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You're Never Too Young or Too Old to Lead

Leadership is defined by the military as “influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation, while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.”

I was 18 years old and fresh out of high school when I headed to Fort Benning, GA, "Home of the Infantry" in August,1984. Getting off the bus at the Reception Station at Fort Benning was an entirely new experience and one that required a new level of toughness.

Anyone that says that they can get off the bus and see a Drill Instructor and not be even a little intimidated is lying! I was scared to death as a “trainee” (you’re not a Soldier until you pass Basic Training) and learned the other side of the fear factor as a Drill Instructor myself later in my career.

I was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 8th Battalion, 2nd Infantry Training Brigade at Harmony Church, Fort Benning, GA ... my home for the next 13 weeks (minimum) where Senior Drill Sergeant Paniagua (a Vietnam Veteran) and his band of “merry men” molded us into steely-eyed killers ready to meet the Russians or Chinese on the battle field (we didn’t like either of these countries then).

I specifically remember one day running around squaring away gear that was out of line, when I heard Senior Drill Sergeant Paniagua call my name, bellowing it from the second floor window of the WWII barracks which housed not only our bay (where we slept in metal bunk-bed cots), but also housed the office of the Drill Instructors, a place no one ever wanted to go!

“Speezeeo, get up here” he called (he couldn’t pronounce my name but that was close enough and I wasn’t correcting him!). I yelled back “moving Drill Sergeant” which was an authorized response and ran up to the office, stood outside the open door and knocked three times (very loud) on the door frame.

“Enter,” replied Senior Drill Sergeant Paniagua. I immediately went in and stood on the mark they had painted on the floor. In this office were a few wooden wall lockers and three small desks with chairs in a U-shape with the mark on the floor for a trainee to stand dead center of the U.

It was known as the kill-zone and I was trying to stay calm and collective, still having no idea why I was called there. It was extremely hot in the second floor room, with a giant standing silver military style fan blowing from the far corner. I stood at the mandatory military drill and ceremony position of “parade rest” and sounded off with “Trainee Spisso reporting as ordered Drill Sergeant.”

Paniagua looked at me and asked me how old I was in which I replied “18, Drill Sergeant.” He then went on to say a few things that I really can’t recall, but his final statement I’ve never forgotten. He said “Speezeeo, you’re the student Platoon Leader, don’t mess it up.” I looked at him in bewilderment, not really understanding what a Platoon Leader is, and more importantly what the hell was I supposed to do.

He could definitely see the puzzlement in my face and as the wise-man that he was interjected with, “don’t worry Speezeo, we’ll help you though this, just do what you do best and lead these men; now get the hell out of here!”

Throughout the weeks the Drill Instructors did as they promised and helped me forge a leadership foundation, however they were also very clear not to give me all the answers. This forced many a mistake on my part and I paid for them in push-ups, but while other student Platoon Leaders were being replaced, I continued on in that position through the cycle. I learned that if you kept the platoon informed and kept accountability of the members, then nearly everything was self-supporting.

The take away:

  • Don’t be afraid to lead if put in that position

  • Don’t change who you are just do what you do best

  • Ask questions, and most importantly know when to speak and know when to listen, which should be at least twice as often as speaking

  • Finally, whatever your leadership style, use “positive” motivation the lead the way!