Good Initiative, Bad Judgment

By | November 12, 2019

[November 12, 2019]  Lost but overlooking the inner German border wall, my platoon of Military Policemen was trying to reconnoiter a new laager site.  Our mission had been to find an alternate location to put troops in case of a Soviet invasion from East Germany.  Our Platoon Leader had good common sense, but in this case, he had failed his tasking.  Next time, sir, let’s stick to the plan.  Staff Sergeant “Red” Williams politely told our new Lieutenant that all was not lost.

It was 1975, and we were to receive stateside troops for one of the largest peacetime exercises ever undertaken.  REFORGER (from REturn of FORces to GERmany) was to practice our wartime duties.  The Cold War was a serious business for NATO.  And, we were expected to learn our trade and ensure that troops from outside Germany could get to where they told and do so without incident.

The term, good initiative, bad judgment comes out when a military service member does something for a good reason, but things turn out awful.  A great example would be when your Platoon Leader says he knows a shortcut through the woods, and then he gets the platoon lost.  I saw this happen many times, and so have everyone else.  I chalk this up to learning the hard way.

One good thing that I like about the U.S. military is that leaders are generally tolerant of mistakes.  Leaders know that learning on the job is part of dealing with people, even if trained and experienced.  It’s difficult for new leaders to understand initiative and judgment and how they interplay.  To succeed at it in peacetime means that leaders will be likely to do well in combat.

Our Lieutenant judged the proposed laager location incorrectly.  You should never locate it within sight of the enemy (the inner border wall).  He had shown good initiative by finding a heavily wooded area but got too close to the border.  We all got a big chuckle out of the LT’s mistake and would remind him later.

Taking the initiative wins battles.  It puts us ahead of our enemy or competition’s decision cycle.  Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is often erroneously quoted as saying his wartime strategy was to “git thar fustest with the moistest.”1  The quote is, however, a novel and succinct condensation of the military principles of mass and maneuver.

Our Platoon Leader did exercise good initiative; he got there quickly with all his men.  As leaders, we should remember that to succeed also means to exercise good judgment.


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.

19 thoughts on “Good Initiative, Bad Judgment

  1. Bryan Lee

    Enjoyed your article. If I only had a nickle for … well, you know the rest. For every time I heard this phrase, I’d be rich. Maybe I’m just not smart or quick witted (are these mutually exclusive). Either way, I’m happy to be a regular reader of Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog.

  2. Dennis Mathes

    Excellent points in this article. Junior leaders should only have the same positive attitude about this as possible. When someone tells you that you have good initiative but bad judgment, well okay, learn, study the problem, and move on.

  3. Dale Paul Fox

    I too was stationed in Germany (West Germany actually) when I was in the army back in the mid 1970s. Who knows, maybe Gen. Satterfield and I met at some point. Great article, it brought back memories from 50 years ago.

  4. José Luis Rodriguez

    More and more I learn to appreciate leadership and its complexity, difficulty, and yet good it serves. Too many people are quick to criticize but I want to be a DOER, not a COMPLAINER. Oh, probably misspelled that but I think everyone knows what I mean. It’s like seeing good art, hard to describe but you know it when you see it.

    1. Scotty Bush

      If only more folks thought like you do Jose, we would all be better off. Criticism is easy. Like my mom said, when you point the finger at others (to complain), there are more fingers pointing back at you.

      1. Watson Bell

        Spot on comment, as usual Jerome. Whiners need not apply. They are always looking for something for free. In reality, nothing is truly free; someone is paying for it.

    1. Eric Coda

      Yes, and very enjoyable too. That is another reason I keep coming back to this website. Not only do I learn a bunch about leadership but also just about being human and how to think and act (if I work at it).

  5. Roger Yellowmule

    I looked up the phrase and saw that Marines are the ones who use it a lot. I assume other branches of the military do the same. Although I never heard it used in a civilian context, I think it would be appropriate. Clarity is needed in what it means.

  6. Army Captain

    I got a big laugh out of this one. As a brand new Second Lieutenant in the US Army, I got told this a number of times. I was not insulted because I knew others were trying to help me become a better leader. Thanks Gen. Satterfield.

    1. Georgie B.

      Thanks for your service in the army, Army Captain. I always enjoy your comments but also to confirm that what is written here jives with what you are seeing today in the military.

      1. Valkerie

        It is indeed good to read this from General Satterfield and his leadership website.

    2. Harry Donner

      I hope you had a great Veteran’s Day yesterday. I saw the NYC parade on tv and it was wonderful to see such a huge turnout. I gave me hope that even in the crazy city of New York, that there are sane people.

      1. Yusaf from Texas

        Come to Texas if you really want to see a big veterans parade. Great to see you on Gen Satterfield’s leadership blog, Harry.

        1. Harry Donner

          Thanks Yusaf. I always wanted to be a Texan but alas I’m from New York.

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