I love talking about my leadership experiences. I have actually saved one particular story for the section specifically. It would do me no good to jump right into the story, however, so I will proceed to skirt it tactfully in an effort to make you want it more.
Most of my leadership experiences are involved with my time in the Army. It was the largest bulk of time in my life with one mindset, mission, motivation, whatever. Seven years is a long time, especially so for someone under the age of thirty. I would like to say I was an impressionable youth when I raised my right hand, but the fact is that I had established myself as an adult long before I put on that uniform. Impressionable I was not, but absorbent would probably have described me better.
Did I really use a toilet paper adjective to describe my ability to learn?
Basic training was not the shock to me that it was supposed to be. By “supposed to be”, I mean that there are horror stories about the difficulty, the tears, the trials, and the pain someone has to go through to be a soldier, but I believe I was adequately prepared because I did my research and my recruiters were amazing. Contrary to popular belief, recruiters do not lie to you. They may withhold information in an attempt to hide the ugly stuff, or they may truly not know the answers for some questions, but they do not lie.
Back up some. While the Army might have been the most defined set of experiences of leadership, both mine and other’s, it was not my first one. I was an avid martial artist in my teens. I started late, but I let it engulf me from the very first day. I loved the beliefs, the discipline, and the passion. I may have remained low in the totem pole of belt colors, but I grasped the concepts quickly and that speed often put me in a position to help others. It may not qualify is “leading” them, but I learned a lot about tact and empathy. It was required, you see, as I was 16 and helping the adults in my class.
Adults are fickle creatures and do not always believe a young person can adequately fill gaps in training.
Fast forward to Basic Combat Training. Oh damn, here comes The Experience.
I had a pretty good idea of how leaders were supposed to lead when I went to Basic. Was I a leader? No, I don’t think I was, although the recruiters kept putting me in that position while we were pre-training for Basic. I had a strange mindset when I got on that plane, you see. I was a follower; I was to listen and obey or else I would struggle with the entire concept of Basic Combat Training. I went to Missouri with this idea very fresh and foremost in my mind.
I did not have room for failure. My pride would not allow it.
It was apparent almost immediately that I was more prepared than most of my battle buddies. I had six months of pre-training with the recruiting station, I was a military brat, and I suffered from a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. No, I did not count the times I close a door or wash my hands obsessively, but I am very orderly with things. This was one aspect of the Army and its inspections I knew I would excel.
And excel I did.
The first few days of Basic is spent in Reception. We did not actually belong to anyone yet; we were going through the in-processing portion of the training. We were issued our uniforms and boots, we were given our immunizations and haircuts, and we were slowly being conditioned that the drill sergeants were the Gods of our world for the next ten weeks. Reacting quickly was key, sounding off with motivation — be it true motivation or false — would decide our fate from one moment to the next, and truly comprehending the authority of our leadership would make the transition from civilian to soldier much smoother.
Our duffel bags were a mess with uniforms and uniform articles. Socks mixed with undershirts between boots and personal hygiene items. Well, it did for my battle buddies. My OCD kicked in immediately and I used some of the $200 I had been allotted from my first paycheck to buy some freezer-sized Ziploc bags. My shirts were rolled in a very meticulous manner, my socks were paired and rolled together, and my uniforms folded in perfect pairs of pants and shirts. My duffel bag, fully packed, had room enough for another complete issue of uniforms. My battle buddies’ duffel bags, however, did not. They were filled to the brim and often needed the weight of another person to close.
I am getting to The Experience, I promise, but I have to draw the picture of why I was in the position in the first place. I press on…
I had no specific reason to pack my issue items the way I did, save my own need to be orderly. I had not been warned or conditioned to expect any good or bad from the decision. It was something I needed to do for myself. When we were moved from Reception to our units for training to actually begin, we were packed sixty people to one “cattle truck”. The cadre is yelling, it is snowing and icy and wet, and we are tired already. They demanded action. Now. When they said to grab everything we owned and move with a purpose, they meant it.
I watched my battle buddies doing push-ups for not showing motivation. I watched them get stopped, smoked, and then told to do it better. The trip from the truck into the warehouse was the longest one hundred feet some of my buddies had ever experienced. We had only been in Basic Combat Training for five minutes. While I was prepared for ten weeks of this, my buddies were not.
