The Servant Leader Anti-Heroes

by Elmer Boutin on November 8, 2010

Rickey's Self AbuseIn my other blog, the Musings of Řehoř, I’ve been recounting my experiences during Desert Storm and Desert Shield. It’s been fun to reminisce over that time 20 years ago and the discussions over those stories among my old Army friends on Facebook have been excellent.

Touching on the subject of leadership, though, there’s one incident I’d like to bring up here. This is the story of the Servant Leader Anti-Heroes.

Among my many duties as the Senior Linguist in my platoon, was to be liaison with the people who gave us mission tasking. Sometimes these discussion were best done via a secure telephone line. On those occasions when such discussions were necessary, I’d hike over to the squadron headquarters since theirs was the only secure line available to me.

One day I made my way over to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to use the phone. The phone was inside a complex of trucks parked and hooked together to make a large room. This room was the nerve center for the squadron. There were maps, radios, phones, and lots of people handling the battlefield operations of the unit. On this particular occasion, everything inside was in disarray. Sergeants were standing around barking orders, the lower enlisted folks were moving furniture, rerouting cables, hanging maps in different places. It was quite the scene.

I asked one of the non-commissioned officers (NCO) I often chatted with in the chow line what all the ruckus was about. He told me they were rearranging all the furniture and equipment back to the way the squadron operations officer wanted it arranged. The key word was “back.” I asked him what he meant.

It seems that every morning over the previous week the squadron operations officer would come into the TOC and order that everything be arranged the way he liked it. Once that was done and his shift was over, the squadron executive officer (XO) would come in that evening and be angry because things weren’t set up the way he liked it; and, he would order everything moved back. It was like something out of “MASH” or “Catch-22” the way it played out.

I found the phone sitting on a desk pushed into a corner and placed my connection request with the operator. I brought a book with me because I knew I could wait up to an hour for my call to be connected.

I really couldn’t read, though. The guys moving furniture around were making quite a racket. All the shouting and grumbling made for too much distraction.

Every so often, the operations officer would come in to check on the progress of work. He’d talk to the NCO in charge and head back out. This went on for well over an hour (unfortunately, the phone lines were quite busy that day, so I had to wait quite a while).

At one point, just as the rearranging was just about done, the operations officer came in. He thanked everyone for their hard work in getting things set up “the right way.” As he was speaking to the group, the door to the outside opened and in stepped the XO.

As he walked in, I could see he was very angry. As soon as he surveyed the set up of the TOC he starting yelling at the group. “Who did this? Why is this set up wrong? Who’s responsible for this?” The operations officer stepped out and challenged him with something like, “This is my TOC, it’s set up this way because I want it like this.”

Thus started the shouting match. Major versus major, officer versus officer. Each, in his own mind, had claim to the TOC and how it was set up. Each, in his own mind, knew the “right” way to do things and the other man was wrong. It was quite the scene. The demoralized and tired soldiers stood around and waited for the end so someone would just tell them how to set the room up and be done with it. You could see the fatigue on their faces and the contempt in their hearts as they looked to the floor or rolled their eyes in disbelief.

Then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. In the dark corner of the room opposite me sat the squadron commander in his Lazy Boy watching the arguing … and smiling.

I couldn’t help but be quite angry at the whole scene. I was angry for the soldiers who were forced to undergo the fallout of the fight of these two men. I was angry for the NCOs who were forced to make all the moving around happen. I was angry at the two majors who were wasting all this time and energy. And, I was angry because the one man who could have put a stop to the whole charade was sitting in the corner, smiling and do nothing about it.

Thankfully, I was able to finish my call and get out of there not long after the arguing started.

There are a number of things which were wrong with this whole scenario. Here are just a few:

  • There should have never been a power struggle going on between the operations officer and the XO. Although the XO outranked the operations officer by position and by time in grade, the operations officer did have a legitimate claim on the operation of the TOC by virtue of his position.
  • These two men, if there as a disagreement between them, should have taken the matter aside and settled it between themselves in private. Having a yelling contest in front of the men they were leading was not good. It subverted their authority caused them to lose the respect of those in their charge. If they couldn’t settle their differences alone, then they should have went to the commander. In any event, the passive-aggressive back and forth of the change in set up and then the fight in front of everyone was unprofessional and not at all in the spirit of military leadership.
  • If he didn’t do this already, the NCO in charge, after all else failed, should have tactfully reminded the two majors to settle this thing in private and make up their minds how things were going to run. An NCO’s job is to take care of the soldiers in his or her charge. Allowing these two to run roughshod over those troopers was also unprofessional. If he couldn’t handle the situation, he should have taken it to the sergeant major.
  • As the senior officer, the commander, really takes a big hit in this instance. He should have never let the situation get to this point – especially since he was sitting there watching the whole scene. Instead of kicking back in his Lazy-Boy and watching the scene unfold like some kind of reality TV show, he should have done something, anything, to alleviate the situation.

I could go on, but you get the idea. So, if you’re in a position of authority and this kind of thing is going on, you have a big problem. You need to assess the situation and make some changes – fast. In the business world this kind of thing can cost you a lot of money, talented team members and time.

What about you? Have you ever been in the middle of a situation like this? What did/would you do to fix it?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Lomo-Cam

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