Recently, I published a non-fiction book titled, Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide. In that little gem, I knocked my socks off to cover everything I could think a fiction writer could possibly want to know about military, police and intelligence professions. I included historical references, culture, customs, and tactics. I wrote pages on rank structures and interservice rivalry. I gave anecdotes about my life experiences in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence community. All of this information came with a list of references for further reading so that every nook and cranny a writer would need to be filled could be saturated.
But I forgot one thing…leadership.
So here it is, for free, from me to you. Hear’s what leadership means to an American military person. Are you ready? Good, cause here it comes…
The first sergeant eats last!
So, who’s the first sergeant, and who cares when he or she eats? The first sergeant, or “Top” as they’re often called by troops, is the most senior non-commissioned officer in a company. That means that some one-hundred soldiers ask, “How high?” whenever Top says, “Jump!” Oh, to be sure the first sergeant is not the commander of the unit–that would usually be a captain, who’s job is to focus on the company’s mission. The first sergeant is more important in some ways because he or she is responsible for looking out for the soldier’s needs. And the first sergeants always eat last.
Unlike more the brutish armies of the world, where the leader gets the first pick the vittles, American leaders are expected to ensure that the troops are taken care of before they take care of themselves. So, if you’re the company’s cook, you’d better make damn sure there’s enough food for everyone because Top don’t like skipping meals!
In the American military, leaders get less sleep and work longer hours than anybody under their command. They are expected to put the good of the unit ahead of their own interests at all times, and woe be to the leader who can’t at least fake it.
As we are now in the presidential election season, I find that after twenty years in uniform this type of person has become my model candidate. You see, the leader who eats last is the one I’ll happily follow into battle. No matter what danger is ahead, I know such a leader will not put me in harm’s way unless it’s for the good of the unit and there is no other choice. And, once engaged with the enemy, I know such a leader will do everything possible to ensure my survival.
The US Army’s textbook definition of military leadership reads:
“Military leadership is the art of leading and directing soldiers in such a way as to obtain their willing obedience, loyal cooperation, and respect while accomplishing a mission.”
Fiction writers, if you want to create a character that leads others effectively, I recommend you include a scene where that character eats last. And voters, when you seek a candidate to support, I recommend you use the same criteria.
And a heartfelt thank you to, First Sergeant Donny Loftis, HHC, 505th Eng, Bn, who led my unit in Iraq back in 2005. Diesel and Dirt, Top!