Leading Up Front – Lessons from Leaders

I learned from many leaders as I grew up through the ranks in the 9th Infantry Division, Motorized – whoo-ah (see my graduation photo from Airborne School in Fort Benning, below).  I had the pleasure to talk to General Schwarzkopf as he pumped iron at the gym (he was strong!!!)  and General Shalikashvilli (former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff) when I was Deputy Division G3, but the best leader hands down in my book was Colonel  Dolan.

Man on Parachute Jump
Picture at Ft. Benning

I first served under Colonel Dolan when he was the Commander of 3/60 Infantry as his Battalion Military Intelligence Officer (oxymoron).  I would like to relate two of the many things I learned from him with some brief stories:

  1. Be confident in your area of expertise.
  2. Lead Up Front

Be Confident, You are the Smartest Person in the Room!

Let me set the stage.  I had just had a successful command as the Platoon Leader of a Tactical Intelligence Platoon.  Although part of an Infantry Division, my platoon of Korean Linguists and military intelligence analysts were more akin to the doctor’s on MASH (the famous TV show), then the gung-ho ground soldier.   They were more Hawkeye Pierce than GI Joe.  I was now moving from being the officer of a platoon of unconventional but brilliant, Military Intelligence soldiers, to being the only non-Infantry Staff Officer for a battalion of battle hardened soldiers that just came back from a tour in the Mid-East.  And the person that I had to provide intelligence on the enemy among other things had the reputation of being the toughest one of all – Colonel Dolan.

I was in Military intelligence reason for two reasons.  The good reason is I had a reputation of being able to analyze intelligence and figure out what the other side was doing.      The not so good reason is I am not as adept with typical military tasks such as firing a weapon, so being in the infantry now was a bit intimidating.

I was about to give my first briefing with the rest of the staff to Colonel Dolan and I was nervous.  I had studied my presentation the night before and could tell you the number of people, the deployment tactics, and the weaponry of the enemy battalion down to the last detail.  I also prepared a detailed briefing book.  But when I got in front of Colonel Dolan, I became nervous and spoke too fast on those few occasions when my dialog was not punctuated by um’s and ah’s.   But worse yet, in my eyes,  I forgot one fact that I wanted to present.  Altogether, not a good start.

Colonel Dolan called me in later the day and now I was scared.  I felt certain that he found out about the one fact I missed.  Instead, he started off by saying he read my briefing packet and thought it was A+.  He then asked me a few questions that I responded to.  Relieved, I was ready to go when the boss told me he had one more thing to say.  “Lt. Grier that briefing book and the content of your briefing were excellent, but the whole time you were speaking you acted like I was going to fire you.  You are the smartest person in the room when it comes to Military Intelligence.  So let me be clear.  The only time I will fire you is if you do not act confident when you are the smartest person in the room.  Now go out and do great things.”

These words are still ingrained in my mind more than 25 years later and I try to remember them each time I need to give an important presentation.  Many of us discount how well prepared we are in our area of expertise when we need to manage up or speak to leadership.  We try to remember every detail instead of being confident in the knowledge ingrained in our mind.  The bottom line is each of us our paid to be an expert in something.  Those things that you are expert in don’t be scared of missing a fact.  Do not hug a tree and miss the forest. Be confident.  You are the smartest person in the room.

Lead Up Front

The commander of a Battalion is sometimes affectionately know as the Old Man or Woman.  That is primarily a term of endearment, believe it or not, and is based on respect for the knowledge and prowess they gained over the years.  Only secondarily is it based on age.

Colonel Dolan was the quintessential Old Man.    He proved his prowess on the battlefield where he was awarded a Silver Star. He was also old in terms of Army standards having just turned 40.  Due to this milestone, the Brigade commander made him get a physical before he could run in the Brigade run.  This did not sit well with the Old Man much to our chagrin as you will see.

The day after he got his physical, we had a report by the equivalent of the battalion HR lead that a bunch of the enlisted guys and an officer or two did not do well on the practice Army Physical Readiness Test.  The APRT is the equivalent of a java certification for a developer.  You had to pass it to do your job.

The day of the Brigade run arrived bright and early.  I liked Brigade runs, normally (this was in the days when I myself was not an old man).  The only hard thing is that being an MI officer and the only non-Infantry officer on the staff I got the duties that the Infantry staff officers did not want.  In this case, I had “fall out” monitoring duty.  This meant I had to circle around the four companies in our battalion (each with about 150 people) the whole time we were running.  I had to report to the Old Man how the companies were hanging.  Usually this was not too hard because I was many pounds lighter then and a great deal faster.  Also, Colonel Dolan kept a steady pace and he usually was not so fast.

But today was a different story.  A perfect storm had hit with Colonel Dolan’s physical and the report of soldiers being out of shape.  The old man was out to prove a point.  He began at a brisk pace and proceeded from there.  On my first lap around the battalion, the Captain  of C Company yelled out, “Hey, Don what is the Old Man doing?”  I said, “I don’t know but let me check”.

As I ran around the battalion, some of the more out of shape soldiers were getting winded.  I myself was breathing hard especially since I was running double the distance.  Back at the front of the battalion, I told the Old Man that several of the company commanders had asked what was going on.  All he said with a face of sheer determination was “The Go Devils (our nickname) are meant  to go fast”.

So on a subsequent lap around the battalion  as I was gasping for breath, I told Captain Gerras that I did not know what the Old Man was doing.  He yelled to me “Tell him to slow down, a quarter of the battalion is falling out”.  I yelled back, “Sir, you are welcome to tell him.  I am just trying to make it back around.”

I made it back up front just as we were nearing the gate of the parade field.  Now custom is you stay in formation behind the battalion in front of you.  Not today.  Colonel Dolan decided to pass the Second Battalion!  He yelled Go Devils Coming Through and he passed Second Battalion in a dead sprint.  Colonel Dolan asked me how the battalion did.  I told him one gasp at a time “Not …..(Gasp) ….all ….made….. it, but ….there …… will…… not……. be………anyone…..failing…… the ……. APRT … any …. time … soon. “

And those gasping words rang true.  The Battalion got the point and for weeks all the soldiers could talk about was how fast the Old Man had sprinted. And he still had it!

The lesson in leadership is that sometimes the Old Man or Woman has to show the team how it is done.  In the Army, being fit is a work necessity.  Colonel Dolan showed the team how it was done.   He led by example.  This does not mean that every time when a team member needs an extra boost to complete a task, the leader has to do it for them.  No! What it means is that at some critical junctures it is important that the Old Man or Woman lead the way and show the prowess that got them to the position in the first place.  It is not enough to manage a spreadsheet.  You need to lead up front and pass the competition.  Go Accenture!  Lead the way!

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