Six leadership takeaways I learned as a Marine combat logistician in Afghanistan

Six leadership takeaways I learned as a Marine combat logistician in Afghanistan

By Jeff Clement
Best Defense guest columnist

After training as a U.S. Marine Corps logistics officer, I deployed to Afghanistan as a truck platoon commander with a Combat Logistics Battalion, running logistics convoys across the Helmand Province to a support units from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. My book The Lieutenant Don’t Know tells my story and the story of my platoon in a narrative style. It’s not written like a how-to manual, but Mr. Ricks asked me to distill some of the lessons that I learned. The list that follows might seem obvious — but if they are so obvious, why are they so often ignored? 

“Water Cooler” Chatter Matters — I can’t even put a number on how many times I found out about a potential showstopper for an upcoming mission while talking with someone (often a low-ranking someone) waiting in the chow line or getting a drink of water. “How are things?” would occasionally elicit a response like “Eh, sir, we’re having some delays getting cargo loaded,” that needed my attention.  For junior personnel to feel comfortable bringing these issues up relies on them having trust and confidence in you.

Seek Out Superior, Peer, and Subordinate Mentors — If you don’t have at least one mentor who is a peer, one who is a superior, and one who is a subordinate, you won’t be getting the full picture you need.  Ideally, you’ll have at least one mentor not in your chain of command who can serve as a sounding board.

Take Time to Explain Things As Often As You Can — I am constantly surprised with how little information flows more than two steps down the chain. Seek out backbriefs from your most junior people and see what info they’re getting, and what isn’t making it to their level. NCOs and junior officers usually don’t fail to pass all the information because they are deliberately withholding it — they’re busy, and thinking about other things, so a harsh reprimand is usually not in order.  Briefly take the time to correct misunderstandings one on one, fill in the gaps in information, and constantly remind leaders to push info down the chain. 

Think About All Stakeholders and Make Sure They’re at the Table When Decisions Are Being Made — At all levels, make sure that every stakeholder is represented at the table.  We ran into many situations where our unit, which had been tasked with supporting an operation, had not been included in the planning process. “Well, the plan requires your convoys to travel at 25 mph to meet the Required Delivery Date.”  Nobody making the plan was aware that our convoys averaged 3-5 mph as a result of the rough terrain and frequent IED strikes. The result was that our capacity was often grossly overestimated and that our obligations to other units were not considered.

Risk and Uncertainty Must Be Accepted — Senior leaders sometimes obsess over “risk management.” I had to prepare an operational risk management worksheet for every combat operation, and quickly learned that no operation would be approved unless it was “medium risk” or less. Knowing that we were going to be in a “medium risk firefight”…medium risk… the idea is laughable. You can do more harm than good as a leader if you saddle subordinates with equipment and restrictions meant to reduce risk. Train your people well — and if they are willing to accept a risk, then you should consider accepting it.

As a Leader, Never Be Satisfied With Yourself — This one, especially, bears repeating. The best company commander I know was always asking questions of juniors and seniors, reading books, and privately admitted that he was upset with how little he felt he knew — even as he was well aware that he was far more knowledgeable than any of his peers. As soon as you think you know every inch of your unit and its operations, talk to your most junior personnel about the things they do. You will find at least one thing you didn’t know and at least one thing to fix.

Jeff Clement commissioned as a logistics officer in the United States Marine Corps and deployed to Afghanistan twice. He currently is pursuing an MBA University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Alison. His first book, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, was published in April.