Inside the warehouse, we were given simple instructions and expected to follow them quickly and accurately. Stand in a line. Check. Shift your body and all of your belongings flush to the right. Done. Sound off when you hear your name. Easy. After a very stressful attendance, we were spread around the warehouse and were given an inventory of our issue. It would seem unnecessary since we were just issued these items the day before, but it is surprising how many soldiers will lose socks, boots, or whole uniforms in the course of a day.
“Hold up ten socks.”
I hold up two Ziploc bags, each holding five pairs of rolled socks.
“Hold up five brown t-shirts.”
I present one Ziploc bag containing five neatly rolled t-shirts.
While I was looking for specific Ziploc bags as the Drill Sergeant calls out items to hold up and be inspected, I remember watching my buddies shifting through everything they own as it is spread out on the floor. They were panicking as they could not find that last sock, or all ten pairs of underwear. Their piles of possessions, the only thing they owned in this world at that moment, spread and grew as they searched frantically for the last item to complete that set.
My intentions for Basic were to get in, blend in, be a ghost, pass, and move on. I had no intention of leading. I am surprised at myself, however. My natural need to be orderly saved me that morning, but it doomed me to being a leader for the rest of my time in Basic.
The total inventory took about twenty minutes, maybe thirty, but it felt like an eternity. The few of us who came in mentally and emotionally prepared stood out of the crowd. This was hammered into our heads hours later as we are pulled into the Drill Sergeant’s office. Shit. What did we do already to warrant a trip to the office?
“Do any of you have any prior military experience?”
No hands raised.
“How about NJROTC or ROTC?”
All hands, save mine, raised timidly.
I remember his piercing gaze as he looked at me. He was in no rush and did not flinch as I fought every urge to fidget or look away. He lowered his eyes long enough to write each of our names on a spreadsheet he had in front of him and then his eyes went back to mine.
“Private Zahn, you are now the Platoon Guide for 1st Platoon. These four soldiers are your squad leaders. I expect dedication, motivation, and discipline from you at all times. You will lead by example. I will accept nothing less than perfection. If you fail, you will be fired.”
So much for blending in and being a ghost, right?
“GET OUT OF MY FACE, PRIVATES!”
Great, I was in trouble already and I had only been in charge for fifteen seconds.
This is where I mention that I learned very quickly that there is a difference in being a leader and being “in charge”. I had absolutely no control over the decisions my soldiers made. I could tell them what I knew, like what time to be in formation and what uniform to be wearing, but I could not make them move faster or try harder. The decision to be a good soldier was theirs and theirs alone, but I also learned that leading by example was more than an expectation of my Drill Sergeant. When I did the right thing, typically, so did they.
As time went on, my platoon and I bonded. I still struggled with many aspects of being the face of the success or failure of my soldiers. I watched the other platoons’ Drill Sergeants fire their Platoon Guides in rapid succession and I constantly wondered which mistake I would make that would cost me my position. I may not have wanted to lead, but that does not mean I would have accepted failure in my duties easily. There were times I knew I had made a great call and my soldiers benefited from it. There were other times when I would have doomed us to some form of punishment for my decision if they had not corrected me.
It was a constant push and pull in which I led and I followed. I began to understand that their success was because of them, not me. Their failure, however, was on my shoulders. This might not make complete sense, and I can think of no way to truly explain it, but this was the life of a soldier in a leadership position.
The Experience, and the lesson that makes it so defined in my mind, came on an extremely cold day in February. The males of my platoon had done something stupid and had been smoked outside in the snow. They were in the APFT (Army Physical Fitness Training) uniform of sweats and a long-sleeved t-shirt. They had been rolling in the mud and the snow for more than an hour. There was not one male with a dry spot on him.
They had asked for it. No, I do not remember what they had done to warrant the Drill Sergeant’s wrath, or how the females had escaped this punishment, but I do remember thinking that they had learned a lesson and I would, hopefully, not need to worry about the same mistake happening again. This was the way of mass punishment. Each soldier policed his buddies in order to prevent punishment for himself.
