Congratulations! You’ve either finally been pinned or you’ve been laterally transferred to a position where you’re placed over someone else. You’ve either worked your ass off to finally accrue the dreaded 798 promotion points… or you’ve been “hey, you”ed into it. Either way, from here on out, your entire career will change for the better.
You stand now at a crossroads and your very first act as a leader will determine which road you move down.
Some days, you’ll have to be the bad guy. You’ll be responsible for breaking the bad news, like the fact that no one is leaving until those NVGs are found. But on the flip side, there’s no greater feeling than the moment you train a troop up, they achieve a goal once thought to be impossible, and they sincerely thank you for getting them there.
For all you new leaders out there, listen up — these are the lessons you’ll need to learn.
Don’t get that twisted — NCO academies teach you a lot about being an NCO. It’s just that the best way to learn to lead troops is, well, leading troops.
(U.S. Army photo by KATUSA Pvt. Seung Ho Park 2ID/RUCD Public Affairs)
You’ll appreciate everything your previous leaders have done for you
No amount of leadership schools can fully train you for actually leading troops. All of that fancy book-learning will be tossed out the window as soon as you’re signing your first initial counseling statement. There’re just so many minor things that you can’t possible be prepared for — the only reference you’ll have is what your NCO did.
If they were fantastic leaders, emulate them. Take them aside and ask for pointers. There’s no shame in asking for advice, and I’m willing to bet they’d be happy to help you out.
But even bad leaders can teach you something. Mostly, they serve as examples of what not to do. Learn from those that came before you.
How it feels when your toxic leadership calls everyone into the training meeting.
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Capt. Paul Stennett)
You’ll have to sidestep the pitfalls that every toxic leader has fallen into
As much as it’s painful to admit, there’s toxicity in military leadership. From the bottom of your heart, you should despise each and every one of those so-called “leaders” that give the NCO corps and officers a bad name. Ask anyone who blew off the retention NCO why they’re getting out and you’ll see a staggering amount of outstanding troops leaving the military because of terrible leadership. It sucks, but it’s reality — and it should be a call-to-action for every leader to do their part in weeding out this toxicity.
The first step in not becoming a toxic leader is managing one simple distinction: which is the easy path and which is the right path. It’s hard to jump into the 110 degree Connex and finish a layout when you could more easily hold a clipboard and simply supervise. It’s hard to take an asschewing from higher up when you could just let your troop deal with it. It’s hard to not care about your own ribbon rack when you could recommend others for rightfully earning it.
Unfortunately, the right path is often the hardest path, but it’s the one you must walk.
Now, if only there was a reading list compiled by one of the greatest minds the military has seen in ages… Oh wait, there is.
(DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)
You’ll have to study just enough of everything to have (at least) a slight understanding
There is a metric f*ck-ton of regulations that you’ll need to be well-versed in and follow. Not only that, but you’ll also need to make sure that your guys are following them, too. Sure, you’re never going to need to know the Army regulation on non-appropriated contracting funds — until, one day, you do.
You don’t need to know everything about every subject, just enough — or where to find that info. As long as you get the gist of things, like keeping good order, discipline, and appearance down, you can take it from there.
It’s much easier, legally in the clear, and more rewarding if you just invite everyone to go drinking. If the guy that you don’t want to come doesn’t show up, oh well…
(U.S. Army photo by Maj. Matthew Fontaine)
You’ll find the line between friendship and authority
There’s a reason that the “fraternization between the ranks” rule is a thing. Normally, the rule is reserved for people in power that try to sleep with their troops, but it’s also enforced for squad leaders who elect to go to the bar with just one or two of their squad and not everyone.
You can never, ever, ever show any sign of preferential treatment towards any of your guys. That is the single fastest way to immediately lose the respect of everyone else not given said treatment. Every order you’ll give will be met with, “well, why isn’t Specialist So-and-so doing it?”
Your opinion does matter if something makes its way up to a court martial, after all.
(Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Dowd.)
You’ll learn which rules are worth enforcing
No one wants to drop the hammer of the UCMJ — not even leaders. One day, you may have to counsel your Joe because they got caught doing something you thought you’d never have remind a grown-ass adult not to do. They played stupid games and, surprise, won stupid prizes. (We’re not naming names, but get ready for people to get roaring drunk, rip barracks doors down at 0200, use them as sleds to slide down the company area, and, somehow, manage to hit the staff duty van).
Regardless of their stupidity, you are now going to have to enforce the rules. If what they did warrants needing to put them on the chopping block, so be it. But you don’t always have to bring the ax down — especially if someone was just 2 minutes late to work call and they had a valid excuse.
You can never let them see you hurt. They’ll believe you if you say the impossible is possible.
(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Andrew Kosterman)
You’ll figure out how to hide your faults so no one can ever see them
No one is perfect, but now that you’re a leader, you have seem like it. The slightest mistake will be remembered by your guys from now until the end of time. If they see that you can’t meet the standard or you don’t keep in regulation — neither will they.
This means that there will be days off-duty where you do nothing but train. If you fail a PT test, they won’t take PT seriously. If you don’t know how first aid, they won’t see it as important either. Give everything 110 percent and your troops will subconsciously try to do the same.
We’ll leave this on a quote from the great General Patton. “If you can’t get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?”
(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Candace Mundt)
You’ll place your troops’ needs above your own.
This rule is baked into the Army’s NCO Creed, but it’s something that everyone from every branch has to come to terms with eventually. This is why something as small as, say, letting your Joe’s cut in front of you at the chow hall separates you as a leader from the so-called “bosses.”
Small gestures are important, but the biggest piece of advice I can offer is that you must be the shield when sh*t rolls downhill. Take the brunt of the First Sergeant’s asschewing. Let them focus on the mission while you bounce between the front line and training meetings that the good idea fairy insisted on starting. The best leaders I’ve had the honor of serving under have all shared a single, collective mentality: The only people that should matter in the chain of command are the little guys at the very end. Embody this.