"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Burden of Command

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I don’t think I ever understood that concept – the burden of command, until the day one of my soldiers died.  After we took care of the notification of next of kin (his children, as both he and his wife had been killed in a car accident), I had to tell my section what had happened.  Everyone knew something big was afoot, but there hadn’t been an aircraft crash, so all were wondering.  At that moment, standing in front of the group, I realized what that phrase meant.

That was one of the moments I grew up, and went from being a recent grad from military college to understanding the awesome responsibility I had been given by the Queen.  Up until that point it had only been about achieving the next milestone.  Get through basic (not too hard), get through recruit term (really hard), get through academics (almost failed that one), get through military training, get through language standards, get through physical fitness testing (3 times per year, and I still can’t long jump to save my life).  Then it was a brief walk onto the stage to get my commissioning scroll, my degree…to notice that the Gov General was sound asleep (Jean Suave), and then a feeling of contentment.  All that goal stuff was behind me.

When my soldier was killed, I realized that all that achievement was really not about me – but about preparation so that I could get out of the way personally, and to act as a leader.

This death was not in combat, or even in operations, and so I feel even more for those who have lost soldiers to enemy fire, or in the midst of ‘safe’ training.  There’s always those questions about what I could have done differently.

The other thing it highlighted for me was the infinite responsibility that goes along with calling yourself a leader.  It really doesn’t matter who made the mistake, who caused the aircraft to plummet from the sky, who caused the explosives accident, or who was caught stealing from the unit fund – it ultimately all comes to rest on you as the leader.  If the organization charged to your care has failed in its mission, the call of the leader is to avoid the all-too-human first instinct which is to find someone to shift the blame off to, and to accept responsibility yourself.  Leadership means the buck always stops with you.  Leadership means never starting a sentence with the words, “Yeah, it happened on my watch, but…”

Most of the failures of leadership we see in our modern culture – Bill Clinton, Enron, or organizations that are in morale free-fall because of constant punishment and abuse – all come back to a failure in the fundamentals.  Service before self.  Accept responsibility for the things that happen on your watch.  Set your moral code higher than you expect anyone else to achieve.  Care for those under your command.  It sounds like a series of anachronisms in this modern, rapid-paced aged where we all live only in the presentness of the instant.

The other thing I learned as that experience grew, was that the fundamental foundation of all leadership is love.  That sounds even stranger in a military context, but it is only when motivated through love for those you command that a leader truly comes into full responsibility and authority.  This was the approach of Jesus, and it is the call that rests upon anyone who presumes to lead others.

I had a co-worker, who had spent most of her career in staff jobs, and was on her first tour on a flying unit.  There were three of us, junior officers, on the unit working for one senior officer.  There’s an unwritten rule about watching out for each other, and particularly for those more junior than you.  These are the people you expect to risk their lives to save yours, and the trust that permits that confidence begins in the daily life in the unit lines.  This officer, by contrast, was always quick to offload responsibility for things onto the most junior – so when our boss asked if she had finished a task (that she had not) she was quick to point out that the most junior of we three had not provided her the information she requested.  We used to call that, ‘blading your bud’ in milcolspeak.  It meant I didn’t turn my back to her for the rest of the time we worked together.

By sharp contrast, the most impressive boss I ever had, was a highly decorated fighter pilot.  At his retirement mess dinner he passed on some wisdom from his career – the most striking was his comment that the day you started thinking in terms of what you deserved because of your hard work, was the day you needed to leave the military.  That was the point at which he had seen his co-workers fall into ethical and moral disgrace, because they had developed a sense of entitlement.  I wonder how many people in positions of authority would remain if they honestly applied that rule to themselves?

That truth comes to us clearly in the foundations of the Christian faith – what we deserve because of our hard work, our righteousness, is death and destruction.  That is the natural consequence.  But because of the action of one man, Jesus, instead of death we find life.  It is striking how that Christian teaching lines up so clearly with the practical lessons of leadership.

It is truly unfortunate that we live in an era where we constantly ask – where have all the leaders gone?  My Godfather, a bishop, used to meet with each of his clergy for a significant discussion at least twice per year.  When he found out one rural priest had been having regular car break-downs in his multi-point parish he directed the executive officer to make a loan so he could purchase a newer, more reliable car.  What was funny is that same executive officer had lectured the same priest a few weeks earlier, about how the diocese was not in the business of making loans to clergy so they could buy cars.  Which one of those appointed leaders acted as a true leader to the priest?

Finally, the other lesson I learned had to do with power.  In the beginning it was all about the authority, about being saluted when I walked down the street.  I quickly realized, when working with real people, that authority would only get you so far.  People would do things because you compelled them to, but this had nothing to do with leadership.  Anyone can wield the blunt weapon of power to force others to do their will…and it leaves the same kind of wounds that any blunt weapon leaves.

The true task of a leader is to inspire people to achieve more than they ever thought they could, not because you ordered them to, but because you created the space in which they could only succeed spectacularly.  A leader brings people to the place where they achieve greatness, and afterwards say, ‘we did this ourselves’.  The success of a leader comes not through the salutes, or the deference, or the best seats at functions, but from seeing the people in your charge become more than they ever thought they could.  A true leader, after having created that place of success, fades into the background so that the followers can claim their victory.

What impact has your leadership had on those in your care?  Is the road to your present littered with people who have surpassed their wildest dreams?  Or the broken bodies of those who were left behind as not suiting your vision of the future?

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Written by sameo416

March 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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