Officers Eat Last

Unique Leadership Axiom: Officers survive when the troops thrive.

1974. I am sitting in the office of Col. Zep Jones, the military commander of the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds (BRL at APG). I came to work at APG three years before and had just now gained the chance to get time with Colonel Zep. Listening is a good way to get to know the boss.

Col. Zep had been part of the Army’s program to improve the care of wounded soldiers based on experience in Vietnam. Zep was sliding off the main topic. He was talking about an incident where an officer had been killed, perhaps by his own men. There was never any proof. Zep was trying to explain how that could have happened. There was a lot of emotion.

I had a flashback. In the 50s I was an Air Force lieutenant. Twice when I was OD (officer of the day) there were events which now struggled to the surface of my memory.
One time, a drunken enlisted man had armed himself and was waiting on the steps the BOQ (bachelor officers quarters) to ambush the Captain who was his boss. I got the call to come take charge. I was so scared I didn’t know what to do. So I called my boss, Major Nelson.

Major Nelson told me to go to the officers club in my Jeep and to get a case of whiskey. And then to meet him back at the BOQ parking lot. I did so. Major Nelson then took the Jeep and drove up to the steps where the drunken but heavily armed enlisted man was sitting.

Nelson asked the enlisted man to give a hand with the case of whiskey. The enlisted man gladly helped. Then he and Major Nelson proceeded to drink whiskey! When the enlisted man passed out, I went up and got the guns. Major Nelson took the enlisted man back to his quarters.

I later learned from Nelson that the Captain had made a practice of treating his enlisted men abusively. I don’t know the details of how the Air Force resolved the problem. I do know that I never saw the Captain again and I often saw the enlisted man.

The other event occurred on my first tour as OD. The commanding General always went with new Lieutenants during their first hour as OD.

We started at the enlisted men’s mess hall. Each day at least one meal in the enlisted mess hall was checked by the OD. The objective was to ensure good treatment by serving delicious, nutritious and plentiful food.

When we arrived, the general absolutely flipped his lid. One of the cooks had spilled a huge container of green salad on the floor, and was sweeping it up. That was okay. But what the cook did next created an explosion of words that I did not think generals knew. The cook was picking the salad off the floor and putting it in the serving tray! You can imagine the details better than I can remember them.

But after the General had expressed his opinion, we went outside. The General spent nearly an hour explaining to me that while rank has privilege, rank is meaningless if it is not steeped in responsibility.

  • Responsibility to those of lesser rank.
  • Responsibility in every way to ensure the very best of treatment for those of lower rank.

Ultimately those who exercise high rank will ask those of lesser rank to make monumental sacrifices. And those of high rank surely will not survive if those of lower rank have only been used, and not responsibly led.

Back in Col. Zep’s office I realized I had not been listening. Unfortunately, Col. Zep realized it too. But he forgave me when he heard about the memories which had come to mind. And he told me:

  • The real test of leadership is not in conquering the enemy’s weakness.
  • The real test of leadership is conquering your own weaknesses in pursuit of the welfare of those whom you would choose to lead.

Leader’s  Focus: It is not necessary to develop emotional attachments to those whom you choose to lead. It is necessary to develop their level of support to the state where they know that their needs come first; that their needs are more important than the leader’s comfort or his ego.

My Take on Winning:  The balance between ego and duty is always the final determinant of the greatness of a leader. Too often the balance is heavily weighted with ambition. I believe that Oscar Wilde had the best take on ambition: “Ambition is the last refuge of failure.

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