In the National Guard it’s required that you go to a leadership camp called Basic Leader Course (BLC) to get promoted to Sergeant (SGT). Well, I’ve been in the National Guard for 6 years and finally my day to get promoted came up, and so did my day to go back to some kind of basic training.
Basic training (boot camp) is not a pleasant experience for anyone. It’s 10 weeks of mind games, yelling, strict discipline, lots of rules (and rules that change depending on which drill sergeant is around), and lots and lots of profanity.
Luckily BLC hasn’t been like basic training (minus the profanity, still plenty of that to go around). We’re all leaders, or supposed to be learning how to be leaders. People are more mature here. They’ve had some time in the Army to get used to the way things are. They’ve lived life a little bit. In Basic Training for ever smart, reasonable person there were 20 unreasonable, immature people. And you spend 24 hours a day with them, 7 days a week for 10 week. BLC, I lucked out and got put with a group that seems a lot more mature.
There’s a common understanding among all intelligent members of the military: that when you’re in uniform you play the game and act “army”. When your superiors aren’t around you act like yourself. You need to know when to turn “army mode” on and off again. You need to know when to speak up, and when to keep your mouth shut. The military is the only place I know of where leaders have the ability to make you do pushups for mistakes, and possibly take legal action against you for defying an order. In the civilian world, they can’t make you do anything, the ultimate form of punishment in the civilian workplace is firing someone, and they need a good reason to do that. In the military any lawful order needs to be obeyed, or you can be disciplined with all kinds of punishments.
You see, the military struggles with leadership. It has amazing leaders, don’t get me wrong, but it also has an equal number of totally incompetent ones too. And there’s a reason for that. When you join the Army, usually you start out at a low rank, and then you work your way up in rank by “playing the game”. You need no special proficiencies other than the ability to do the bare minimum and wait. Promotions are not based on ability, proficiency, or talent. They are not based on leadership potential, or even on the recommendation of other leaders. Promotions are based on time in service (amount of time in the military), and ability to pass minimum standards of yearly physical training (PT) and weapons qualification. So long as you don’t get in trouble, and pass your PT you’ll get promoted eventually.
And thus it is with the military. The good and the bad get promoted equally. So you get good leaders who treat their subordinates not like subordinates but like equals, and then you get the others who use their rank to elevate themselves and abuse their “power”, knowing that if a subordinate disobeys a lawful order they can punish them.
And so, we all come to BLC to learn how to lead the Army way. And from what I can tell, the way that the Army would like soldiers to lead, is not actually how many of them lead.
In our classes we’ve learned about ethics, preventing sexual harassment and assault, treating others fairly, getting regular feedback from subordinates on how we can improve training, doing things the right way, accepting diversity, being a friend and mentor to soldiers, making sure that soldiers get the help that they need so that we don’t lose any more soldiers to suicide.
The main message that I’ve been getting is that the Army expects leaders to consider themselves leaders among equals, not superior officers who’s primary goal is to command and be obeyed. I’m not even sure I really like the term “subordinate” to refer to people that I may someday lead. It makes them seem inferior, which they are not. After all, the private that you lead today may someday be the officer who leads you.
There are a lot of things that need to change in this world of ours, and this military. But after spending these past few weeks at BLC I’m starting to think that after some time the rampant culture of abuse and incompetence will be changing. It will change slowly, as most things in the military do, but it will change. And if leaders apply what they learned at BLC I feel like the change will be positive. I’m also confident that the soldiers in my group will be good leaders for whatever time they decide to serve.