[October 1, 2019] Years ago, as a Captain, I was asked to take command of an Army unit that had suffered many problems. I would never turn down such an opportunity to help, so I agreed to command a Combat Heavy Engineer company. By all measures, the unit was broken. The mission was simple; “fix it.” So I began with a direct, proven strategy of rebuilding trust within the company.
A U.S. Army Engineer company is not a large organization. It has nearly 300 soldiers, several tens of millions of dollars in equipment, and often a mission to improve the infrastructure of military bases. This was a real test of my leadership skills. I had experience with troops at the platoon level (about 35 soldiers) and with a staff section (about 15 soldiers). The larger unit was to be a challenge in many ways.
Leadership is, of course, a sacred trust. It means strengthening the bonds of brotherhood, ensuring loyalty and duty, setting forth the attributes of good behavior (and bad), and finding the path to success. Any organization that is in trouble will struggle with the bonds that allow trust in our fellow human beings to grow. This is no easy task when a group of people have had their trust betrayed. To regain trust means surmounting obstacles that requires an intense focus on the basics.
I began by always being honest and open; telling the truth and speaking from the heart. There was no need to sugarcoat the problem; everyone knew the unit had ceased to function. That’s one thing I liked about the job of command; you don’t have the luxury of sparing the feelings of your soldiers. But you must listen and there is no substitute for taking the time it requires to properly listen to your people.
Promises were made and I would keep them all. First, I told them that I was there for them to help our soldiers overcome pay problems, equipment shortages, worn-out barracks, and a long-list of troubles. This took time and there were setbacks. Second, the leadership team I assembled knew this would happen but our never-wavering positive outlook began to slowly win over even the most zealous holdout. And third, I would see that each soldier was clear about my vision of how the unit would eventually be the best in our battalion.
I stepped into command of the Engineer Company 27 years ago today. On a small parade field with the men and women of my company and the presence of the Battalion Commander we traded guidons and in doing so passed the responsibility that I would forever treasure. It all began with a simple task; rebuild the trust that had been lost.