31 Dec Lead By Example
As I journey into coaching and consulting I want to write about leadership. I feel the best way to do that is by telling you about one of my earliest experiences of seeing what a leader should be. I use the term “seeing” because this example of leadership was taught to me by actions and not words. I gained this valuable lesson by observing the actions of my leadership, not by being told anything. I’ve always believed you can learn more by keeping your mouth shut and observing, but in this case I was also a young Private in the 82nd Airborne Division so I was best served by observing more than talking anyhow.
For this story I have to take you back to early 1999 on my first deployment in the Army, which was to the island of Haiti. We were deployed as part of an ongoing joint peacekeeping mission that existed at the time. Again, I was a young private at the bottom of the food chain. I was a rifleman in 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. One of our tasks on this mission was to guard the camp that we lived at while in country. It was a small camp and several towers around the perimeter. These guard towers were just open towers with sandbag walls and would house one guard with the exception of the tower at the vehicle gate where there were two guards. The guard force consisted of our squad with some attachments from weapons squad to supplement so we could fill the required towers.
The shifts in these towers were eight hours long and as you can imagine, it was a pretty boring eight hours. The worst shift was the night shift, and that’s the one I remember most. Sitting there at night alone just staring out was not conducive to staying awake and alert. We fluctuated uniforms at times, but for the most part you were in a full kit complete with Ranger Body Armor, so it was also exhausting trying to stand up for eight hours. Guys would often use blocks and the coolers in the tower to make ways to sit down and still be able to see out. At one point, having caught someone sleeping, our Company First Sergeant took away all ability to sit down. This of course was one poor example of leadership. Why try to solve the issue with some analysis and critical thinking? Let’s just make them stand for eight hours, that’ll work. Luckily we had the Colonel in charge of the mission come around for a visit, and when one soldier complained about the eight hours of standing in kit, the Colonel ordered for stools to be built tall enough for us to sit and be able to see out effectively. That was welcomed leadership.
Those micro-stories are not the example of leadership I want to highlight though. The story I want to highlight is of my squad leader, John “Combat” Karuza. We called him “combat” because he had two combat patches and a CIB, which at the time was rare in the infantry because we had not yet been involved in any conflicts since Grenada and Panama. At the time a Staff Sergeant, John was a firm but fair leader. He pushed us, but also developed us. He knew when to lay the hammer down and when to let up. John was probably where I learned to keep things a little “light” when we were back at the barracks and not out training, but to be all business when it came to training.
One of the biggest lessons I would learn from SSG Karuza was in the way he conducted himself as “Sergeant of the Guard” (SOG) while we were on tower guard. Of course the climate in Haiti was warm and muggy, so there were coolers in each tower that could be filled with ice and drinks to help keep hydrated and/or awake. There were also port-a-potties at the bottom of each tower for when needed a bathroom break. I don’t think I ever took over a tower that the cooler had much besides a few drinks if any and were just filled with water from the melted ice. Other guys would have to leave the tower unattended while they went down for a bathroom break. I also had guys complain because they didn’t get much to eat during their shift. On more than one occasion I had to wake up the guy I was replacing. The squad leaders were the SOGs for the shift when their squad was on tower guard. The responsibilities of the SOG included taking food to their guys on guard if it was chow time, filling the coolers to help their guys out stuck in the towers, going to a tower when called on the radio because the guard needed a bathroom break and just generally monitoring the guards and dealing with any issues.
With SSG Karuza, our coolers would always be refilled with ice at the beginning of every shift as well as filled with drinks. When chow time came, we were sure to get a plate piled with as much as he could fit. When you called for a bathroom break, he would be right there. Although you didn’t really need to call for a bathroom break unless it was an emergency, because John was constantly patrolling the perimeter and just talking with us in the towers to pass the time and help stay awake. So you could just wait till he got there. It wasn’t necessarily that the other SOGs were negligent in their duties, but John was far and away better to have as an SOG than the others.
That story is just one example of how SSG Karuza took care of his squad. Even through those actions he was showing us that he had our backs and would take care of us. He was just doing his job and doing what he knew to do, but he was leading by example. Unknowingly, he was showing us how to be good leaders. Even the smallest act of filling up the coolers with ice and drinks at the beginning of every shift was a way of showing us he cared about his men. Believe it or not, that translates to the battlefield, whatever your battlefield may be.
If you’re a leader, do as John did. Set the example for them to follow as you develop your next line of leaders. Also, care for your people no matter how small or how large the task may be. Your subordinates will appreciate it and your peers will take notice. The people in charge of you may notice as well, but don’t do it for them. John didn’t do any of what I described for anyone to see, he did it for us. So do it for them.