Do You Love Me?

These are useful thoughts taken from an article published in a US Military professional Journal:

“Sir, do you love me?”  When a crusty old sergeant asked me that question ten years ago I had no response.  I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not come close to making it clear to him.  He wanted me to understand myself, and at the time I didn’t.  If we cannot explain what we believe and what we stand for, it is most likely that we stand for nothing, and believe whatever is most popular that week.  I know many people who have very strong beliefs but few who can explain what they are.  What good is it to say George Bush / Bill Clinton is bad if you cannot explain why?  If you cannot explain why abortion is bad, or homosexuals should not get married, or the Bible is fiction, then you are probably spouting the same rhetoric that your circle of friends picked up from your favorite television news show.  For me, that is simply no way to live.  I have to understand why I am who I am, and for that reason this paper is a welcome nudge towards putting my beliefs, and more importantly the reasons behind those beliefs, on paper.

In all of our lives there are a few seminal events or concepts that shape who we are.  It has taken me the better part of twelve years to identify those events in my life.  These few events direct our moral compass, and identify to us what is right and what is wrong.  In my life there are five things that have directed me.

1.  Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, where I attended my first four years of college, is very similar to the military academies.  Freshmen are not necessarily treated well.  The sophomores are the enforcers of the law.  They are tasked with maintaining a very strict discipline, usually using a creative variety of physical exercises to keep us poor freshmen in line.  With every drop of sweat, you would hear someone mention Fish Day.  Fish Day was that magical day, late in the second semester, when freshmen and sophomores would change places for twenty-four hours.  The anticipation was like Christmas to a five-year old.  We counted down the days, all the while making plans for the inventive ways we would wring the sweat out of our oppressors.  The night before Fish Day we all stayed up late, polishing and creasing, absolutely positive that our uniforms would be fault-less.  We knew we could find something to bust the sophomores on.  Nothing was going to get us in trouble on Fish Day.

When that morning finally arrived, we prowled the halls thirty minutes early in eager anticipation of that moment when we could yell “fall out!” and finally gain our revenge.  When the first yell went up and all the sophomore’s doors opened we were in for quite a shock.  They were in no way prepared for inspection.  I remember one inventive individual who spent the morning inspection time facing the wall with his uniform on backward.  He simply refused to move, and we were forbidden to touch him.  Another showed up wearing nothing but a tube sock with a tennis ball in the end of it, held in place with a rubber band.  I will not go into detail as to where he wore it.  The Juniors were of course all over us, yelling and screaming, “Get these idiots in line, do your job, you want to lead you better do it now!”  It went on like that all day.  I remember seeing several freshmen crying outright at the absolute futility and frustration.  That was a pretty miserable day, but in retrospect, it was hilarious.

When evening formation arrived, the sophomores were, for the first time that day, perfect soldiers.  We could find no fault with any of them.  It was perhaps a bit crude but a very effective lesson to those who were willing to learn:  we only lead because they let us.

A subordinate always has a choice.  The consequences may be unpleasant, such as unemployment or in the case of the military perhaps confinement, but there is always that choice.  As I have risen to managerial positions through the years the lesson learned that day has always stayed with me.  I try to never forget that my soldiers follow me of their own free will.  I must, with my actions and attitudes, and not with threats of punishment, inspire them to follow my direction.

2.  “Sir, do you love me?”  These are not at all the words an aggressive, hard-charging young captain wants to hear from his senior enlisted advisor, especially if it is from a forty year-old man getting ready to retire.  I responded in the only way a combat arms officer could:

“What the hell are you talking about?  You know the rules, don’t ask, don’t tell.  How could you question me like that?”

“I am just asking a question, sir.  Do you love me?”

By this time I was beginning to be a bit flustered.

“I take good care of my soldiers, you know that.  You can change the subject or you can walk back to the office, sergeant.  I have had enough.”

Ten years after the fact I can still hear the steel jaws close on the trap he had set for me.

“But sir, if you don’t love me, how can you lead me?”

Ten years later and I have still not found a way to contact him, just to say thanks.  I will have to make that happen this year.

I try to love my soldiers like I love my children, understanding that needs and wants are two different priorities.  With my kids I try to give them room to grow and make mistakes while always staying close enough to ensure the inevitable mistakes are not too serious.  I treat soldiers with the same concept, just a different maturity level.   I do not give them what they do not need, like extra days off or trips in early from field exercises.  I try to give them clear standards, a clear objective and a clear understanding of rewards and consequences then get out of the way and let them do their thing.  It is amazing what an average man can accomplish when he feels like he has the authority to make a decision, the resources to do his job and the freedom to make a mistake.  My success is testimony to that; I’ve been blessed with some outstanding leaders over the years, and more importantly some outstanding subordinates.

More importantly, my soldiers know that their careers are as important to me as mine is, not because of what I say but because of the things I try and do.  Taking a soldier from an exercise where he is desperately needed and sending him to school, always following through on awards that have been submitted, and taking the time to coach, not just direct, means more than any volumes of flowery prose ever could.  If I love them first, they will follow me anywhere.  If I do not love them, I cannot lead them.

