Psychologists say that “who” a child becomes is determined in the first years of life: personality, behavior, characteristics, a sense of right and wrong. Providing a positive environment that fosters stable development and learning is essential, one that allows for mistakes but sets firm boundaries at the same time. Those are the early, formative years. The years that define life’s path for a child.

Looking back, it really isn’t that much different for a newly-commissioned lieutenant (or ensign). Prone to honest mistakes and typically short on experience, the lieutenant is a lot like a doe-eyed toddler exploring the world in one of those “sit and stroll” chairs that terrorize most households at one time or another. With a modicum of firmness and a lot of patience, the surrounding leaders set the mold, helping to define “who” the lieutenant grows to become in those first years in uniform.

With hindsight and more than a little bit of nostalgia, I can look back on my own experiences during those early days and smile. Fresh out of my initial burst of leader education, I arrived at my first duty station – Fort Campbell, Kentucky – with unbridled energy and excitement, but otherwise pretty much clueless. My company commander was a bespectacled little captain with no interest in – or patience for – “another (insert random swear words here) second lieutenant.” I was assigned to the engineer platoon: a rag-tag collection of troops that had been without a lieutenant for almost a year, with a grizzled platoon sergeant known for running young “butterbars” out of the field and back into the company headquarters.

Our first day together began on the physical training field as we broke the early morning Kentucky mist with stretches and warm-up exercises. We marched the platoon onto the two-lane road in front of the battalion headquarters and quickly moved to a double-time. Five miles later, with most of the platoon gasping for breath, we slowed the formation and turned into company area. As the platoon filed into the barracks, my platoon sergeant pulled a Marlboro from a pack rolled into his shirt sleeve, lit it with a lighter kept in his sock, and took a long pull on the cigarette. He looked up and said something to the effect of “L-T, I think we’re gonna get along just fine.”

From that moment, we were practically inseparable. We forged a close-knit relationship that would shape my perspective for decades to come. Whether over a steaming cup of coffee on a cold morning at the National Training Center or while watching college football on Saturday mornings at his quarters, he dispensed a steady stream of wisdom through a handful of simple truisms: typically pithy, occasionally obscene, always timeless. Those truisms formed the core of my leadership philosophy and have proven indispensable in the years since. Some things were simply made to be remembered.

  1. If you’re not getting your ass chewed once in a while, you’re not doing your job. Risk is part of the job, and you must be willing to push the envelope to get the job done. Learn to make decisions and live with the consequences, good or bad.
  2. Don’t use the hammer unless you need to. When it comes to discipline, be firm, but fair. Be consistent. Don’t be afraid to show some compassion. But, when you have to make a statement, break out the 20-pound sledge hammer and make it count.
  3. You can’t lead from under a truck. Knowing the technical aspects of your job is important, but you can’t lead unless you step away from the desk, get out of the office, and interact with your troops. Battlefield circulation is the best way to put hands-on leadership to work.
  4. If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. Everything in life comes down to the Golden Rule. If your troops know you’re looking out for them and sincerely care about their well-being, they’ll be there for you when you need them most.
  5. It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Don’t sweat the small things. You’re going to have good days and bad days, so learn to roll with the punches. If you’re losing sleep over the color pallet on a PowerPoint slide, you’re in the wrong business.
  6. You can’t punish somebody for bein’ stupid. People make honest mistakes, that’s how we learn. You have to be willing to underwrite those mistakes and not unknowingly create a zero-defect environment.
  7. Life ain’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Don’t make rash decisions. It’s about facts, not emotions. When you make a decision, do so knowing that you’ve taken the time to think things through.
  8. You can’t listen when you’re talkin’ all the time. If you take the time to listen to people, you’ll be amazed at what you learn. Take good notes, and when the time comes to talk, know what you want to say.
  9. They call it an “exception to policy” for a reason. Don’t ever take “no” for an answer. Don’t be afraid to try the “out of the box” solution. Sometimes, the doctrinal answer is the wrong one. If you think you might get into trouble, refer to #1.
  10. Don’t wait ‘til you retire to get to know your family. For all of us, this journey we call a career will eventually come to an end. At the end of that long road, nothing matters more than your family. If they were an afterthought, you’ll reach the end of that road alone.

In the years that followed that first assignment, I often remarked that I’d never really had a mentor. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my platoon sergeant was my first true mentor. Like so many platoon sergeants are to countless platoon leaders, he was a reverse mentor. Quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) helping a young leader to learn the tools of the trade, to become something more. Thirty years later, I can honestly say that his mentoring did more to mold me into the leader I grew to become than any school or assignment. The best part of it all? That his mentoring was so subtly effective that I didn’t recognize it for what it was for three decades.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.