.Years later, I
think I've grown up a lot. The second CO is the one I want to emulate
and the one I call or write when I need advice on a tough situation.
To those who knew John, he has become a symbol
for what it means to be a professional Army officer. One part of
being a professional is taking time to share what you are learning-to
engage in professional conversation with peers and those who are
preparing to follow. We hope John's example spurs others on to follow
his lead. John Whyte, we salute you! Maj. John Patrick Whyte is
survived by his wife, Jennifer, his son, Jack, his daughter, Abigail
and his parents, John Patrick Whyte, Jr., and Marie Whyte.
NOTE: The "Hall of Honor" section
of the Company- Command professional forum is dedicated to the memory
of fallen company commanders. Please visit and pay respect to the
many leaders who are honored there.
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