3.  Once upon a time, in a desert environment somewhere in central California, a captain (eight years experience), a major (fourteen years experience) and a colonel (twenty one years experience) pored over a map, trying to ferret out a solution to a particularly thorny problem.  The young radio-man (8 months experience) was close enough to see the map and to hear our discussions, but he was far too junior to even consider speaking in that august meeting.  A couple of times he tried to interrupt, but was quickly put in his place.  At the end of that young soldier’s shift, as he was being replaced by an equally young and inexperienced soldier, he was over- heard to say “They never build obstacles all the way to the wall.  Nobody has checked.  We can just bypass.  They sure are making this look difficult.”  We all heard, and in the same instant, we all realized that young soldier was right.  It was deceptively simple, unquestionably secure, and it would be effective.  All of our combined years of experience were outdone by one individual who listened, thought about it, and found the best solution.  All that time the brain trust was unwilling to listen to a quick comment from him.  It was a bit humbling to all except that soldier.  The colonel gave him brigade coin, a highly prized reward for a job well done.  We all learned we should have listened.  Nobody is too junior to be intelligent.

I once heard cooperation defined as “everyone doing what I say”.  For some, demonstrating leadership means standing on a podium and expounding on the veracity of the instructions they have meted out.  For others it means setting a goal then listening to others explain what they can achieve in support of that goal.  The second way requires giving up on the delusions of grandeur, recognizing that two heads really are better than one, and just listening.  It is absolutely amazing what you can learn if you can just shut up and listen.  Learn about your subordinates; learn what makes them tick, about the challenges of their jobs that might impact achievement, about the personality of the unit as a whole.  There is a time to give clear, concise guidance and to be clear that there is no room for variance.  That time is almost always after a few precious moments spent with mouth firmly closed, listening to those who will be required to execute that guidance.  You never know, maybe that youngest soldier might have the best idea at the table.

4.  When you are in command, you must command!  That seems obvious but my experience shows that it really is not.  We all have worked for alleged leaders who simply could not be coaxed into making a firm decision.  All decisions, especially the difficult ones, are put off again and again until time overtakes them.  We have also worked for men who always made clear the five W’s: what, when, where, who, and why.  Everyone in those commands could focus on tasks instead of wondering what direction the unit is heading.  Once again, give clear guidance then get out of the way and it is amazing what people can accomplish.  I wish I had a neat little story to go along with this fourth point, but it is more of a compilation of experiences and observation than anything else.  None the less, it fits into the theme of this document because it is definitely part of what makes me tick.  My decisions are not always the right ones, but rarely does anyone wonder what they are.

5.  As we grow up we all gain basic understanding of right and wrong.  There are some vague questions that may be open to debate, but by and large we all have at least a very similar concept.  Murder and stealing are wrong, helping others is right.  We all know the difference between right and wrong.  Consequences have no impact on what is right; they just give us an excuse to justify our wrong behavior.  Right is always right, and wrong is always wrong.  This concept is only vaguely related to legal and illegal, or profit and loss.  Most would justify stealing if it was for a worthy cause; to pay for a much-needed surgery, or to get just enough gas to get home on a freezing night.  Most would choose to ignore theft if the consequences are insignificant, like stealing a two-penny piece of gum.  That does not make theft right, but it might make it justified.

This is a subject I have struggled with as a soldier.  Killing others is undeniably wrong even though there are times when it is justified.  That does not make it right, it just justifies doing something wrong.  I am ok with that.  The rules bent in my time in the military would fill libraries and I have always justified going against regulations by saying that I was simply cutting through red tape in the name of getting things done.  To me, it has been from time to time acceptable to do something wrong, even though I clearly understand going in that it is wrong.  Right is always right, and wrong is always wrong.  Ignore consequences, decide which, then decide if wrong is justified.

This has gone into much more than just what I believe.  This is who I am, and why.  These beliefs guide all the decisions I make, in and out of uniform.  This explains how I want to live my life.  It is much easier to hit a target if you know what that target is, and that is the biggest reason I have wanted to put these thoughts on paper.  If we cannot clearly state our beliefs, we are definitely not living by them.    From time to time I will fail my soldiers in some way, I will justify a wrong thing that should not be justified, I will fail to listen or to love my soldiers.  I will never live perfectly according to any standard, but if I set a clear standard for myself, I will get much closer than if I am just shooting in the dark.

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1 comment
  1. I take issue is the author’s conclusion that killing is always wrong but can be justified. Killing is not always wrong. Take the sniper who operated under the orders of a legitimate authority and complied with his rules of engagement, the policeman who shot and killed someone who posed an imminent danger to a victim, or the father who faced, in his home, an armed, cocaine fuelled burglar with his wife and daughters asleep upstairs and got to his gun before the criminal. These killings were not only justified they were legitimate, permissible and right.

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