The beloved captain and the infallible leader

250px-Donald_Hankey

One of the benefits of having a CTLT cadet attached to your hip for a few weeks is you get invited to a bunch of events that lowly lieutenants would never get invited to. As the saying goes, the biggest demotion you get in the Army is when you graduate from West Point and pin on Second Lieutenant. Or so I hear.

During one of the half-dozen mandatory briefs/discussions, the III Corps Commander was talking about officership and mentioned, half-dissmingly, A Message to Garcia (which I’ve only recently even learned of myself). Where that tome is supposed to imbibe the young officer with the propensity to find his own way in things, the general recommended another book that he thought would be worth reading called The beloved captain. He spoke about it for a moment as I made a note to check it out later.

Weeks later, after the CTLT experience had ended, I googled it and ordered a copy. It’s not really a book, it’s more of an essay. Actually, three short essays written by Donald Hankey who served and was killed in World War I.

I finished them all yesterday. The story is told from the perspective a junior recruit, and begins with initial training and ends in the war. The recruit is writing about his “beloved captain” who was just a junior platoon leader when he first arrived, learning how to soldier just as the rest of them were.

Then he started to drill the platoon, with the sergeant standing by to point out his mistakes. Of course he made mistakes, and when that happened he never minded admitting it. He would explain what mistakes he had made, and try again.

The idea of the leader admitting his mistakes is one that I know a lot of junior leaders shy away from, instead going for “the infallible leader.” I’ve received much unsolicited advice to always be the hardest one, always have the right answer, never mess up in front of the men, never let them see you sweat, and on and on. The advice comes from the right place, to ensure that you are capable of doing the things you ask of your subordinates, but it also seems a bit inhuman and realistically unachievable. Like most “advice for platoon leaders” it boils down to be great at everything at all times and you’ll be good to go.

Instead, as the recruit notes here, a leader who admits shortcomings and actively works towards getting better gains the respect of his subordinates.

The recruit also writes about the importance of physical presence:

No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to.

Being phsyically present at the shittiest detail or most uncomfortable activity is probably the best piece of advice I received from a senior officer. It’s not always possible, but being present has an effect on a number of things; discipline and morale being the chief two. It also sends the message that whatever it is you’re doing is important.

The beloved captain is a super-short read, and worthwhile because the advice seems counter to what is popularly understood as good company grade leadership, i.e.; the infallible leader. You can read it for free, here.

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