It’s strange being a replacement Lieutenant in a forward deployed Army unit for a number of reasons. Everyone knows each other’s voice, inflection, sneers, jokes, life stories, wives. They’ve trained together for years. They’ve literally had months of downtime to spend with one another. Trust in one another doesn’t begin to describe how deep the bonds are forged. And what’s more interesting, everyone simultaneously loathes each other. They’ve experienced and subsequently judged all the normally hidden quirks about someone’s personality. The rumor mill is rich with unfiltered tales of each team member in some grand achievement or folly. Ask anyone, and you’ll likely receive some new twist on the latest installment of downrange embellishment. Aside from my young age and my relative inexperience, the unit cohesion described above made sure I knew I was truly the outsider to this organization. Until, I’d been assigned to lead it.

I was the automotive maintenance platoon leader of forty mechanics for a light wheeled vehicle logistics battalion operating combat logistics support and resupply for all provinces south of Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border. In other words, I was the manager of an Army-grade Jiffy Lube for a trucking company that drove at least 14 hours, one way, on the longest run, almost every day. These trucks took a beating. You name it, it broke. We fixed tires, rims, brakes, engines, transmission, air conditioning, radiators, body work, chassis, and so on. My personnel could fix or replace anything. In a sense, I’m new to the environment. But, I’m not new to leadership. You could say I was learning the mechanical trades-craft and corrective actions as I went.

My tone-setting moment for the deployment happened not more than 30 days into my tenure. It defined my leadership style then and continues to influence my decision-making today with respect to workplace roles, responsibilities and expectation management.
One day, I walked through the motor pool and saw one of my sergeants standing at the front end of a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). This, in itself, was not abnormal. What was peculiar is that as I walked up to the front of the vehicle, I realized I was able to look through the inside of the metal carcass of a completely disassembled vehicle – all the way through to the rear bumper. I stood next to him to take in the sight of a $100,000 vehicle in these many pieces, and I politely asked, “What’s going on here?” He turned, looked at me with a cool smirk and delivered a skillful reply, “Why don’t you walk yourself back into your little office and leave me alone, sir?”

It was a decision point. How should I react? What message is the correct one to send in this moment?

I said nothing in that moment. I left the motor pool floor immediately to decide. I consulted my commander, our first sergeant, and my platoon sergeant about my resolve to address the conduct immediately. I developed my thoughts with each. Each weighed in with their thoughts and assured me they supported my intent to clearly define roles and responsibilities in the motor pool. In my view, the situation wasn’t so much about the personal insult or unprovoked attack, but more about what it meant that one of my soldiers thought this would be acceptable behavior. I then drafted a counseling document, the army’s equivalent of a formal write-up.

I called the soldier to one of our mobile office units to discuss the incident. In front of his squad leader and his platoon sergeant, I put on my best commanding officer face and read to the sergeant a few of the Army Regulations he violated explicitly. I listed my expectations for his conduct moving forward. I told him I realized I was very new, and very young. But, I could not allow this type of demeaning insubordination in our motor pool. My age or perceived newness had no bearing on my positional authority. I asked him to imagine what would have happened if the conversation was overheard by one of our junior soldiers. What would that have done to our unit? I told him to sign the document and report back to work. I never heard another ill-suited word in the motor pool from him, or any other soldier in my platoon.

I choose to keep the document of that unbecoming performance in a local file – in my desk only. Because of the way I administered this action, the adverse document would not be associated with his personnel file or leave a permanent mark on his career. This discrete yet highly effective method afforded the sergeant a renewed opportunity to correct his conduct moving forward without long term impact. The chosen path also soundly delivered my intended message to him, and likely the platoon through discussions I wouldn’t hear.

This incident has informed a few human resource and expectation management situations since. The calm and cool delivery of facts, regulations, and expectations made the resolution of the matter almost non-confrontational. The exchange became no longer about him and me, but about what it means to be a sergeant interacting with a lieutenant in an Army motor pool. Lastly, the way that I quietly vetted the administrative action with multiple levels of the organization, both enlisted and commissioned, helped hone the clarity of the intended message and build the coalition of political influence for this situation, and moving forward.