Published here with permission from LTC (RET) Terry Baldwin & Soldier Systems Daily. (Thanks!)
I was a freshly minted Infantry Staff Sergeant in the spring of 1981 attending the 25th Infantry Division’s Basic Non-Commissioned Officers Course. We had a 2-Star guest speaker one day. I admit I don’t recall his name or job title. But I do remember something he said about leadership. He said “I learned everything I know about leadership as a 2nd Lieutenant but it has taken me 30 years to understand what I learned”. I thought that was such an odd statement that it has stuck with me all these years. It simply didn’t make sense to me. How can you learn (know) something and not understand it? But as time passed and I moved into positions of greater responsibility I came to realize that he was absolutely right.
How can that be? Over centuries militaries have collected and codified time tested “principles of leadership”. In the US Military NCOs and Officers are formally taught and retaught at every level HOW to lead. They learn the principles and read historical examples of successful and less-than-successful leaders. But all of that fine education still doesn’t deliver or guarantee understanding. It is much like the old saw about pornography. You only know leadership when you see it. Leadership is truly an art not a science. And like any art the fundamentals of the craft can be taught in a classroom. But true understanding requires context derived from experience. In other words, in order to begin to understand leadership you have to lead…more than once. And from each small success or failure you become a little more knowledgeable on the subject. Eventually you start to grasp the hardest part of the equation. That is fully understanding WHY leadership works (or doesn’t) in any given situation.
I’m still trying to get there. But I have had more than my share of opportunities to lead. And I have had the good fortune to serve with countless exemplary leaders of all ranks. I can tell you up front that I learned the most from the very best leaders. But I learned the most important lessons from the worst leaders I encountered. And I also came to realize that when it comes to leadership we aren’t all ever going to be Picassos. But almost all of us – with a little effort and training – can be competent artists. But will the audience on this site find any value in my ruminations on the subject? I don’t know. SSD has graciously allowed me the chance to conduct an experiment to find out. So I am going to share some of my experiences and perspective in these areas, and you tell me. I original wrote and shared a somewhat shorter version of the piece below with some still serving friends in the summer of 2011 as I was beginning my retirement transition. TLB
A “grey man” is a cadre term used at the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) to describe a student who seems to expend most of his energy trying to blend into the background. And although he never causes any trouble for the cadre and generally “meets the standard”; he also fails to distinguish himself, studiously avoids risk, and rarely contributes anything of value to his student team or the mission at hand. A “grey leader” is a term I just coined and it refers to someone who displays the same characteristics but is in a leadership position or by virtue of seniority (NCO or Officer) is expected to lead. Admittedly, the terms are somewhat vague like the men and women they can be used to describe. Grey man is not exactly derogatory…but it is also clearly not complimentary. I can assure you that being the “gray man” in a group is certainly not desirable.
In November of 1976 I was in the 18th month of my initial 4 year enlistment. And at that moment, things were not going well for me. I was standing outside my Infantry Company Commander’s office waiting to report to him. Earlier in the week I had been in a very public and heated altercation with a “hard stripe” sergeant, E-5 in the unit motorpool. I had not started the argument, but once it was initiated I participated enthusiastically. I had been wearing “acting jack” sergeant stripes for almost 8 months and wasn’t about to back down. It was the most recent in a series of minor but less than positive incidents I had been involved in. I had also not bothered to hide the fact that I was not happy with being in a mech infantry unit that spent 90% of its collective time performing maintenance on M113s. I reminded everyone who would listen that I had joined the army to be an Infantryman not a mechanic. In short, I had identified myself as something of a problem soldier or troublemaker for my leaders. I was definitely not a grey man.
Almost as soon as I positioned myself in front of my CO’s door, my First Sergeant and Platoon Sergeant had come out of the office and rather unceremoniously replaced my sergeant’s strips with specialist (E-4) rank. I was shocked. I had been really proud of those stripes even though they were temporary and I had not thought that I would lose them over this particular incident. I had little time to dwell on my “demotion”. Moments later I had reported to my Commander and stood at attention before him awaiting my fate. My Lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant stood stoically on one side of the Captain’s desk with the First Sergeant on the other side but only the Captain talked.
He pushed two documents forward on his desk. One was an ART 15. I knew what they looked like since we usually had 3 or 4 new ones posted on our company bulletin board almost every week. The other was a Request for Transfer to the Divisional Pathfinder Detachment that I had previously discussed with the First Sergeant. The Captain glared at me and proceeded to explain that I had left him only two choices; either impose an ART 15 or endorse my Request for Transfer. He listed in excruciating detail the reasons why I didn’t deserve a second chance and how I had failed miserably to perform up to the standard expected of an NCO. Had there been any more tension in the room I would have wet myself. The Captain ended his “lecture” by saying “Baldwin, you are exactly as much trouble as you are worth”. Then, without any further comment, he signed the transfer document.
The Captain was right. At that point in my development I was not the soldier or leader I needed to be. But I wasn’t a truly a bad soldier either. I was misaligned and a poor fit for that assignment. My Platoon Sergeant and First Sergeant had seen me struggling and they had convinced the commander to take a chance that I could be salvaged in a different unit. I’m not sure if the Captain saw much potential in me, but he took the risk and sent me on my way. He also demonstrated some level of confidence that I could “soldier out” of my current challenges. And now, after a colorful and relatively successful 36 year career I hope that I have justified some of their trust in me. None of those men were grey leaders. Grey leaders wouldn’t have made the effort. It would have been easier for them to simply continue to pound the square peg soldier (me) into a round hole that I was ill suited to fill.
