Leading Soldiers Through Rank or Influence?

Jun 11, 2021

Welcome back to another episode of Army NCO Support, I'm Steven Foust, and today I want to talk about a leadership, quote. We often get inspiration and motivation from different leaders, be it military, corporate, political, all across the board. But I ran across a quote recently by the great General Colin Powell, and I wanted to share that with you and bring some perspective and maybe get you thinking a little bit about how it impacts you, how it impacts the way you lead and serve your soldiers, lead and serve your teams. 

And I think it's a powerful quote that really brings things home, at least it does for me. So, I want to share it with you. So General Colin Powell and I don't know when he said this, I'm sure I could look it up, but that's not as important as the quote itself. But General Colin Powell and if you don't know General Colin Powell, make sure you go Google him. I'll put a link in the show notes here to look him up to get some more perspective. 

But a great military general served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush (I mistakenly said Barack Obama), just a great man. And he has a really unique story. So you can go read a biography on Colin Powell. But to live the life he's lived and to lead the way he's led is truly inspirational and motivational, at least to me. So this quote I want to share with you today is as follows: 

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” 

~General Colin Powell

Leadership Can Be a Decision

Think about that, it really is an impressive quote when you think about the meaning behind it. On its surface, it's just words. But when you peel it back and you think about the intent and the meaning and then more importantly, you think about how you live your life, how you serve your soldiers, are you doing the little things differently that's going to create the type and scope of relationship that you need, that you must have if you're going to be a leader of consequence.

Now, leaders come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds, and colors. A leader is a special human being. You have leaders who lead through rank and authority, and they get their soldiers and team members to do the things they want them to do through rank, intimidation, threat of punishment, fear of penalty, fear of getting written up or counseled, fear of not winning favor and therefore not getting recommended for things, not getting awards. So many negative things can come from that if you're a leader who leads in that way. 

I subscribe to never, ever do that. Never, ever do that. Take a position, take a stand and decide what type of leader you want to be. It's critical. It's critical not only for you as a leader, but it's critical for your soldiers and teams, team members who you're leading, how they will respond to you, how they will react to you, how they will follow you. I subscribe to this notion that leadership is a full contact sport. 

Lead Your Soldiers from Inside the Huddle

And I think of that in terms of football and a head coach as a leader. But you have these players that are in the trenches leading the war. And I'm a big Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. I grew up in Tampa and I love the Buccaneers. And this just in. I've had some difficult struggles through the years. I haven't witnessed many winning teams, but we won Super Bowl 55 with Tom Brady. 

And it was just a special moment for me. But the leadership he brought to the team, it wasn't in so far as the coach doing the leading. It was Tom Brady doing the leading from the field. I subscribe to this notion that you could be a great coach, you could be a Super Bowl winning coach. That's fine. But that's only going to get you so far if all you're doing is signaling the plays into the game, either through hand signals or through the walkie talkie in the helmet. 

That's great. But if you're not out on the field helping your soldiers get better, modeling the behaviors that you expect and desire, showing them what winning looks like, explaining to them ways to win and how sometimes the biggest learning experience or the greatest learning experience comes through episodes of failure. If you're not in the game, if you're not in the middle of that huddle with your team, with your soldiers, demonstrating to them how to win, what winning looks like, how to achieve the goal, rolling up your sleeves, building confidence, showing them the way to do it. 

If you're not doing that, you're going to get left behind. You are going to not be a leader of influence. You are not going to be an NCO of significance. Now, you can achieve moderate or limited success doing that. But that's only going to take you so far if you want to raise your game, if you want to rise to the next rank, if you're a Corporal going to Sergeant, a Sergeant to Staff Sergeant and so on and so forth. 

Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant, First Sergeant, Sergeant Major, whatever it is for you - take a step back, just take a step back and think about the leader that you are and the leadership you demonstrate and the way you model your expectations for others. Once you do that, it does a couple of things. Number one, you begin to build trust. And I'm not talking about trust based on the rank. They have to trust you by regulation. 

They have to follow you into battle. They have to do these things. We all know that. We all know that leadership and authority can come in many different ways. And you can say follow me and they have no choice. But you're going to get a certain type of follower in that situation. You're going to be known as a certain type of leader. 

But until you build a relationship, until you get in the middle of the firefight, the middle of the huddle, the middle of the thing that you're trying to influence and demonstrate and show them you're not going to win their true trust, their true confidence in you. 

Be an NCO Leader with Relational Influence

That's the way I think about it. The takeaway here is - In the middle of the action, show your soldiers, show your teams what it looks like, what it feels like, instead of sitting across from them, telling them what they need to do, sit next to them, showing them how best to do it, that's going to build their confidence and trust in you. I think of this as deposits into a bank account every time you serve your soldiers, not just tell them, but you serve them by showing. 

Serve them, by helping, serve them, by doing. You're showing them the way forward. Every time you do that, you put what I think of as these small deposits, nothing big, it's not winning the lottery, but these small deposits into your bank account, into this leadership bank account. 

It's a vault. If you go to your local bank and you go back into the safety deposit boxes, it's like having one of those. And every time you have this conversation, every time that you're out on the floor in the field and helping them pitch that tent and you're in the middle of it with them, you're not sitting on high in a tent expecting things to be done. 

But when you're doing it with them, you're making these deposits into this bank account, into this safe deposit box. And over time, your deposits are going to grow in, your accounts are going to grow and you're going to get all of these credits in your safe deposit box, in your bank account that now when times get tough, when you're really in a pinch, when you really need support, when you really need help as a leader and your team is there, are they going to look at you and think, hey, this is a NCO, a leader that's really been there for me? That's helped me? That's showed me the way? That's demonstrated what winning looks like? 

I hope so. Or are they going to sit back and say, this NCO, this joker, they'll never say it to your face, but they'll say it to each other. This joker doesn't care about us. This son of a gun doesn't want to help us. So why are we going to lift a finger to help him beyond what we must do to make sure that we're doing the minimum expectations? 

If that's the kind of leader you want to be, on that second example, you're not going to be a very good leader. You're going to be a leader that's left behind. You're going to be a leader who is exposed, and you're going to be a leader who never advances. If you don't have the support of your team, if you don't have the support of your troops, you are not going to make it very far. That's something we all should take real note of in this quote by Colin Powell. 

I'll read this great quote again. 

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”

Make Your Decision and Make a Change

My challenge for you is to live up to that quote. Live up to the way that General Powell put it out there and then look at the mirror and ask yourself… How do I support and treat my soldiers? 

Is it going to advance my cause, my influence, and my career? 

Or is it going to simply reinforce the rank that you have and that basically your Soldiers have no choice, they’ve got to do it. 

My friend, that's the message I wanted to share today. I encourage you to take all of that and think about it and decide the type of leader you are and the leader you strive to become.

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