Follow the Leader is Not Always Good

By | June 18, 2020

[June 18, 2020]  Wednesday afternoon, October 5, 2005; hot, sunny, dusty, and smelly.  It was just like any other day.  My engineer design section was inspecting one of the large canals in southeast Baghdad, Iraq.  Their task was to find out whether the canal could supply water for our military bases in the area when it came under attack by insurgents.  The Lieutenant leading the section was new.  My men discovered that day to follow the leader is not always good.

Not all leaders are good at what they do.  They don’t all have the skills, experience, or insights with which to lead men into battle or to solve a problem in a company manufacturing widgets.  In these pages of my website, I have been consistent about what it takes to be a good leader, one who can both accomplish the mission and take care of his troops.  Fighting on a battlefield puts to the test all we know about leadership and how it can succeed one day and fail the next.

Lieutenant Johnson had completed the Engineer Basic Officer Course at the top of his class.  He was trained in college as a Civil Engineer and had begun work on his Masters in Engineering.  Like many engineer officers in the U.S. Army, he was one of the rising stars among the “new” and smartest engineers who could juggle multiple priorities in a challenging environment.

However, that day he failed to heed the warnings of our Intelligence Officer, who had alerted us to a small group of Shia insurgents in the vicinity of the canal.  In the After Action Report, he admitted to ignoring the warnings since he figured Wednesday, the beginning of one of the holiest Muslim holidays, Ramadan, would be reason enough for insurgents to rest and pray.  He was wrong.

They say that complacency kills.  We had been in the country for nearly ten months.  We knew the terrain, the enemy, the environment, and had our tactics down pat.  Our unit had accomplished more than anyone could have imagined just a year earlier, and yet we did not expect an attack on a 15-soldier well-armed element.  Fortunately, no one was killed.  A few Purple Hearts were awarded, but the attack sparked a serious debate about whether we were overconfident, too smug, or just excessively careless to complete a simple mission.

Leadership is one of those things that failure is sometimes not an option.  If you lose, you may die, and your troops too may die.  For a long time, the insurgency had allowed engineers to pass through their lines without interference because we were builders, not fighters.  On this day, the calculus changed, and we were in for a fight for our lives.  Sometimes it not a good idea to follow the leader.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Follow the Leader is Not Always Good

  1. Tom Bushmaster

    I think I see your point. It means that followers also have an inherent responsibility to use good judgment while being part of a team. That is, IMO, a key part of how a team works together to get their tasks completed.

    1. Georgie M.

      Of course, Tom. That is indeed the point of the article. Gen. Satterfield continues to educate and entertain.

  2. Valkerie

    General Satterfield, thanks for another great article. Keep them coming our way.

  3. Max Foster

    Quotable quote “complacency kills.” You got that right and I think this is a point often overlooked. When leaders are careless – as in Gen. Satterfield’s example – bad things happen. It’s inevitable. They are not necessarily evil leaders, just bad (inefficient, immoral, or stupid). Plenty of dumb leaders out there. Learn to avoid them.

    1. Newtown Manager

      Thanks for another great comment Max. But I do think that the quote is common in the military and not just an idea of Gen Satterfield.

  4. Fred Weber

    Great article. Made my day. I too learned this young but my sister didn’t and now has gone thru two broken marriages and several employers. She will never be satisfied because she cannot make a good judgment about who is good for her and who is bad.

    1. JT Patterson

      I always like Bolton when he was at the UN. He called things as he saw them. Now I’m not so sure he isn’t just another “closed-eyed” whacko that wants to make money on the bodies of others. Typical deep stater.

      1. Albert Ayer

        John Bolton is a traitor. I hope the US DOJ whacks him hard for trying to publish classified info. Ever wonder why these types of books are always published after the President leaves office? Yeah, the info is classified.

      2. Willie Shrumburger

        Same here, now I believe I was wrong. Bolton is a dog. Period. What in the hell happened to him?

  5. Scotty Bush

    Interesting and entertaining article. Learning more about you Gen. Satterfield.

  6. Darryl Sitterly

    This blog post took me back to the time as a teenager that I got into trouble by following a kid who we all liked because he was daring. Yes, the police ‘arrested’ us (not really just in custody until our parents showed up to fetch us) after jumping into a lake that was private property. 😊

  7. Maureen S. Sullivan

    Good article, well done!! I discovered this as a kid when one of the kids “from the other side of the tracks” in my hometown wanted all of us “uncool” kids to smoke pot. We walked away, except for one who folded and smoked it. They got caught and developed a reputation for being “easy” and stupid.

    1. AutisticTechie

      Marueen, you would think by now most of us had figured this out. I find the topic today good for young folks but old guys like me already know the lesson. My challenge is teaching it to others.

      1. Dead Pool Guy

        She’s BACK … thank you Maureen. You are always welcome to give us some of your personal experiences. We all can learn from them.

  8. Army Captain

    I found this article today hit home with me. I’ve experienced – like others here – a poor leader and just blindly following them might just put you and your men in circumstances where they get hurt or killed. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for a spot-on topic and article.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Yes, that I do think is not so uncommon. Many of us learn it very young but I’ve discovered that many never seem to understand this at all. Why? Maybe they are just living in a nether world of some kind.


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