I did my last ruck march as a platoon leader this morning. It was still dark when I stepped off on a route I’ve come to know pretty well. A little double sided path that winds, twists and bends in and out of the wood line paralleling the Republican River that ends at the Milford Lake Spillway and Fish Hatchery. While stationed in Kansas we’ve hiked that trail every Thursday…. in the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow and everything in between. Just my soldiers and me– toiling under the burden till our shoulders ached from the straps, till the waist bands cut into our sides, drenched in sweat, blistered and chaffed.
But I liked these days. Maybe it was the scenery. Maybe it was just a chance to share the burden with my soldiers out on our own away from all the distractions that come with being on main post and around other units. And all the miles we’ve put in together it has come time to pass the torch onto my successor and take my bow onto the next thing.
With that I decided to put in an extra few miles, and told the guys I would meet them back at the start point. I ventured off a little further– further than I had gone before until I was eventually alone. Enough to reflect on everything.
At first I thought numbers– 24 months as a platoon leader. 2 different platoons. I’ve had the opportunity to lead 49 different soldiers and non-commissioned officers at various points during that time-span. Hailing from multiple states spanning coast to coast, some even from foreign countries. Just about every race, creed, class, ethnicity, and religion you could think of. 7 months deployed to the Horn of Africa. Another 1 month in South Africa. 1 month to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin. Collectively, we’ve expended over 100,000 rounds of ammunition ranging from small arms, to grenades, to mortar rounds, to main gun rounds from tanks, to a 1,500 pound line charge of C4 High Explosive. During that 24 months I’ve had soldiers get engaged, married, have children, enroll in college. And I’ve also seen the break-ups, divorces, and deaths of family members.
Then I begin to think faces, stories, memories and how it all went by so quickly. Despite the 15 hour work days in garrison and the weeks and months of field time and deployments. Despite the times I came home for the weekend too tired and sore to take my boots off and passed out still wearing my uniform. Despite the frustrations, stress, and worry of balancing competing demands, last minute changes and all that comes with the burden of trying to lead well. Despite the mistakes I’ve made– of which there have been plenty. Despite, the binders and binders of paper work that came with planning and resourcing training and operations to mentoring and counseling soldiers to the endless amount of property accountability of millions of dollars of equipment. Despite all that, how much I was impressed by the sheer willpower, leadership, trustworthiness, and dedication of my guys. The hours and hours of conversations with both of my platoon sergeants and the 13 different squad leaders I have had work for me. And how they made me want to be better. Every day. And the pride I felt when they accomplished something– whether it was a promotion, re-enlistment or just overcoming a challenge and growing as leaders. I really couldn’t ask for more.
It was completely different then I expected and everything I expected at the same time. From the first day I stepped off a bus, hugged my family good bye and walked through a set of double doors into another life as a cadet at West Point… I was being prepared to be a platoon leader. 7 years later– I will wake up tomorrow and lead my platoon for the last time. With that– here are some things I’ve found helpful:
1. Learn to Listen well.
We’ve all heard that you should listen to your NCOs. I’ll take it a step further… you should listen to everybody in your organization down to the lowest possible private. Sometimes the best insight comes from the people you least expect. Furthermore, listening means you care. You value other people’s opinions, experiences and point of view and are willing to hear them out. I’m not saying you have to always agree or to be a push over and to defer decisions to other people (that gets a lot of well-intentioned leaders in a bind– seen it happen)– you’re a platoon leader for a reason and ultimately you get paid to make the call. But it does mean that listening creates buy-in and it shows that even if you don’t always agree– you respect other people’s input. Good leaders know how to do this. Sometimes all it takes is “Hey, if you were in my shoes– how would you do it?” You’ll be surprised by the answers you get.
2. Have Thick Skin
If you’re the type that’s easily offended– then get over yourself and do it quick. As a leader if you cannot take an ugly truth or some honest candor then more often then not you lack confidence and are letting your own insecurities keep you from unlocking your full potential. Besides, your soldiers will appreciate the fact that they can talk direct to you without having to sugar-coat things or hide the bad news.
3. Control your emotions
Kind of a tie into #2– don’t blow your top. You’re going to get mad and frustrated at times– keep those emotions in check. If you’re going to raise hell make sure it’s a conscious decision to achieve a desired outcome– not a knee jerk reaction based on your emotions. Good leaders know how to get angry and use it as a tool– bad leaders typically just react to the situation without thinking. Don’t freak out about bad news, especially if it was a honest mistake, help resolve it and use it as a learning opportunity.
