By Tracey Russell, Ground Directorate, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety CenterJune 5, 2014
While it is disheartening to hear stories of junior enlisted Soldiers making poor decisions and paying for them with their lives, it is demoralizing to hear stories of Army leaders who do the same. Odds are the behaviors demonstrated by these Soldiers -- even the leaders -- were not first-time occurrences, and someone else probably had the opportunity to observe the behaviors in action. What do leaders convey to their Soldiers when they act irresponsibly? Perhaps some of the young Soldiers' poor decisions were a result of messages received from their leaders' actions.
Actions speak louder than words. What is the value of a weekend safety brief directing Soldiers to avoid risky behaviors when they later see their leaders engaging in those same behaviors? "Do as I say and not as I do" does not work well with children, and it certainly does not work well with Soldiers.
Nearly half the Army's fatal accidents in fiscal 2013 involved Soldiers above the rank of specialist, and 38 percent were NCOs. In some cases, those leaders were doing everything right and someone else caused the accident, but acts of indiscipline such as speeding, distracted driving, and failure to wear a seat belt or motorcycle helmet were involved in many others.
Good leaders lead by setting the right example, by walking the talk rather than merely talking the talk. Walking the talk means both setting the right example in your personal behavior and enforcing standards when you observe someone else doing the wrong thing.
Last year I had the opportunity to serve as a staff member for a distracted driving event, where I observed some particularly disturbing behaviors from several participants. But, the behaviors of their leaders were even more alarming. Participants were instructed to operate the test vehicle as they would normally drive. Some, including officers and NCOs, failed to put on their seat belts before setting the vehicle in motion and had to be instructed to stop and buckle up. One participant answered a phone call from his first sergeant and told him he was actively driving the course, yet the first sergeant continued to talk. Another Soldier answered a phone call from his platoon sergeant during the exercise. When asked why he answered, the NCO stated his leader did not care if he was driving: "When he calls, he expects me to answer no matter what I'm doing."
Whether these leaders were conscious of the effects of their actions, they were sending a clear message that it is acceptable to violate Army standards, even when doing so is extremely dangerous. As a leader, you need to take the time to evaluate your leadership style and the messages you are sending your subordinates and peers. Are you just talking the talk, or are you walking the talk? The answer may be a matter of life or death.