[December 16, 2020] “Make only important decisions.” So began my first mentoring sessions by one of the most respected sergeants in the U.S. Army. I was a new, inexperienced Second Lieutenant; he was battle-tested, senior career NCO. “Doing so will give your team the power to carry out your orders.”
He was originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and had grown up in the turmoil of the times. Sergeant First Class Doolin O’Conner (you can’t get more Irish than that) was a man’s man and took no gruff off anybody. Maybe it was his time on the streets in Northern Ireland or his strict Catholic upbringing.
SFC O’Conner was destined to be a soldier. I respected the man for this. His advice was like gold. The advice was rarely given but precious for those in possession of it. The Irish surname O’Conner has its meaning in antiquity. Common interpretations say it stands for Patron of Warriors. He was proud of it.
There is always a balance between creating structure in an organization like the military and giving individuals freedom of action in that organization. O’Conner, with his practical experience, would tell me of the importance to make only those decisions I had to make. “Leave all other decisions to us.”
When soldiers have control over their decisions, they have greater ownership. And, greater ownership makes them feel as if they are in control. It was difficult for me to let go of so many decisions. It wasn’t that I did not trust my men to make the right decision, like me; it was just that leaders naturally want to be in on everything that happens. Alas, decision-making is not so easy.
Leaving decisions to my soldiers was difficult. I had already been accused of micro-managing my team. I’d given too much detail in my orders, had been focusing on unimportant details, and spent a lot of time around my men and their equipment. I wanted them to be the very best Platoon. What I didn’t realize was that I was sapping their morale and creating an unwelcome environment.
By backing away and tasking my Platoon’s squad leaders with missions, things began to improve. I started by telling them ‘what’ needed to be done and leaving out the ‘how.’ I left my door open for anyone to see me anytime. It was then that I was beginning to know the meaning of Sergeant O’Conners’ “Make only important decisions.”