Leaders Who Care (Too Much)

06/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ask any veteran to name the person they remember most from their service, and I'll lay you even odds that he or she will talk about one of their non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Sergeants (or petty officers, for you Navy types) are the backbone of the American Armed forces -- they are a large part of what makes our units so simultaneously lethal and flexible. This week's Army Times carried a sad story of what happened when one senior NCO simply couldn't bear such a burden any longer:

Everything changed July 11 in the bright sunshine of Adhamiyah, Iraq. That day, while out on a simple meet-and-greet patrol, [First Sergeant Jeff] McKinney stepped out of his Humvee and yelled. "F--- this!" He raised the barrel of his M4 [rifle] to his chin and squeezed off one shot. The first sergeant -- who sang Sesame Street songs to his men and teased them just enough to make them feel like family -- left his soldiers shattered.

For those not familiar with the role of the first sergeant (1SG), some clarifications may help. If NCOs are the backbone of the American Army, the 1SG is the steel spine of the company. While the soldiers of the company take their orders from the lieutenants and captains who lead the company, they seek guidance and counsel from the 1SG, who runs it. The 1SG is arguably the most influential person in the company - a good one can hold the unit through some incredibly tough times, while a bad one can run a group of great professionals right into the ground.

How does that happen? How does a veteran soldier and leader, a man with decades of experience, come to lose all hope and take his own life?

The cumulative impact of this burden on the 1SG is immense. They are expected to be many things to many people: advisor to the commander on all aspects of the company's operations, mentor and example to the mid-level NCOs who are seeking to find their own way, and counselor and disciplinarian to the junior soldiers of the company. The 1SGs responsibilities on any given day are as broad as they are critical: resupply, field feeding, administration, and equipment maintenance, just to name a few. In combat, add to that the crushing duty of casualty evacuation - getting the dead and wounded to places on the battlefield where they can be properly cared for. Throughout it all, the high standard of the NCO Creed hangs over them as a constant expectation:

...Competence is my watchword. My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind -- accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my soldiers. I will strive to remain tactically and technically proficient ... All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my soldiers and never leave them uninformed. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment...

We hold these men and women in such awe that, sometimes, we forget that they are only human. The frustrations and tensions of a three-block war wear on them just as much as on any other soldier. But when another hot, frustrating patrol comes to its end, the private can always go back and punch a wall locker, play some XBox, or simply grab some much-needed rack time. But for the 1SG, there's always another task, more duties, more of the beast that needs to be fed, that can keep them away from their own much-needed decompression.

All too often, leaders (both officer and NCO) forget that they need "maintenance" just as much as the complex machines that power their fighting skills. Some of this, I suspect, is an attempt to deny one's own humanity -- a desperate attempt to keep your mortality at bay, lest it surface at an inopportune moment with catastrophic consequences for those under your charge. Part of it is the "Mission, Men, Me" ethos that gets drilled into leaders - leaders are supposed to eat last, sleep last, and generally come after their soldiers in all areas, which in turn get subordinated to the needs of the task at hand. Mark Grimsley, a military historian of great renown, got it exactly right when he wrote (in response to this TIME article):

I wonder how many officers and NCOs self-disclose that they are taking the same [anti-anxiety] meds. If they keep this info away from their soldiers, they send a double message: overtly it's OK for you to take these meds, but tacitly it's really not because I wouldn't be caught dead letting you know that I take them myself. It would require real moral courage, but an officer willing to talk matter-of-factly about taking these meds, and at the same time functioning effectively as an officer, would serve as a powerful role model.

I've written before in a similar vein about the importance of leaders seeking help for post-traumatic stress, and being honest with their subordinates about doing so. The Army Times article makes it pretty clear that, in the end, 1SG McKinney fell prey to his own expectations and the sense that he simply couldn't meet them. We expect our officers and NCOs to lead from the front in all things - paradoxically, that sometimes means knowing when to step back and let go.