Friday, August 14, 2009

Leaders and Leaners

I recall, fondly, traveling to Fort Benning, Georgia to begin my journey as an Infantry Officer in the United States Army back in 1981. It was in November, but the weather was still nice, and the drive down to Fort Benning was completed by a young fellow all full of enthusiasm. I don't remember but I might have been driving with the window down, and the radio blasting. I was probably trying to sing along. My lifted spirit was based on the reality I had made it into the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. I had carried the dream around in my heart for years. I took the long way around to get to the point I was standing, but, by God's grace, I was there.

I remember signing into the Post, and being directed to the Battalion HQ. Just driving across the Post gave me an awesome feeling. Seeing the Airborne Towers in the distance, the Quads as I approached them, and all the officers in training bustling around swelled me with pride in myself for getting this far. It was clearer to me than at any point up to then; I was on my way professionally.

That first day I reported to the Battalion HQ, and to the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC) Company Headquarters. When I walked into the company office I was struck by how sparse it was. Hardly anything in the front office but an old wooden desk and some chairs. But I knew where I was. This was the same point where literally thousands of famous Infantry Officers had come before, right through this very office. As I looked around, taking it all in, my eyes were drawn to a sign posted above the door to the company commander's office. It was a sign on black background with stark lettering in white which read, "Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell Out of the Way!"

While standing there the door burst open and a bear of a man walked out into the room, and looking around at all of us milling around, growled, "What are you all doing in my headquarters?" We mumbled something back, and then one young officer unintentionally rescued us, because he was holding the black telephone receiver in his hand. The commander was Major Wamble, and he glared at the young officer and said, "Are you using my electric telephone, without permission?" The young officer replied he was, and Major Wamble started yelling for us to all get out on the parade ground. We all rushed out of the office at full gallop. I still remember looking back at that sign, and the thing is I kept seeing that sign in my mind's eye for days afterward. I knew the sign held the key to making it through IOBC.

Some time later I happened to be in the Battalion HQ area, and heard several officers who were attending the Infantry Officer Advanced Course discussing a theory of theirs. What they were discussing was their theory that the officer corps was populated by three types of officers. They claimed there were Leaders, Leaners, and Losers. I took a seat nearby and listened as unobtrusively as possible, hoping they would not notice a Second Lieutenant listening to them as they talked.

Leaders, they said, were those that stepped up and took action and worried later about things like getting permission, and whether they were supposed to be doing something. These Leaders simply knew something was required and they just did it, every time. They were the officers the Army simply had to find, train, and keep. So, my mental note recorded, I must get myself identified as a Leader.

Leaners, on the other hand, were officers that waited to be told, not because they did not know there was something requiring action, and not because they lacked the skill and ability, but were afraid someone would get angry at them for acting without permission. (It was clear to me these officers did not think much of Leaners.) Leaners were smart enough, but lacked courage. I made a mental note, Leaders have to be courageous, and not afraid to act.

Finally, the discussion moved to Losers. This part of the discussion was critical to me, and I just hoped they did not notice I was sitting close by in rapt attention hanging on their every word. Remember these officers were several years senior to me, some maybe having already held company command. What they thought was like holy grail to me, I just hoped I could remain there and quiet until they finished the discussion.

So, they said, Losers were those officers in the corps having no idea why they were in the corps, and mostly clueless about what needed doing. Worse, they could not be counted upon to take action even if assignments and permissions were given to them. They were simply not of value to themselves, or to the corps. They lacked the skills, the courage, and the ability to do what needed doing. Losers, they intoned, must be found and pushed out of the U.S. Army as soon as possible. My reaction to this was simple enough; I was sure I was not a Loser. Now, my mission was clear, develop a courageous attitude during this course, and become a Leader.

As I progressed through the IOBC I kept these thoughts foremost in my mind. I would be courageous, and I would lead every opportunity I was afforded. In addition, when assigned to follow a fellow officer during his turn as the Leader, I would be a courageous follower. I remembered the lessons of IOBC, and have inculcated them into my life. I am not a Loser, and I will either lead or follow well to ensure I do not have to get the hell out of the way. I would never become a Leaner, and would not allow myself to be a Loser.

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