The oath you took is clear; to support and defend the Constitution, not the institution-- not the Army, not the Corps, not the division, not the brigade, not the battalion, not the company, not the platoon, and not the squad—but the nation.
I learned that leadership is hard. Karl von Clausewitz once said that “everything in war is easy, but the easy things are difficult.” Leadership sounds easy in the books, but it is quite difficult in real life. I learned that leadership is difficult because it is a human interaction and nothing, nothing is more daunting, more frustrating more complex than trying to lead men and women in tough times. Those officers that do it well earn your respect, because doing it poorly is common place. You will be challenged to do it well.
I learned that taking care of soldiers is not about coddling them. It is about challenging them . Establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it. I learned that good officers lead from the front. I can’t count the times that I saw Petraeus, without body armor, walking the streets of Mosul, Baghdad or Ramadi, to share the dangers with his men and to show the enemy he wasn’t afraid.
Or McChrystal, jocking-up to go on a long patrol with his Rangers or SEALs in Afghanistan; Dempsey on a spur ride in Iraq; Austin at the head of his Division during the invasion of Iraq; Odierno, cigar in mouth, rumbling through the streets of Basrah; Rodriguez and Dailey always center stage during the tough fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I learned that if you are in combat, move to where the action is the hottest . Spend time with the soldiers being miserable, exhausted and scared. If you’re a Blackhawk pilot or a tank commander, spend some time on the flight line or in the motor pool with the maintainers and the wrench turners. Whatever position or branch you are in, find the toughest, most dangerous, job in your unit and go do it.
I learned that you won’t get a lot of thanks in return. I learned that you shouldn’t expect it. Your soldiers are doing the tough job every day, but I guarantee you, you will learn a lot about your troops and they will learn a lot about you.
I learned that the great leaders know how to fail. In the course of your Army career you will likely fail and fail often. Nothing so steels you for battle like failure. No officer I watched got it right, every time. But the great ones know that when they fail, they must pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on.
Rudyard Kipling, the great British storyteller, poet and soldier once wrote, in part, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowances for their doubting too. If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it and which is more-- you’ll be a man my son.”
If you can’t stomach failure, then you will never be a great leader. I learned that great Army officers are risk takers, but the greatest risk is not on the battlefield, but in standing up for what’s right.I will be honest here. The day I raised my right hand and swore the oath, I was in for 20--I was going to be a lifer. Less than a year later I was counting the days until I could legally resign. The army didn't live up to West Point's standards of integrity. Since getting out I've learned that much of the world doesn't, either, but the wise and the lucky will find places where integrity is still valued, and will go there.
I never served in combat; I signed out of the army the day before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. However, in garrison as in combat, the good leader will go to where the "suck" is in order to earn the respect of his/her troops. I didn't do it every time, but I did it often. I wasn't the perfect leader, but I have no reason to feel ashamed of my overall performance; given the opportunity, though, there are a few of specific instances where, if I could do it over, I'd act differently.