Still wet and cold, we were marched to the arms room to receive our weapons. This is a long process because every soldier in the company, nearly one hundred and thirty, needed to draw their weapon in numerical order. As 1st Platoon, we were issued our weapons first and had to wait until the rest of the Company was completed. The snow and the wind seemed to make this particular day take longer.
It was either the wind and snow or my own shame.
My males were shivering. As we stood in formation, waiting patiently for 2nd Platoon to finish so 3rd Platoon could begin, I could see the wind cutting through the wet, cotton sweats my males were wearing. “Take us back to the Company, Zahn. Please, we need to get inside.” How could I do that? How could I break my platoon out of the Company formation and move them back to the Company area without direction from the Drill Sergeants? I was given no order; I could not do it.
It was only a minute longer before one of my males and his battle buddy ran up to the arms room to talk to the Drill Sergeant in charge that day — the only female cadre in my platoon. This would be the day I got fired, I was sure of it. I knew my choice was wrong; my soldiers were suffering, but my mindset was still that of a follower. I had not been given permission to think for myself and I had not yet been brave enough to begin to make my own decisions. Basic Combat Training is easy when every choice is made for you.
When the males ran back to the formation, and got back in line, I remember cringing at the call that came from my Drill Sergeant. “Zahn!” I was sure my time as Platoon Guide was over with that one word. I sprinted from the formation into the arms room and faced her with all of the “soldier” I could muster with the shame and embarrassment that I felt.
I faced a different persona than she had ever shown before. Maybe she could read the guilt in my face. Maybe she knew how bad I felt or how much I wanted to be able to break my formation in order to get my males into a warm place. Or maybe she saw potential in me to be something more than a soldier who follows orders blindly, but she was startlingly calm. Her words hit me like a truck though. They cut deeper than any time someone had said they were disappointed in me.
“Always take care of your soldiers.”
This is the point where some would ask if that was it. “That’s all she said?” Yes, those are the only words she spoke that moment and then she looked away. I was clearly being dismissed, but, with those words, she offered me the strongest lesson I have ever learned about leading. She didn’t admonish my failure to act. She did not fire me. She did not yell or scream at my inability to make choices on behalf of the well-being of my soldiers. She only offered me a simple phrase that may as well have been an encyclopedia of information.
Always take care of your soldiers.
There was visible tension in the faces of my soldiers when I ran back out to the formation. There were sighs of relief as I gave the order to “Right, face!” and “March!” There were cheers as I gave the order to double-time and run my formation back to the Company area. They had not wanted to get me fired. It was not their intention to get me in any form of trouble. They did, however, see a shortcoming in my ability to lead and did what they could to get it fixed or, if not fixed, get me replaced until I could learn these lessons. They later apologized for putting me in the spotlight with the Drill Sergeant and thanked me for acting on what she said.
I never told them her words. I let them assume there was yelling and push-ups.
As I sit on my couch, wiping a tear from my cheek, I feel the urge to say that I made it through Basic Combat Training as the Platoon Guide from the first day until the last. I was the only soldier in a leadership position that did not get fired at any point of our training. Through Basic, and the almost seven years that followed it, I learned many lessons of leadership.
None has defined me so much as a simple, almost compassionate, phrase from a hard-ass Drill Sergeant on a cold, windy day in Missouri in February.
In the cake of my life, this experience was not the recipe, or the ingredients, or the oven in which it was baked. It was the note in the margin of the cookbook, hastily scribbled by someone much older and wiser than me, about a trick that makes the cake turn out much better. Maybe it was to beat the eggs before exposing them to the batter. Maybe it was a note to use brown sugar instead of white. Or maybe it was a note, from a grandmother or great-grandmother, to remember to add just a little bit more of each ingredient to guarantee there was a little batter left over for the kids to lick off the spoon.
This old, and possibly faded, handwriting in the margin of a cookbook falling apart from wear was a lesson learned by someone before me. It did not matter if it was learned the hard or easy way. I did not matter how the wisdom came about. The point was that someone had cared enough about me to not only hand me this cookbook, but cared enough to reach deep inside their experiences, both good and bad, and give me a lesson they had learned along the way.