“Leadership is the art of influencing and directing men by providing direction, motivation, and purpose to do what is necessary to accomplish the mission,” Sergeant Mills once told me when I was in the service. I was an E-4 and his assistant squad leader at the time. Mills was an E-6 and wasn’t much older than I. He knew his stuff, thought, having seen his share of combat. Leading others is indeed an art. I learned a lot about leadership from this man. By the end of my tour I’d been promoted to E-5 (buck sergeant) and was leading a squad myself.
So how do we figure out who’s going lead, who’s going to follow, and who’s going to crack under the pressure of command? I wish I knew the answer. There are so many intangibles that it’s virtually impossible to know for sure. It depends on the type of situation to give a proper evaluation of the end result. When the old sarge was talking about how the LT might react as opposed to Private Moore, he was talking about combat. Facing extreme danger affects people in different ways. As Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Having been there a few times myself, I’d agree, but I’d also like to add that the exhilaration comes afterward.
One thing I have learned is the best leaders don’t lead from behind a desk. “If your people are involved in anything real dangerous or real dirty,” an instructor in supervisor’s school said, “you should be right there with them.” I always tried to follow that dictum when I was in charge of my squad either in the army or later on the police force. Leadership is accomplishing the goal through the efforts of others, but that doesn’t mean you should expect your people to do anything that you’re not willing to do. The best leaders know this and act accordingly. Does that mean you have to lead the charge up every hill? Not necessarily, but you should be willing to get involved if the going gets tough.
Following orders is part of the discipline needed for any organization to run effectively. The pressure increases as the stakes rise, such as a military or police organization. One of the purposes of the rigors of the basic training the military provides is to instill the importance of everyone acting as a team. The person in charge gives the orders and others follow. The training also has a way of weeding out those problem individuals who have trouble following and carrying out those orders. This isn’t always easy because sometimes those following don’t have the benefit of seeing the bigger picture. That’s where the concept of trusting your leaders comes into play. A good leader will inspire trust and dedication in those under his command. When push comes to shove, you have to have faith the decision made by your commander or your supervisor is the correct one. I’ve served under many different leaders, some good, some bad. The good ones can get you to go to hell and back for them, but there’s always the feeling that they’ll be there in a heartbeat if needed. The bad ones send you there and say, “Send me a postcard if you have any problems.”
Good leaders deserve our praise, bad leaders our scorn, but this criticism should be done with proper circumspection. Etiquette dictates that we respect the position, if not the man. Time has its own way of removing the bad ones. It should also remember that being a leader isn’t always about being able to react properly in a crisis. Being a leader is also negotiating your way through life by setting a good example. In the end, it’s all about making the best decision you can and doing what you feel is the right thing.