Thursday, December 09, 2004

LEADERSHIP: Some profound thoughts from a combat veteran of Iraq

Last night, as soon as I read the e-mail I have excerpted below, I knew I had to share it with a broader audience. This e-mail speaks to the quality of the young men and women who are leading our troops – here at home, in Iraq and around the globe. It also speaks to the issue of integrity of leadership, and the incredible job that West Point and the other service academies do in preparing leaders who will think about decisions from an ethical perspective and not just about what makes sense tactically at the moment.

The author of this e-mail has given me his permission to share portions of his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous. He was a letter winning Division I-A varsity athlete, and is a member of the Class of 2002 of the United States Military Academy. He spent a year deployed in Iraq, and now leads a unit of soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Here are some of his thoughts:

I traveled to Las Vegas, NM this past weekend to attend a funeral of a fallen comrade. CPT Todd Christmas was my Executive Officer in Iraq and a few months after our return. He died a week ago in a Blackhawk Helicopter crash just north of Fort Hood. You probably heard about the crash on the news. He was General Allen's aide, who also passed away in the crash. CPT Christmas was destined to become a general himself; his death was a great loss to the Army. I was honored to attend his funeral and meet his very appreciative family. The entire week we were in contact with the family they were so positive. It was a sad loss but we managed to celebrate a real American and a great person.

A quick Iraq story and also a tough leadership challenge:

After the loss of Todd I started thinking back to the days in Iraq, when I lost my first soldier to a roadside bomb and then another two months later. I then got a call out of the blue from my old platoon sergeant today wanting to talk about those guys and how he was feeling depressed as to why we lost soldiers and the other platoons didn't. He told me he felt like a failure. I then remembered hearing stories from the other two platoons, that while we were deployed they would call in fake grid coordinates and not conduct the patrols like they were supposed too. I even had some of my NCO's approach me about that after we lost our first soldier and ask why we were the only ones doing the right thing, and how come we couldn't do like the other platoons?

At West Point they always preach about doing the harder right over the easier wrong. This is one instance where believing in that really helped out. I don't remember exactly what I told them, but I was able to convince them to conduct the patrols and missions to the standard, and not to focus on the other platoons. I never told my commander about this and sometimes I wish I would have. I explained all of this to my platoon sergeant today and it seemed to ease his depression.

I guess the point of this whole story is that the ethics and values West Point teaches really do work. I think my guys learned a lesson while deployed that will stick with them forever. Maybe some of this will help you with your book, at least it ads some perspective to West Point.

The good news is that this young soldier sees himself eventually in the role of business leader. If this is the kind of thoughtful leadership our service academies are producing, I feel very confident in the next generation of leaders – for our armed forces and for the business world.

If you would like to comment on what the author has shared, I will be happy to forward your thoughts on to this remarkable young man whom I am proud to call my friend.

Al Chase


Anonymous said...

While I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of this young Army officer's integrity, it seems to me you missed the larger point. His was one unit out of many. He did it right while the many were cheating.

That seems to contradict your glowing assessment of this generation of leadership. Not trying to be pessimistic, just clear-eyed about your observation.

In the end, thank goodness for the few young men and women of integrity that counterbalance those many who apparently fall short.

Anonymous said...

This great American family raised a son they can be proud of and whose memory will live on because of his honesty, ingegrity and love for his country.
Never doubt that we recognize and respect the sacrifices that so few are willing to make for the rest of us.
With prayers and thanks from a mother in Massachusetts

Anonymous said...

An organization is defined by the willingness of a few to do the right thing. Most just get along. It takes but one man of courage and conviction to change the course of history. Such a man has impact far beyond his immediate circle, and of much greater significance than the leader who allows deceipt. We honor outselves and our brothers through making the right choices.

Anonymous said...

Your friend is my cousin and I am so proud of him. I have watched him grow into the wonderful young man that he is. Thank you for recognizing his integrity as a leader in the US Army.

Anonymous said...

I am a former Army officer and West Point graduate myself. Junior officers are faced with many moral dilemmas, and this story is but one of many. While I think this officer served his soldiers well, I think you have glossed over the fact that he tacitly accepted unethical conduct from his fellow lieutenants. He did not have the moral courage to confront them or tell his commander. His failure to do so could have compromised their mission (and perhaps did). This is similar to an executive who stands by as his colleagues falsify accounting statements and massage numbers in order to deceive investors. While he may not have participated directly, to stand by and accept unethical conduct is no better than doing it yourself. West Point's honor code states, "I will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do."

Let's not forget that being a leader is more than being accountable for your own actions...and peer leadership is the art's most difficult form.