"Would you rather" is a game that, in its simplest of forms, stimulates conversation among people unfamiliar with each other. At times, effective leadership requires that one play this game. My hope is that you will have genuine conversations with your teammates where the exchange of ideas, opinions, and reasoning can break down barriers, build trust, and even lead to laughter and surprise. Such conversations will give you a better understanding of what is important to them, and, in turn, you can share what is important to you. It is through these communications that we, as leaders, build the foundation that enables us to best take care of our people.
If leadership is leading by example, perhaps you will allow me to start. Would you rather leave a superficial, self-aggrandizing legacy, or be a steward of your profession? Would you rather be known as a leader who directed the development of a new uniform, or would you rather make a lasting impact on the people closest to you? As young Soldiers begin to develop, perhaps these ideas are not at the forefront of their minds. Promotions, training, a dream assignment, or perhaps preparing for life after service are the priorities of our younger people in uniform. The impact they leave behind is not. According to Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, leaders whose subordinates are seeking advancement need support for their developmental opportunities.1 Providing young Soldiers opportunities to advance (even if at the expense of your personal gain) is stewardship. A young infantryman improving their foxhole before moving to another operating post so their replacement has a more secure fighting position is stewardship. One could argue that the foxhole left behind is that infantryman's legacy, as it is something "handed down from the past," or from a predecessor.2 However, I believe there is greater weight and well-intended thought given to providing a sincere effort toward being a good steward.
The Army defines stewardship as the "act of improv[ing] the organization beyond [your] own tenure."3 Some may think that this happens only at the most senior of levels. However, in my view, it should happen at every level. Improving your foxhole is one analogy I have used since I was a young infantryman. It is one of the most basic forms of stewardship taught at the first level of institutional training. All Soldiers at all levels should be encouraged to improve their literal and figurative foxholes. Whether it is conducting routine maintenance on their assigned vehicle every week, or ensuring they notify their first-line leader that the refrigerator in their barracks room is no longer working, that is stewardship.
As we progress through our careers, we gain experience and our responsibilities increase; our foxholes become larger and more complex. We need to be able to fit more into it, and there are intricate details that should be addressed. We can dig grenade sumps, add more camouflage, and improve the details on our range cards. We can improve our office spaces the same way by adding books to the shelf, painting the walls, or displaying personal items that spur conversation with fellow Service members. As we progress in our careers, our spheres of influence grow, and the potential for larger long-term returns is exciting. However, the most important facet of stewardship is selflessness. That is the tipping point between legacy and stewardship. It is an investment in those who will come after us, a paying forward to others who we may never meet, but who will nevertheless reap the benefits of our efforts.
"Improving the organization for the long-term is deciding and taking action to manage people or resources when the benefits may not occur during a leader's tour of duty with an organization."4 In other words, knowing the benefits of your actions may not occur during your tenure speaks to the selfless nature of stewardship. As leaders develop from the direct level of leadership to organizational and then strategic leadership, the opportunities to make more significant impacts arise. However, this does not mean that there needs to be an earth-shattering new innovation for somebody to improve the organization beyond their tenure. Many remember General Eric Shinseki, 34th Army Chief of Staff, for establishing the black beret for wear for regular Army Soldiers. His official portrait in the halls of the Pentagon depict him holding his black beret in his right hand. This was not the most popular uniform change among Soldiers in recent history. It was especially disappointing for the 75th Ranger Regiment, who had worn the black beret to distinguish themselves from regular Army Soldiers.5
However, it is not fair or accurate to limit the contributions of a career Soldier to a uniform item. The black beret may be his legacy from a shortsighted point of view, but what about his example of showing honesty, truth to power, and personal integrity under extreme pressure? When asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee about how many troops were necessary for a successful invasion of Iraq, General Shinseki gave an experience-based response of "several hundred thousand."6 His response was not taken well by the Department of Defense,7 but forward-thinking General Shinseki attempted to "prevent the loss of effectiveness" into the future after the successful invasion of Iraq by giving an honest assessment.8 Rather than being remembered for his legacy decision of implementing the black beret, his consistent effective communication may have assisted General Shinseki in completing his Army career in a way that highlighted his selfless approach to advising senior leaders.
In addition to working to improve the organization, a good leader who is stewarding the profession understands that the benefit of consistent communication through counseling even at the most senior levels is vitally important. Effective counseling is the best method to instill the tenets of stewardship in the Army. Leaders can successfully assess developmental needs of others through communication, observation, and feedback; leaders are able to facilitate their Soldiers' ongoing development by communicating, observing, and providing timely feedback.9 Timely feedback ties in to selflessness as the counselor is placing their subordinate's development above their own. Leaders at every echelon should counsel to accomplish these goals. Without counseling, leaders are unable to garner an honest assessment of their subordinates' abilities and needs and to then take appropriate steps to develop those abilities and meet those needs. Without counseling, leaders' hands are tied when it is time to provide an honest officer or noncommissioned officer evaluation. Honest evaluations improve the organization for the long-term by ensuring evaluation and promotion boards have a clear picture of who is being evaluated and their potential for future ascension into positions of increased responsibility. Counseling provides the leader multiple perspectives regarding the pulse of the organization which can identify potential pitfalls in successful team building. Leaders must learn which method(s) of communication they should utilize that will best resonate with the Soldiers in their charge. Leaders must spend time getting to know their Soldiers, and learn how best to communicate with them. Soldiers will learn from your successes as well as your failures. In turn, they will counsel their subordinates when the time comes if they have learned those best practices from you.
So, back to the original question, reader. Would you rather be a good steward of your people or leave a self-serving legacy? Would you rather impart a lasting impression on a young Soldier's life that will resonate throughout their career and beyond, or would you rather focus on yourself, leaving your and your subordinates' foxholes in disrepair? Selflessness must inspire our drive to improve the organization into the future and beyond. TAL
1. U.S. Dep't of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession tbl.6-5 (31 July 2019) (C1, 25 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22].
2. Legacy, Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/legacy (last visited Jan. 28, 2022).
3. ADP 6-22, supra note 1, para. 6-76.
5. See generally The Saga of the Black Beret, Chi. Trib. (Aug. 26, 2001), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-08-26-0108260232-story.html.
6. Nicolaus Mills, The General Who Understood Iraq from the Start, Dissent (Apr. 25, 2008), https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-general-who-understood-iraq-from-the-start.
7. See generally id.
8. See ADP 6-22, supra note 1, para. 6-15 (providing that a leader who stewards the profession "actively engage in sustaining full military readiness and preventing the loss of effectiveness as far into the future as possible").
9. Id. tbl.6-4.