“Sir, you humiliated us.” – A Commander’s Lesson in Leadership

Guest author Captain Joel Martinez shares his story of humility in command

Reading a post on The Military Leader one day, a question reminded me of a critical leadership lesson I learned from my time in command. It read, “When was the last time you heard a unit commander ask for feedback, consider the input, publicly admit he’s wrong, and change his opinion?

Given that I have a vivid example of being humbled while in command, I felt compelled to share my story.

Leadership

The 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers trying out for the 2nd Battalion, 38th Cavalry Regiment, Long range Surveillance, Airborne unit here at Fort Hood, Texas gut out the last mile of a two and a half mile buddy run, July 27.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Adam Turner, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs.
This is a guest post by Army Military Intelligence Officer, Captain Joel Martinez. He commanded the 66th Military Intelligence Company of the 3d Cavalry Regiment and now passes on his lessons as an Observer/Coach Trainer at the National Training Center.

Time to Toughen Up

As the new commander of a Military Intelligence Company, I determined to change the culture within my organization. In my estimation, the unit needed to shift more to mental and physical toughness, and move on from a year of reset. To do this, I placed a heavy emphasis on soldiering first, and being an Intelligence professional second.

One of the first actions I took to shake things up was a plan to “smoke” the unit during a Company run. I told the Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants that I would be implementing a Physical Training policy for individuals who fell out of any unit run. Those individuals would be put into the remedial PT program until they completed the same echelon run. I instructed the leaders to pass the word and emphasize the impact of falling out of a Battalion or Brigade run.

When the big day finally came, I took the Company down Battalion Avenue for our first run together. We ran the first mile in seven minutes, and then slowed the run down to allow everyone to catch up. As I looked back on the formation I saw the majority of the formation struggling to keep up, but was pleased that everyone was still pushing.

At the conclusion of the run I addressed the Company. I told them how proud I was that no one quit, and re-emphasized my policy on falling out of runs. I spoke of the importance of physical and mental toughness, and challenged the view that MI professionals needed to be technically proficient more than they needed to be physically tough.

At this point I incorrectly assumed that I had successfully set a new standard for the unit, and that I had adequately articulated my intent. This could not have been further from the truth, and it would be another month before I realized how much disconnect existed between the message I sent, and the one my subordinates received.

Message Not Received

The next month I scheduled another Company run and planned to finish it with a surprise team-building event. I ran the first mile at a seven-minute pace, and then slowed down for the last mile. I ended the PT session with the game of ultimate frisbee, with me on the losing team and my Soldiers seemingly in high spirits after the short run and impromptu sports PT session.

I believed all was right with the world, and it was not until I released the Company that I noticed a talented Platoon Leader visibly upset. I asked her if everything was okay, and thankfully she had the courage to answer.

The Platoon Leader asked me if my intent that morning was “to humiliate every female leader in the Company?” I was floored. She then pointed out that every female Officer and NCO in the Company fell back during the run, and according to my stated policy, would now be part of the remedial PT program. I realized in that moment I had done a very poor job of articulating my standards to the Company.

For me, falling back did not equate to falling out. I wanted to push the Soldiers in the Company to dig deep, fight through discomfort, and not give in when pushed to their limits. However, I realized I had never clearly expressed this to my subordinates.

I explained this to the Platoon Leader, but immediately realized it was not enough. I gathered all the female leaders later that morning and apologized to them for my carelessness and shortsightedness. I followed this up during the closeout formation by clearly explaining my intent and end state to the Company, and formally apologized to those who I had set up for failure by running at that pace.

Takeaway

This incident revealed three crucial lessons that changed my leadership:

  1. I had failed to provide clear Commander’s intent. Because of this, my subordinates did not understand the purpose of the runs, nor the end state that I had for the Company.
  2. Additionally, I realized I had undermined the authority of my subordinate leaders by unfairly placing them in a position that would draw unfounded criticism, and had inadvertently created the appearance of favoritism if the leaders were exempt from my policies.
  3. Finally, my goals and end state were hampered by my lack of communication. How could I expect leaders to exercise disciplined initiative if they did not have a shared understanding of my intent?

I never intended to embarrass Soldiers with these runs. Instead I sought to put them in situations where they could test their limits. From my perspective, running a seven-minute mile was not the hardest sacrifice I would ask of them. Deploying to Afghanistan, leaving their families, and placing themselves in harm’s way would be much harder.

This event was a defining moment of command. Receiving frank and candid feedback can be difficult for Commanders, and I am truly grateful that a Platoon Leader had the courage to call me out. Had she not, I would have remained blind to a problem that was entirely of my own creation.

Questions for Leaders

  • Scan your current leadership environment. What could your team be misinterpreting about your guidance?
  • In what ways could you confirm that your unit is accurately receiving your intent?
  • Have your people ever seen you wrong about something? What trust could you solidify if you righted a wrong for them?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Clatskanie

    Jesus christ.

  • Jdel

    just read original post and I’m not even going to read any of the comments because I know it will irritate me… apologizing was a mistake and you should have discussed with the women (and MEN that I’m sure also fell out) to better themselves. “falling back” (which is falling out FYI) happens to anyone pushing themselves to improve. As in: if you run a 6:30 mile and try to run in a group of people that run a 6:10 mile, you may definitely “fall back” at first, until you better yourself. Stress improvement not apologies.

