Monday, March 28, 2011

Command - Walk the Talk

The hottest I saw in Iraq during my first tour was 154 degrees (Fahrenheit). I didn't even think it could get that hot until the news came over the radio. At the time I was at a fixed guard point, on a big metal tank, wearing 40 lbs of body armor, under a poncho for shade... not much benefit there; and a bottle of hot water at my lips. Why hot water? Well, tanks aren't known for their spaciousness, there is no fridge or AC, and the ice truck didn't come out to our location. Hot water was the ONLY water.

Why mention the heat? Well, the Battalion Commander promised that he would be the last person in the unit to get an Air Conditioner. That as long as the rest of us were living on our vehicles or in empty shells of buildings, he wouldn't enjoy comforts that his troops didn't have. A very noble sentiment...

The truth turned out to be far different. Two days later I returned to the Battalion's base, only to find the Commander's office AND room was boarded up with plywood and window AC units outfitted inside each one. The bad news is that nobody else in the unit had air conditioning (save the deuce and a half that was outfitted with the BTN's planning computers, which incidental was where I started my deployment. Another blog entry, another time).

That week, the temperatures were all in the upper 130's and lower 140's with a couple of spikes into the 150's. I sent 12 of my 16 guys to the medics for IVs. A lot of the soldiers were being sent to the medics for heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration. But the Colonel's rooms were a cool 72 degrees.

Okay, so you probably know where I am going on this one. A leader needs to keep his promises. The blow to morale and the drop in the level that the soldiers trusted him were brutal. It would have been bad if he got the AC units without making the promises, but excuses would have been made. "Rank doth have privilege" and all that. But because he said he would go without, and then he is the first and only to have it... well, I think you can figure that one out.

A leader is constantly under scrutiny. Now, I don't know if the Colonel in question decided to acquire the ACs, or some enterprising staff Captain decided that the Colonel needed to be taken care of. Either way, because a promise was made, the Colonel probably should have given the ACs to a room of Privates, or his driver, or for that matter the Command Sergeant Major of the unit. He would have earned a lot of credit and respect which are 2 things leaders always need more of.

I am pretty sure we can all come up with examples of leaders who didn't quite measure up. Perhaps someone didn't deliver on a promise, like the example above. Or perhaps the person withheld training or a promotion because the person was "too useful" where he/she was to let him or her go; which many would consider an implied promise that a leader will help his/her people advance.

In the long run, a leader is measured not just by the objectives met, or projects completed. A true leader is measured by the faith and loyalty of his men (and women), and the ability to keep promises. Remember that the next time you are with one of your staff and you make a promise about a promotion, raise, or maybe just an invitation to lunch. Those interactions mean a lot to your people. If you can't keep them, better to keep your mouth shut and avoid the hurt caused by the promises broken.

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