No MBA mumbo-jumbo, just stuff that's worked through 30 years of team-building in business and the military.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Old Sergeant's Wisdom: Advice for Leaders

The Army puts newly-minted young second lieutenants in charge of platoons; that's the first leadership assignment these school-trained but inexperienced officers have. There are a lot of pitfalls out there for fledgling leaders, though, and the beauty of that first assignment is each platoon has a senior, experienced sergeant who can mentor these young officers. If you're smart, you listen, because rough as they can be, these old sergeants know a lot about leadership.

I was reminiscing about my days as a lieutenant, and marveled at the rough-hewn wisdom my sergeants passed on. A few examples:

- "Try not to suck." This is the Army version of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors ("First, do no harm.") It's a pointed reminder that when you're a leader, your team bears the consequences of your choices. Sometimes no action is better than bad action.
- "Life gets tougher when you're stupid." There are very few situations your team can get into that you can't make worse by doing something dumb. Study the problem, get advice, think things through, and then decide.
- "Don't talk when you're full of s**t." Every one of us has had a boss that couldn't follow this bit of advice. The implications are obvious.
- "If you're gonna spend us, buy something good." In the Army, some objectives require spending human lives, but in every organization you can use people up. Never, ever, demand from your people more than the benefit is worth.
- "You're not as smart as you think you are, but you're probably not as dumb as I think you are either." Keeping a realistic perspective on yourself is tough, but important. It's also important to have a sense of how others perceive you. Reality is somewhere in the gap.

I thought it wouldn't hurt to give you a few chuckles at my expense - you can imagine what I might have done to prompt this kind of feedback. But don't miss the nuggets of wisdom in there. Old sergeants are pretty smart; the dumb ones don't make it that far.

[Note: It isn't fair of me to let you assume the crusty old sergeants I had all those years ago represent today's professional NCO. In response to a more complex mission, today's NCOs are bright, competent, and considerably more polished than old-school sergeants.]


  1. These are some great nuggets of wisdom and advice I really like the point about not being as smart as you think you are. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. Dan, Thanks for stopping by. I wish I could remember more of what my platoon sergeant said; even though he never went to college, he was a smart guy.