4. Don’t be afraid to call BS
Everyone likes to crack dumb LT jokes, but sometimes people will look to take advantage of real or perceived weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of experience. Don’t let that happen. You’re the platoon leader for a reason, and you have ultimate responsibility and authority for everything that platoon does and fails to do. And your NCOs should support that. I’ve been very fortunate in this regard– I’ve had excellent NCOs that were absolute professionals in everything they did. But I recognize that not every platoon is created equally and you’re going to have to be smart enough to know the difference and not be afraid to make changes if you need to.
5. You and your PSG should be a team
Always talk to each other. Always involve each other. Vent to each other… help each other out. But do it behind closed doors– in front of the soldiers or your chain of command there is no excuse not to be on the same page. Use your initial counseling with your PSG to lay out your vision for the platoon and ask for input. This sets the expectations early and insures you are working together to achieve the same thing and not in conflict. Both of my platoon sergeants have been worth their weight in gold– and I couldn’t ask for a better working relationship– and I’ve learned and grown much through my experiences with them. But all of that started by good, open, honest, and candid communication and clear expectations from both sides.
6. You, the PL, write the NCO Evaluation Reports and awards you are supposed to write.
Take some time and learn about NCOERs and Awards– and don’t ever ever pawn that responsibility off to someone else. Or “fill out you own NCOER”– I know, but I’ve seen it happen. Don’t do it. If you can’t take the time out of your day to devote to the career development of your subordinates– find a new job. Take an active interest in the accomplishments and development of your subordinates– be honest– make sure they know how they are performing and what they can do to be better. Furthermore, don’t magic bullet stuff. Personalize awards to the individual– it may not mean that much to you– but it should– because it means a lot to them.
7. Plan in detail, and then fight like hell to protect your schedule
There will always be someone trying to take your time. Try to plan out as far as you can and do your best not to deviate from that. Because every time you make changes– your subordinates have to jump through hoops to get the ball rolling in a new direction. Try to protect your time and theirs through proper planning and resourcing. And sometimes that means biting the bullet and saying ‘no’ to your boss if a conflict arises. Remember, your commander doesn’t always see what you see– and it’s your job to lay out options and all the pros and cons for him– help him to help you. You both want the same things– but remember you work at different levels and competing demands will inevitably arise. Try to stay out ahead of that and be proactive. No one likes a push over or a yes-man– they want someone who is going to help them make good decisions– the same as you.
8. Make personal time
If you don’t you will only be ineffective as a leader in the long run. If you’re not making time for yourself because your pouring everything into being a “good PL” it will catch up with you. Make time for yourself… rather it’s working out after work or going for a run during lunch to clear your head…. you need to reset or a dedicated time doing something you enjoy without worrying about work. Keep your life in balance. This is the downfall of many promising leaders– because if you don’t things will fall apart and that will begin to affect you at work. Sometimes the best leaders, take care of everyone and everything but themselves– and eventually they burn out. Recognize that early and work to become both consistent and balanced in every aspect of your professional and personal life.
9. Trust your subordinates, until they give you a reason not to
Easier said then done. But don’t be a control freak– put out guidance and direction and see where your subordinates take it. Give them the opportunity to lead by giving them your trust. Always give them the benefit of the doubt– you’d be surprised what people will accomplish with a little freedom and trust. People want to succeed, and they will the majority of the time if you let them take ownership of their little piece of the picture. Micromanagement and failing to trust those beneath you completely stifles that inner-drive to succeed. Because it’s not theirs anymore– it becomes yours. So– set high expectations and learn to trust people to meet them. Sometimes that means letting them make mistakes and sometimes you are going to have to answer for their mistakes– but I guarantee they will be better for it for the long haul and will grow much more as leaders then without that level of trust. In turn, that makes the whole unit better. Just make it explicitly clear that if they abuse that trust for personal gain they will have to answer for it. There will eventually be a bad apple, and they have the potential to derail everything if you’re not careful. If that happens, address it early and immediately and never let it escalate too far.
10. Be with your soldiers as much as possible
Your PL time will come and go– and you’ll look back and wish you had a few more nights in the suck, listening to the jokes, and stories of home, and getting to know your guys. Value that experience and take advantage of the opportunity you have with your guys. Because that will be what you look back on when it’s all done.
If you’re getting ready to take a platoon– all the best to you. This has been my take-aways– and I won’t pretend to have all the answers. Every platoon is different, composed of different people, with a different collective identity and way of doing things and you need to approach it as such. But chances are you are more prepared then you think.
To the NCOs and Soldiers of 3rd Platoon Chaos Company and to Punisher Platoon, Battalion Mortars, Headquarters and Headquarters Company– it’s been an honor and a privilege. And I’m glad to have gotten the opportunity to lead you guys. Wouldn’t trade those experiences for all the money in the world and would gladly go to war with you guys anywhere at anytime. Stay Black.
The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.