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]

"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things"
Peter Georg Drucker (1909 - 2005)

"Sir, we need to talk," my dual-hatted first sergeant/utilities superintendent remarked to me one hot day upon returning to our make-shift Tactical Operations Center.

"What's up?" I asked, peeling off my sweat-drenched Kevlar and IBA having just returned from a resupply convoy. "Lt. Longshanks left his M16 behind on the dining facility floor after lunch. I watched him depart -- then I snatched it up ... thankfully no one else saw it ... if the Command Sergeant Major got wind of it, we'd have a lot of explaining to do."

"Thanks Shirt," I said, taking the weapon and checking the open chamber and safety to see if it was cleared (it was). "I guess he owes you some significant beer for this one."

"Nothing doing, sir," he said. "Just trying to take care of our own."

I placed the rifle in a muzzle-down position and wedged it safely between some shipping containers and the TOC wall. I started thinking about how to handle the situation. Lieutenant Michael Longshanks was one of only two other officers I had in my deployed squadron. Having a line number for captain, he was second in command. Since we were getting hit by insurgents about every other day, we had often discussed what he was to do if I got taken out. He was a tall, ethical, studious young man, who was deeply religious and equally religiously devoted to our mission. His father was a former infantry soldier who served two tours in Vietnam, and was decorated twice for valor. I knew Lieutenant Longshanks felt very proud of his father. I also knew he felt equally proud to serve in our joint "test" unit attached to an Army military police battalion, 45 miles west of Baghdad and just a few miles east of Fallujah. Whatever punishment I issued to him needed to be sufficient (the only thing worse than leaving your weapon behind, is leaving a battle buddy behind) -- but it also needed to make sense. I could not afford to destroy the budding self confidence he had built up through those long weeks in training and the first initial attacks against our outpost that we weathered shortly upon our arrival.

I didn't get much time to ponder. Thirty seconds later, Lieutenant Longshanks entered the TOC, his face drained of all blood and shaking like a crape myrtle bush in a Carolina hurricane.
"Sir," he stammered, "I screwed up...bad. Real bad."

"Lieutenant, why don't you sit down and tell me all about it," I said, trying to suppress a smile. He did and at the end he said, "I will accept any punishment sir, since I have let down the unit and you. I am embarrassed, but more so, there's a lost weapon out there and if any of the locals are al Qaeda agents, we're screwed and it's completely my fault. I will gladly accept any punishment."

He was clearly shaken. He had let me down and he knew it. I extracted the rifle and handed it to him safely saying, "Is this your rifle Lieutenant Longshanks...3652310?" (I made everyone memorize their weapon serial numbers).

"Yes Sir," he replied breathing a sigh of relief but then quickly bracing himself for the torrent he knew was coming his way.

"Okay," I began, "now what are you going to do to ensure this doesn't happen again? You know this cannot ever happen again."

"Yes Sir. I will keep it on me at all times and from now on when I eat, I'll just strap it on, muzzle down towards the floor."

"Alright," I said, "now here's your punishment: don't ever let this happen again, copy?" He indicated with a swallow and a head nod that he understood.

"Let me tell you something, Mike," I continued. "You're the best I have. You're the only one I have. I need you to lead and to continue doing the terrific job you've done so far. Your punishment is that if this happens again, you know you'll never see those captain bars."

"Yes sir, I understand."

"Mike," I finished. "Just press on. I really need you out there because I can't be everywhere. If something happens to me, you are the guy who has to lead this unit, understand?"

He did.

A few years later, after he separated from the Air Force, obtained a law degree from Notre Dame, and began a successful second career as an attorney, he asked me: "I thought you were going to kill me or at least hammer me with a letter of reprimand. I deserved it. Why didn't you?"

"Because," I said. "I knew your quality, I knew your character, and I knew you weren't going to ever do it again. There was no need to hammer you."

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