Virtually every MBA program on the planet talks about leadership, even though what they really mean is management. Let’s talk about leadership. Probably the most stressful, trying leadership job in the world is being an infantry company commander at war. The New York Times has a good article profiling one company commander and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
In his first three months of command, he had led soldiers in bruising firefights, witnessed the aftermath of a devastating car bomb, nominated soldiers for valor awards and disciplined others for insubordination. He had put in countless 18-hour days writing reports, accounting for $30 million in equipment and planning missions, at least one of which he had to abandon when his Afghan partners, the local police, unexpectedly declined to participate.
Captain Bonenberger, a graduate of Yale who protested the invasion of Iraq before he joined the Army, had deployed to Afghanistan once before, as a lieutenant in 2007, but had not commanded a combat unit. Now he had the prospect, terrifying but also thrilling, of shouldering greater responsibility than he had ever known.
“You have the ability, and the responsibility, to imagine and implement the strategy that will turn your districts from red to yellow to green,” he said. “Taking command of Alpha Company was one of the crowning achievements in my life.”
Every decision a company commander or platoon leader at war makes is life or death. One mistake can mean a soldier goes home dead or missing a limb. Worse yet, a commander can do everything right, and still lose a soldier.
I’ve had some excellent company commanders and platoon leaders, men who were able to harness that mixture of hardness and charisma to lead people to do things that were at a minimum unpleasant, and at worst, very dangerous. And they could lead them to do so not merely out of obedience to authority, but with a sense of pride and commitment, and gratitude that they were able to serve with others.
Sadly, I have also had some junior officers that lacked that strength of character and self confidence to truly lead men. Few things are more pitiful than watching an officer try to push others on the basis of rank, rather than lead based on their moral authority. Few of those officers made long term commitments to the Army.
Unfortunately, for the good commanders out there, the payoff for doing an excellent job is to be fired:
Many officers fondly recall their days as platoon leaders and company commanders as the most fulfilling of their military careers. Yet the Army each year faces an exodus of captains from the service. Burnout, second-guessing by superior officers and the prospect of dull administrative jobs after deployment are often cited as reasons.
The best a captain can hope for when his tour as a company commander ends is to be stuck in one of the less bad staff jobs.
Let’s take a moment to also remember those members of the US Navy that serve alongside the soldiers of the Army. Read the whole NYT article and you’ll see what I mean.