My first experience in understanding what it means to be a leader came as a result of my attendance at the Primary Leadership and Development Course (PLDC) or what is now referred to as the Warriors Leader Course (WLC). I attended PLDC in the summer of 2000, as an 11B Infantryman. By that time, I had already earned my Expert Infantry Badge (EIB), was Airborne and Ranger qualified, and just received the Tomb Identification badge. I’d felt somewhat accomplished in my career. Little did I know that PLDC was going to teach me my true responsibilities as an officer in my transformation from a soldier to an NCO.
At the time I was going through PLDC, the motto of the Army leadership manual was, “Be, Know, Do.” This first step was, “Be,” be a leader, take control immediately, and get a grasp on the situation no matter how simple, no matter how complex—show your subordinates that you have their back. Give them confidence that you know what you’re doing; when a leader, “Be” a leader.
The first time I was put in charge of an exercise during PLDC, I was very focused on the specific techniques of motivating and properly managing soldiers. In the infantry, management gives out orders and soldiers execute without question—it’s very black and white. In PLDC, unquestioning obedience was not expected of non-infantry personnel who were more impressionable and expected information to support orders. This often led to a softer approach in the delivery of orders and required a different style of leadership. This leadership concept was new to me, but I knew I had to adapt to be successful as a leader and a manager.
An issue that continued to arise was the fact that our female platoon’s morale was low because they felt as if none of the issues, they brought up, were being addressed or resolved. I knew that acknowledgment of these issues and describing a plan of action would be the first right step in making sure they had confidence in me as a leader.
My first step was to assemble the platoon and have an open forum to communicate and address relevant issues with the platoon. Secondly, I would have to prioritize the issues, putting those that I could immediately affect at the top of the list. This would be key in giving them confidence in me as an NCO and leader that I had a plan, a strategy to fix what was broken, and a personal investment in making sure they were taken care of and respected.
Thereafter, I started with the prioritized list that we discussed, because platoon members knowing they had input matters. I made the final decision in the order of precedence; but if it made sense then, the collective understood that we made this decision together. I was learning to be a leader.
Later in my career as an NCO, I made MSG, as a member of USASOC at Fort Bragg, when I decided to go back into the ranks of US Army Special Forces Command and be what I always dreamt of being: a US Army SF Team or Operations Sgt., or the “team daddy” as we are more commonly known. The team daddy position is the most senior position in Special Forces amongst the ranks of operational detachments. The Team Sgt. acts as the operational and training Senior NCO who determines, with command guidance, the training path of the detachment. He also utilizes his seniority and experience to mentor and train the detachment in hard skills such as sniper marksmanship, close-quarters battle, and myriad special operations skill sets. This includes softer skills like rapport building, embassy function, briefing skills, intelligence, and collection operations.
My job as a new MSG in Special Forces was to stand up a new Commanders In-extremis Force (CIF), which was designated the crisis contingency force for the AFRICOM theater of operations. This new element specialized in Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, and Hostage Rescue on the entire continent of Africa. It came with a lot of responsibility and tremendous challenges both in terrain, natural, and human. I spent the first year training my team in its specialty: reconnaissance and sniper operations.
To qualify for the team, a special operator had to be SF CQB trained (8 weeks), SF Sniper trained (8 weeks), Military Free-fall (MFF) (4 weeks), and have a clean and reputable record as a warfighter in SF. This meant my guys had five months of specialized training and prior combat experience just to get in the door. In the command’s eyes, I was to have the most experienced Special Forces detachment in all of the 10th Special Forces Group to accomplish a challenging mission.
We trained over a year before we were validated as an official CIF company by USASOC, and designated mission ready. I understood in the position I was in for the first time that in everything I did - my mannerisms to how I shot drills—I was being emulated and serving as a mentor for young and sometimes older green berets who looked up to me. This was critical in building rapport and team cohesion that is necessary to survive the incredibly stressful and dangerous situations these men would no doubt face.
The second part of the Army’s leadership motto was, “know,” know your job, and know your environment that you train and operate in. Most importantly, know your place as a leader in the world that you create for your subordinates. Knowledge is paramount in developing trust in your subordinate’s view of who you are as a leader. The end state of my job was crisis, war, firefights, hostage rescue, and this end state had to be consistently and constantly replicated in training while displaying the same amount of quality leadership to earn my men’s trust.
Back when I reported to my SF unit as a young Special Forces NCO straight out of PLDC, they had already been given the warning order to prepare to deploy to Afghanistan. I showed up and hit the ground at a dead sprint, trying to learn as fast as possible. There was a significant learning curve and keeping up was in my best interest and that of my teammates.
My job on the detachment was to act as the 18B or Special Forces Weapons Sergeant. In Special Forces, you operate in teams of two per job specialty and you have a senior more experienced operator and the junior, typically the new guy. Each team has its specific specialties: two weapons and tactics experts, two engineers, two medics, two communication experts, and the operations Sgt. and the team leader. This enables the detachment to operate with all areas of tactical expertise covered to plan and execute operations.
I was told right before we deployed to Afghanistan, I would be the Senior Weapons Sgt. because my senior was having surgery. This meant that I had to prepare the team with tactical training and prepare our heavy and light weapons for deployment—I looked forward to the challenge. This position was especially important because we were due to deploy to a remote Fire Base in the middle of nowhere, also known as the Hindu Kush Mountains, Afghanistan.
Once arriving in Afghanistan, I remember being brought into our Tactical Operational Center or TOC, and my Team Sgt. told me my guys were waiting for me. Slightly confused I stated, “what guys?” The Sgt. smirked and said, “your soldiers, your Afghan Special Forces.” I took a deep breath; one month prior I was a student in Special Forces training—jumping into a fictitious guerilla exercise known as Robin Sage, and now I was living that experience in real-time, with a real threat, at the tip of the spear. I felt ready.
I remember thinking back to the motto I understood and studied in PLDC, “Be, Know, Do.” This without a doubt was the “do” phase of leadership. With all my experiences, with all my knowledge up to that point in my life and military career, it was time to do what I know I had to do to be a leader: to earn the trust and build the rapport that would be critical in doing combat operations in an austere, dangerous environment throughout the region.
Leadership doesn’t just mean understanding tactics, planning, and having in-depth knowledge of your job. Leadership is a cycle and the learning process is ongoing. It starts with people, the people that are your peers, that are your subordinates, and the people who are your superiors. There is something to learn from each of these relationships about being a leader. This group of people is your scope and your compass in navigating your duty as a leader.
Leadership as an NCO isn’t given to you. It is earned through the development of one’s natural leadership skills, but it is primarily a synthetic development of a series of experiences and the processes that you implement based on those experiences. And the learning is ongoing.
The greatest thing about leadership as an NCO is that its fluid, never rigid, and can always be adapted to affect the proper outcome. Think like a manager, talk like a coach, understand like a counselor, and fight like a Spartan, and you will succeed in all the elements it takes to be a great NCO. I’m out here and I’m still learning.