5 Leadership Tips From A Man With A Beard
Cover Photo by Joseph D.R. OLeary and his series entitled “Of Beards and Men.”
By Marty Skovlund, Jr.
Due to the comments on the American (lack of) strategy for dealing with ISIS the other day, there has been a flurry of activity on the news as well as social media questioning our government’s ability to handle foreign policy and national defense responsibilities. I couldn’t help but be instantly reminded of leadership lessons that I learned while serving in the Army, and how many in our nations leadership – whether they be Congressmen, Generals, or the Executive Branch – seem to not know or just willfully ignore some or all of these fairly simple leadership tenets. I don’t know if they have time in their schedule to step away from their spa treatments, golf outings, or partisan arguments to read these five simple leadership strategies, but I hope they do. It should be noted that I am not an executive leadership strategist, life coach, or Obi Wan Kenobi – I am just a guy with a beard on his face and a coffee (black) in his hand relaying to you what I was taught once upon a time:
When in charge, be in charge. It doesn’t matter what your position is, what your experience is, the rank on your chest or the certificates on your wall – if you are put in charge of something you damn well better take charge. Don’t try to please everyone (there are always going to be critics), and sure as hell don’t jerk the proverbial car off the road just because you had to take the wheel. It doesn’t matter who you are put in charge of, if they are actually better suited for the position than you, or how prepared you are for the task(s) at hand. A good leader doesn’t let those things deter him or her, because leadership skills are transferable to any situation or mission.
I was in Baghdad on my first deployment in 2006, and Mike, a former college basketball player-turned-Tab Spec-4 in my squad, told me to go round up the other new guys and get our compound cleaned up because someone important was coming to visit. I honestly don’t remember who the VIP in question was, I just remember the coin he gave to a few guys in our platoon had a bottle opener built into it. Anyway… Mike put me in charge of this detail and I had absolutely no rank or time in service over the guys I was now in charge of, if only briefly. Now, I was a freaking idiot as a new guy. I mean, a team leaders worst nightmare… like… drive-a-Stryker-down-the-street-with-the-ramp-down bad. He knew this, and knew that I would probably hesitate to lead guys who would more than likely laugh at someone like me telling them what to do. Regardless, he looked me square in the eyes and said, “Skovlund, when in charge, be in charge. If you fail to accomplish the task or properly motivate the other guys to work to standard – it’s your ass not theirs.”
I had (and still have) a lot of respect for Mike, so I didn’t want to fail him – even if it was just making sure the water was stocked and the toilets cleaned. That night, I believe I stepped up to the plate and accomplished the task. We received no complaints about our AO being dirty or unkempt, and I was smoked for a completely different reason so I was successful as far as that task was concerned. I took the lesson to heart though, and it’s something that I think anyone in charge of anything should remind themselves of periodically – especially when thrust into a situation your not prepared for.
Everything that happens or fails to happen is on you. If you are in charge, you can bask in the glory of accomplishment, or the humiliation of failure. A good leader will give credit to the team when there is success though, and shoulder all of the blame when there is failure – even if it wasn’t “technically your fault.” This is why I don’t mind when the Bin Laden raid is put on the resume of accomplishments for our nations leadership, even if they weren’t actually on the ground – they were ultimately responsible. There is, of course, a flip side to that coin and responsibility must be taken even if it would be easier or more convenient to pass the buck.
It was 2009 and I was attending the Army’s physically demanding and prestigious Warrior Leader Course at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. It was my turn to be a squad leader in our small group, and during the middle of one of our classes the First Sergeant came in and handed an unsecured canteen (I think?) to our SGL NCO. It was left outside unattended, clearly bearing the roster number of the guilty party. He was in my squad.
So, the SGL brought him as well as myself (since I was the squad leader) into the office and asked why it was left unsecured and who should receive a negative counseling statement. The soldier who left it, who literally had over twice the amount of time in service that I did, began to stutter something about how his CSM would kill him for not making the Commandants List, but I just thought to myself how many times I had Everything that happens or fails to happen is on youground into me. I spoke up and said, “Sergeant, I was in charge and failed to check that all sensitive items were secured. It’s not his fault, just give me the counseling statement.” The NCO was taken aback by this, as I was basically volunteering to be taken out of the running for Commandants List, as well as a phone call to my Battalion CSM. But with other Rangers in the room with me, I sure as fuck was not going to look like a weak leader in front of them.