  • Steve Ferencik

    We discuss this article in a new episode (#13) of our veteran’s podcast, The Burn Pit.
    Link available here: https://www.facebook.com/BurnPitTalk/

  • ARmyCPT1

    I was in an Airborne BCT with a sole PT focus of being able to stay in formation for the brigade runs. The days leading up to the runs were light PT days so everyone was rested for the run. The runs were a little over 6 miles at an 8 minute pace, plus or minus 15 seconds. What that really meant was about a 7:30 pace for the first three miles and about an 8 minute mile pace on the way back. Put that is context of a 3000 man brigade and the slinky effect and it could meaning those in back running much faster at times. It wasn’t a moral building event, especially for several hundred that fell out. One of the runs resulted in 10 paratroopers being hospitalized, but the next run was just as fast.

    When the Brigade changed command one of the first things the new Brigade Commander implemented was formation runs would be done at around a 9 minute mile pace. The Brigade runs became actual esprit de corps events not an exhibit of how good a runner the BCT commander was, and the units could actually do other things for PT besides constantly doing long distance runs. Moral in the brigade instantly improved.

    Setting a standard is great, but setting a standard that is unattainable by many isn’t going to build up a unit it will tear it apart.

  • Christina Marie Aragues

    Still missing g the big picture. Want to push a standard? 7 min mile is not the standard for males either. Nor is supreme physical fitness what you need from MI. Also, the female didn’t calm him on it until subsequent runs? Why not the first time he pulled those shenanigans. She needs to work or her leadership skills- as do any of the NCOs that are in the unit and should have noticed.

    • Jdel

      F***k standards, push improvement.

  • redleg

    This reminds me why it was good for me to retire in 2014 after 27 years.

  • Max Blancke

    It is difficult for leaders to promote and believe two contradictory things; that every soldier has the same capabilities and potential, but also that some classes of soldier are unable to meet the same standards as everyone else. The difficult thing is professing to be a true believer in the first philosophy, while quietly working in the reality of the second. It seems to me that the Captain made a common mistake in that he actually started to believe that every soldier was equal, and started to hold everyone to the same standards.

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  • J01833

    Tough crowd. Thanks for sharing this. You negative guys really suck. The MAX score of 100 is received by a female on the APFT with a run time of 15:36. So, a seven minute mile for the ladies is pushing it, really pushing it. Great piece, Joel.

    • Division Charlemange

      Yes, there are very low standards for the camp followers. You’re not shocking anyone.

      • DasCoop

        God I hope you’re not in the military. If so do the world a favor and GTFO.

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  • Eric Jnah

    Joel, thanks for sharing the story. It takes guts to lay it out there and write about lessons learned, especially when you are revealing lessons in which you were the one that created the problem/dilemma. Despite criticism from the other two comments, I think the Takeaways you describe are spot on. I have recently worked for several commanders over the past two years and one struggle that each of them had was communicating their vision or intent to a degree in which it was understood by all. This wasn’t a flaw in these individuals, but an inherent challenge in command. I think a commander has to continually communicate their vision to their formation in order for it to sink. If you stop communicating your vision or narrative than people will fill in the blanks on their own. Don’t let the criticism stop you from writing in the future-it’s part of the territory. The good you pass on will touch many people and will far outweigh the sting of critics.

  • Jonathan David

    Outstanding. You allowed a weak Platoon leader to play the gender card, capitulated to political correctness rather than enforcing standards. Good luck in combat, buddy.

    • Christina Marie Aragues

      Gender card? Not even about gender, I bet a significant amount of males fell.out too, as the standard is not a 14 min 2 mile for 18 year old males either. Way to show everyone your ignorance.

    • DasCoop

      No, he realized he had messed up and corrected it. Sorry your misogyny was challenged.

  • Josh Hill

    So you enabled a weak leader to continue to be a weak leader? Why on Earth would you do that? You essentially did your part to help perpetuate the systemic issue of poor leadership, failure to take personal responsibility, and lacking intestinal fortitude by kowtowing to a group that should have taken the events as a wake up call to their weaknesses.

    Now, could you have reevaluated your approach whilst not enabling them? Absolutely. You probably would have been semi-right to do so. However, you mistook their failure as your own. You missed an opportunity to provide an important teaching point to that LT. In turn you fostered an environment where getting your “feelings hurt” is a valid reason for complaining or demanding change instead of taking an internal look at one’s shortcomings and areas in need of improvement.

    Such is the world we live in nowadays, and sadly how the military is now operating.

    • Kelly Smith

      So expecting a formation of women to run a mile a full minute and some change above their max target run time is fair? There are physical differences in the sexes, hence, the separate scales. Would you think it was fair if you were in a group of PT studs and they expected you to run 6 minute miles and you have “remedial PT” if you can’t maintain? Put yourself in a similar scenario, Josh. There is a difference between falling back and falling out. 7 minutes per mile is smoking fast for a formation run, especially in a mixed formation.

      • W. Fleetwood

        Absolutely. It’s common knowledge that ISIS, The Taliban, the Russian and Chinese military, and , well, just everybody gendernorms their attacks and pursuits to allow for a fair and equal distribution of casualties. How stupid to try to elevate females when you can simply degrade males. (Abn Rgr Combat Veteran.)

        • Christina Marie Aragues

          The Airborne standard is 8 min mile….questions?

          • Adam Day

            The Army standards are minimums. The units I was apart of always had additional standards that exceeded minimum Army standards at squad, platoon, company, and battalion levels

      • Division Charlemange

        Go home.

      • Jdel

        No there is no difference. Haven’t you heard? As an infantry Squad Leader I am expected to, in the very near future, receive woman that can carry 240’s with their share of the weapons squad 7.62 ammo (because I rarely ever have AB’s) for a distance ranging from 3 to 18 miles…congress says it’s ok so you have to support it too just like I do.