Bad leaders, including grey leaders, at best see soldiers as tools to be used to further his or her career. At worst they see soldiers as potential career ending hazards to mitigate and suppress. Bad leaders do not trust their subordinates. Good leaders see soldiers as precious National resources not to be exploited, but to be mentored, cultivated, nurtured and employed wisely. Good leaders not only trust their subordinates but empower and develop them to their full potential. Good leaders leave a legacy of strong units and strong subordinates. Bad leaders leave disillusioned soldiers and damaged units in their wake. The worst leaders we now aptly refer to as “toxic” and the Army is taking some initial steps to better identify and eliminate those individuals. Grey leaders aren’t as obvious. But I would argue that even though they do less immediate damage their effect is more insidious and does greater long term damage than the more noticeable toxic leader.
My career began just as the Army was transitioning itself from a draft based to a volunteer based manning system following 10 years of war. Today we face a similar transition. My experience in the mid-70s was that many of our combat veteran NCOs and Officers had difficulties transitioning back to a “peacetime” Army mode. Many of the best and most talented voted with their feet and the Army made little effort to retain them. That was unfortunate. Moreover, many of those NCOs and Officers that stayed and thrived in a non-combat environment were mediocre at best. Consummate grey men they were good at following the rules and unfortunately rarely gave cause for elimination. The Army struggled for many years with these conformists who took up space, routinely moving up in the ranks but contributing very little. These Grey leaders even inflicted longer term damage to the Army beyond their individual tenures. Since leaders tend to promote subordinates who look like themselves, grey men tend to beget more grey men. Grey leaders love their subordinates to be grey men. Grey men never take chances; never make waves, and always obey all the rules.
The Army obviously does need disciplined personnel. But the Army needs as many bold, innovative, risk talking soldiers and leaders as it can get. The people we assess with this kind of talent are often more challenging to lead and retain but, when properly shaped and directed, are infinitely more valuable than the grey man. The timid conformists and risk adverse types fill slots but provide little real value. Zero defects policies associated with a “one strike and you’re out” methodology will certainly not engender boldness…but rather encourage and reward the grey men and grey leaders in our ranks. I’m certainly not against enforcing standards or in applying appropriate disciplinary measures to soldiers who need correction. However, I believe it should be in the context of making those individuals better soldiers, not as an easy force sizing tool that defaults to elimination for every offense.
Human nature being what it is, it is very tempting for leaders (even relatively good ones) to simply eliminate anyone who is a “problem” if the system allows them to. Rather than take the harder route of shaping that soldier into something better. The Army is talking a lot now about “managing talent”. But the fact is the mechanisms – and the mindset – are not there. Even after almost 40 years of a volunteer Army we still treat people essentially the same way we did when we had the draft, i.e. interchangeable and easily replaceable. That “one size has to fit all” methodology limits our ability to deal with people as individuals and to effectively leverage their respective talents in support of our mission. In most cases SOF units do better. But even we are often hamstrung by archaic personnel management tools that hurt anyone’s career that doesn’t move with the herd. Just as we have moved to a more information based operational environment, we must move to a more individual based personnel management system. And that system cannot be exclusively “up or out” and certainly not “one strike and you’re out.”
An Army whose ranks are filled only with gray men would be terrible. An Army that is also led by grey leaders would be a disaster. As we move forward with painful but mandated force reductions, I would strongly suggest that the Army would be better served by keeping as many of those so-called “trouble makers” in the ranks as possible. Leaders may have to work harder to productively harness the energy and talent of those individuals, but we will be the stronger for it. And our leaders will be better for making the effort. After we have eliminated the small minority of truly toxic leaders and the few absolutely unsalvageable soldiers, I say cull the grey men next – starting with grey leaders.
LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (RET) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments.
This is the first time I’ve reprinted another site’s article (Thanks Sir & SSD) but I believe it’s that good and gets to a very fundamental problem in our military. Besides being exceptionally well written I’s add my personal observation that I believe the “Grey Leader” ratio reached critical mass before the current conflict which explains much of our tactical and above ineptitude.
The example that comes to mind is Afghanistan’s ROE Before the current ROE was enacted that greatly limited the use of force in any proximity to potential civilians, the administration set a standard of zero civilian casualties. While that sounds great and should be the goal it isn’t a realistic standard. You end up giving the enemy a shield to hide behind that they will increasingly use. “Grey Leaders” increasingly restrict the use of force at lower levels to not “make waves”. A classic result is what happened to Dakota Meyer and William Swenson when they were denied appropriate and beforehand promised support in the Gangal Valley. Swenson was further punished for not following the “Grey Leader” protocol when he called out the stupidity. His Medal of Honor recommendation was recommended for a downgrade by General Petraeus who endorsed and doubled down on the ROE when he took over Afghanistan.
Make the boss happy at all costs, political correctness, leadership by checklists (and canned slides), risk/innovation rejection and zero defects command climates thrive in environments where leaders are more concerned with avoiding mistakes than effectiveness. This is an insidious problem as it impacts the organization from top to bottom. It’s difficult to identify because “grey leaders” are so good at sticking their finger in the air and finding the answer the organization/higher leader wants. It also drives good people out while rewarding mediocrity. Sound familiar?