An Army Colonel’s Three Simple Rules of Leadership

Posted 02.16.2011

Armycol Last week, I had the opportunity to join a small group of leadership coaches for dinner with retired US Army Colonel Steve Dwyer. Colonel Dwyer is enjoying a second career in the private sector after spending thirty years as a soldier, most of it in Army Aviation.  He shared a lot of interesting stories and insights with us that night.  The one that really stuck with me was the years long process he went through to get his philosophy of leadership down to three simple rules.

Steve told us that when he was promoted to captain, he went from commanding around 45 soldiers in a platoon to about 150 in a company.  He decided that with the broader scope of command that he had as a captain that he needed to make his expectations clear.  He spent a lot of time writing up a three page, single space list of rules and expectations for his company.  He posted it on the bulletin board and nobody paid any attention to it, not even Steve. 

Learning his lesson when he was promoted to a major in charge of 1,000 soldiers in a battalion, Steve decided to get all his rules on one page. With the help of a very small font and dramatically reduced page margins, he managed to do it. He posted the rules and everyone ignored them including Steve. 

By the time he was promoted to colonel and commanding a brigade of 5,000, Steve told us he finally realized that another page length list of rules and expectations wasn’t going to do anyone any good.  Reflecting back on what had worked for him and others in his career as an Army leader, Steve boiled it all down to three simple rules of leadership. They don’t require a lot of memorization and with a little adaptation apply to leaders in any field. Here they are:

1.  Take care of your subordinates as if it were your religion. Steve said this rule first hit home with him when he was a young lieutenant and got his platoon lost and five hours away from their objective. They had hiked all night and as the sun came up they were out of food and everyone was hungry. Steve had a pound bag of M&M’s stashed in one of his pockets. He thought about sneaking some snacks for himself but realized he needed to share the candy with his men. Just a few M&M’s from their leader turned shaky morale into great morale. Rule number one was learned.

2.  Be a team player.  Take the initiative but don’t make your peers look bad in the process. Bring them along. Follow them when they have good ideas. Learn from each other.  Share good ideas. You not only learn a lot with rule number two, you end up having friends. Not a bad way to go.

3.  Execute commander’s intent. As an Army colonel, Steve like most everyone else in the world, had a boss and had to follow through on what his boss wanted done.  By being clear about his philosophy of taking care of his soldiers and being a team player, Steve found that he got more margin in how he executed his commander’s intent. When you understand and focus on commander’s intent, you usually get more latitude about how to execute because your boss is confident you’re on board with the what.

So, there you have it. Thirty years of leadership experience summed up by Colonel Dwyer in three simple rules. If you were coming up with your rules of leadership would you stick with Steve Dwyer’s or would you come up with your own? What are your rules of leadership?