Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Commander at Last

The essence of the military is that to be a good leader you must truly love your men, and then you must be willing to kill that which you love. The paradox of war is that those leaders who are most willing to endanger that which they love can be the ones who are most liable to win, and therefore protect their men.
David Grossman, On Killing

Your commander and fellow soldiers are the two components that determine a soldier's satisfaction in the army. My former officer was an enigma, a man I wanted to admire despite his obvious lack of interest in me. I left his squad hoping that no matter where I went in the army, I could find a commander to truly admire. The young man leading my new team has exceeded my most ambitious hopes. In two weeks my new commander has provided a more scintillating example of military leadership than anything I was exposed to in the prior twelve months.

The more elite the unit, the more polished and impressive the commanding officer. Or so goes conventional army wisdom that is not ringing true in my case. Whatever I may think of their leadership capabilities, my current commander has served in units that mark him as the equal if not the better of my former officer. Bragging rights aside, the importance of having an officer who has served in the most elite units is that his standards are at the highest level. My current commander arrived in Sayeret Tzanchanim only a month before me, having replaced the officer who trained my new team for the first eight months of their army service. As a new officer trained by the most elite units of the Israeli army, my commander is committed to raising the professionalism of our unit. He is savvy enough to realize that (a) change cannot come all at once and (b) in order to effect real change, he needs allies. Having come from similar units, my commander sees me as a natural ally in importing higher standards. I am of course all too pleased to do my part. Not only do I share the same goal but working closely with him provides me with a first hand look at how a military leader can transform his troops for the better.

My current officer's most striking difference from his predecessor lies in his personal skills and joie de vivre. Unlike my previous boss, my commander genuinely enjoys relating to his soldiers and peers on the personal level. He even embraces the chance to provide his soldiers with time off. In my former unit, speaking to my commander about taking off for a day to in order to take care of necessary non-army needs or attend a close friend's wedding made me feel like I was taking advantage of his and the unit's limited goodwill. Now such requests are met with approval and a smile. My officer's approach seems to be that if he respects his men as people rather than just soldiers, they will prove better at both tasks.

As much as I am enjoying the opportunity to learn from his example, I am also unnerved by the way guys in my new unit perceive their officers. In my former unit, soldiers and commanders were united in a desire to train as well as possible in order to gain recognition as the most capable team of warriors. Commanders were feared yet respected and honesty and communication was at least theoretically maintained between both parties. Contrast that to the environment in Sayeret Tzanchanim where the soldiers view their officers as the opposition, taskmasters committed to making us soldiers suffer in grueling exercises. Ratting on a fellow solider to the boss is seen as the worst offense, especially since guys take every opportunity to break rules when the commanders are not present. The dissimilar attitudes between my past and present units seem almost generational, a matter of maturity between how high school and university students relate to their instructors. For my new peers sake, I hope they can shuck off this sorry approach to our commander and not fail to take advantage of the opportunity to serve under such a remarkable officer.

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