Friday, October 15, 2010

Revisiting some leadership advice from boot camp

This was written almost 8 years ago while completing Army Basic Combat Training at Ft. Sill, OK. I wrote this for About.com's military area specifically to address the issues faced by older recruits at BCT. As I re-read this the other day, I thought some of the lessons could apply to people facing challenges as leaders (or aspiring leaders) in organizations of all kinds today.

I am currently home on Exodus from Army BCT at Ft. Sill, OK. I thought some of you would be interested in some insights from the perspective of an older person (I turned 34 the week before I shipped) going through BCT.
First of all, I recall several discussions on this forum about the advantages/disadvantages of being older and going through BCT. Let me tell you that success at BCT really has nothing to do with age but rather, with your level of maturity. If you are able to follow orders, focus on the task at hand, work in a team, understand the mental game, and keep a positive attitude, you will have a good time at BCT. The people who bring an attitude with them or have a problem accepting authority will quickly draw negative attention from Drill Sergeants and will likely hate the BCT experience.
Having said all that, my experience has been that DS's tend assume the younger guys AREN'T mature and tend to give the older guys the benefit of the doubt. Specifically, they will assume you are mature and not focus too much attention on you...until you prove that you are NOT mature. THEN you become a glorious target. Case in point: There is a 33 yr old in my platoon who just doesn't do real well in dealing with others. He is the type of guy who takes things very personally and lets it get under his skin. He bunks right next to an 18 yr old who likes to pick on those type of people...especially when he can see it really bothers them. One day on the drill pad while practicing Manual at Arms, the younger Pvt was picking on the older Pvt. They were in the back of the formation. In the middle of the DS explaining Inspection Arms, the older Pvt raised his hand and said "Drill Sergeant, the Pvt to my left is harassing me!" It sounded like something you would hear on the school yard. The older Pvt didn't get the response he wanted from the DS. It was more like "so, you have a problem with your left private, Pvt? Sounds like a feminine problem! 'Course I always wondered about you anyway but I am not allowed to ask and you damn well better not tell me! Now the both of you...PUSH!" By the way, the older Pvt is one of my Squad Leaders.
One thing I found in my situation is that the Platoon looked at me early on as a mentor. I have a lot more life experience (I am married, have two kids, and a good civilian job -- I am NG) than alot of these guys so some of it was natural. However, I have not been an ass about things and have kind of enjoyed and respected the mentor role. Before a PG (Platoon Guide) was assigned, whenever there was a conflict, people came to me to try to resolve it. They thought "Gramps" (my nickname) could work it out and I often did. I tried to deal with my "Battle Buddies" in a respectful way even if they were complete idiots. One guy thought I was too soft and tried to insult me by describing my style as a "Dr. Phil" management style. I took that as a compliment. I figured that we have 3 DS's assigned to our Platoon who scream at us all the time. The Platoon didn't need a "Drill Private" doing the same thing. I am not writing this to pat myself on the back but rather, to give a heads up to anyone else who may be going to BCT in a similar situation. You really need to "act your age".
As far as those who give the advice to "lay low" and don't draw any attention to yourself...that's not realistic. Sooner or later you will be drawn out. The DS's look for ways to get people out of their comfort zones. For example, in week 3, the DS's started assigning psuedo PG's. In every instance, the person who was chosen was someone who either was "laying low" or was someone who was very timid or shy and needed to be brought out of their shell. Typically they were fired after a day. We went through 6 in one week and not one of them would have been considered (at that time) a strong soldier. So, it's best that you prepare yourself to get attention. In my opinion, that's the way to get the most out of the training.
In week 4 I was assigned as the "permanent" PG (permanent being the phrase the DS used but he did remind me I could be fired at any time!). It is a challenging position that requires a lot of extra time and stress. It is excellent leadership training but you do sacrifice some (ALL if you are not careful!) of your free time to accomplish what you need to. It is a job with a lot of responsibility but with no perks (except I get to call cadence!) and no "real" authority. To be effective, you really have to lead by example and always have a positive attitude. If you are given this opportunity, look at it as such...an opportunity. Give it your all. This is another way of getting the most out of the training. Just be prepared for the extra work and responsibility.
In terms of the physical aspect of the training, I have been a little disappointed. Although I have lost 15 pounds so far and am in the best shape I've been in for a long time, we are limited as to how much PT we can do. We have one organized PT session in the morning. This usually alternates from run days to MSE (muscular strength and endurance) days. However, we have only had 4 runs so far. The DS's are clearly frustrated about the fact we are not allowed to have any evening runs or PT sessions. When I get back (the day after tomorrow), there are only three scheduled runs before our final PFT for record. Also, on days where we are scheduled to do an obstacle course or a road march, there is no organized PT scheduled. Of course, this does not apply to "smokings"! These rules have come down all the way from TRADOC according to our DS's.
Overall, the experience has been a good one. The worst part is being away from my family and I have new found respect for those soldiers who are deployed for long periods of time. Especially during the holidays. To reiterate my advice to anyone going to BCT as an "older" person: Act your age, treat your Platoon with respect.
Above contributed by SPC Chris Harben