The NCO ended up letting both of us off the hook, as well as telling me he was impressed with my intestinal fortitude. Cool. Does that mean I don’t have to memorize the Dog Faced Soldier song now? Kidding, of course. Moral of the story, I would rather take the blame and hope for the best, then pass the blame and look weak. Also, I’m going to go smoke myself now for telling a WLC story – which is worse then telling a basic training story (which I have also done…).
Hesitation is for the weak. Hesitation can get you or your men killed in combat, you into a car accident, or an opportunity to be missed by your company. There is no place for hesitation in leadership. It should also be noted that there is a difference between doing your due diligence and hesitation. Researching and brain storming in a timely and efficient fashion to arrive at a well thought out decision is good – especially when time is available to do such a thing. Wallowing in indecision and refusing to make tough calls because you’re afraid of the potential outcomes is a bad thing. Be decisive or hand the reins over to someone with a pair of brass ones that can be.
I don’t think there is a whole lot to this principle. Just don’t hesitate. It doesn’t require a personal example. When a decision needs to be made, and all the eyes are on you – make it, stand by it, and if you turn out to be wrong – admit it. After you made a decision, hope for the best and begin planning for the worst. I would personally rather follow a leader who was decisive and occasionally wrong, then a leader who hesitated at every turn and may never suffer embarrassing defeats, but also never basked in glorious victory.
Learn from your mistakes, but never make excuses for them. You will make mistakes. I have made mistakes. An embarrassingly numerous amount of them in fact. But, I learned from every single one of them, and tried to apply those lessons in future situations. Nobody likes a leader who spits off a string of excuses every time they mess up, it just makes you look weak. A few lessons I have learned the hard way:
- Always remember to rack a round into your rifle when you leave the FOB.
- Don’t A.D. your white light right outside of the building you are about to clear with armed men inside who don’t appreciate late night visits.
- Take the magazine out of your Springfield XD .45 before disassembling it, especially when at your girlfriend’s house, especially when her roommates are home, and especially when her roommates are dating NCO’s from your company.
- Don’t bring the wrong size boots to Afghanistan just because you think, “They’ll stretch out.” Pro tip: They don’t.
Although mistakes can be embarrassing, and often are, you should never make excuses for them. Own up to them, make a mental note, and hope for the opportunity to make up for it. Don’t be that guy with the excuses though. Just don’t. It’s embarrassing, and everyone in your charge can see right through it. Own it, try to laugh it off (if appropriate), and move on.
The best leaders are never the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with really smart people, and then empower them to make decisions, take charge, and above all – heed their advice. Yes, as the leader, the buck stops with you. But do not be so arrogant to think you have all the answers. If you are the smartest person on your staff or in whatever piece of the pie you are in charge of, then you are not doing a good job of attracting great talent, and if you aren’t attracting great talent – it’s probably because you have a reputation of being a bad leader.
As a recruiter I went out of my way to find people that I thought had the potential to be a better soldier then I was or ever could be. I tried to find people with amazing athleticism, unwavering motivation, and a thirst for education and learning. I was successful in that endeavor in most instances. As a small business owner today, I pride myself on the fact that I am the least educated and generally least impressive person that is affiliated with my company. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but I have a freaking Ivy League professor and a professional athlete on board. I don’t know what they see in a yahoo like myself, but I am glad to have them and take their words very seriously. For that same reason, I believe my company will be very successful some day.
Talent drives innovation, innovation drives success. A President is only as good as his Cabinet, and a business owner is only as good as his employees. Every leader needs to ask him or herself two things; Am I hiring talented people, and am I utilizing them to their fullest potential? If the answer is “No” to either of those – then you need to check yo self before you wreck yo self. Our government needs to look at this one closely, because… John Kerry? Really? Really? Don’t be the one who is responsible for bringing a “John Kerry” on board.
Look, I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly don’t claim to be God’s gift to leadership. I’m just a guy with a beard and a cup of coffee. I have been privileged to serve under or work for some really inspirational leaders, and have tried to apply their lessons in my own life as best as possible. I can only hope to get better and to improve as time passes. My hope is that our nations leaders realize their deficiencies and work expeditiously to correct them before any more lives are lost or national embarrassments are suffered.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is the owner of Blackside Concepts as well as the Editor-in-Chief of The Havok Journal. He is tall and gangly, possessing the demeanor of an uncoordinated and socially awkward Gerenuk.