Year of Leadership: American-made discipline

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Allen
  • 341st Operations Support Squadron
"The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an Army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the Soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself. While he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself." 

- Gen. John M. Schofield's address to the Graduating Class of 1879 at West Point 

We are in the Year of Leadership and the current theme is discipline. That is why I would ask you to read the longest quote many have ever had to memorize. I wanted to share that it took more than 19 years of commissioned service for me to fully learn how to apply it in my own life, my own leadership and my own command. 

You see, General Schofield's quote is the most memorable discipline quote for any officer commissioned by the Air Force Academy. All cadets were forced to memorize it. You can tap Academy graduates and ask, "Give me Schofield's quote," and watch sweat form on their brow. It's ironic the compelling reasons to learn it "stem" from the upperclassmen shouting in your face, while you are in a self-brace against a corridor wall, with your chin in. It seemed like a pretty tyrannical mode to me. 

It took me years to see past the irony for the wisdom therein. Gradually, I got the message of: We're free Americans and we're better than a dictatorship, or a communist country, or a fascist regime; we must inspire a volunteer force. I've seen subordinates respond to different leaders' manner and tone of voice, and could validate other portions of the quote. But, it wasn't until just a few days ago that I was personally convicted of my violation of this quote. 

Our mission is combat readiness to launch missiles upon presidential orders. To test that readiness, our crews study emergency war orders and are put through complicated, stressful evaluations and tests. My crews did fairly well on their latest test, but two officers alarmed me by a less-than stellar showing (my opinion), only three weeks from our critical Nuclear Surety Inspection and Operational Readiness Inspection. That's where I failed to heed the advice so beat into me some 24 years ago. 

I announced via a squadron-wide e-mail that my officers needed to see me. Well, that's not harsh or tyrannical, is it? It's not if you're a peer or a friend. But, it can appear that way, if you're a commander. 

So there I was, alone, standing my ground, me against my squadron. No, I didn't even listen to my wife's counsel to "remember who you are." "This is a war coming in 21 days," I told myself. And, as luck would have it, I was on tap to address the monthly gathering of my instructors later that day. 

I struggled to find the words. There were none. All I had was what sprang up from my heart ... "I'm sorry." 

As I looked eyeball to eyeball at the best officer assembly I've ever seen, I realized how I basically breached the trust they put in me, as "soldiers of a free country." They are all volunteers; they deserve to not be treated harshly. I think they forgave me. But, that's not the point. 

The point is this: We need American-made discipline, even in this very critical upcoming NSI/ORI. 

Yes, we fully believe it will be the toughest Malmstrom inspection in recent history, that there seems to be no bounds to what the inspector general will look at, that they're out to write us up. But, we shouldn't miss the prophecy, the good stuff, in the quote from way back in 1879. 

See, the General was trying to tell us that we'd succeed in gaining the discipline necessary for any future overwhelming fight, if we treated our people with respect and in a manner and tone of voice appropriate for American warfighters. He was correct, as validated by Americans beating all odds to liberate Europe in World War I and World War II, demonstrating incredible bravery such as landing at Normandy. Then, of course, there was the Cold War in which many battles were fought in puppet states of the two then-superpowers. Recently in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Americans have charged into dangerous situations to defeat the enemy and then conduct stability operations and feed their families, just days later. The American warfighter is unique; we are liberators and we deliver hope. 

Such will be the case from Oct. 26 to Nov. 10. We will exercise the discipline we've gained as Americans. We will answer the call of duty and perform reliably in battle. Even the most traumatic, tumultuous era in intercontinental ballistic missile history will be overcome by Americans who have gained discipline in an American way.