Three Principles of Distinguished Leadership

By Allison Miller

While the mission of defining “good” leadership will indefinitely entertain reasonable minds, I wish to highlight three rather unconventional principles drawn from my observations and experience of various leadership styles and some advice I have received over the course of my career. While my targeted audience is mainly junior officers, the following principles can be effectively employed by leaders at all levels: (1) Be selfish for the lives of your Soldiers. (2) Make troop welfare a priority. (3) Be a personal leader. 

1.) “Be selfish for the lives of your Soldiers.” – CPT Bruce Martin 

Captain Bruce Martin, our class Training and Counseling Officer (TAC), spoke these powerful words during my first year as an officer at the Transportation Basic Officer Leadership Course. They have stuck with me ever since. I write them down in every leadership green book that I own and quote them in my Platoon Leadership Philosophy. Army leaders should engrain “Be selfish for the lives of your Soldiers” in their memories and exemplify this mantra through their leadership style. 

Leaders must understand, first and foremost, that their Soldiers are people with families, friends, livelihoods, values, career goals and personal aspirations. Leaders and subordinates are no different in this respect. Effective leaders acknowledge this reality and value their Soldiers as much as they value themselves, their families, and personal interests. To them, no Soldier is expendable. As a result, leaders who apply this principle are hesitant to thrust their Soldiers into unnecessary danger where reasonable alternatives for mission accomplishment exist. Be the kind of leader that allows families to sleep well at night knowing their Soldier is under your direction. 

2.) Make troop welfare and mission accomplishment a binary priority. 

This one is a personal leadership value some of my colleagues may find controversial, but I am happy to defend it. Soldiers are indoctrinated to “always place the mission first” from their first day in the Army through retirement. We recite this phrase in the Soldier’s Creed, we imply it in every mission brief, and the units I’ve been in expected mission accomplishment to be the basis for leaders’ decisions. This “mission first” mentality is justified only if a fundamental principle is never forgotten: People are needed to accomplish the mission. Without troops, there is no mission, and leaders who are not careful of their troops’ welfare may as well show up to a fight without a plan and face failure every time. In other words, we (the people) are the mission. Without capable personnel, a mission cannot even be initiated, let alone succeed.  

Considering that accidents (vehicle rollovers, negligent discharges, falls, mishandling equipment, off-duty altercations, etc.) account for more troop casualties than actual combat, leaders must understand that Soldiers’ welfare is critical to mission accomplishment. Attention to troop welfare prevents these types of accidents that take most of our Soldiers out of the fight. Consider, for example, the basic necessities of sleep, personal hygiene, food and water, and mental health. All are basic needs required to maintain an acceptable level of troop welfare. Four Soldiers seriously injured in a vehicle rollover accident resulting from the sleep deprived driver’s inability to react quickly are four Soldiers taken out of the fight. A platoon conquered by a flesh-eating skin infection stemming from poor hygiene habits is one less platoon available to go on the mission. A dehydrated Soldier who becomes a heat casualty during a patrol is now extra weight on the team and a setback to the mission.

Consider a Soldier who commits a horrendous war crime that could have been prevented had someone been tracking his or her declining psychological state. The devastating results may include permanent damage to the reputation of the Soldier’s unit and lost trust in U.S. forces, domestically and abroad. Troop welfare is foundational to every mission. When that foundation is lost, so is the mission. It is just as foolish to go into battle with inoperable weapons and dead-lined vehicles as it is to send untended Soldiers on a crucial mission. To prioritize troop welfare is to ensure that the Army’s most valuable weapon (the Soldier) is completely functional going into the mission. 

3.) Be a personal leader. 

“Never apologize for fighting for your Soldiers.” – CPT Julia Adcock

Know your Soldiers, get in their business and learn as much about them as possible – their families, habits, strengths, limits, qualities, professional goals, and personal interests. You should know the Soldiers under your supervision better than anyone else in your organization. This insight helps with personnel and task management, reasonable risk assessment and mitigation, and leadership development and career progression for your Soldiers. Be approachable, make yourself available, and be easily accessible to Soldiers. Colin Powell once said, “The day the Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Yes, the chain of command has its importance and should be used appropriately, but a Soldier should not have to cross an ocean, run through brick walls, and obtain the consent of twenty different people just to get to the company commander. 

Seize every possible opportunity to engage with your Soldiers. In the wise words of CPT Andy Schwab, one of my TAC officers from OCS, “Never go into the LT room.” He warned us that the infamous “LT room” could range in its disguise from a popular hideout in the maintenance bay to the company TOC where some officers will spend the entire drill weekend around a table on their computers with a supply of doughnuts and coffee, completely isolated from their Soldiers. In contrast, effective, personal leaders spend most of the duty day actively engaging with their Soldiers, establishing presence, and learning and leading as much as they can. Your time as a junior officer is critical to establishing the trust and respect of your Soldiers. It will be too late to build these relationships when the bullets fly and the stakes are high. Take “train as you fight” a step further to build those relationships with your Soldiers now rather than waiting until you are downrange to begin that process. 

As a personal leader, you must be passionate about your leadership role and take your responsibility seriously. These actions require your competent, assertive, and unapologetic advocacy for the best interests of your Soldiers. Nothing motivates Soldiers to go the extra mile and exceed the standards of job performance like a leader who goes to bat for them. Being a personal leader will at times be uncomfortable, unpopular, and inconvenient. The reward of a lasting positive impact on countless Soldiers greatly outweighs all of those temporary difficulties. As John Maxwell once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

1LT Allison Miller is a third-year Juris Doctor candidate at The University of Alabama School of Law and serves as the Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems detachment commander of the Group Special Troops Company, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Alabama Army National Guard. The views in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army. 

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