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Why Officers Lead from the Front

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon.”

- Napoleon (Warning: possibly a “Quote Behaving Badly”)

I don’t know if soldiers actually fight for ribbons, but I do know that many soldiers will attend meaningless Army schools, at an alarmingly high rate, simply for the opportunity to wear shiny badges on their uniform. As a result, airborne wings adorn most officer’s chests, while Recon Surveillance Leaders Course badges don’t.

By the time I returned to Italy from Afghanistan, I had blinged myself out with airborne wings, a Ranger tab and a Combat Infantrymen’s Badge. To kick off training for our next deployment, after a roughly 90 day reset period, our Brigade gave its young soldiers the opportunity to test for another badge: the Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB), the ultimate skills test for any infantryman, from shooting to running to rucking to operating a radio.

Tired after a long deployment, I approached the EIB training like a child refusing to go to school. “But I don’t want to!” As if to prove my point, our Brigade sent us out to an overnight land nav course covered in snow. Between huddles around impromptu fires, we marched out to get points and marched back.

At first, I was miserable. Then, practicing my favorite infantry skill, land navigation, I caught the EIB bug.

I didn’t just want another badge to pad my ORB; I needed to pass the EIB; higher officers in my battalion expected me, and every other infantry officer, to get one. As a result, every officer in my company (and I believe the battalion) passed the preliminary events: marksmanship qualification, PT test, road march and land navigation.

Then came the skills competition. Far and away, most soldiers fail to earn an EIB during this portion of the test. Spread over three days, soldiers must complete over two dozen basic infantry tasks to perfection. Three failures total, or two at the same event, and you don’t get your EIB. (And yes, they have since radically changed the EIB testing process.) I expected to pass the ruck march, PT test and land navigation; the skills competition worried me.

As soon as we started the skills competition testing, soldiers started failing.

Our little squad went from event to event with a very specific plan. We didn’t let anyone test who couldn’t do it perfectly, absolutely perfectly. My platoon had spent hours in our maintenance bay training every skill until we could do it blindfolded.

We made it through the first day. I passed the grenade toss; three of my fellow lieutenants didn’t. My grenade actually spun in place on the lip of the bunker, then turned on its side and rolled in. (I didn’t know this, because, obviously, I was staring at the ground in cover. My CO told me about it later.) The next stressful moment occurred in our last event: the M4. Our company ran the event, so they told everyone in our group that we had failed, even when we had passed.

Terrifying? Yes, until we passed.

In one of my proudest--and last--moments as a platoon leader, my platoon had the most number of people pass in the company. I also passed without failing an event. So did one of my soldiers. So did my company commander. In our company, the officers had a 40% pass rate. Across the battalion, Officers had around a 40% pass rate too.

But the pass rate for all enlisted soldiers, including the ones who failed PT or road march events, was much lower. (Granted, many senior NCOs had passed the test before and ran the EIB testing stations.)

Why all the bragging about a badge tons of soldiers have earned throughout the Army? This self glorifying story provides the perfect anecdote to “The Sobel Problem” Eric C wrote about two months back. After that post went live, we got tweets like this one from @JasonFritz1:

“My NCOs and Joes were better than me at many, many things. And they're integral to how the American Army fights. Guy missed leadship [sic] class.”

I don’t know Fritz’s background, so maybe he didn’t attend the same “leadership classes” I did. I went to Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School, the latter being the premier leadership school in the Army. In both those schools, and in my first unit, I was taught a crucial lesson in leadership: lead from the front, both physically and symbolically. My first battalion commander laid this out for all the lieutenants shortly after deployment:

“This means physically, mentally and emotionally you have to lead your men. You have to know more. You have to run faster and do more push ups. You have to shoot more accurately. You have to constantly strive to improve. You must lead from the front.”

Officers aren’t just better than their men; they have to be. They need to achieve an ideal their men can strive for. Otherwise, the leaders aren’t leading, they are following. Think about it this way: if Sobel could have competently navigated the British countryside, Colonel Sink wouldn’t have replaced him. His men mutinied because he was incompetent, not because he was an asshole. If he had been one, but not the other, he’d have led the men into D-Day.

When I trained for the EIB, I strove to live by my battalion commander’s words. It wasn’t just about earning the badge; it was about setting the standard for my men. When it came to the ruck march and PT tests, if any officers had failed, they would have failed in the eyes of the Battalion Commander...and their men. Why should a soldier care about PT or ruck marches if his leader doesn’t? And what soldier will want to follow an officer they don’t respect?

Officers have to lead from the front. And set the standard. Or as my brother put it, be better than their men.

On Monday, we’ll answer other objections to out post, “The Sobel Problem”.

five comments

Fantastic post. This captures what it should mean to be a combat leader, perfectly.

Emphasis on the “should mean” I strove every day to reach that ideal, but I was far from perfect.

And thanks for the compliment Don

I’d stick Fritz’ response into the argue-against-something-with-anything-you-have column of arguments. My original claim has nothing to do with leadership, or if it did, not the way he intended.

There was an article published shortly after WWII the outlined what the Germans expected of their officers. If I remember correctly there were three things. One you had to be a good teacher. Two you had to be better at soldier skills than your men. The third I don’t remember too clearly but it was more along the lines of what a civilian like me would have expected, tricky tactics and things.

I wish I could find that article again.