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Four Years at the Mount

Leadership in action

The process

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

(1/2017) The concept of leadership is universal in many ways. There are leaders in nearly every organization, every form of working government, every home, and team. The difference from one leader to the next, and what distinguishes leaders, lies in a multitude of facets. Was this person a natural leader? Do they lead with confidence? With selflessness? What is the desired leadership style? Are we in America hoping for a new leader who fulfills and upholds our values, or are we in the midst of a foreign countryís highly centralized government that seeks no tolerance? Surely, a "good" leader looks drastically different from situation to situation; however, no matter the situation, Iíve come to a few conclusions about leadership, especially how I have seen it recently.

For the past three and a half years I have been immersed in a leadership program with the single goal of developing competent, driven, and prepared Army leaders, Army ROTC. I have certainly met leaders who I admire and only want to emulate, and I have met leaders who have taught me those "what not to do" lessons. I have realized that to each person, ideal leadership looks a little different, but I believe I have found a commonality: the process of leader development and its importance.

This summer at camp, or Cadet Leaders Course (CLC), this idea hit me hard. That sounds dramatic, but thatís exactly what happened. During CLC, we all participated in a multi-week and multi-faceted field problem, or leadership development exercise. Every day, our leadership position changed. We could be a team member one day and Platoon Leader the next day, the only thing we knew for certain was that every night at 2100 we would get a new assignment for the next day. So, on the fifth night my name was called to come to the middle of the patrol base as everybody was getting ready to settle in for the night, and told me I was going to be Platoon Leader for the next 24 hours, gave me our situation, and let me go get started.

During camp, each personís leadership ability and potential is constantly evaluated, so a position like this is really make or break. I turned around, called for my friend Nick and walked to the center of the patrol base to begin. This is when it all began to hit me. Again, dramatic? Maybe, but check it out. The next 20 hours turned out to be an accumulation, and a test, of the previous three years. Every step I took, decision I made, order I gave, everything. Everything brought me back. I realized that I had been told for the last three years that I was doing the things I was doing for a reason. I was laying on the wet ground for two hours for a reason. I was waking up every hour on the hour for a reason. I was learning about hydration, learning simple and repetitive battle drills, spending endless hours on map reading all for a reason.

The first thing I did as I headed to begin the next 24 hours was call for another person to come to the center. I did this without thinking twice about it, but I named him my Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). Basically, he couldnít leave my side for the next 24 hours, he became my means of communication. This created a dependability that I hadnít before realized, meaning that in my first 90 seconds as a leader, I was already depending on another person for one of the single most important parts of any operation, communication. I realized immediately I would fail if I didnít depend on the people around me.

Next, as the rest of the Platoon slept in shifts for the next seven hours, we sat in the middle and planned. I planned the next day down to the minute Ė wake up, move to and establish a new patrol base, water and food resupply, a reconnaissance mission, a deliberate attack, and all other operations. When it was time to wake everyone in the morning, it was go time. The first half of my 24 hour leadership experience was complete. Now, it was time to put it all into play. That day, plans changed, we adapted almost every mission, and ended up combining two into one, but as the day moved forward and everybody was working like a different limb of the same body, it all hit me. Everything that we had trained for the last three years made this day possible.

Every long brief about a seemingly irrelevant mission that we sat through as freshmen, made it possible for us to communicate clearly and deliberately on this day. Every time I had accidentally drifted off laying in security as a sophomore led me to arrange our patrol base differently that day. Every time I plotted a point on a map to go find a point marked with a stake made it possible for us to maneuver to and from our objective on that day with only a map and a compass.

This sounds like some sort of divine and happy revelation, right? No. This was so utterly frustrating. Here is why: Iíve complained about this process so much, we all have. I have wondered in anger why am I laying on a frozen ground with no gloves for two hours. Well, it was so that when I became a leader I wouldnít forget to put gloves on the packing list. So it all makes sense now. What does this mean?

After years in this leadership development program and CLC, I learned that becoming a leader is a process. There are natural born leaders and there are learned leaders, but even the person with that natural inclination to lead, goes through a learning process. In order to be a good leader, you must first and always be a good follower. It is a progression. It takes practice. It takes commitment. It takes the willingness to first not be a leader.

Iím not sure if that goes against a leadership philosophy floating around out there in the world, Iím sure it does, but Iím telling you, it is so necessary. All leaders who earn the respect that they demand, know what it is like to follow. They empathize with their subordinates because they have been there. They have learned from mistakes, they contribute to a team, they know their role as leader, and they know when they arenít the best fit for leader, and take their role as follower. All of this comes from the learning process of becoming a leader. So that was my great takeaway, commit to the process and be a follower. However counterintuitive that may seem, the best leaders Iíve met have clearly followed and taught this idea, I just didnít trust it until I saw it work in the middle of the woods. So, learn to be a leader by following, first. Interesting, right?

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary