Tale of Two Lieutenants

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen T. Ziadie
  • 341st Mission Support Group deputy commander

 [Author's note: Names are changed for privacy and security purposes]

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part leadership series.

Deep in the jungles of central Honduras, I felt (as the Billie Holiday song goes) "hotter than a summer with a thousand Julys," even with the fan on the far side of a wooden "hooch" turned to its maximum setting. My heat source was due to internal factors, not external ones.

"You did what?" I asked in disbelief.

My lieutenant responded, "I told the crew they could go back to the old schedule."

"Wait a minute . . . before I departed on the site survey, we hashed all that out. I told you several times that Col. Alconbury expressed a desire for us to change our schedule so we could conduct PT with his staff at their new PT time. Under the old schedule, we couldn't."

"Well," he replied, unfazed. "I thought about it and then realized that if we did that, we would be adding an extra two hours to the duty day on Wednesday and since our guys are already working long hours, I didn't want to . . ."

I was incredulous. I had just told my joint task force commander a week prior that my unit would change our training schedule to allow us to PT with his J-staff. As a Ranger-tabbed, Airborne, Special Forces officer, he actually like the results our new workout routines were making and wanted to see those methods up close. Now it appeared Lt. Dunbar, my second in command, had countermanded my order while I was away on a mission. What's worse, he didn't tell me and he didn't even have a good reason why he did it.

I can forgive a mistake b "game playing" is not one of them.

"Lieutenant Dunbar, here's have you are going to do. You're going to implement the previous schedule we agreed upon. You are going to brief the commander on why you did not attend his PT session as he requested. I will decide what further action to take. You have truly disappointed me with this incident. I have no choice but to formally counsel you."

He was not a happy camper and neither was I. No true leader enjoys punishing subordinates - those that do as sadists and don't belong in the profession of arms.
Other episodes with Lieutenant Dunbar continued during the nine months I had charge of the unit. He was prior enlisted, and could never get over the fact that as an officer, he was no longer "one of the bunch." He continued to have unreasonably close relationships with the enlisted in the shop. He was a lazy officer with a live-for-today attitude and little regard for the long-term effects of his decisions.

I was also always finding things wrong with is uniform. He showed up one day with his first lieutenant bars sewed on his BDUs at an illegal, jaunty 45-degree angle. I sent him home to change. His explanation was that the local "sewing lady" sewed them on in the Navy fashion instead of Air Force.

When I asked him if he either checked himself in the mirror prior to leaving his hooch or if he checked the uniform blouse after it came back from the tailor's, he had not. He was truly a likeable guy - the kind you'd want to have a beer with or possibly go bowling with - be he did not portray the proper image of an officer, and he didn't perform as one either.

One day, he came to me to request permission to apply to a special duty assignment - the USAF Honor Guard. I told him I could not recommend him since he was not up to their standards. I explained the letter of counseling in his record, his recent feedback report, his abysmal on-the-job track record and failure to carry out simple administrative orders, and the incident of the PT schedule. I has also sat down with him weeks earlier and explained to him why I w as not going to stratify him in his performance report blocks, and why it was going to read as it did. He felt I was unfair. Eventually, he left the Air Force and drifted away.

Why did I hammer one young officer and not hammer the other? Was I fair in both cases?

As leaders, all of us come to a point where we throw the checklist aside and just "lead." Leadership means making the tough call and making the right call, after you carefully judge the situation. The key word here is judge. There is no checklist for this. Much of it is acquired through experience, which is maybe why you don't see any 30-year-old generals anymore, like you did in World War II.

My critics, and I have many, claim that I acted improperly in the case of Lieutenant Longshanks. Many might feel that I should have hammered him for misplacing his weapon. After all, that is a pretty heinous crime. But to this day, I still hold that I made the right call. I knew he would not make that same mistake again and he didn't.

Lieutenant Dunbar was a different story. He never truly "got it." He would make judgment errors over and over again that demonstrated to me that he did not or could not pay attention to detail, could not follow orders, and could not lead a small section.

The punishment that worked for Lieutenant Longshanks would not have worked for Lieutenant Dunbar, and vice versa. Both cases required the judicious application of leadership.

The next time you are faced with a situation, make sure you are fair, and consistent - but also that you make the right call, depending on the situation and the total picture.