Good Intentions Do Not a Good Commander Make

There I was, in my second year of command, feeling confident and competent. A dangerous concoction. We’d knocked out a great JRTC rotation, the company was firing on all cylinders, and I thought everything was golden. It was drill weekend and we were knocking out the M-4 range as well as some other tasks. Ahead of schedule, too, so as the weekend went on, I let the platoon leaders know that I had bumped up their hit times so that way there was no time spent sitting around. After all, everyone hates sitting around just because of some arbitrary times on the training schedule, right? And being in charge meant that I could do things that were common sense, right?

As I was checking in with one of the platoons, I stopped and asked one of the squad leaders how it was going. We’d worked together before and so I knew I’d get a pretty honest answer.

“These time changes are killing us, sir,” he said. I was taken aback. After all, I’d been doing those changes for the squads to ensure that they didn’t have to sit around for no reason. “As soon as we get moving, there’s another FRAGO and we have to change our plans,” he continued. “We can’t backwards plan when the times change every few hours. We’re going nuts.” Ah yes. Second and third order effects. In my haste to fix one problem, I’d caused additional problems. It was a valuable lesson that I learned. Good intentions aside, you have to look at just how these decisions will have trickle down effects.

So much of leadership can come down to this: good intentions don’t make you a good commander, or a good leader. The road to hell is famously paved with these good intentions, and I’d add that the road to being a smug and self-satisfied commander also has similar paving options. Good intentions are necessary, of course, but they need to be tempered with self-reflection, honest feedback, and group buy-in. In my example, it was an easy solution: platoons wanted more white time to train on areas where they were weak, so we all agreed that we’d hold to the published schedule to establish predictability.

Not every problem you encounter has an easy solution like that. Indeed, most are far more difficult. But if you approach them with the same combination of self-reflection, feedback, and buy-in, you can begin to make genuine change rather than placing a band-aid on a problem to pass off to the next person. You have to be able to accept that you’re wrong, however. Being defensive is not going to create trust. You have to listen. And then make changes that reflect that you were listening, because otherwise it’s just lip service.

Leaders are always learning and always developing. Good intentions alone just can’t cut it. As uncomfortable as change can be, it is vital – for that leader, and for those around them.