I recently had the opportunity to re-read one of my favorite leadership books – Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat. The book was written by James R. McDonough and chronicles his experience in Vietnam when he commanded an infantry platoon in the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
This book is powerfully written and retains its hold on me even through multiple re-readings. I’d like to share one passage in particular with you:
“War is the management of violence,” claimed the contemporary social scientists and military strategists as we hacked our way through the struggle in Vietnam. For us, violence was killing; there was no management involved. People were either dead, or they were not. I could not “manage” my platoon up a hill. I had to lead them up there. I had a mission to accomplish and I had men to keep alive, as many as I could.McDonough describes the extreme leadership experience – tactical command of troops in daily combat. But two lessons he drew from that experience apply broadly and are well worth remembering.
I had to do more than keep them alive. I had to preserve their human dignity. I was making them kill, forcing them to commit the most uncivilized of acts, but at the same time I had to keep them civilized. That was my duty as their leader. They were good men, but they were facing death, and men facing death can forgive themselves many things. War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but men must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety, or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed. And anything can happen.
1. “I could not ‘manage’ my platoon up a hill. I had to lead them up there.”
We must never forget our ultimate responsibility is for leading Sailors, not managing them. You manage things; you lead people. Whether you’re a division officer on your first ship or a Flag officer on your last tour, your duty is to lead Sailors to accomplish your assigned missions. And the leadership of our Sailors is an all-encompassing experience that requires you, if you want to do it well, to be “all-in.” Your commitment must be commensurate with your responsibility. Making that commitment, living that commitment, is the true reward of leadership – it is the inner joy of our profession, our reason for being.
2. “A leader has to help them understand there are lines they must not cross…; if the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed. And anything can happen.”
Some wonder if our standard for our leaders is too high, that we expect too much. How can we possibly expect less?
McDonough recognized very early that his standard became his platoon’s standard and if he either would not or could not meet the standard, it would spell disaster for his platoon.
The performance and behavior standards we set for our leaders are the standards we must maintain in our Navy. They are the standards that maintain the discipline of a fighting force under great stress. They are our standards and we must embrace them, live them and hold ourselves accountable to them. Maintaining leadership standards means we are maintaining unit standards and maintaining unit standards means we are disciplined, focused and ready for whatever comes our way.