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10 Leadership Lessons from a Combat Logistician

Where ever you work: be it in an office, a factory, in sales, or even a library, we all were the new person at some point in our career. Weathering out a tough situation is never a comfortable proposition, but it is part of the human condition.
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Key lessons in leadership from The Lieutenant Don't Know: One Marine's Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan by Captain Jeff Clement.

"Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics." - Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Former Commandant of the Marine Corps) noted in 1980

Most of the books that seem to be coming out about the experiences of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be from members of the Special Operation community (USMC Force Recon's Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away and one of the main characters in Generation Kill; Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's American Sniper; US Army Sean Parnell's Outlaw Platoon). In most cases these are really excellent personal narratives, but their stories are limited in their point of view and tend to focus on direct action.

Jeffrey Clement comes along with something different - a Marine logistician's tale of his tour of duty in Afghanistan with his platoon that was part of Combat Logistics Battalion 6 (CLB 6). He talks about the often thankless, but critical job of running convoys to deliver the necessary supplies (fuel, food, ammunition) to outposts and recover the vehicles that had either broken down or that had been damaged by enemy contact.

The title came from a conversation that Lieutenant Clement overheard. A well-seasoned staff sergeant was yelling at a lance corporal over why he performed a certain task in a certain manner. The lance corporal replied that he was told to do it in that fashion by the new 2nd lieutenant. This caused the staff sergeant to explode and say "I don't care what the lieutenant said. THE LIEUTENT DON'T KNOW." The point is that while the new leader had the title and the position, the training and the education, he had no actual experience and it was their job to help teach the new leader how to do the job correctly.

Ten key lessons that can be taken from this excellent book are applicable to a myriad of other professions:

  • Ask - Ask those that are junior in position, peers, and those that are senior to you. Each can provide a different perspective and having a sounding board is vital. A good tip is to find a sounding board outside your chain of command as this allows for fewer potential conflicts of interest. Clement's had a platoon sergeant that worked for him, but who turned into a great mentor and teacher.

  • Pressure - While few of us are actually in a warzone, each of us is under pressure from a boss, employees, co-workers, family, the economy and many other avenues. Finding a healthy and productive way to deal with stress is important. Exercise, video games, or even reading are options. Clement read books and played video games.
  • Planning - Plan, plan and plan some more. You can never predict all situations, but you can plan and train for the vast majority of circumstances. (Clement was a logistician, but the Marine Corp sent him to the Basic School before all his other training, even before his logistics training, so he was ready when his transportation platoon was forced to act as infantry.) Every mission and route were meticulously planned and coordinated with multiple scenarios developed.
  • Rules of Engagement - Know the rules, the policy, the law, and the strategic goals of your organization. While a policy manual reading or an audit is never fun, it clearly shows the boundaries of expected behaviors. CLB 6 regularly encountered military age men that were really Taliban spotters that were setting them up for IED attacks, but they couldn't engage them without viewing a weapon and being under attack. To have preemptively attacked these people would have resulted in negative action, up to and including prison. Rules are developed for a reason.
  • Lack of Resources - It could be money, people or supplies, sometimes you just need something to get the job done, but you don't have it, so you improvise and adapt. Innovation makes for a great leadership opportunity. Rarely did CLB 6 have the equipment, from towbars to spare parts, to complete their assigned mission, but people would die if they couldn't complete their task, be it recovering an IED damaged vehicle or delivering fuel or food to an outpost.
  • Seek Mentors - Seek mentors regardless of rank or title (see Ask). When a 21-year-old has skills and is willing to teach, you learn even if you have a title and are much older, even if that 21-year-old does not have a degree or title. Some solid mentors entered Clements life and he took every advantage, they ranged from his boss to professors to young corporals.
  • Communicate information and then communicate it again - Someone will always not get the word. We need to try and make those "out of the loop" as few as possible.
  • Include all key parties - If someone is involved with a project, involve them. Let them have their say and use the best ideas. The Marines always had intricate briefings before missions that took into account all parties' input.
  • Calculated Risks - Risks are part of life, be it company politics, failed projects, a shift in business models, the economy, or new technology. Ask yourself - is the risk worth the potential reward? What will your return on investment be? Is it worth it? Yet, never forget that being right often forgives a multitude of sins. On several occasions, Clement had to choose routes to outposts that had various risks that ranged from tolerable to extremely dangerous, he had tough choices, but not choosing wasn't an option to him or his men.
  • Judge You - Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself - where are you strong? Weak? Where can you improve? You may occasionally lie to others, but never ever lie to yourself. Own up to your mistakes and be generous with credit for others. Realize you can be better; you should push yourself daily beyond your comfort zone.
  • Where ever you work: be it in an office, a factory, in sales, or even a library, we all were the new person at some point in our career. Fortunately, most of us didn't need to learn our profession under hostile fire like Lieutenant Clement did. Weathering out a tough situation is never a comfortable proposition, but it is part of the human condition. The realization that learning is still an option is applicable for everyone at all stages of any career. Jeff Clement wrote an interesting and honest account of his failure and victories, I hope we can all learn from it.

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