I was only 19 years old and had just taken over my first fire team when I met James. He was old, like 30 something. We were preparing to go to Kosovo and getting lots of cherries (new soldiers) in our unit. James was assigned to me because the platoon leadership thought it would be funny to have the youngest team leader in charge of the oldest private.
I called him into my barracks bedroom for an introduction. Bedrooms served as our offices until we made platoon sergeant. I wasn’t comfortable telling someone with so much more worldly experience what to do. But I had to do my job.
I explained to James how our team worked and what was expected of him before asking about his experience. He had experience driving heavy vehicles, which I was glad to hear. None of my team had any experience with heavy vehicles and we were about to be provided Humvees. I still had concerns about how he would feel working for a man who wasn’t old enough to drink (legally).
He put my mind at ease by saying “I have always wondered what it would be like to join the Army. I joined now because if I waited any longer, I would be too old to join. Coming in, I knew that I would be the oldest new guy and have already accepted that I would be working for someone younger than me. I didn’t expect it to be someone as young as you, but by the looks of your uniform you’re at least as qualified as any other team leader I’ve met.”
He was referring specifically to the Ranger Tab on my shoulder. No other team leader, or squad leader, in our platoon had graduated Ranger School.
From that point on, we got along great. I leveraged his truck driving experience making him my driver.
Six months later, a Humvee dangled from a cliff.
We were running presence patrols near the Macedonian border. The mountains were steep. My team was trailing the other fire team. Moving further into the mountains the roads became extremely narrow. We pushed as far in as we could, hoping to make it another couple of kilometers.
Suddenly, the ground gave out from under the left front tire of the lead Humvee. The heavy engine lifted the right rear tire off the ground and I was certain it would go at any moment. The squad leadership, myself included, climbed out staring at the vehicle. None of us were sure of what to do. We evaluated our risks.
Normally, we would call a wrecker to handle this type of situation, but no wrecker would make it to us.
We could try to pull the vehicle back, but we would run the risk of someone falling to their death.
We could call in a helicopter and sling load the Humvee. Getting air support in Kosovo was extremely rare and we knew we’d be in trouble when the cost of the flight came down on our shoulders. But it was the only way we knew to safely remove the vehicle.
We had made our decision
As we started to take out the equipment to sling load the vehicle, still procrastinating the call that none of us wanted to make, James jumped out of my vehicle and slammed the door. Brushing past us he screamed, “Get out of the turret, you idiot!” In our effort to figure out how to get everyone out safely, we forgot to actually get people out.
James ordered the driver to also crawl out through the turret and then crawled in himself. He gently backed the Humvee back onto the road. The ground under the left rear tire also began to give way, but held long enough for him to back the Humvee to safety.
He expertly reversed the vehicle another 300 meters or so, until the road was wide enough that people could get in and out through the doors.
Six years later, a Humvee dangled from a cliff.
The door to our B-hut opened with sunlight blinding me from making out the figure in the doorway.
“Sergeant Crawford?” the voice asked.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I responded.
“You might want to come check this out.”
I followed the soldier around the bend. Our camp had sprawled up the side of a mountain and one road led to our platoon’s area. The road had been blown out of the mountain and had steep cliffs on either side. As I passed the last B-hut I could see the vehicle.
I shook my head and went straight for the Humvee screaming, “Get out of the turret, you idiot!”
I caught myself grinning the moment the words came out of my mouth. The memory of three non-commissioned officers stepping aside to let the old soldier take charge of the situation came back as if it had happened yesterday.
What I learned
The military can be a tough place to step aside. Phrases like “Take Charge!” and “Lead The Way!” become a part of your culture. As a leader, you’re expected to direct every moment and control every situation. It’s a part of survival, making sure that your subordinates trust you to give them the right directions. Asking for help is seen as weakness.
But there’s a flip side to that story that never gets told. When you make the wrong decisions, you also lose the respect of your subordinates. By stepping aside when someone else can do a specific job better, you retain that respect and actually get the job done right. If you have to step aside all of the time, you become irrelevant. The trick is to know when you need to bring in the subject matter expert.
This applies to both survival situations and our daily lives.
It’s important to know who is around you at all times. What are their skills, talents, and experiences? It’s also important to know if you can trust them and how far. Even in the event that someone else has a skill set that can be useful, you need to know how well they work independently and if you need to supervise them.
Being able to analyze these situations is it’s own skill that you should develop. Look at your every day surroundings. Interact with people. Learn to recognize not just those skills that they tell you about, but what other skills may be useful in any given situation. Most importantly, look at their character and determine if you could trust them enough to take a step back and follow their guidance, even if it’s only for a short time. This will bread good teamwork in any situation.
How about you?
Have you ever had to swallow your pride and let someone else take charge? Is it something you struggle with? Share your thoughts in the comments below.